Y’know. the way new releases come out these days — sometimes with a dribble, other times with a big promotional barrage of titles — often times one blinks and misses something important. Such was the case for me recently with the discovery that — as part of its 100th Anniversary festivities beginning a couple years back — not only did Universal put out a brand new restoration of Tod Browning’s legendary 1931 horror classic, Dracula, but it also has an accompanying soundtrack by minimalist classical composer Philip Glass, performed by The Kronos Quartet.
According to the Wiki, this Philip Glass soundtrack was previously released (synced up with the film) in the late ’90s on DVD.
Who knew? Not me, that is for sure!
Yet, I’m a pretty big fan of Philip Glass and was well aware that he had done the music for Dracula which he performed live along with the film. That concert tour apparently was a promotion for the film’s reissue at that time with the new soundtrack. My bad for missing out on the final piece of the puzzle — its release with the actual film — back in the day.
But its not like I wasn’t aware of Glass’ film soundtrack series. In fact, I had seen a performance by Glass doing his opera of Beauty and The Beast based on jean Cocteaus’ 1946 film. You can imagine my joy when that film was issued on DVD — and then later on Blu-ray — by Criterion in a stunning restoration with 5.1 surround mix of the full Glass opera synced to the film. It is one of my favorites!
Anyhow, now this newly digitally restored version of Dracula joins my list of film favorites because it is so beautiful and refreshing to watch as well as to listen. Now, I admit to not having seen the this version of Dracula since I was a kid watching faded re-runs on Saturday afternoon or late night television. Experiencing it today on a 50-inch Plasma through my home theater system was a revelation.
The restoration of the film is wonderful, repairing scratches, rips and fades as well as camera jitters, contrast and such. According to a bonus mini documentary on the Blu-ray, they used the original nitrate negative for the creation of this high resolution film transfer of Dracula. Wisely, they have opted to keep the film true to the director’s original intent so the focus was on making it look as good as possible without adding or taking away details. Thus there is a fair amount of film grain present which adds to movie’s spooky vibe — the sets look spectacular.
I used the word “refreshing” earlier because I was amazed to find that in a film about the legendary vampire there was actually very little blood shown. When you do see blood, it is from a paper cut that one of the characters — Renfield — gets before becoming a victim of the count. There is very little in the way of gory horror as we know it today. No blood spurting, no dismemberment, no visible bites, no explosions, no bullets. You don’t even actually see the stake being pounded into Nosferatu’s chest.
Yet the film remains marvelously spooky, using impeccable lighting, skillful editing and clever effects to keep you on the edge of your seat. Sure, some of the bats flying in the windows look dated, but for the most part the film holds up remarkably well and warrants repeat viewing.
Wisely the Philip Glass soundtrack was added as an option you can choose in the Blu-ray Disc settings screen, which is important for archival and artistic integrity (note: the original soundtrack was also digitally restored an dramatically cleaned up, removing hiss, crackles and pops and other noises). The new score does contribute a very appealing sense of drama to parts of the film where the plot advances somewhat slowly, helping to build the mood, yet dropping out dramatically when key dialogue is the essential focus.
It is a true soundtrack, very well designed to enhance the film. Never was this more apparent than at the very end of Dracula — at least to me and some friends I was watching it with this past weekend — where the film concludes quite abruptly and cuts to the closing credit, leaving you to hear just a bit of the hiss from the original recording. With the optional Kronos/Glass soundtrack, there is some simple but powerful music that plays out as the screen changes to the end text and then slowly fades to black. It is much less jarring and delivers a greater sense of finality.
If I have one disappointment with the soundtrack it is that it is only in 2.0 stereo and keeps the rest of the original soundtrack / dialogue in the original mono. Don’t get me wrong: that approach works just fine and makes total sense.
Perhaps disappointed is too strong a word to use here. It does make me curious as to whether if a 5.1 soundtrack might have been considered at one point but deemed too much for a vintage work from the earliest days of “talkies” as they were known.
Consider that the first full movie with sound was released in late 1927 (The Jazz Singer). That said, the 5.1 mix supporting the latest incarnation of the restored version of Fritz Lang’s 1926 silent masterpiece, Metropolis, works to tremendous effect — but that is a fully silent film after all, so there wouldn’t be the issues with dialogue to contend with (that score was written for the film’s premier back in the day and re-recorded by a modern orchestra when they located it during the restoration process).
Overall I’m really pleased to add this latest version of Dracula to my collection. For anyone into horror and science fiction as well as simply film making and photography, Dracula on Blu-ray Disc is essential viewing.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.