Classic Horror Meets DVD
Universal's horror film series, while it eventually degenerated into little more than schlock spook shows where the words "Meets" or "House of..." increasingly became a requirement in the title to draw back the teenage bubble-gum chewing crowd, had its genesis in a tiny pocket of works that even today retain a magical luminescence, like the shadow puppet theatre of another time. Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and Karl Freund's The Mummy (1932) have formed a classic "triumpherate" lasting for seven decades. Like the titular "stars" of these films, memory of this achievement refuses to be buried away.
A few years ago, Universal began to release the studio’s back catalogue of horror movies on VHS, the highlight of which was the re-mastered and reconstructed version of Frankenstein featuring a "repaired" soundtrack. Quite a few films were eventually released, from the aforementioned classics to relatively lesser-known works like Edger Ulmer's The Black Cat (1932) and Eric Kenton's Island of Lost Souls (1933).
In 1999, Universal took the next step by making the transition to DVD technology as a new way for fans to access their horror catalogue, beginning with the original three master works. Each film features a documentary, some form of feature commentary track delivered by a film historian, and a glut of archival material such as photos, production/marketing information and cast and crew biographies. While there is a wealth of information per DVD, each film’s disc has its own particular highlights.
FRANKENSTEIN. Besides the production photos, cast and crew bios, trailer and general production notes which are standard to each film, Frankenstein includes: a commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer; an original documentary centered around the film's creation hosted by David J. Skal (author of a number of horror related studies such as "The Horror Monster Show"); and, most intriguingly, a short comedic film from the 1930s which was assembled entirely out of found footage taken from horror films.
Behlmer's commentary track is very informative and is particularly enjoyable for series fans eager to trace the often fascinating byways each production took. At the same time, the track is a bit stiff, a quality which is, quite honestly, the bane of all three films' commentaries. Relying on the performance abilities of the historians and their talent at making words come alive, the tracks are at times a bit tedious, benefiting from the viewer dipping in here and there to savor selected excerpts rather than necessarily absorbing the entire commentary in one sitting.
One cannot judge the tracks too harshly though, as there was little alternative; director and star commentaries may be more "lively" and immediate but that could hardly be an option when it came to these works. For Frankenstein, Behlmer's commentary achieves a fine balance between effectively relating information and demonstrating a flare for performance. He is clearly fascinated by the material and his interest leaks through in an enthusiasm that fleshes out the life between the facts and figures. This enthusiasm carries over into the documentary, "The Frankenstein Files," where Behlmer joins other historians, biographers, actors' relatives and surviving personnel of both the film and various theatrical productions, to discuss the film's continuing significance.
Written, directed and hosted by the slightly hammy David Skal, the documentary is well put together, focusing not only on the film but the original Shelley novel and the many ways that the tale has been visually imagined over the years. Rather than being just a rehash of old stories and stills, the documentary is a deliberate, if pop culture based, work of
scholarship, analyzing thematic motivations as well as divulging interesting tidbits about actors and scenarios. One of the most fascinating elements is a discussion of the stage production history of the story, particularly a 1927 version which "most influenced Universal's film." Of particular note are the remembrances of Ivan Butler, a film historian
himself and a one-time member of the 1927 acting company. Another very interesting aspect of the documentary is its discussion of Robert Florey, the first director assigned to the project, and his original vision of Frankenstein which had been greatly influenced by the German Expressionist horror films.
Lastly, the comedic short, a "Universal Brevity" called Boo!, is a curious artifact, a kind of forerunner to "Mystery Science Theater 3000" where a corny narrator makes quips and provides sound effects over an assemblage of old spook movies, most notably Murnau's Nosferatu, The Cat and the Canary (I think, as there is no info listing for the short anywhere on the DVD) and Frankenstein itself. Overall, the inclusion of this short is an unexpected treat.
THE MUMMY. Unfortunately, the DVD release of The Mummy lacks any wonderfully strange little tidbits like Boo! and is by far the weakest of the three. The documentary, Mummy Dearest, again written and directed by Skal and this time hosted by Rudy Behlmer, seems more interested in the relations between the cast and crew than was "Frankenstein Files." While there may be less "history" to the story behind The Mummy, it not being connected to a literary work and therefore lacking an exact artistic origin point other than actual historical practice, the choice to flit by even these historical contexts leaves the documentary feeling flaccid and insubstantial with almost as much attention paid to the later trashy Mummy sequels as to the original.
One imagines that there was at least some grounds to discuss the stylistic elements of the film as had been done for Frankenstein and is later evident on Dracula’s features. The one outlet for more formal considerations of the film's beauty is the commentary by Paul M. Jensen which is about as dry and brittle as the Mummy itself. The track is unfortunately somewhat tedious as a result. The DVD of The Mummy is the least packaged, in terms of additional material, of the three. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that the film is the least popularly loved of the original "trilogy" of Universal horror classics, an ironic fact considering that it may be the finest film of the series.
DRACULA. Dracula, perhaps the most loved and most enduring film in the series, at least in terms of the cinematic legacy it has bequeathed, receives the fullest DVD treatment. Featuring not only the original film, but the Spanish production filmed and released at the same time and a new score by composer Philip Glass, performed by the Kronos Quartet, the Dracula DVD presents a most elaborate package. "The Road to Dracula," another Skal production, is hosted by Carla Laemmle, niece of the series' producer and founder of Universal Pictures Carl Laemmle. It is far better than The Mummy’s documentary, with some mention made of the history of Bram Stoker's novel and more of a historical context provided for the film's production. There is a very brief but interesting discussion of the first cinematic treatment of the story in the Hungarian 1921 film Dracula’s Death, as well as a look at Hamilton Deane's theatrical production, a corny crowd-pleaser, according to Skal.
The single most exciting aspect of the DVD, however, is the inclusion of the Spanish Dracula, a stylish work which, if it lacks as haunting a central performance as Bela Lugosi's vampire and as effectively a maddened one as Dwight Frye's Reinfield, avoids much of the stiff, negatively theatrical posturings of Browning's film. Glass's new score, though, is less than a welcome addition. It’s a nuisance as well as a damaging disruption of the original's effective use of silence in generating the film’s atmosphere of decaying dread. More haunting are those two earlier snippets of music, the fragments from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and later, during the opera scene wherein Mina and Lucy first meet Dracula, from Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" and Wagner's prelude to "Die Meistersinger."
David Skal, who offers the commentary on Dracula, is quite informative and almost cheeky. His insights are far more engaging than those on Jensen's Mummy track, if not quite as perky as Behlmer's on Frankenstein, though Skal's voice was not very well recorded for the track, and it's distracting how muffled he sometimes sounds.
Of the films themselves, for all their occasional awkwardness, and Browning's film is far greater the "offender" in this regard, Dracula and Frankenstein are still quietly hypnotic. Infected with that maddened glee so particular to Impressionistic gloom, a genuine beauty nettles their compositions of light and dusk and pockets of deep silence. But where these films could be seen, all stylistic considerations aside, as slightly overwrought morality plays, The Mummy emerges as the series' dark poem. Drowned in the melancholic heaviness of an atmosphere atrophied by a decaying, caliginositic elegance, Karl Freund's 1932 masterpiece, the neglected jewel in the crown of Universal's horrors, is more twilight melodrama than scare show. Boris Karloff's Imhotep is a being driven by profound grief, a mournful figure warped by love's obsession into an underworld, both literal and metaphorical, of evil. Haunting in its brevity, as most of the horror films of the period are, but epic in scope, touched by a dream-like imperial exoticism yet still pierced with the inescapable menace of the genre, The Mummy is the most subtle artistic achievement of the series.
These DVD releases seem to reflect the hierarchy of the popular appraisal of the films, with the Dracula and Frankenstein DVDs outstripping that of The Mummy in terms of extras, yet, in the end, the film stands out as its
own best defense. These three Universal DVDs feature close captioned subtitles for the hearing impaired, and multiple language options and are still readily available, typically priced at an average $24.95 but can be found for even less, and Dracula at least is available on Amazon.com for $19.99. All three would make a fine addition to any DVD collection and, for horror fans, might well be a near necessity.