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5.0 out of 5 stars Hammer's finest vampire film in a very respectable Blu-ray restoration, 19 Mar 2014
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This review is from: Dracula (Blu-ray + DVD) [1958] (Blu-ray)
Hammer's groundbreaking 1958 version of Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) is still one of the very best despite the many liberties Jimmy Sangster's concise and highly effective script takes with Bram Stoker's novel to whittle it down to an hour-and-a-half. It's not just the names that have been changed around and the cast of characters greatly reduced to Hammer's budget levels (admirably disguised here by Bernard Robinson's excellent production design). John Van Eyssen's Jonathan Harker is no longer a lawyer, but here is posing as a librarian to get into Dracula's castle with an ulterior motive - presumably on the grounds that the audience knows going in just what Dracula is so there's no point putting the hero through all that mystery when there's staking to be done. The budget doesn't stretch to the voyage and arrival of the ghost ship Demeter or even a Renfield for that matter, and this Dracula has no social interaction with his intended victims in Whitby or London - in fact, he never even leaves the continent. Nor is the vampire fascinated with Harker's intended - here he simply seeks her out as revenge. Yet the changes work surprisingly well, and even throws in a few good twists like the location of Dracula's hiding place.

Although he doesn't have much screen time, Christopher Lee is inspired casting, a feral, vicious creature rather than a Eurotrash smoothie while a very agile Peter Cushing makes a surprisingly physical Van Helsing, the final fight between the good doctor and the evil count surprisingly energetic and violent before the best of the studio's ashes to ashes, dust-to-dust finales. Although rather sedate by today's standards, this film still has a surprising degree of energy and it's easy to see why it made had such a profound impact on the horror genre for decades to come. The first colour version of the tale, it made a big selling point of being able to see the blood in all its vivid hues of red, although it also makes much play on the vampire's female victims being absolutely gagging for it (perhaps not so surprising with Peter Cushing and Michael Gough as the male leads), setting the groundwork for the tits'n'fangs formula that would become the studio's bread and butter over the next couple of decades. A surprisingly cheap picture, thanks to Bernard Robinson's elegant production design and fine direction from Terence Fisher before the drink got to him, it never looks cheap: if anything, it's rather seductively good looking.

Where Warners' widescreen DVD was overcropped at 1.85:1, Lionsgate's Region B-locked Blu-ray and DVD combo restores it to its original 1.66:1 ratio as well as restoring the original title Dracula (the previous release used the US title Horror of Dracula). But of more interest is that the disc includes two separate cuts of the film - .the 2007 BFI restoration and a 2012 restoration by Hammer that includes footage censored from the film everywhere but Japan. It's worth noting that its only a few seconds worth - Dracula's seduction of Mina is a bit longer and the long-rumoured shot of a decaying Dracula clawing at his own face as the skin peels off - but completists will be delighted. As for the restored picture quality, the first reel is a little disappointingly cold (in one of the accompanying documentaries they talk about not going all-out to reproduce the original Eastmancolor tones, which seems a little perverse in a film famous for its Eastmancolor tones), and the definition occasionally gives away just how much use the original negative has had over the years, but once it gets going it's a very pleasing job.

There's a fine extras package included on both formats: audio commentary by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, making of documentary Dracula Reborn (though Christopher Lee is notable by his absence), featurettes Resurrecting Dracula, Censoring Dracula, The Demon Lover – Christopher Frayling on Dracula and Janina Faye Reads Stoker at the Vault Festival, very worn unrestored versions of Japanese reels 6-9 (complete with Japanese subtitles on the side of the screen), episode of clip show The World of Hammer – Dracula and the Undead, stills gallery and (on the DVD only) PDF script and booklet. The only conspicuous absence (apart from Mr. Lee) is the film's trailer, which was included on Warners' DVD but is curiously missing here.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 May 2014 18:44:29 BDT
Al Baker says:
There was never an "original 1.66:1 ratio". Like all post 1953 non 'Scope films, this was shot open matte and shown in cinemas at the standard non anamorphic widescreen ratio, which in Britain was 1.75:1. In the USA they adopted 1.85:1. All references to "1.66:1" are incorrect, I should know, I was in the cinema business for 20 years. It really annoys me that the myth of 1.66:1 has become so entrenched that some companies think that they are presenting a film in it's correct ratio, when in fact they are not. If it wasn't 'Scope, then in British cinemas it was 1.75:1. There were no exceptions in circuit houses, even pre-1953 Disney films, made for academy ratio, were projected with the top and bottom of the frame unceremoniously chopped off. Disney eventually made special prints of some of these with the image centred in the frame with large blank areas above and below and at the sides. When we projected these, the aperture plate chopped off the blank bits at top and bottom so that the full height of the frame was visible, but there were blank areas at either side, just like watching a 4x3 image in a 16x9 TV. The screen masking had just the two settings, 2.35:1 and 1.75:1, so there was nothing that could be done about this.
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Trevor Willsmer
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