One of the good things propagated by the motion picture Van Helsing is the existence of the new Universal Monster Legacy DVD Gift Set. The collection brings to monster movie lovers sparkling new transfers of some of the more well-known horror films of Universal's Golden Age, and presents, for the first time in DVD format, the 1945 monster rally, House of Dracula, a film from which the mega-million-dollar Stephen Sommers production of Van Helsing could have gleaned a great deal, had Sommers taken the scant hour and seven minutes of its running time to give it a really careful, analytical look. Sommers declares that he repeatedly screened the Universal classics and proclaims in the "bonus" promo entitled Stephen Sommers on Universal's Classic Monster Dracula, on the Dracula legacy DVD that, "[if] you watch Van Helsing, you'll understand how much we love these old films." But clearly, there's a qualitative difference between looking and loving and looking and understanding what makes a classic monster movie work, for Van Helsing, for all the purported scrutiny of the classics, is as garbled and in-your-face as any movie of recent vintage, including last summer's Hulk, which, in the most unfortunate ways, it resembles.

At the heart of Van Helsing is the intriguing idea of following the early career of archetypal vampire hunter Gabriel van Helsing (renamed from the wizened, methodical physician/scientist/occultist Abraham van Helsing, his literary inspiration from the 1897 novel Dracula, whom the author thought of as his fictional doppelganger, and even named after himself -- the "Bram" of Bram Stoker, being an abbreviation of Abraham). Sommers even adds to the mix a clever bit of 007, by making our hero an agent of the Vatican where monks secretly experiment in the making of numerous retro-hi-tech devices to track and slay the agents of evil. From there, it's a downhill slide into noisy pyrotechnics and incomprehensible plot points in which every single line of dialogue is shouted at the audience. All of this serves to effectively counteract the superlative production designs (proving that, although contemporary filmmakers can no longer engage an audience in engrossing stories, they can at least duplicate and extrapolate the "look" of the classic films) and the handsome and skillful cast whose talents are sadly squandered in this sprawling, unruly train wreck of a film. A case in point is Kate Beckinsale, the exquisitely angelic beauty of Pearl Harbor and Serendipity, who is directed to effect a Hungarian accent that rings so falsely as to shatter the corners off a cinder block at a hundred paces.

The shameless huckstering of Van Helsing notwithstanding, there is much to commend Dracula: The Legacy Collection as a must-have for diehard monster fans. To begin with, there is novel packaging which suggests at first glance a hologram; an effect achieved by inserting a transparent window into the set's slipcase on which is printed a foreground image of Castle Dracula nestled darkly in the Carpathian Mountains, and through which one can see a looming photo portrait of Bela Lugosi as the Count, printed on the cover of the clamshell case within. Once opened, there are two discs that include five films and a formidable selection of supplementary materials from interviews, audio commentaries and documentaries, to an alternate musical score for the 1931 Dracula and still, lobby card and poster montage files.

The best of these supplements is the recycling of the 1999 documentary The Road to Dracula, written, produced and directed by noted genre author, graphic designer and film scholar David J. Skal. David is one of us -- an absolute maven on American horror films -- and is enormously skillful at compressing a wealth of information on our favorite subjects into thoroughly engrossing programs of approximately thirty minutes in length. This one is hosted by Carla Laemmle, niece of Universal Studio founder Carl Laemmle and the first actor in the 1931 Dracula to utter a word of dialogue. The presentation explores the evolution of Dracula from novel to play and, ultimately, to screen, and includes interviews with author and filmmaker Clive Barker, film historians Ivan Butler, Bob Madison and Lokke Heiss, make-up artist Rick Baker, and Dwight D. Frye, John Balderston and Bela G. Lugosi, who speak at length about their famous fathers and the significant roles they played in the creation of the seminal 1931 horror film.

Other selectable offerings that can be played while viewing the main feature film are a fascinating audio commentary by Skal and an alternate musical score composed by Phillip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. Personally, while I regard the 1999 alternative score a treat to be listened to independently, I find its integration into the viewing of Dracula as much of a distraction as an attack of angry hornets. Clearly, director Tod Browning, who came to Dracula from a prolific career in silent films, deliberately designed Dracula to contain long, soundless stretches that enhance the film's pervading atmosphere of gloom and menace.

Other supplements include a charming introduction to the Spanish language version of Dracula by its female star, Lupita Tovar (Kohner) and somewhat dupey, but entirely acceptable, Realart re-release trailers of Dracula on disc 1 and Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula on side 1 of disc 2. But the real meat and most compelling reason to buy this set are the five films newly refurbished and contained therein.

Dracula, for all of its stilted theatricality and lethargic pacing, endures as the seminal work of screen horror that ushered in Universal's Golden Age in the genre and made it the world's foremost studio during the early sound era for the making of such films -- a role that it, arguably, still holds. Herein are the indelible performances of Lugosi as the Count and Dwight Frye as the insane Renfield, the magnificent set designs of Charles B. Hall and Albert S. D'Agostino and the subtle, but foretelling character designs of make-up genius Jack P. Pierce. While younger views will doubtlessly find this film an interminable yawn, there are generations of us for whom it will evoke fond memories of it having been the primary TV offering of Shock Theater in the fall of 1957.

The Spanish version of Dracula stars Lupita Tovar as Eva, Carlos Villar as the Count and Pablo Alverez Rubio as Renfield, and is full of imaginative bits of stagecraft and cinematography that are sadly absent from the English language version. Still, its charm will likely be lost on later generations of monster movie lovers; but for we older types, the revisiting of scenes and sets of the more familiar rendition from interesting new perspectives, will add another dimension to our enjoyment of the original film's visual legacy. (For those unaware, the English and Spanish language versions were filmed concurrently using the same sets.)

By contrast to the Browning Dracula's slow pacing and lack of musical score, Dracula's Daughter (1936) is a fast-moving, stylishly surreal revisiting of the vampire theme through the persona of Countess Zaleska, a.k.a. Countess Dracula (the exotic and aristocratically beautiful Gloria Holden), and her baleful and jealous minion, Sandor (Irving Pichel). This is one film, appearing near the end of the "first wave" of Universal horror classics, that is more lively and consistent with the film sensibilities common to the studio's "second wave" than those produced by Universal during the reign of the Laemmles (Carl Laemmle Sr., and Jr. were shown the door in a corporate takeover of the studio in March of 1936). At the risk of sounding like a Philistine, I greatly prefer the second cycle to the first.

And, as if that were not enough of an affront to monster movie purists, Son of Dracula (1943) is my personal favorite of the collection. It stars Lon Chaney as Count Alucard/Dracula and is ably directed by Robert Siodmak from an original story by his brother, Curt, who had a hand in so many of the classic films of the second cycle, including, and especially, The Wolf Man (1941). It also has some of the most stylish and striking cinematography for a film of its kind -- this by photographer George Robinson, who effectively emulates the look of the film noir genre, with which it was contemporary.

Rounding of this collection of vampire classics is House of Dracula, the least of the lot, but still vastly more interesting and watchable than the Van Helsing of current vintage. With the gaunt, but aptly sinister John Carradine as the Count, Chaney as Larry "The Wolf Man" Talbot, Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster and Onslow Stevens as the unfortunate Dr. Franz Edelmann, who turns into a murderous fiend when his blood is contaminated by that of Count Dracula's, this film has all the withering signs of a genre in rapid decline. While Edward T. Lowe's screenplay nobly attempts to reconcile the story's supernatural elements with its scientific ones by making the Count and Talbot the respective victims of exotic blood disease, and unusual physical and psychological maladies, it is otherwise little more than an assemblage of genre cliches from start to finish. One could argue that so, too, is Van Helsing, but the critical difference is that House of Dracula has a plot that matters, that audiences can follow, and in which the dialogue is clearly audible over the sounds of exploding lab equipment and angry, torch-wielding villagers.

Vincent Di Fate is a Hugo Award-winning science fiction artist, a recent past president of the Society of Illustrators, a college art professor and the author of four books, the last of which -- as yet unnamed, but soon to be published -- is an examination of the critical link between illustration and the American science fiction film. Di Fate's work can be visited at

"The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!"

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Dracula's Daughter

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House of Dracula

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