Well, the first 20 minutes or so are really good, then it gets rather stagey.
It’s the movie that saved the floundering Universal Studios. It’s the movie the made a Hungarian actor, who was having difficulty grasping English, a star. It’s the movie that kicked off the Golden Age of Horror films.
Of course, I’m referring to Tod Browning’s 1931 horror classic Dracula.
It wasn’t long after films began to talk when Dracula went into production. There’s plenty of talk and sound effects in the movie, but very little music. In silent films, music was used to help set the tone, mood, and emotional content of the scenes. Music was part of the storytelling. However, as I understand it, in the early days of talkies musical scores were ditched in many films, because producers thought music would be a distraction. It more likely had something to do with the Great Depression and attempting to keep costs down.
So, Dracula does not use a score to enhance the mood and emotions of the story. The film does open with some tone setting music from Tchaikovsky” Swan Lake and closes with a brief bit of music, but for the rest of the film the background is filled with silence. That really works for me in this and in that other horror classic Universal would release later that same year: Frankenstein. To me the background silence of these two monster movies adds to their atmosphere of horror. It’s eerie. And, in the scene in which Dracula (Bela Lugosi) creeps toward a sleeping Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) for a late night nibble, it is so much more chilling in the silence. In 1998, composer Philip Glass put a score to the film. I found his score distracting.
The story begins with a young and ambitious Mr. Renfield, who has traveled to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula in order to finalize the purchase of an old, broken down abbey in the English countryside. Renfield, played brilliantly by Dwight Frye, is unfazed by the dire warnings of the local villagers to not go to Castle Dracula. But go to the castle he does.
He is unceremoniously dropped off at Borgo Pass where he is to be met by a carriage from Dracula’s castle. The carriage is there and has a mysterious and silent driver, who is the Count himself. (I guess he was trying to cut costs on staff. It was the Great Depression, after all.) It took years me to catch onto to the fact that Lugosi played the driver. I guess I’m slow.
Once Renfield arrives at his destination after a harrowing carriage ride, he cautiously enters the run down castle and we get to see a wonderful set. The high ceiling, soaring columns and archways with moonlight streaming in from the glassless windows dwarf the tiny figure of Mr. Renfield. Then we meet him – Count Dracula. There on the steps, he greets the young businessman and leads him to an upper floor of the castle.
Did he just walk through that spiderweb?! And the web is unaffected?!
A more pleasant and inviting room is reached and the business is commenced. Some wine and food are provided to Renfield, but the host refrains from drinking. “I never drink… wine.” (I love that line.)
Without giving away too much, Renfield is… recruited into Dracula’s service and the pair make their way to England aboard a ship called the Vesta. When the ship arrives, the crew is found dead, but Renfield is still alive, but quite out of his mind, providing the creepiest moment of the entire film.
From there the film begins to feel like a stage play. There’s a lot of standing and talking. The camera stays locked in place for most of the film, but there is a wonderful crane shot taking us through the courtyard of the Seward sanatorium, passing patients enjoying a sunny day, and moving into the cell that houses the disturbed Renfield. In the scene, a guard has taken away the spider the poor wretch had intended to eat. But other than that there isn’t much happening with the camera.
But, it was 1931 and the film does create a mood of horror, a creepiness. And it set the standard for the horror films that followed.
The not-so-thrilling climax has Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Jonathan Harker (David Manners) chasing after Dracula to rescue Harker’s fiance Mina Seward (Helen Chandler) and to destroy the vile evil vampire once and for all. The destruction of Dracula takes place off camera, we just hear his gasps as Van Helsing drives a wooden stake through his heart. And while that is happening, we watch Harker run around searching for the missing damsel.
You are probably aware there was a Spanish version made by Universal at the same time the English version was being made. The Spanish version would film at night, using the same sets. And they would watch the dailies of the English version and they would do what they could to improve the scenes. And the Spanish version is a livelier production. Many think the Spanish version is superior. And it is in many ways, but its casting isn’t nearly as good.
One of the casting shortcomings of the Spanish version is the part of Renfield. In the English version, Dwight Frye is brilliant. His Renfield is fantastic. His subdued yet menacing laugh is incredible. I don’t know how he came up with it, but it is so unnerving. In the Spanish version, Pablo Alvarez Rubio decided to portrait his Renfield as way over the top crazy. It’s humorous and entertaining, but Frye’s Renfield feels crazier by not going so big.
And Frye nearly steals the show, but…
Bela Lugosi is perfect as Dracula. He wasn’t the first choice, though. That was Lon Chaney, but Chaney died before production began. Universal still didn’t want Lugosi, who was playing the roll on stage and he was a big hit. They were looking for someone else. Someone more recognizable than Lugosi. However, eventually the studio relented to Lugosi’s constant campaigning and gave him the part. (The fact that Bela agreed to play the role at a much lower rate than Chaney would have been paid also helped.) And as I said, Lugosi was perfect. He set the template and every vampire in film ever since has been compared to his Dracula. In the Spanish version, Carlos Villairas’s Dracula just doesn’t come close.
I’ve heard the reason Dracula was so stagey and not as dynamic as later horror films may have been that the director wasn’t really interested in the production. It was said that Tod Browning had checked out. That seems possible to me. I mean, when it came to filming the climax, I can imagine the actor David Manners asking the director what he was to do in the scene. Browning may have responded, “Oh, I don’t know. Run around and call out Mina a bunch of times.”
And he did. He ran around calling out his fiance’s name. Over and over. Over and over. So many times. How many times?
20. I counted.
The film may be 90 years old and more like the stage play it was based on, it’s still a classic. And I love it.
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