Armchair Cinephile 

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Armchair Cinephile

John DeFore on DVD

Scary monsters, super freaks

With the impending release of Van Helsing, which has its way with icons like Dracula, a couple of movie studios have seen fit to reissue earlier movie appearances by those legendary ghouls. Judging solely from Van Helsing's trailer, that film's audience may well walk out needing to be re-convinced that this crew was ever cool in the first place.

Universal, of course, produced the first round of classics - and they don't mind reminding you, even as their executives pimp out remake rights to any hack director who comes along. Their three new Legacy Collection packages - one each for Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man -contain four or five movies apiece. With only one exception, House of Dracula, the offerings are identical to earlier, now out-of-print DVD releases. Here, the vintage poster art that adorned the first DVDs is replaced with more modern packaging, and each set has a short, throw-away promotional piece featuring Van Helsing director Stephen Sommers. The great news is the price: Each set retails for about what you'd pay for a recent theatrical release. The quality of the films varies, naturally, but each collection contains some real classics: The moody melancholy coloring of James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein; the stark images of Tod Browning's original Dracula; the folkloric flavor of the first Wolf Man. There are goofier pleasures to be had as well, when the monsters start wandering into one another's stories á la Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

A couple of decades later, Hammer Film produced a series of interpretations that had a lasting influence on the way we see our favorite monsters. Warner Bros. has reissued a few of these pictures, worth celebrating based on their names alone. Exclamation points weren't part of the titles, but I dare you to repeat these words without macabre enthusiasm: Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (!), Taste the Blood of Dracula (!), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (!). In terms of storytelling, the features don't always work well; they're often slow-moving and sometimes hokey. But they certainly added to the mythology: their lurid colors yanked the stories from the timeless world of black-and-white; the sexual undercurrents that always suffused these tales is made more explicit; and, perhaps most importantly, actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee leave an indelible mark on the horror tradition.

Legacy Collection:
The Wolf Man

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave,
Taste the Blood of Dracula,
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
(Warner Bros.)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(New Line)

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Armchair Cinephile



Years later, actors would become nearly irrelevant to monster movies. Who gives a damn, for example, who plays Leatherface in New Line's recent remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? (In truth, through physicality and timing, even a fully camouflaged actor can make one of these parts his own; but it's not the same as being Béla Lugosi or Boris Karloff.) The remake drew a lot of fire for discarding the starkness of the film that inspired it, but trying to recapture that feeling would have been as foolish as having Christopher Lee mimic Lugosi. Instead, the producers have turned Leatherface into a living creation like those monsters who preceded him - to be reinterpreted every generation according to prevailing fashion. Compared to what's out there today, the new Massacre is plenty scary.

Speaking of 180-degree reinterpretations, Guy Maddin's deeply strange but brilliant Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, is about as out-there as you can get - a jolt both from the future (this vampire is Chinese instead of Transylvanian) and from the past (the film has no dialogue and is almost completely B&W). Based on a ballet reinterpretation of Bram Stoker's book, this version emphasizes the tale's erotic nature and has a fair bit of contempt for the mortals who persecute the Count. Shockingly, it becomes almost heartbreaking in the end.

Zeitgeist has just released Dracula on disc, to complement their earlier Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, which contains Maddin's masterful short The Heart of the World. The filmmaker's fans should also hunt down From the Atelier Tovar, a collection of idiosyncratic writings by the filmmaker - from short reviews for Film Comment to production journals and memoirs - published by Coach House Books.

Finally, a monster movie that shifts the focus from a legendary beast to its human pursuers: The Hound of the Baskervilles is the capstone in MPI's welcome series of Sherlock Holmes releases, which in three box sets and two stand-alone discs collects all of Basil Rathbone's outings as the legendary sleuth. Hound isn't your typical horror movie, but it has atmosphere to spare, and Rathbone is by almost unanimous consent the cinema's best Holmes - even if he, like Dracula before him, has been played by enough men to form a very, very odd bowling league. •

John DeFore on DVD

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