Off Topic Messages

Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Sun May 05, 2013 9:04 pm

I have to admit that I started off by vowing that I wouldn't buy the blu-ray boxed set of Universal horror films that emerged last year. All signs were that the restorations were good, but did I really need them again? And did I really want yet more duplication in my collection - after all, the DVD copies would have to be kept or I would lose all the sequels that they contain that the new set does not. Still, Amazon offered it briefly at a very nice price, and so it now sits on my shelves.

I have yet to see all of the new restorations, but the ones I have seen look superb. Dracula in particular has an image quality that is better that we ever could have hoped for, and the soundtrack has lost that loud hiss which has accompanied previous issues of the film.

Great news so far.

But there is a problem here, because the restoration of Dracula has only managed to emphasise that it really is not a very good film. It's a classic, yes. And Lugosi's Dracula is iconic. And yet it is also a remarkably static film, directed with little directorial flourish by Tod Browning, and the script is often bland and leaden, and sadly based on a stage adaptation of the novel rather than the novel itself. As such, despite being from the pre-code era, Dracula is a bowdlerised version of Stoker's novel that is more creaky than the front door of Castle Dracula itself.

Saying these things is, I guess, almost blasphemous. But I'm not saying these things purely for effect. Other than Lugosi's iconic portrayal of Dracula himself, the biggest appeal of the film was the atmosphere that oozed from the screen. The problem while watching the new restoration is that we now realise that part of that atmosphere was due to the age and rather weathered nature of the film itself. It is comforting and exciting in equal measure to watch an old horror classic late at night, perhaps at Hallowe'en or on a windy evening with the rain hitting against the windows. But the atmosphere was in part due to the scratched print, the flickering picture, and the soundtrack that we have to strain our ears to hear. In other words, part of the appeal was due to the fact the film was old and looked old. With a sparkling print and a decent soundtrack, the atmospheric element has simply vanished, and all we are left with is a great restoration of a mediocre film.

The same cannot be said for the others in the set I have worked through so far. But they are, on the whole, much better films that Dracula. Even the Spanish version of Dracula, filmed with a different cast on the same set, benefits from the restoration it has received. But, again, it is a much better film than the English-language version, despite the fact it lacks Lugosi.

I can imagine that I would feel the same way about White Zombie if ever a well-preserved print was discovered and then restored. Part of the appeal of that film, and part of what makes it so damn unsettling, is the poor state of the print itself, with it's crackling soundtrack and eerily worn, often blurred, visuals. Looking at a print that is so bright and shiny that it could have been made yesterday would ultimately ruin part of the enjoyment of the film.

There is a peculiar enjoyment to be had from watching not particularly good, creaky old films in worn prints. Perhaps they remind us of when we first saw the film, late at night on an old analogue TV twenty or thirty years ago when we were twelve and hiding behind a cushion, scared that Dracula himself might fly through the window and appear in our very own living room. Or perhaps, for some people reading this, an old cinema that specialised in showing dodgy prints of old classics and drive-in features. Either way, most of us won't remember our first encounter with these films as being fully restored, sparkling prints - and it was while watching old, tattered copies that we fell in love with them and, possibly, why we fell in love with them.

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Mon May 06, 2013 1:17 am

You've made a good point, Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as well as some others, that these old horror films seem to loose some of their "feel" with restorations. It's that scratchy film grain "old" look that actually helps their appeal.

Nice topic!

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Mon May 06, 2013 1:27 am

I grew up seeing the films for the first time on a 21-inch TV in the basement. They were scratchy, worn 16mm prints with cue marks, edits and commercials, not to mention the limitations of rabbit-ear reception!

When I later had a chance to see them on a big screen in 35mm at a vintage 1929 movie palace, I jumped at the opportunity. In fact, I ran a few (Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, Frankenstein) when I was programming the Loew's Jersey. Seeing the films bigger than life made me appreciate them even more.

Now, with HD transfers taken from the best surviving 35mm elements, I'm seeing details in the make-up, sets and costumes that I never saw before. To me, that's a good thing.

But, even now, I still miss those Saturday nights with Creature Features at 8:30 in the basement and the sound of my parents watching Lawrence Welk drifting thought the vents.

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Mon May 06, 2013 3:19 am

HoneyTalkNelson wrote:I grew up seeing the films for the first time on a 21-inch TV in the basement. They were scratchy, worn 16mm prints with cue marks, edits and commercials, not to mention the limitations of rabbit-ear reception!

When I later had a chance to see them on a big screen in 35mm at a vintage 1929 movie palace, I jumped at the opportunity. In fact, I ran a few (Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, Frankenstein) when I was programming the Loew's Jersey. Seeing the films bigger than life made me appreciate them even more.

Now, with HD transfers taken from the best surviving 35mm elements, I'm seeing details in the make-up, sets and costumes that I never saw before. To me, that's a good thing.

But, even now, I still miss those Saturday nights with Creature Features at 8:30 in the basement and the sound of my parents watching Lawrence Welk drifting thought the vents.


Yes, it's great to see the films in perfect quality - but there is something missing from them as well. They almost become clinical somehow. And it depends on the film as well - there's something about 30s horrors in particular that require blemishes!

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Mon May 06, 2013 4:11 am

U can look at like this too .People that have never seen the film wouldn't know the quality was once bad.Esp the Twilight, Tru blood era fans.

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Mon May 06, 2013 8:59 pm

HoneyTalkNelson wrote:I grew up seeing the films for the first time on a 21-inch TV in the basement. They were scratchy, worn 16mm prints with cue marks, edits and commercials, not to mention the limitations of rabbit-ear reception!

When I later had a chance to see them on a big screen in 35mm at a vintage 1929 movie palace, I jumped at the opportunity. In fact, I ran a few (Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, Frankenstein) when I was programming the Loew's Jersey. Seeing the films bigger than life made me appreciate them even more.

Now, with HD transfers taken from the best surviving 35mm elements, I'm seeing details in the make-up, sets and costumes that I never saw before. To me, that's a good thing.

But, even now, I still miss those Saturday nights with Creature Features at 8:30 in the basement and the sound of my parents watching Lawrence Welk drifting thought the vents.


How I would love to see more of these vintage films on a big screen. Only once, back in the '70s, a local theater ran a triple bill of these Universal classics: "The Mask of Fu Manchu," "The Mummy," and "The Black Cat." I took a bus by myself to go see them, and was a fan for life after that.

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Tue May 07, 2013 3:13 am

I don't have any issues whatsoever with quality restorations of classic film, especially when an accurate representation of how that film originally looked on 35mm is achieved. On occasion, make-up, the use of doubles and revealing aspects of set-design do become more obvious and apparent with increased detail and greater visual clarity, but I prefer this immeasurably over older, damaged prints and inferior sources that also served as my introduction to a wealth of classic cinema. And I believe that, to really appreciate the merits and advantages of restored prints and HD transfers, one should also try looking back at an unrestored print in comparison to how vast the difference can be, and often is. Dracula, in this instance, is a prime example -- as is every movie on the Universal Monsters Blu-ray collection. Although, I fully appreciate and undestand a nostalgia for film in the way we most vividly remember a particular movie. And, noticing something we had never seen before, no matter how many times we've seen a particular film, can draw our attention to something wholly inconsequential to the reasons why we enjoyed that film in the first place.

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Tue May 07, 2013 5:01 am

I've come up against this issue many times with our research and discoveries with respect to director-intended aspect ratios.

Even though a film had been prepared and photographed for widescreen (such as DIAL M FOR MURDER and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) many people are so accustomed to seeing full-frame 1.37:1 transfers on TV and home video for the past 60 years, they have a difficult time seeing them now in the original intended widescreen ratio.

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Wed May 22, 2013 11:31 pm

I felt the same after seeing a remastered cleaned up version of "Night of the living dead" on DVD that my husband has. TOO CLEAN! looks like it was filmed last week LOL .certain films especially horror movies lose something when they're too cleaned up.the grainy, dirty look adds something to the film i always thought. and i'm one of the ones that took a long while getting use to widescreen movies on tv. now, i'd rather see a widescreen version than a full frame version.

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Wed May 22, 2013 11:50 pm

It's only in very rare cases that I say this about restorations - and I think the problem with Dracula is that it highlights everything that was wrong with the film itself, which is somehow masked when it has a more "atmospheric" print. I realise I'm actually sounding like a nutter in saying I think the film is worse in its restored version, but there we go. As for aspect ratios, I'm a stickler for the original format. Seeing the occasional pan and scan now makes me wonder how we ever put up with it in the first place!

Re: Dracula (1931) and the problem with restorations

Thu May 23, 2013 3:24 am

You might find my aspect ratio article of interest: http://www.3dfilmarchive.com/home/wides ... umentation