Nov 12, 2013

Dracula (1931)
Director: Tod Browning
Writers: Garrett Fort
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan

The Plot: Dracula tells the story of, you guessed it, Count Dracula (as played by Bela Lugosi). When our film begins, we see as he meets up with Renfield (Dwight Frye), a solicitor looking to speak with the Count. Unknown to Renfield, Count Dracula is indeed the most powerful vampire that exists. Renfield soon finds himself living as a servant to Dracula who craves the lives of insects. This duo travels from Dracula’s home in Transylvania to England, where Dracula takes home near the sanatorium Carfax Abbey, which is ran by the brilliant Dr. Seward. Dracula makes his presence known after introducing himself to Dr. Seward while they are both at the theater, and it is here where Dr. Seward’s daughter, Mina, catches the eye of Count Dracula. Soon, Mina, her father, and the knowledgeable Professor Van Helsing will be at war with the nefarious Count, but will good manage to strive in the face of such incomparable forces of evil?

The Review
Approaching Dracula for an objective review might actually be impossible for someone my age. Although I am sure those who are older than me might have run into more Dracula-fever in their youth than I, but as a kid of the 80s, Dracula was everywhere. Not just the character Dracula from Bram Stoker’s original novel, but specifically the famous character portrayed by Bela Lugosi here in the 1931 adaptation of the story. Nearly everything about the movie was spoofed or referenced through television in my childhood. From cartoons to sitcoms, the movie was so familiar to me before having seen it that I could actually predict lines of dialogue upon my first viewing of the movie. With this sort of cultural familiarity, it can be difficult to judge the movie on its own merits rather than appraising it from a vantage-point that sees everything that came afterward. One must take into consideration everything that surrounds the movie. Being an early talkie, motion picture acting was just beginning to distinguish itself from theater. Not only that, but this is a feature made not even two decades away from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. While M. from director Fritz Lang. was directed in the same year, and is a much more impressive film due to its masterful narrative, Dracula is equally as impressive for its contributions to the horror genre in general.

In recent years, most film critics have turned to the Spanish language version of Dracula when seeking a version of this story to laud with praise, but the English-language Dracula still stands out as the motion picture with the broadest appeal for U.S. culture. What I have seen of the Spanish-language version of the film, it does look quite spectacular. With a darker tone and more impressive camerawork, the filmmakers certainly seemed as if they were trying to outdo Browning’s creation. Indeed, they likely were, as the filmmakers behind the Spanish version were given the option to look at the dailies for the English language version as the movie was being made. This gave them the option of improving upon what had already been shot. Still, Browning’s feature does look fairly spectacular on its own, especially when the film mixes in some of the beautiful matte paintings that flesh out the backgrounds. During the European sequence within the film, we get to see Browning at his most creative. Count Dracula’s castle, in particular, stands out as the single best set in the movie, and it seems a shame that the story had to leave it behind.

Browning’s version of this story follows Bram Stoker’s book relatively close. Every film adaptation of Stoker’s book differentiates from the source material a great deal, so that is to be expected. The original story was told mainly through journal entries and news stories and being honest, it makes for a relatively dry read. Browning’s story introduces all of the right characters, even if it switches around their importance, and gets the main focus of the plot right. Ultimately the movie focuses on Dracula, Mina, and Van Helsing. While the wheel isn’t reinvented with this adaptation, the story remains strong, and the film does a nice job of developing the characters as well as the tension behind this familiar story. If anything, this particular version of the Dracula mythos is only hindered by its own popularity. Most viewers, like myself, are already so well aware of the beats of this story that they might actually have trouble being as involved in the story as its original audience was. However, this is hardly a fault of the movie.

As is often the case, the character of Renfield manages to steal the show. Played by Dwight Frye, he gives the character of Renfield a sense of naivete at the beginning of the film, but once madness takes hold, the character becomes infinitely more interesting. Frye takes the character completely over-the-top and manages to steal the show with his vibrant eyes and his willingness to be absolutely creepy. It is interesting to see a character who, in the original novel, was little more than a speed bump within the story, but in this adaptation becomes a fleshed out character who dominates a great deal of screen time. Although occasionally played for laughs in other versions of this story, Renfield is very dark in this original telling of the story, and it is mostly due to Frye’s performance. The rest of the cast are all well suited for their roles, but Lugosi is obviously the star of this motion picture. Lugosi, too, took his role into some fairly outrageous areas, but for modern audiences it is easy to overlook what he contributes to the role. The character he develops has become so ingrained into the mind of horror fans that it has become an archetype, but Lugosi uses his eyes and his charm in order to craft a character that is as menacing as he is charismatic.

The Conclusion
There’s no doubt that Browning’s Dracula is a classic. If any film ever defined the term, this would be it. So, why am I giving it a four instead of a five? Because, despite its impact and the way that it has aged with such grace, this is still a relatively clear adaptation that occasionally takes on the pacing of the book. While I would say that it is a bit more entertaining the Bram Stoker’s original novel, as it takes considerably less time in its narrative movement, sometimes the pacing begins to drag. This is a petty complaint, ultimately, but it is something that stayed in my mind during this rewatch of the film. Still, it’s required viewing for all horror movie film fans!

You might also be interested in: