Director: Tod Browning
Writer: Hamilton Dean & John L. Balderston, based on the play by Garrett Fort, based in turn on the novel by Bram Stoker
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Solan & Francis Dade
Plot: The mysterious Count Dracula and his unwitting slave, Renfield, travel to England. When the ship is arrived, the entire crew and passenger manifest is dead, save for Renfield, who has gone mad. Dracula takes up residence in an abbey near Renfield’s sanitarium, and mysterious sightings and deaths occur, spurring the noted professor Van Helsing to confront the Count, and expose him for what he truly is – a vampire.
Thoughts: I’ve been waiting for this one. The Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, more than any other film or piece of pop culture, is what has helped to inform our current perception of the vampire. (Because the things in Twilight are not vampires, damn you Stephenie Meyer.) A lot of people don’t even realize how many of our current tropes come from this film or its sequels or imitators – the explicit connection of the vampire to bats, for example (where in the past – and even in this film – vampires could transform into bats, wolves, mist, and other things), or their aversion to sunlight. As important as those things are to current vampire lore, they didn’t come from the classic lore. (Which raises the question – if the Universal pictures depiction of the vampire hadn’t made him allergic to sunlight, would Meyer still have felt the urge to make Edward Cullen sparkle as an aversion to that trope? Hmm. Okay, I think I need to stop talking about Twilight now.)
Lugosi pops in with his tuxedo, his cape, his pendant, and those convenient beams of light that always seem to fall across his eyes and he absolutely owns the room, mesmerizing whoever’s on screen with him and whoever happens to be watching him. He may not be overtly sexual in the way that writers have tried to make vampires since the rise of Anne Rice, but he’s clearly seductive in a way that defies explanation. Even without the supernatural powers of the vampire, Lugosi’s presence would command anybody.
Other classic horror character tropes appear to be in their infancy here as well. Renfield, once Dracula has possessed him, is extremely effective. Dwight Frye has a madness in his eyes that spreads throughout his entire face. As he smiles and peers up the staircase of the ship at the camera, you find yourself absolutely chilled to the bone – he’s a madman, and he’s coming after you next. The Renfields of this world may come second to the Igors as the horror movie second bananas, but when played right, I’d be more scared of a Renfield any day. The atmosphere of the film is powerful as well – the scenery is fantastic, and the scenery is the stuff of every classic haunted house.
As masterful as Lugosi and Frye’s performances are, however, some of the other elements of this 80-year-old film just don’t hold up as well. Granted, you’ve got to make allowances for the special effects limitations of the time, but the scene towards the beginning where Renfield leans out of his carriage to see a bat flying in front just yanks a modern audience out entirely – it looks as though someone is dangling a rubber bat from a fishing pole, which probably isn’t that far from the truth.
You can’t blame age on stale performances, though, and Lugosi and Frye are really the only memorable actors in the film. The women are mannequins, and Edward Van Solan’s Van Helsing is forgettable at best. David Manners as Jonathan Harker is just plain bland, vanilla, and utterly unexciting.
The climax of the film, however, is what really hurts it. After so much tension and so much buildup, the ending just doesn’t excite. Van Helsing simply marches into Dracula’s lair and stakes him – off-camera at that. Again, I’m trying to make allowances for the time period. There wasn’t going to be any gory close-ups or a fountain of blood (like in the painfully weak Mel Brooks comedy, Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but at the same time, I can’t help thinking there could have been more. In truth, I think it speaks to how the still-evolving language of film hadn’t really been solidified yet. The film is based on the stage play based (legally, unlike Nosferatu) on Bram Stoker’s novel, and in 1931 they were still filming movies as if they were stage plays. I actually worked backstage on a production of this play several years ago, and I know how effective the final scene can be when done properly, but film is an entirely different medium with different demands.
The same goes for the novel – in the book, a great deal of the tension and fear is internal. It’s a lot harder to do that in a movie. You need to give the audience something to look at, something to see and fear. This is one of the reasons I’m not a purist when it comes to film adaptations. Sometimes, what works great on the printed page just doesn’t work on film. This is a case where the screenwriters should have found a more dramatic way to stage that final moment between Van Helsing and Dracula, some way to get the audience more engaged, than just waltzing in and driving in the stake.
I look back at these comments and I start to feel a little worried about myself. This film is a classic of the genre, isn’t it? I sure as hell haven’t endured for 80 years, do I really have the right dismiss something that millions have found frightening? Worst of all, what if I’m falling victim to the same mindset that I so often accuse my high school English students of having? What if I’m unable to divorce myself from my modern mindset and appreciate the film for what it was when it was created?
A terrifying thought.
But then I look at the next film on my list, a film released in the same year as Dracula, and one that I do consider a masterpiece of cinema. And I think, “Maybe Dracula simply doesn’t hold up the way Frankenstein does.”