Dracula (1931) Director: Tod Browning
“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”
After the unfortunate passing of Lon Chaney, Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi was chosen to star in Universal’s newest picture, a risky horror film under the direction of Tod Browning called Dracula. It was an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel of the same name which was then running as a popular theatrical play (also starring Bela Lugosi). In the film, Bela Lugosi offers a seminal performance which has forever entered the public consciousness as the legendary bloodthirsty vampire. His intensely pale stone-face looms large over the movie. This was actually the film that launched the Universal Studios classic horror craze –the “creature features”– with successive films including Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Today, we look back on a film like Dracula as being “so bad it’s good” however, as much as I loved Bela Lugosi’s performance, this film is clunky and awkward at times (the scenes of the storm-wrecked ship were even lazily lifted from another film). The entire mid-section of the film is a bit stilted and drab, despite the wonderfully atmospheric opening. With cheap, cost-cutting measures replete throughout the production, Dracula is also an homage to its silent predecessor, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors by F.W. Murnau. However, in contrast to the legal issues facing Nosferatu, Carl Laemmle Jr. made sure to acquire the rights to the story before producing this film. In fact, Dracula was a big risk for Carl Laemmle Jr. as he took over control of the family company, Universal Pictures. Dracula still manages to haunt and delight audiences in certain respects and it certainly is a film worth seeing, mainly for Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance, a performance he later regretted for typecasting him. The extreme close-ups of Bela Lugosi’s face are the stuff of cinematic legend.
In Dracula, we experience a cold, elemental fear of the outsider –Count Dracula represents a polite foreign aristocratic predator who is found calmly hiding in plain sight, profaning the sacred, corrupting the innocent, and preying upon unsuspecting citizens. The overt eroticism of his neck-biting predates the Hay’s Code, and unlike the hideous monstrosities of modern science which result in stories like Frankenstein, Dracula points us toward something more natural, primordial, and darkly evil. In this way, not unlike Greek tragedy, classic horror movies remind us of the inherent chaos and unpredictability of life.
The film begins as a carriage full of travelers races through the Borgo Pass in Transylvania to arrive at a remote Inn before sundown. The Borgo Pass is a craggy mountainous pass littered with stone castles. The locals describe a deep fear of evil happenings here –Walpurgis Night– where an ancient Nosferatu lurks after sundown. One traveler, Renfield (Dwight Frye), is unafraid of the dark and he commissions his driver to take him further up to Count Dracula’s castle, despite the creeping of nighttime, because he says he has important business to transact with the Count. One of the villagers hands Renfield a crucifix for protection. As they approach the castle, we are offered an initial glimpse of the 500 year old Dracula emerging from his coffin along with his three undead brides. Suddenly Dracula, himself, appears before the coachman as the buggy arrives at the castle, Renfield sticks his head out the window of the carriage to find that no one is driving, but rather a bat is merely leading the way.
“There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
When he enters the hazy, creaking, shadowy, cob-webbed castle, Renfield is greeted by a tuxedo wearing Dracula who leads him to a bedroom as they discuss the sale of London real estate. Dracula drugs Renfield with “very old wine,” before Dracula and his wives close in on the body to harvest his blood. Days later, Renfield and his “master” Dracula are aboard the stormy ship called Vesta as they head for London. Mysteriously, the ship enters the harbor with everyone dead, excluding Dracula and Renfield. Dracula remains in his crypt until evening but Renfied is believed to be raving mad by local authorities. Later, Dracula meets a group at the opera house where he preys on women after announcing he has purchased the old dilapidated Carfax Abbey. Meanwhile, Renfield has been moved to the Seward Sanitarium where he feeds on the blood of flies and other small creatures.
“For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Mr. Van Helsing.”
The doctors in London have trouble identifying the cause of the mysterious marks that beginning appearing on peoples’ necks around London, until Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) accurately attributes them to a Nosferatu Vampire. When he first meets Dracula, Van Helsing notices that Dracula does not actually appear in mirrors, which forces Dracula to excuse himself from the room so that he can claim another victim, Mina (Helen Chandler), while Renfield takes a victim of his own, the maid. Dracula takes Mina back to his crypt, but he is followed by Van Helsing and Doctor Harker. Dracula, feeling betrayed, kills Renfield and flees to his coffin. Shortly thereafter, Van Helsing and Harker drive a wooden stake through Dracula’s heart offscreen and they escape with Mina as church bells ring off in the distance.