Dracula: Nine Decades Later
Todd Browning’s 1931 adaptation of the classic Bram Stoker novel remains the culturally definitive version of the work, though it is hampered by several flaws.
Count Dracula is undoubtedly one of the most famous fictional characters of all time. Even if one has never seen a Dracula film or read Bram Stoker’s classic novel, anyone with even the most cursory understanding of popular culture will be familiar with him as well as the semiotics and iconography he is commonly associated with (bats, dilapidated castles, dark and stormy nights etc). This is due in no small part to the fact that the character is in the public domain, meaning that anyone can create a work based on the original novel or use the character in their own story without having to worry about any legal ramifications. This means that there have been and are currently innumerable iterations of the character from all over the world, with him appearing in countless books, movies, series, comics as well as in countless parodies and spoofs of the original story. He has been interpreted and portrayed in a variety of different ways and has been played by numerous different actors, including Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman.
However, when most think of Dracula, their minds immediately jump to a specific interpretation of the character. They think of a dapper, dignified figure with a flair for the dramatic. They think of a long flowing black cape and a thick Romanian accent which has become the subject of many a terrible impersonation over the years (“I vant to suck your bloooood”). This immortal interpretation of the character is the one first brought to life by the legendary Bela Lugosi, who played the Count 90 years ago in Dracula (1931). This film may well be the culturally definitive version of the story, as even those who haven’t seen it are at the very least familiar with its imagery and dialogue. As such, it is a classic, and for good reason, but it’s nevertheless a deeply flawed film that doesn’t stand the test of time in the same way other Universal monster films of the era like Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933) do.
The film was directed by Todd Browning, who would go on to direct the controversial Freaks (1932) the very next year, and lensed by legendary German cinematographer Karl Freund, who worked on Weimar-era classics such as Metropolis (1927) and The Golem (1920). The two showcase their respective talents to a remarkable extent, as the film remains an absolute visual treat in its best moments. This is especially true of the exterior shots, painterly in nature and shrouded in thick, palpable fog. It’s the sort of imagery that captures the imagination and evokes the specific cold, eerie atmosphere traditional Gothic horror is typically known for. This is especially true of the film’s first twenty minutes, which sees the ill-fated English solicitor Renfield travel through rural Transylvania in order to meet and discuss business with Count Dracula. Treacherous, rocky terrains, dead trees and hilltop castles serve to create a sense of impending doom only further reinforced by the now-iconic scene in which he encounters several wary locals who warn him against venturing into Dracula’s castle. It’s a moment so ingrained in the popular consciousness that numerous horror books and films have their own variation on this scene, in which a naïve protagonist is warned of a regional danger by those familiar with it, only for them to brush it off at their own peril. While there may well be earlier stories to have utilized this trope, none are more culturally ubiquitous than its usage here. After this transpires and Renfield manages to find his way into the castle, the film’s most iconic moments and imagery present themselves.
The interior of the castle is a marvel of production design, courtesy of John Hoffman and Herman Rosse. And Freund’s cinematography complements in beautifully, with the rich shadows that hearken back to German Expressionism working in hauntingly cohesive tandem with the rundown, battered walls of the castle. It’s quintessentially Gothic imagery, complete with cobwebs and a large stone staircase. And this is the location in which the titular character is introduced in earnest. And what an introduction. Bela Lugosi’s take on the character is entirely deserving of its status as the most culturally ubiquitous version of Dracula, and he is simply mesmerizing. He’s unnerving in his eccentricity while remaining effortlessly charming, with his physicality being all at once suggestive of a man who is at ease with himself and the world around him while nevertheless remaining an imposing presence. While he’s not as outwardly menacing as Christopher Lee’s similarly beloved performance from The Horror of Dracula (1958), there is a sense of clear danger and volatility present behind Lugosi’s eyes. It’s natural that he managed to embody the Count as expertly as he did, since he had already portrayed the character on stage for two years and, even after his career in Hollywood peaked, he would still return to the stage to portray the character who made him famous. Much in the same way Sean Connery and Arnold Schwarzenegger made what would otherwise be throwaway lines like “the name’s Bond, James Bond” and “I’ll be back” as iconic as they are, it’s a testament to Lugosi’s strength as an actor that the delivery of “I bid you welcome” is as quotable and memorable as it is.
The rest of the scenes set within Dracula’s castle, which comprise the rest of the first act of the film, all contain their fair share of great, effective and memorable moments. The most notable of these is arguably the one in which Renfield is seated at Dracula’s table for dinner. He nicks his finger, causing it to bleed. This is followed by what is easily one of the film’s best shots, as the camera tracks into a close-up of Lugosi’s face as he stares transfixed, yearning for a taste. This is shortly followed by the haunting sequence in which Dracula feeds on Renfield in a detached and dispassionate wide shot. In an amusingly baffling bit of trivia, the producers wanted Dracula’s three wives to be the ones to do so, since they felt that Dracula drinking the blood of another man would put his heterosexuality into question. However, Browning wanted to establish the Count as a palpable threat as soon as possible, so he insisted that it be Dracula. Regardless, the first twenty or so minutes of the film perfectly exemplify why it is one of the most culturally significant horror films ever made as well as encapsulate why the moody, atmospheric and thoughtful direction that is consistent through most of the Universal horror films of the era remains so effective.
However, the rest of the film does not hold up to scrutiny as well and is significantly less entertaining. While it does feature a few great moments, it’s entirely fair to say that the film loses much of its momentum and atmosphere. It becomes significantly less cinematic, at least for the most part, with much of it taking place within fairly uninspired interiors. Its direction becomes stagier and it feels quite stiff and languid as a result, with the blocking of actors feeling stilted and thoughtless while the camera remains static in sequences where more dynamic and creative editing and cinematography would have been more effective. It’s easy to attribute these flaws to it being an early sound film, but the fact of the matter is that far superior films were being made that still remain engaging today. In the same year, Universal also released Frankenstein (1931). Directed by the legendary James Whale, it remains a consistently impressive watch. While a lot of it is cinematically rudimentary, there’s a clear level of thought and care put into the blocking, staging and framing. It all serves to create an expressive, dynamic and enthralling experience that makes Dracula feel limp and inert by comparison.
This is all only compounded by an anticlimactic ending. While it does take place in a dilapidated crypt with a winding staircase that serves as one of the film’s best and most intricately crafted sets, and features Dwight Frye at his delightfully unhinged best during the brainwashed Renfield’s death scene, it nevertheless feels rushed and lacks the tension and weight one would have expected. The film ends with Dr. Van Helsing (played wonderfully by Edward Van Sloan) driving a steak through Dracula’s heart (offscreen of course, in order to avoid incurring the wrath of the censors). This breaks Dracula’s hold over leading lady Mina Harker, who walks off with her hubby Jonathan before a Universal title card comes up signifying the end. If it were paced, blocked and editing with a level of tension and gravitas in mind, it could most certainly have worked, but it’s executed in a manner that’s uncharacteristically curt, blunt and impersonal. While the original release saw it give way to an epilogue in which Van Helsing addresses the audience, telling them that vampires are, in fact, real and to be afraid. The scene was removed for a 1936 re-release, with the studio fearing that it would encourage belief in the supernatural. While the scene hasn’t been lost to time, it is damaged to the point of being unusable, hence its absence from official restorations of the film.
While I have given Dracula a lot of flak for its shortcomings, it is nevertheless an impressive piece of work that features some impressively evocative filmmaking (albeit mostly confined to its first act) and some thoroughly enjoyable supporting performances. Even if it weren’t for these, the film would absolutely remain worth watching due to Lugosi alone, who delivers what may well be the most iconic horror performance of all time. It’s a classic, warts and all, and one that remains an immortal interpretation of a classic tale nine decades after its initial release.