In anticipation of Halloween and in celebration of the recent blu-ray release of the classic and iconic “Universal Monsters” series, I have decided to review each title individually in chronological order, and the first review of the series is for Tod Browning’s “Dracula” which was released back on February 14, 1931.
This 1931 version of “Dracula” was the first time the classic Bram Stoker novel had been legitimately adapted, even though the story had been filmed before by German filmmaker F. W. Murnau under the title “Nosferatu” back in 1922 (Murnau never actually purchased the rights to film the book). The story has since been adapted a plethora of times so I am sure that most people are familiar with the plot of “Dracula” but for those that don’t, I will provide a brief summary. After securing the sale of a property on the outskirts of London, Count Dracula leaves his castle in Transylvania and charters a ship to his new abode. Upon arriving in town, he immediately starts to prey upon his neighbours of the adjoining property (which houses a sanitarium on its grounds as well as the residence of the head psychiatrist and his family), particularly that of the young and beautiful Mina. After a number of deaths and strange going-on’s in the neighbourhood, a specialist is brought in, Dr. Van Helsing, to work out what is exactly happening as well as to find what is the cause for the sudden deterioration in the health of poor Mina. Van Helsing, who has a firm belief in the supernatural, comes to the terrifying conclusion that everything that has been happening is due to the presence of a vampire.
“Dracula” was the first film of the “Universal Monsters” series made in the 1930’s that proved such a massive success that all of the subsequent films appeared because of it. However, as iconic a movie that it has become, it is also one of the least successful of the series. Do not get me wrong, the film is still great entertainment, but when held up against the others in the series it has seemed to have aged significantly more than the others. The film was directed by the great Tod Browning who made a number of amazing and amazingly bizarre silent films in the 1920’s, and is someone who I am a massive fan of. Browning starts “Dracula” off brilliantly with the character of Renfield travelling to the Transylvanian castle to get the paperwork in order. This entire sequence, the travel to the castle and the time spent within it, is the highlight of the film. The thick and spooky atmosphere is beautifully created as Renfield enters this strange baroque world. Visually this is where “Dracula” is at its strongest too, and this is mainly due to the fact that these scenes do not rely on dialogue, and as a result, Browning is able to fall back on his bold visual techniques he often used in his silent features. There is a truly stunning (and ultimately pointless) scene featuring the brides of Dracula that is unlike anything else in the film. It is also during this sequence when the film is at its most tense, as Renfield is lured into the spider’s web. We, the audience, know that he is in serious danger while he is unaware of it himself.
However once the location of the movie shifts to London, the atmosphere of the great opening is forever lost, and rarely regained. The film focuses less on visuals and ends up becoming extremely dialogue driven. Worse is the fact that the dialogue never sounds natural rather it all appears expository. This version of “Dracula” actually isn’t a true adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel; rather it is an adaptation of play that was based on the novel. Browning sadly is unable to disguise the stage bound origins of the film which for the majority of its running time does feel like a filmed play. What is frustrating about it is that the story doesn’t build in any sort of organic matter or create any momentum within the narrative rather characters routinely come on “stage” and explain just what is going on. Also the closer we get to the end of the film the more erratic it becomes with things appearing to happen at random. The scene of the “woman in white” is a good example of this. Ironically this is one of the more atmospheric scenes set in London but it happens out of the blue and the scene is too short to have any real significance.
I know it sounds like I am being harsh on the film, and maybe I am, because at the end of the day I still like the film, but I don’t want to just give the film a complete pass mark due to its classic stature. So if the film has all of these faults, why is it so highly regarded? Two words: Bela Lugosi. His iconic and seminal performance as Count Dracula is why the film is so loved today. You can tell that he has put his heart and soul into this performance, giving nothing less than one hundred percent, and it has worked. From the day “Dracula” premiered in 1931 when anybody portrayed the titular character, Lugosi’s portrayal was mimicked. He is mesmerizing in the role, using his thick Hungarian accent to his advantage with his elongated line readings. As soon as we are witness to his Dracula, his incredible charisma is brought to the forefront and we can’t take our eyes off of him (much like the characters on screen). However his performance isn’t the only strong one, as Dwight Frye’s take on Renfield is just as impressive. I personally love the transition in the once smart and proper real estate agent to the raving lunatic he becomes. Frye is perfect in the early scenes before he becomes the victim of the Count, but it is after he has turned that he is at his best. He truly looks like a deranged madman with those crazy eyes and that weird grin on his face. So much has his demeanor changed that I was initially unsure that I was watching the same actor in the role. The character of Renfield regularly reappears throughout the movie and whenever he does, he energizes it.
Personally I was not a fan of Edward Van Sloan’s stiff and wooden take on the Van Helsing character due in part to the feeling of complete arrogance he instills in the character. He comes across as a know-all and as though he is superior to everyone else. While I have no issues with David Manner’s performance as John Harker, Mina’s fiancé, unfortunately the script gives him nothing to do and because of this he comes across as a bit of a sap. Similarly the main female characters are underutilized although due to the charismatic performances from Helen Chandler (as Mina) and Frances Dade (as Lucy), their roles are much more memorable. I particularly loved Dade as Lucy even though her role is miniscule.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the work of cinematographer Karl Freund and the influence he had on the success of “Dracula”. Freund was one of the great pioneer’s in cinematography in the silent era and worked on a number of great German classics including Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and his work on “Dracula”, particularly the early scenes set in Transylvania, is really quite amazing. His idea of shining small pin lights into the eyes of Bela Lugosi to create that hypnotic stare, while the rest of him is covered in darkness, was absolute genius. Also the way he lit a room when it was filled with the mysterious mist or fog truly gave it an ominous feel to it, best described as chilling. It is his contribution that makes the most successful parts of “Dracula” feel as if they have come from another world entirely. Interestingly, Freund went on to direct another of the popular “Universal Monsters” properties with “The Mummy” made the following year in 1932.
While it is true that “Dracula” hasn’t aged as well as some of the other “Universal Monsters” films of the 1930’s, it is still an iconic film. That said I am sure that today’s audience unfamiliar with the movie would find parts of it unintentionally funny. Things such as the rubber bats or the plastic spider could create a giggle, or the use of the very “scary” armadillo or possum filling in as supposed otherworldly creatures. Also let’s not forget about that bee and its terrifying mini-coffin. While these are all amusing to us now, we mustn’t forget that this film was considered absolutely frightening when it was released back in 1931, and personally I am not going to downgrade the score of a film for special effects that have since dated.
Overall, I find Tod Browning’s version of “Dracula” to be a hit and miss affair. After leaving the Transylvanian world behind, the film struggles to create an atmosphere befitting of a horror film. The fact that the dialogue driven film is unable to disguise its origins as a play is unfortunate and the lack of a music score does not help it’s cause. However on the positive side, it has an absolutely spellbinding performance by Bela Lugosi who gives the cinema its definitive version of the evil Count. Interestingly, four years later, Tod Browning would make another vampire picture titled “Mark Of The Vampire” where it saw him recreating a lot of scenes that he had done in “Dracula” and usually for the better. However, the ridiculous twist ending of that film, has caused it to be basically forgotten compared to the flawed classic that is “Dracula”.