Box of Blood Review

Ask yourself why Anchor Bay’s Box of Blood compilation exists and you’re likely to meet with one clear answer: money. A collection of five films which have already been available, three of which are shorn of the second discs from previous releases, plus the belated addition of a 44-minute documentary on “the real Dracula”, there really is no other answer. However, remove such a cynical interpretation and this Box of Blood isn’t too bad. If you don’t already own any of these titles and aren’t too concerned with the missing special features (and, in the case of Nosferatu : Phantom der Nacht and Dracula, alternate versions), then the reasonably low price may very well prove agreeable as should the diversity of the films themselves. Certainly, this shouldn’t be the definitive collection of vampire movies – its earliest title was made as recently as 1974 – but as a sort of mini-film festival in a boxed set it works pretty well. Indeed, were you planning to spend a weekend, or even a day, in the exclusive company of vamp movies then the films collected here are sufficiently different enough to serve such a purpose.

So what of the selection itself? Admittedly we’re not dealing with five bona fide classics here, but most deserve their inclusion. It could be argued, for example, that Near Dark was the definitive eighties vampire flick and as such it makes sense for it to be the only eighties vampire flick in the set. On the other hand, Vampyres is the only British effort and the only one to satisfy the need for a lesbian vampire effort. Yet whilst it isn’t perhaps the definitive example of either, it’s still a cracking yarn, a fine mood piece and allows the boxed set to cover more ground.

Elsewhere we find the always welcome inclusion of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu in its full length German form, though this does make the presence of the recent Italian Dracula adaptation – a truly awful blend of Aaron Spelling-style soap opera and European soft porn sans the sex and nudity – somewhat questionable. In fact, the same could be said of the trashy Kevin Dillon vehicle Out for Blood, but then if you were to watch all five titles in quick succession this title would perhaps provide a welcome little breather alongside the weightier likes contributions of Herzog and Near Dark’s Kathryn Bigelow.

As such there really is little need to discuss either Dracula or Out for Blood in any great depth. I’ve already mentioned pretty much everything that needs to be said about either, though it should be noted that Dracula also had Patrick Bergin in the lead role and goes for a modern day setting, a situation that allows Jonathan Harker to be envisioned as an American (or rather dubbed as one) and for his trip to Dracula’s castle to be undertaken in a gleaming red sports car. Needless to say, this is glossy monstrosity that really does need to be avoided.

Far more interesting, as said, are the remaining three titles. Remove the erotica quotient from Vampyres and we’re still left with an effective piece of filmmaking. Spaniard “Joseph” Larraz balances the artiness with the nastiness making for an intriguing British horror. Indeed, had it not been for a certain grubbiness, plus the presence of a camper van and numerous bobble hats, it would be easy to forget that Vampyres was indeed a British horror flick. Certainly, I don’t remember Hamer or Amicus adopting prog rock scores around the same time.

Also intriguingly “other” is the Herzog entry. Very much an austere piece, complete with strange credit sequence and silent movie-style acting (particularly from Isabella Adjani), the director has created what could be described as an anti-horror. Of course, we still have a vampire and sundry deaths, but Herzog’s passions lie elsewhere. He chops and changes his way through the Bram Stoker and F.W. Murnau sources, making interesting omissions and unexpected combinations (Mina becomes Lucy; Renfield is also Harker’s boss) and thus forcing the audience to look at the film from askew angles. Indeed, what we come away with is an evocative piece which highlights the folkloric qualities and a sense of place. It’s a definitive Herzog film and the most “respectable” title in the collection, yet at the same time the least obvious and most elusive – a factor which makes it an interesting inclusion as it really is unlike any other.

That said, Near Dark could also be described as summing up its director perfectly. Following on from her co-directing credit on The Loveless, not to mention her appearance in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, it is clear that Bigelow’s effort shouldn’t be compared to the likes of The Lost Boys, perhaps that decade’s other key teen vampire flick. Certainly, it’s an unashamedly eighties effort replete with cast members from Aliens (Bill Paxton being the standout yet again amongst Lance Henriksen and Jeannette Goldstein) and a pulsating score by Tangerine Dream. Yet what interests isn’t so much the synths and haircuts, but rather its genre subversion. Indeed, what we have is a film which unashamedly borrows various B-movie tropes and reconfigures the vampire movie as a Western/film noir hybrid which also works as a straight ahead action movie; the lengthy bar room scene in particular is the only evidence you’ll need to understand the (admittedly rather trite) tag which Bigelow has assumed as the female James Cameron.

The problem this creates, however, is the fact that if we are to pick up Near Dark as part of this collection, we also miss out of the extras which made its second disc – and surely with a film this good we want all of the additional material we can get. Admittedly, we hold onto the Bigelow commentary, but gone are the documentary, deleted scene and downloadable screenplay which featured amongst the less essential film notes, trailers and the like. Likewise, Nosferatu no longer has its shortened English language version, whilst Dracula similarly lacks its correctly framed (1.33:1 as opposed to the 1.78:1 offering we find here) two-part mini-series incarnation plus its few, if negligible additional extras.

In their stead we find The Real Dracula, a 44-minute documentary from the History Channel given its own disc. Despite being lavished such treatment – and, inexplicably, a truly unnecessary choice of DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS soundtracks(!) – this piece really isn’t deserving of it. In terms of documentary filmmaking it’s exceedingly poor (gruff voice-over; shoddy visual sense backed up by scratchy public domain prints of Max Shreck, Bela Lugosi and Jack Palance playing Stoker’s creation), whilst as a piece of history it similarly misses the point. Rather than afforded any insight we are instead offered such appalling statements as follows: “It may have been Bram Stoker’s destiny to write Dracula. He was haunted by death from the day he was born.”

Thank goodness, then, for the extras which accompany the various films themselves. As already noted Dracula misses out entirely, whilst Out for Blood contains only a rudimentary ‘making of’ plus a trailer and various film notes. Elsewhere, however, we find some genuinely meaty additional material. Nosferatu, Vampyres and Near Dark all come with director’s commentaries (Larraz being joined by producer Brian Smedley-Aston on his chat track) and all three are well worth a listen given their participants. Indeed, their cinematic intelligence prompts a trio of considered, fascinating pieces, though it is perhaps Vampyres’ commentary which is deserving of the most attention as Larraz is a truly underrated figure. (His earlier effort Symptoms was once described in Time Out as “the best British horror since Repulsion”.)

Also present are interesting featurettes on Nosferatu and Vampyres, the former of which chats to Herzog on the set, whilst the latter offers recently recorded interviews with stars Marianne Morris and Anulka. Both of these discs also find the standard collection of trailers and, in the case of Vampyres, a photo gallery.

Finishing off with the various presentations, each film looks pretty much as good as could be expected. All five are given anamorphic transfers (each at a ratio of approximately 1.78:1), and only Out for Blood lets the side down with an NTSC-PAL conversion. Otherwise prints are clean and suffer only negligible flaws: Vampyres can be a little too grainy at times; Near Dark demonstrates some noticeable edge enhancement.

As for the soundtracks, here we find Anchor Bay’s usual practice of coupling with original mono/stereo soundtracks with optional DD5.1 and DTS. The only one they’ve truly messed up is the In Search of History doc wherein the upgrades really do sound remarkably poor. Otherwise, the assorted remixes should satisfy those who wish to go for the expansive treatment (not that the there’s a great deal of difference between the respective DD5.1 and DTS offerings), whilst the purists will be equally home with the originals. English subtitles for the hard of hearing also appear on Out for Blood and optional English ones are available to accompany Nosferatu’s original German dialogue.

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