Universal’s monster cycle kickstarted the first golden age of horror as the talkies took over. Spearheading this was the 1931 release of Dracula, adapted from the stage play. Carl Laemmle Jr. was seeking to establish himself at Universal and saw the potential in horror with audiences. Junior’s instincts proved correct and the movie was a box office smash. This release collects together all of the initial series of films Universal made featuring Dracula or related characters.
A prevailing assessment of the first film is that it’s not actually that good. Certainly, compared to Frankenstein (also 1931) it lacks that film’s boldness and pitch-black thrills. The opening suggests a gothic tale of derring-do will unfurl. But when Dracula arrives in England it closely follows the play's structure and despite occasional inspiration becomes a somewhat clunky tale of drawing room melodrama. Despite all this, there’s a reason Dracula was a hit and endures to this day, and that is Bela Lugosi. He dominates the film, his performance creating a mournful but dangerous vampire king that remains remarkably unknowable, death-like and embodies the themes of insidious threat and sexual colonialism. It's one of the truly iconic versions of the character and more than makes the entire film worth it.
Lugosi wouldn’t return for the sequel which begins as the first film ends. Instead Dracula’s Daughter follows Countess Zaleska, the vampire daughter of Dracula, in her desperation to be free of her undead curse. A mix of straightforward horror-tinged pot boiler and psychological themes with some early Sapphic exploitation it's a confused but interesting follow-up. Next would be more vampire offspring in swampy horror-noir Son of Dracula featuring a miscast Lon Chaney Jr. as Count 'Alucard' arriving in the U.S. to wreak havoc. It would be followed by two monster rally pictures in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, here featuring a cadaverous, bug-eyed John Carradine as the original Dracula. With little to do with the first film, these were more post-Code horror movies that are fun in their own right but light in comparison, a cuddlier brand of bloodsucker.
The Universal vampire cycle would come to a close with the horror-comedy Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein wherein the hapless duo encounter Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. Meet might be broad comedy but it plays the horror mostly straight, providing a fitting send off for the finally-returning Lugosi’s Dracula. This set disappointingly brings no new extras other than those on the Abbott and Costello disc and earns a qualified recommendation. If you're a Universal enthusiast and you simply must have the middle four films in HD then beware that's all you get - good films in great shape and nothing more. But as a capsule of how horror cinema developed, these films witness how diverse (or rather disorganised) the Universal approach to horror was and for that they're undeniably important, with the beautiful balefulness of Lugosi's Count their cold, undead heart.
DRACULA: COMPLETE LEGACY COLLECTION / CERT: 12 / DIRECTORS: TOD BROWNING, KARL FREUND, LAMBERT HILLYER, ROBERT SIODMAK, ERLE C. KENTON, CHARLES BARTON / SCREENPLAY: GARRETT FORT, ERIC TAYLOR, CURTIS SIODMAK, EDWARD T. LOWE JR., ROBERT LEES, FREDERIC I. RINALDO, JOHN GRANT / STARRING: BELA LUGOSI, GLORIA HOLDEN, LON CHANEY JR., JOHN CARRADINE / RELEASE DATE: 8TH MAY