Directed by Tod Browning
Starring Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye & Edward Van Sloan
Classic Film Review by Joseph Banham
It's October. Dead leaves are being whisked across the ground, there's a cold chill in the air and the bright sun is gradually dwindling away, leading us into the dark winter days. What better time than the month of Halloween to brush up on your horror classics? This week I will be taking a look at a staple of the genre whose eponymous villain has become synonymous with horror: Dracula (1931)
Universal Studios were known for producing all of the classic monster movies, including Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and Phantom of the Opera (1925). Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, is one of the most celebrated of this black-and-white era, largely thanks to an iconic performance by Bela Lugosi.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel that has been adapted many times onto screen, and whilst some interpretations take great liberties with the source material, the basic story has become embedded in viewers’ minds across the globe. All the same, here is a quick recap. A solicitor, Renfield (Dwight Frye), is summoned to visit the castle of Count Dracula in misty Transylvania in order to discuss the Count’s purchase of property in London. It soon becomes apparent that Dracula is not one of the solicitor’s ordinary clients, and after a creepy overnight stay transforms the ill-fated Renfield into the Count’s demented lackey with an appetite favouring arachnids, the two of them set sail for London with Dracula intending to sink his teeth into some new blood.
When modern horror fans sit down to watch an old antiquated film such as this, there is the assumption that it simply isn’t going to be very scary; advances in technology and desensitisation of the masses has lead to old films being viewed as comparatively tame to today’s gory fare- something on the same level as a cardboard cutout skeleton popping out at you on a rusty old ghost train. Dracula does admittedly adhere to this prejudice, but still remains enjoyable. The film emanates a slightly portentous tone, on the verge of plunging into pure melodramatic silliness. From the outset, the acting is hammed up to the nth degree, as the panic-stricken local villagers try and warn off Renfield from going to the castle (Renfield, of course, blissfully ignores them, because business is business.) The exaggerated theatrical acting is representative of a film industry that was transitioning from the silent era, in which the actor was required to use emphasised expressions and physicality to clearly communicate the story, into new ‘talkies’. The film also shows its age in some of its practical effects, which consist of rubber bats on strings, sure to evoke laughs from a modern audience. Then again, that really is part of the charm in watching an old-fashioned film such as this, not to be frightened but to simply take delight in all of the endearing cheesiness.
The film does manage to create some genuinely chilling moments nevertheless, mainly through some brilliant compositions. As Renfield goes to meet the coach driver who is to take him up the precipitous path to the castle, he is greeted by a formidable face (whom the audience recognises as Dracula in disguise). The close-up of the Count’s half-covered face brings all the focus to his eyes with a streak of bright white light, illuminating them in an otherwise murky frame. This results in a truly foreboding appearance where the vampire’s eyes pierce through the frame and strike the viewer like baleful bolts of lightning. It is the main image that I remember whenever I think of the film, and sets up a recurring visual motif for whenever Dracula is in close-up.
The set of Dracula's castle is simply magnificent. The beautifully constructed set design is joyfully exultant of the golden age of Hollywood, where the fantastical environments were completely unaided by any CGI embellishments. Browning shows off its grand scale with many lingering wide shots, but also brings us in closer, revelling in every eerie detail from the swathes of cobwebs to the gothic architecture. It is the film's most engaging setting and I really wish that more time was spent in it, dedicating more of the story to the tension of Dracula slowly ensnaring the still-sane Renfield in his grasp. Part of the reason that this is not the case is because in this telling, Renfield is the solicitor, not the heroic Jonathan Harker as is in the original novel and many other adaptations. The filmmakers, more than likely, didn't want to place the audience in the point of view of a character who eventually amounts to being the antagonist's subordinate. Why the change was made in the first place I'm not quite sure, and I feel it makes a much more satisfying story to have Harker introduced as the protagonist from the start. The Harker in this version, played by David Manners, hardly registers in the mind at all. He is introduced at about 30 minutes in and is simply there to fill the heroic male archetype in the blandest way possible. Thankfully, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) gets a much better treatment as the Count’s shrewd adversary.
In the end, however, it is not Harker or Van Helsing that viewers really care about. The performance that matters, and by which each adaptation is ultimately measured by, is that of the titular vampire. Bela Lugosi gives perhaps one of the most famed portrayals of the character to ever exist. Lugosi’s Dracula was the first time that the character was presented as a suave, sophisticated gentlemen, highlighting the sexual undertones between him and his female victims. The Hungarian actor’s smooth accent adds a poetic gracefulness to his lines, successfully striking a balance between seductive charm and menace. This is in stark contrast to the original novel as well as the previous unofficial adaptation Nosferatu (1922), where Dracula (or Count Orlock as he’s referred to in the latter) is conveyed as a spindly, grotesque creature. Lugosi’s interpretation has clearly had a huge cultural impact; many incarnations of the story since have featured the character as a macho predator with strong sex appeal.
The film, like many other monster movies of its ilk, is quite short; barely exceeding 75 minutes, the film storms through the outline of the book, glossing over some key events before you can say Abraham Van Helsing. This unfortunately tarnishes the experience, making it less than satisfying on a visceral level. The biggest victim of this breakneck pacing is the climax, which fails to conjure up any of the thrills you would hope from a showdown with the prince of darkness. A possible reason for such a damp squib of an ending could be due to the studio having to cater to much stricter guidelines with regards to portraying violence and gore on screen, with movie-goers back in the thirties being a lot more sensitive to such material than today. Just look at Tod Browning’s infamous Freaks (1932), released just one year later, which centred around a group of physically deformed carnival performers; the film caused outrage and disgust among critics at the time, and ended up being banned in the UK until 1963.
The music is worthy of a quick mention, or lack thereof. In its original release, the film had no original score whatsoever. The only music featured in it was an extract from Swan Lake during the opening credits as well as some diegetic music in an opera house scene. Due to this, the film feels quite lifeless. Therefore, I would encourage that you watch the 1998 re-release that featured a newly added score by composer Philip Glass, which is available as an alternate version on modern DVD and Blu-ray releases. Glass’s score adds so much to the narrative by accentuating the feeling of fear and dread; the choice of using predominantly string instruments alludes to a feeling of elegance, deftly matching the persona of the Count.
Tod Browning’s Dracula may not completely hold up today. It’s frequently melodramatic, plagued by pacing issues, and after its brilliant first 20 minutes set around Dracula’s castle it becomes disappointingly pedestrian. However, if you’re a fan of the classic era of Hollywood and embrace all things camp and theatrical, the film still provides a burst of fun and insight.