Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Dracula (1931)

I’ve seen Universal’s 1931 Dracula quite a few times and it’s never impressed me but since I now own it on Blu-Ray I thought I’d give it another try.

Of course the biggest single problem with this movie is that it was so influential and has been imitated, quoted, homaged and parodied so many times. Everything about the movie became a horror movie cliché. What you have to keep always in mind is that in 1931 these were not clichés. At the time of its release this film was new, fresh and exciting. While Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu was the first vampire movie for the vast majority of viewers in 1931 the Universal Dracula would have been their first exposure to the vampire film. In its day it had genuine shock value. It was not just the horror content but also the sexual implications. Dracula’s victims are almost all female and there is a very strong element of seduction in his hunting of his victims.

While Bram Stoker’s novel was well known and the stage adaptation had been very successful it’s also fair to say that most of the plot elements that are now so very familiar would have been new to most of the movie’s initial audience.

Dracula also marked the first appearance of the Universal gothic aesthetic. While that aesthetic would itself become something of a cliché there’s no question that in 1931 this movie must have been an extraordinary visual experience.

So in order to have any chance of appreciating this movie you have to try to forget all those imitations and parodies and just judge it on its own merits.

This naturally also applies to Bela Lugosi’s performance.

This at least is what I tried to do this time and it did help, to some extent at least.

The first twenty minutes is in my view as good as anything you’ll see in any gothic horror movie. We’re told what we need to know in very economical fashion but mostly the focus is  on building the atmosphere. Which is accomplished with outstanding success. There are just so many superb visual moments in this early part of the film. The first scene in the crypt below Dracula’s castle, the first glimpse of an undead hand opening a coffin lid, the celebrated scene on the staircase when Renfield first encounters the Count, the wonderfully eerie scenes with the three brides of Dracula - all absolutely superb.

After the first twenty minutes the scene shifts from Transylvania to England and the movie starts to lose impetus. There are not quite so many opportunities for visual pyrotechnics and upper-class English drawing rooms just aren’t as wonderfully spooky as medieval Transylvanian castles. There are still some very striking images but as the movie relies increasingly on dialogue rather than mood it becomes much less interesting.

There is a school of thought that the strengths of this movie are due to brilliant cinematographer Karl Freund while its weaknesses are the responsibility of director Tod Browning. That might be going too far but certainly the visuals are consistently superior to the story-telling. In fact there are accounts of the making of the movie that suggest that Browning had little interest in proceedings. That would certainly explain the fact that the movie loses direction halfway through and never quite gets back on track.

Lugosi almost single-handedly created our idea of the film vampire - aristocratic, cultured, exotic and very theatrical. The cape, the middle European accent, the piercing stare, pretty much all the stereotypical vampire characteristic go back to Lugosi. In Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu (an unauthorised adaptation of Stoker’s novel) Max Schreck makes the vampire bestial and rather disgusting. It’s a powerful performance in its own way but Scheck’s vampire is a mere monster. In literature there had certainly been aristocratic vampires but it was Lugosi who made the cinematic vampire a gentleman (albeit a slightly creepy gentleman). The many parodies of Lugosi’s performance have made it seem almost ridiculous but that’s perhaps a little unfair. Lugosi would certainly go on to give much better performances (in movies like White Zombie, The Black Cat and The Raven).

The early part of Dracula is very cinematic. Once the Count arrives in England though it becomes more and more simply a filmed stage production, and the performances (including Lugosi’s) become more stagey and much less effective. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing gives a performance that is both overly melodramatic and rather dull. Dwight Frye is certainly memorable as Renfield although again it’s essentially a silent movie performance.

Although I’m inclined to judge it less harshly than in the past overall Browning’s Dracula is still a bit of a disappointment, particularly since the essential ingredients were there for a great horror film, most notably the superb Universal gothic aesthetic and Lugosi as the Count.

Universal’s Blu-Ray release looks very good although the menus are unbelievably aggravating. There are plenty of extras - a couple of documentaries and an audio commentary by David Skal. The most exciting extra though is the Spanish-language Drácula, shot at the same time as the English version. It’s interesting enough to be worth its own post which will follow shortly.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

I think one of the cool moments I didn't catch until much older was that while leading Renfield up the staircase, Dracula vaporates through the spider webs that block the way up. Very cool moment.