What Music the Restored Dracula Soundtrack Makes


It’s tempting to regard this now as a mild case of premature old-fogeyism, but I think it requires a more aggressive label just to remind me of an ever-present peril—so I’m thinking of calling my initial overreaction to Universal Studio’s restored Dracula soundtrack my “American Family Association” moment, or my “’Last Temptation of Christ’ moment.” I will explain:

Shortly after the news broke that Uni would be re-releasing a collection of their classic monster movies on Blu-ray back in 2012, the Best Fiends got engaged in a lively telephone discussion about the fact that, as part of this welcome appearance of its finest chillers on the hi-def media, there were going to be an upgrade applied to the 1931 Bela Lugosi vampire film. In addition to the improvements that would be made upon the picture quality, they were also going to clean out all the crackles, hisses, and pops from the Dracula soundtrack and make it sound like “new.”

Great, you are probably thinking; who wouldn’t want a movie to sound better? I imagine most people probably had that very reasonable reaction. I, on the other hand, heard that news and went into a fit of indignation. This is terrible, I said; they are about to destroy one of the things I dearly love about Dracula, and indeed, about all of those wonderfully dusty, musty Universal horror flicks! How could they? How dare they!

My reaction wasn’t a totally unexpected one between the Fiends, since we had often remarked to each other over the years that one of the peculiar charms of these movies for us, as we enjoyed them on television over and over again in our youth, was the very presence of this bizarre storm of white noise that would eerily range through the long gaps of “silence” occupying especially creepy moments in Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. In those pictures, with traditional music scores sparse or absent entirely, this weird aural static became the music.


As the camera barrelled forward to first reveal Count Dracula risen from the grave; as the Frankenstein Monster stumbled backwards through the laboratory door and slowly turned to reveal his alarming features; as Bramwell Fletcher’s impatient archeologist unrolled the Scroll of Thoth, his whispered incantation ungluing Imhotep’s eyelids—a viewer’s ears would be engulfed by this restless and ragged noise, creating the illusion that the films themselves were ghosts pushing through the tattered boundaries that protected us from the world of nightmare.

So, yes: I had a genuine attachment to this “weakness” of the movies—the old soundtrack only adding to the allure of an old movie, in the same way we might romanticize fragile and rare books, or vinyl records, or photographs—and I felt that was about to be tossed out in favor of capitulating to modern-day tastes; to address the concerns of the kinds of people who use their remote control to stretch out the picture of Casablanca to fill their widescreen TV.

In this conversation between the Fiends, I was adamant, regarding this “restoration” of the Dracula soundtrack as an act that would be unacceptable and bordering on artistic desecration.

You may have sensed where I’m going with this long before I now make clear the whole “Last Temptation” analogy. Much like the AFA and so many of the overzealous picketers who felt they could fairly judge that Martin Scorsese’s 1988 movie about Jesus was terrible without having laid eyes upon it (and render judgments about the character of those who chose to embrace it), I’d betrayed my integrity as a movie lover and made a very biased, snap decision about a film well in advance of seeing the final result.


I had determined, absent the evidence, that this restored Dracula soundtrack would be similar in nature to the sort of cultural vandalism most popularly represented by the George Lucas Special Editions of the Star Wars films; this was going to be as lousy an adjustment as colorization. Really, I’d simply lost any and all perspective, and for the longest time, refused to set eyes (and ears) upon it after it was released. The other half of the Best Fiends however, did pick up the set, and watched (and listened) to Dracula—and told me that what was done was well done, and I should give it a fair chance. Still, I avoided coming into contact with it. The thought of the movie being “violated” in this way would just be too much.

Then, one day, I decided I should probably calm down about it and start thinking a little more rationally. First and foremost: When did I forget that no reasonable or intellectually honest judgment could be made about a movie without my having actually watched it? Because the films are so close to my heart, it was easier to straighten myself out by thinking about the way I’d interpret the same work being done to another form of art entirely. I used early jazz recordings for my private thought experiment; that crackly clutter we hear on vintage 78s certainly has its charms, but if I were really interested in appreciating the work of the musicians involved, wouldn’t I want to hear those performances without that cloud of interference?

We’re also entering the tricky territory of discerning restoration from alteration; are we betraying cultural history, or resurrecting it? What is being valued, and what is being disposed of entirely? In the case of the restored Dracula soundtrack, it was unclear to me if we were looking at work that would reproduce the state of the soundtrack to what audiences would have heard before the ravages of time worked their way through surviving prints, or if the work was going to eliminate imperfections native to the time and bring the sound more in line with contemporary expectations.

I might have a special, overly emotional attachment to the imperfections of the Lugosi film’s audio, but if I were approaching the issue with integrity, I’d have to concede that if the goal of the restoration was indeed to return the state of the film closest to its original form, that would be more than defensible and something I should support. There would be only one way of fully rendering that judgment to my own satisfaction, of course, so I borrowed the Dracula Blu-ray disc from my colleague across the office here and made an appointment to crank up the volume and keep my blood pressure in check.

Now, I gladly dine on my crow.


The restored Dracula soundtrack is very tastefully done; contrary to what I’d feared, there’s been no elimination of the primary characteristic of the “room tone,” to invoke a movie production term (this is what I’d really been worried about), in terms of making it into a “fatter” sound, or literally into no sound at all. That white noise is still there, it’s just level, and low, and the dialogue is heard with greater force and clarity.

At the same time, let’s not kid ourselves about the movie. Where the sound really counts is where the movie really counts—in its very early going, including all of the scenes in Dracula’s castle. Here, we also pick up more on a very space-appropriate echo effect during Lugosi and Dwight Frye’s conversations. I don’t know if this is more pronounced because it’s been added, or because it’s just been impossible to notice before (I haven’t looked at the documentary on the disc about the restoration yet; I certainly will, but was more interested in rendering my totally subjective judgment first)—but I will say that I felt that it worked, and seemed exactly right.

To complete my appraisal at home, I popped the Blu-ray out of my player, and went to my library shelf to retrieve my DVD copy of the film from the “Legacy Collection” set from years ago. I cued up that version of the film, with the soundtrack I have so cherished over the years, and hit PLAY.

Holy cow, this is awful, I thought to myself. The old soundtrack now sounded to me as if someone were running water into a tub while the movie played.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to call this. It wasn’t “teaching an old dog new tricks.” I might not yet qualify for the “old dog” moniker just yet, but I no longer qualify for the “spring chicken” designation, either; is there an animal in between? I couldn’t call it a “lesson learned” because I’ve argued against the philosophical limitations of nostalgia since forever. Lacking a handy cliché to deploy about the overly biased and radical abandonment of worthy principles to which one would otherwise hold fast, I pretty quickly arrived at describing this little journey as my “’Last Temptation’ moment.”

The bottom line is that this restoration of Dracula not only looks great, it sounds great, too. They’ve done the movie a real service for fans old and new. Film preservation on its own is a worthy goal always worth pursuing with greater fervor, but the urge to tinker with the classics for the purposes of reintroducing them to movie lovers has been all the rage for some time now; the results sit along a wide continuum, between the kind of vital work done on films like Lawrence of Arabia and the gun/walkie-talkie digital tomfoolery of E.T.;  from the miraculous cleanup the Criterion Collection did on Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc to the endless debates over the “proper” Stanley Kubrick aspect ratio.

Whether we are discussing the multiple versions of Blade Runner or the re-insertion of the line “Now I know what it feels like to be God” in Frankenstein, as well as this latest sprucing-up of Tod Browning’s uneven but indispensable chiller—or even if we are talking about something contemporary like the representation of women in the movies or the unruly fuss over American Sniperwhat remains most important is for those who say they treasure the art and history of movies to always question whether or not they are making a fuss about the right things.

Understand nostalgia for the unreliable narrator it is, try to fall on the right side of cinema history, and, as I had to recently remind myself, remember: Until you’ve actually seen something and taken the time to make more than a knee-jerk consideration, you cannot praise or condemn it with anything resembling authority or wisdom.

So simple. But how often and easily we (or at least I) forget.


You can check out a short video about the restoration here. And if you want to experience all the classic vintage horror goodness for yourself—and what respectable movie lover wouldn’t?—the restored Dracula on Blu-ray is available by itself or as part of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection set. As for that alternate version where you can overlay a musical soundtrack by Philip Glass onto the film (a holdover from the old Legacy Collection release)? I say: Nice idea, but no.