Thursday, April 24, 2014

Dracula and Drácula (1931) from Universal Monsters: The Essential Collection

It’s still early, but the first two films in the Universal Monsters: The Essential Collection Blu-ray box set seem like a pretty good crash course in classic horror films. Many people may not know that the 1931 film version of Dracula was not the first time the story had been adapted from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. By the time the Tod Browning version debuted in 1931, Dracula had been a London stage play for many years. It had also been filmed by F. W. Murnau in 1922 as Nosferatu, starring Max Schreck, perhaps the creepiest Dracula in film history. 

What many people also may not know is that two versions of Dracula were released in 1931: an American version, directed by Browning and starring Bela Lugosi, and a Spanish version directed by George Melford with a Spanish cast. Both versions used the same sets; the American crew filmed during the day, the Spanish crew at night. 

The Spanish version is included as an extra on the Dracula disc and is worth watching for several reasons. Director Melford’s camera is far more fluid than Browning’s, giving viewers a much more uneasy feeling, especially navigating through the castle. Melford is also willing to take more chances with special effects (most of which come across pretty well) and better staging. In the Spanish version, for instance, Dracula’s reaction to being confronted with a mirror (which, of course, will not cast his reflection) is far more violent than the American version. 

The women - especially Lupita Tovar as Eva - are far more sensual and alluring in the Spanish version. The women’s costumes, dresses and overall demeanor in the American version are practically Puritan compared to those of the Spanish version.


Yet the American version has the trump card: Lugosi (above). Carlos Villarias (below), as the Spanish Dracula, leaves much to be desired and probably should’ve played the role for laughs. It’s really hard not to laugh after watching Lugosi’s performance. This is not meant to be a critique of Villarias as much as a recognition of the absolutely genre-defining performance of Lugosi, one that has been the dominant image of Dracula for over 80 years. I don’t really care whether Lugosi learned his lines phonetically or not. He delivers them with a bone-chilling combination of hypnotic inevitability and impending doom. 

One extra on this disc, “Lugosi: The Dark Prince” (36 min.) is devoted to Lugosi’s rather sad career after Dracula. It’s an excellent, if not heartbreaking look at Lugosi’s often neglected greatness and includes a brief examination of why Lugosi’s career began to slide after Dracula and rival Boris Karloff’s began to rise. “The Road to Dracula” (35 min.) is also well done. Although people usually ignore any extra that includes the word “restoration,” “Dracula: The Restoration” is a must-see. It’s only 9 minutes long, which is really all you need to show you not only the care and love that went into restoring the film, but also the importance of film restoration. (Also included: an alternate musical score by Philip Glass and a commentary by film historian David J. Skal) 

Next in the box: Frankenstein

Dracula 4/5

Drácula 3/5

Monday, April 21, 2014

Movies Watched in March 2014

Yes, I’m aware that May is closing in and I still haven’t posted the movies I watched in March. March was much less active than February, filled with several rewatches and one TV season. Let’s get started:

Captain Phillips (2013) Paul Greengrass

Captain Phillips is based on the true story of an American shipping vessel being captured by Somali pirates. I know it’s based on a true story, but I kept asking myself why certain things weren’t done or weren’t done sooner. This movie could’ve ended one way in about 30 minutes had someone done a little advance planning. It also could’ve quickly ended a completely different way if someone hadn’t used their head. The ship’s ease of capture (and a few other points) initially bothered me, but Greengrass got me involved in the story from that point and kept a good focus. Hanks is good, as always, but the supporting cast of virtual unknowns brings a sense of authenticity to the film. Hanks is particularly good in the last section of the film. 


Mona Lisa (1986) Neil Jordan (2x)

Mona Lisa is almost a great film. It stars Bob Hoskins (who is frequently great) as George, a man who works for the London mob. It’s his first day out of jail and he’s ready to get back to work when his boss (Michael Caine) assigns him to be a driver/bodyguard for a prostitute named Simone, played by Cathy Tyson (niece of actress Cecily Tyson). The film is full of wonders, the most amazing of which is the fact that Tyson can act toe-to-toe with Hoskins. Simone exudes elegance and an icy invulnerability, yet we also know there’s a painful part of her past she’s not willing to divulge. Hoskins and Tyson are absolute magic together. Unfortunately, the film suffers from a weak ending, keeping it from becoming a truly great film. Tyson’s performance makes you wonder why she never hit superstar status. Perhaps it was her choice. The talent’s certainly there.

The movie also stars a very young Robbie Coltrane and features a nice, slimy performance by Caine. Sadly, Hoskins was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease a few years ago and no longer acts, which is certainly our loss.  


The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston (7x)

I see new things in this film each time I watch it. I once thought Mary Astor was the weak link in what is otherwise an absolutely perfect cast, but now I see how good she really was in the role of Brigid O’Shaunessey. So I retract my former statement and add this new one: The Maltese Falcon does have the greatest cast of any American film. There, I’ve said it. And it was director John Huston’s first film. Not bad for your first time out. 


Unbreakable (2000) M. Night Shyamalan (3x)

My friend Matt recently reminded me of just how good Shyamalan’s second major feature is, one that invites (if not demands) multiple viewings, not so much to “figure out how they did it” as many do with The Sixth Sense, but to soak up the characters and how the subtle aspects of the script work so well. Bruce Willis plays a man who works on a stadium security detail, wondering why he’s never been sick in his entire life. A strange man - with a disorder that causes his bones to break easily - named Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) may have the answers. Anyone who is a fan of comic books who has never seen Unbreakable is not truly a fan of comic books. 


The Sopranos Season Five (TV 2004)

It took me months to get through the fifth season of The Sopranos, mainly due to what seems the inevitable slowing down and stretching out of the story as the series approaches its final season. Some of the plot lines seemed interminable, but there’s still a lot of good stuff here, primarily the performances. Season Six is in two parts and I eventually want to see them, but right now I’m not in any hurry. 


L.A. Confidential (1997) Curtis Hanson (2x)

Looking back on all the other films nominated for Best Picture in 1997 - Titanic (which, to no one’s surprise, won), As Good as It Gets, Good Will Hunting, and The Full Monty - L.A. Confidential, in a perfect world, should have won. 

My guess as to why it didn’t? For one thing, good or bad, Titanic was just too popular. For another, while neo noir was and still is popular (films around that time such as Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, Dark City, Memento, Mystic River, etc.), L.A. Confidential is in reality a classic period film noir set during its heyday (1953). Like many of those films from the noir era (roughly the 1940s and 50s), L.A. Confidential contains lots of plot twists and convoluted storylines. The look of the film is stellar and the cast is pretty much tops. I suspect (and hope) that L.A. Confidential will stand the test of time as a very, very good film. 


Thor: The Dark World (2013) Alan Taylor

I think the guys in this photo are waiting around for a good script... What a disappointment from Marvel. I don’t know when I’ve seen so much talent onscreen and off that was so wasted on blowing stuff up and rehashing another Marvel villain they probably pulled from a Choose Your Own Villain adventure. Thor’s Asgard (and all of Norse mythology) is so rich with possibilities that to reduce a story to how many explosions you can put onscreen is just wrong.  


Shock (1946) Alfred L. Werker 

“Schlock” might be a better title, more in line with its B-movie status. Shock is the second film in a noir collection I bought awhile back with the catchy title Film Noir Collection. I certainly didn’t expect greatness, nor did I get it, but Vincent Price is always fun to watch and if he’s not at his wicked best here, he’s pretty close, playing a psychiatrist who murders his wife while a distraught woman looks on from a hotel room.  


Rebecca (1940) Alfred Hitchcock (2x)

Hitchcock’s first American film - and his first film to direct under the eagle eye of producer David O. Selznick - was his only film to win the Best Picture Oscar. Incredible, isn’t it? While excellent on many counts, Hitchcock is still developing many of his skills in pacing, mood and style. Laurence Olivier is pretty much going through the motions, which works for the character of Maxim de Winter, who marries an ordinary woman (Joan Fontaine) in order to forget his deceased first wife, Rebecca. Judith Anderson steals the show as Mrs. Danvers, the ice-in-her-veins housekeeper. You’ll never forget her performance or the final scene. Watching the extras on the Blu-ray - especially all the Hitchcock vs. Selznick shenanigans - is definitely worth a look as well. 


That's it for the movies I watched in March. Let me know what you saw that was good and maybe wasn't so good. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Werner Herzog Coming to Blu-ray

If you're a fan of director Werner Herzog, there's good news and there's bad news....

The good new is you'll soon be able to purchase your choice of two Herzog Blu-ray box sets. One comes from Shout Factory and includes 16 Herzog films:

Even Dwarfs Started Small

Land of Silence and Darkness

Fata Morgana

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Heart of Glass



Nosferatu the Vampyre


Ballad of the Little Soldier

Where the Green Ants Dream

Cobra Verde

Lessons of Darkness

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

My Best Fiend

The price is right: $160 which (do the math, now...) comes to ten bucks a film. The bad news? This set is limited to 5,000 copies. The set goes on sale July 29, but you can preorder it now on Amazon.

The UK's BFI has also announced a set available late spring/early summer including 18 films, which the following to the Shout Factory list:

The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz 

Last Words

Precautions Against Fanatics 

Handicapped Future

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner

How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck

Huie's Sermon

God's Angry Man

Yet these films from the Shout Factory release are NOT present in the BFI edition:

Even Dwarfs Started Small

Ballad of the Little Soldier

Where the Green Ants Dream

Lessons of Darkness

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

My Best Fiend

Maybe you'll want to get both? I have no idea of the price of the BFI edition or whether or not they are region-free. 

I haven't seen enough Herzog to know whether I want to purchase either of them, but I plan to hit up the library and Netflix heavily the next couple of months to see if these sets are worth having. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are.... 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Do You Like Your Monsters American or British?

If you're like me and love classic horror films, Amazon has a pretty sweet deal on the Blu-ray edition of Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (2012) this week. The set lists for $149.98, but the Amazon price is now $54.49. (That's 64% off.)

But that's not the best deal around. The UK version - which includes the same 8 films - is only $43.88 or $42.99. (They appear to be the same item.)

So what's the difference between the U.S. and UK versions? Both sets include the following films:

Dracula (1931)
Dracula (1931 - Spanish edition with different actors)
Frankenstein (1931)
The Mummy (1932)
The Invisible Man (1933)
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The Wolf Man (1941)
Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Both sets are loaded with extras (mostly the same*), a full list of which can be found at

So what are the differences? According to Cinema Lowdown and Freddy in Space, the differences are hardly worth mentioning, but here's a quick run-down of them:

*Includes Dracula commentary by Steve Haberman and a brief introduction to the film that is apparently missing from the UK version.
I can't confirm this, but it appears the discs in the U.S. edition are in sleeved portions of the book included in the set and could fall out easily. 

Region-free discs
*Does not include Dracula commentary by Steve Haberman and apparently also omits one of the brief introductions to the film (The rest of the extras are identical.)
Holders for each individual disc

Hmmmm.... I think I know which one I'm going with.