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Universal Monsters Minimates
by yo go re

Most of our readers are probably most familiar with the story of Dracula from Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film, but not me: I first saw it as a play at our community theater, which sure beats Keanu Reeves trying to affect a British accent.

Sleeping in a coffin by day and preying on beautiful women by night, the man called Count Dracula is not a man but a vampire! Following his voyage from the mountains of Transylvania to London, the 1931 Universal Studios adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel remains the most iconic.

That's not strictly accurate: Dracula isn't an adaptation of the novel. And we don't mean that in the way Nosferatu "wasn't" an adaptation of the novel, we mean it literally wasn't based on the book. Rather it was based on a stage play from 1924, which was itself based on the book. So the film? One step removed from a direct adaptation.

Drac is wearing his old-fashioned tuxedo, courtesy of a new, multi-layered chest cap that also includes his long cape. They did a very good job suggesting depth on such a thin piece: there's his cape, bowtie, jacket lapels, vest (with lapels and buttons of its own), pendant and of course the shirt beneath it all. And the depth is exagerrated for effect, too!

Universal's original plan was to have Lon Chaney (not junior) star in the film, but he died while they were still trying to make it happen. Bela Lugosi, who'd played Dracula on Broadway, lobbied hard for the role: so hard, in fact, that Universal knew he was desperate, and so cheated him on his salary. The Minimate doesn't try for a Bela likeness (the rights are complicated), but you can tell who it's kinda sorta supposed to be. His skin is perfectly pale, and there are dark shadows painted under his cheeks.

A doctor of many specialties, Abraham Van Helsing will not dismiss even the most extraordinary diagnosis of his patients if he thinks it is the correct one. And when all signs point to a vampire plague, he is ready to hunt down the source of the infection himself.

Van Helsing gets a new chest cap, to create the specific outfit he wore in the movie. It's sculpted with his floppy bowtie, his buttoned vest and even the small chain connected to his pocket watch. It's just as detailed as Dracula's coat, and would be a great base for an Alfred or Jarvis Minimate, or any other butler you'd like to make.

Honestly, it might have been better if they'd just painted the details on. It's a wonderful sculpt, but actor Edward Van Sloan was a slender guy, and the added bulk makes the figure look too big. Similarly, the design of his face is perfect, but the shape of the Minimate head-block doesn't quite suit him. He ends up looking too thick and beefy.

Of course, how many people would recognize Edward Van Sloan by sight alone? The package tells you this is Dr. Van Helsing, so you have no reason to disbelieve it. Fun fact, though: after playing Van Helsing in this film, he played an almost identical role - Dr. Muller - in The Mummy. And in Frankenstein, he appeared before the opening credits to warn audiences against the upcoming fright (a gag picked up by The Simpsons, when they would have Marge [or sometimes Homer] come out at the beginning of the early "Treehouse of Horror" episodes and tell parents to change the channel). So basically, if you buy this one figure, you can use him with three different sets.

Following the pattern set by last year's twin Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon sets, this four-pack includes an exclusive female figure: in this case, Mina Harker, the object of Dracula's desire. In the novel her maiden name is Murray, but in the film she was the daughter of Dr. Seward. And she never got around to marrying John Harker, so technically her last name wouldn't have changed yet.

Mina is wearing her nightgown, which by 1931 standards is probably the equivalent of an actress appearing in her underwear. Or hell, maybe a topless scene. Frankly we're surprised she could get away with showing so much arm! The skirt portion is sculpted with fine wrinkles and "sparkle" details all over, and she's got a fancy new smock draped around her shoulders.

Though it was certainly the biggest role of her career, Mina was not the character Helen Chandler wanted to play - she didn't even want to be in Dracula! She hoped to win the title role in Alice in Wonderland, and only signed onto Dracula when that fell through. The face is fine, if indistinct, but her new hair is straight from the film.

In the original novel, Renfield was just one of the inmates at Dr. Seward's asylum - he, along with many other mental patients and wild animals, were agitated by the Count's journey toward England. Most adaptations, though, make him more integral: for instance, Universal's Dracula gave him Johnathan Harker's early role in the story, making him the real estate agent who went to Transylvania to meet Dracula.

Renfield isn't dressed as fancily as the rest of the folks in this set - he doesn't even get any unusual items of clothing. His chest block is painted with a few details: black suspenders, a few wrinkles, buttons up the front and even a flash of pink skin at the collar. He looks appropriately disheveled, but we have to admit to some disappointment that the suspenders don't actually continue over the shoulders. That app is probably expensive, but they're suspenders; the entire point of them is that they run over your shoulders! On the other hand, there's an app on the front of his waist and the suspenders have a (painted) texture, so it's not like they were cutting corners.

The figure does get new hair, however, really matching what Dwight Frye looked like in the film. His face is delightfully manic, and looks exactly like it did in the film. Want to make a batshit-crazy Norman Osborn figure? This head will work great. He's got a wide, unsettling grin and his eyes are looking down instead of straight ahead.

Dracula, for all that it's a classic piece of horror, is also a shockingly dull film. It's staged like a play, with long, static shots. Many of the opportunities for special effects happen off-screen, such as Dracula's transformation into a bat, or his final death. If you get the chance, however, you must watch the Spanish-language version made at the same time, on the same sets: it's a much more lively affair, and a lot more fun to watch. As far as this Minimate set goes, Dracula is the star, and the others are just along for the ride. They're good toys, though, especially if you're a fan of the Dracula story.

One final thought before we go: Art Asylum has made two Dracula Minimates, and they were both released on the same day. How's that for a trivia fact!

-- 10/28/11

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