Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Garrett Fort
Sound on Sight’s 31 Days of Horror series makes a decisive switch of gears on Tuesdays with a look at some of the horror genre’s unmistakable gems: its classic monsters. These films will all be from the 1950s, 40s and even the 30s, the decades which saw some of the most well known, most beloved and, of course, most terrifying monsters arrive on the silver screen to freak out the others other in the films…and audiences.
Bram Stoker’s most recognized literary effort is undoubtedly the story of Count Dracula, a vampire who preys on his victims through unnatural powers of seduction. The number of films which take cues from the book, either as direct adaptations or indirect inspirations, are practically innumerable. Perhaps the most well known version of the past 20 years or so was from the early 1990s, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and featuring a remarkably star-studded cast, among them Sir Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing. The first ever significantly successful film version is not even very well known for its director, Tod Browning, or the supporting actors. Nay, the 1931, Universal Studios film is, above all else, remembered and recognized today for the performance of the man underneath the makeup: Bela Lugosi.
A real estate agent of sorts named Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels to the deepest, darkest corner of Transylvania in order to close a contract with a mysterious figure known as Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). During the trip to the count’s domain, the locals warn the poor soul not to venture into the castle, for fear that the most horrible fate awaits him. They believe, correctly, that Dracula is a nosferatu, a creature of the night who preys on the blood of the living. Dutiful employee that he is, Renfield nevertheless attends his appointment, although quickly wished he had heeded the advice of the townsfolk, for Dracula’s castle is quite the sight to behold, or, perhaps more aptly, a sight no one would ever want to behold. Cob webs everywhere, bats, hollow, shadowy, with the host himself proving to be no less ghoulish than the decor. The powerful vamp takes over Renfield’s mind and uses the latter as an entrypoint into into London, England where he has purchased some property, It is there that Dracula is instinctively attracted to Lucy (Frances Dade), of whom he quickly makes a victim, and her friend Mina (Helen Chandler), although in order to bag the latter, Dracula will have to get passed her current lover John Harker (David Manners) and the renowned research specialist of the unnatural, Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan).
Dracula, THE Dracula film as many would like to call it (and staunchly do), operates very much like its titular antagonist. The ghastly figure of the count moves around silently but with alarming efficiency and speed, largely due to his sneaky shape shifting ways. His visual aura is powerful, intimidating even. He speaks in a manner which simultaneously impresses and discomforts. The effectiveness of the characters is predicated on his style, aided by the lighting and makeup which help make him who he is, and by extension the film as a whole follows suite. Essentially, by the midway point, there is no longer much rhyme or reason as to what count Dracula is doing in London. The ‘plot’, as it were, is absolutely secondary to the magic tricks director Tod Browning and his excellent crew want to impress and intimidate the audience with. Sure, the basic, bare bones plot suggests that Dracula travels across Europe to see some new real estate first hand, but that element becomes is secondary to the atmosphere the film intends to create and preserve throughout. Once the villain sets his eyes on Lucy and Mina at the London opera house, the movie offloads that script element like excess baggage, therefore concentrating on what really seem to interest the filmmakers. Even as far as character arcs are concerned, Dracula is minimalist in the extreme, using people like Renfield, Doctor Seward and Lucy as pawns in an impressive, if arguably hollow, exercise in style.
Oh, but what style it is! Bela Lugosi is the unequivocal star of the show. Coming over from Hungary to work in theatre, this role made him a legend, and while the remainder of his career never achieved the same success, his interpretation of Dracula is engraved in the memories of an entire legion of fans. By early 21st century standards, it is not a performance that will probably scare many people. The accent and speech pattern are so thick, less astute movie watchers may even incorrectly assume they are intended to serve as comedic effect. Watching a movie such as this one, one must try, or pretend, to put oneself in the mindset of a movie goer in 1931. For all intents and purposes, Lugosi’s Dracula is pretty weird. He is a foreigner, and just as it is all too often easy to be suspicious of foreigners, Lugosi makes his count Dracula so foreign that no man from any other culture could possible resemble him. Say what you will about how tame the film might be by contemporary standards, Lugosi’s performance is as complete as can be considering that his character literally has no story. His gaze is supreme, aided by some wonderful lighting techniques during closeup shots when the entirety of his face is in shadow save those brilliant eyes. Those shots are among the very best in the film, making the case that this Dracula is a force to be reckoned with, even though he is a force few comprehend. His delivery of some classic lines is majestic as well, a personal favourite being ‘I never drink…wine.’
Speaking of performances and characters understanding nosferatu, one actor whose name is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same breath as Lugosi is Edward Van Sloan, who portrays Van Helsing. True enough, Van Sloan’s persona does not carry nearly as much wicked gusto as Lugosi, the latter whom practically owns the film whenever on screen, but it feels just to highlight Van Sloan for his decidedly unusual version of the Helsing character. Unusual in the sense that he resembles more a curious doctor who puts a friendly, inquisitive spin on nearly every phrase he utters. Whereas Anthony Hopkins’ interpretation made the character seem more willingly adventurous, Van Sloan’s makes the same character appear physically slower, yes, but very much the academic, the man who wants to get to the bottom of everything and confirm or deny his suspicions. As a threat to Dracula, he is somewhat on the pathetic side, which ironically leads to a pleasingly curious scene when, Van Helsing having by then deduced Dracula’s true identity, is confronted by the creature. Rather than some sort of physical confrontation, Dracula merely suggests that the professor leave the premise unless he wishes to risk his own neck, pun intended, to which Van Helsing defiantly yet calmly replies that he very much intends on staying. It is as though the film, realizing that this Helsing could never outdo Dracula, has them go head to head based on their wit and personalities more than anything else. Interesting, to say the least.
Another aspect modern audiences could be inclined to scoff at are the visual effects, or lack thereof. Indeed, considering this is a picture from 1931, state of the art optical illusions are far and few between, although what Drowning and his team pull off is, a lot like the rest of the film, cleanly efficient. Much of this has to do with what the camera decides to show the audience or not. For example, every time Dracula morphs from human form to bat and vice versa, the frame pans from where the bat is located to whatever Dracula’s target happens to be, typically a victim in her sleep. A few seconds later, the camera will pan in the opposite direction and return to where the bat was, now replaced by Bela Lugosi in full vampire attire. Again, it is simple but effective. The movie is rather dark in many scenes, especially in the early going when the film follows Renfield in Dracula’s castle. The filmmakers concocted fantastic set design and props to make the locale as eerie as possible and several of the shots highlighting just how spooky and surreal the place is are very solid. Whenever Dracula’s many ‘brides’ make an appearance, they are quite ghostly, all dressed in white and seemingly giving off a bizarre, uninviting pale glow. Lighting, makeup and clever cinematography make many of Dracula‘s pivotal scenes sublime.
Dracula, for the wrong reasons, falls into the same camp as the original Rambo film, First Blood. Some of its most critical elements have been parodied so profusely throughout the years that the actual film which inspired the imitators and jokes is taken for granted as silly. Also very much like First Blood, the film is genuinely interesting to finally discover for those who never have. Lugosi certainly owns the role and the film’s visuals, despite being quite dated, are part of its strengths. Mood and tone matter more than story and character development, which may disappoint some, but nothing is perfect.