Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Dracula (1931)
Welcome at long last, to the first annual Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon. All of October, we are looking at many classic horror movies ranging from the 1930’s to even today. Its 31 days of horror classics and some cult classics on the side. Consider this a personal “Horror Movie Guide” for the perfect scary flick to view for the Halloween season. On the side, I’ll also toss in a film franchise or two and even look at a few remakes as well. So enough dwelling, lets get started with the one that started it all.
Almost everyone is aware of the original 1931 version of Dracula. Regardless if you have seen it or heard of it, this is the one that normally comes to mind when someone thinks of the Bram Stoker classic about a vampire set out in London to find a couple of fresh victims and falls in love at the same time. A basic story that has been adapted countless times but this is the one most people tend to remember the most. So the big question is why is that when we got the Hammer version and Coppola’s notorious take?
Directed by Todd Browning of countless and famed silent films, he brings a dark, eerie and grand scale to this take sets that feel like they are taken from an opera that complement the quiet yet chilling atmosphere. Even though they are in the first third, the sets of Dracula’s castle are very impressive even for a 1930’s film that it nearly undermines the rest of the film. For the rest of the movie, we spend time in the Harker household and nothing else on a grand scale as earlier with the exception of the climax.
Thus, if the visuals are not strong, what is? The answer of course is the acting. Bela Lugosi as Dracula is the film’s strongest asset here. Everyone very much is aware of how iconic this portrayal is. The thick Hungarian accent that feels welcoming but yet sinister. The way he moves in a ghost-like by balletic way. The commanding power in his eyes that makes you feel like your being hypnotized. This is what keeps this take on the Count from being swept under with the others. Bela is no stranger to the role as he has done the part of the Count before on a Broadway show and it shows. He knows every step in being charming while carrying a menace.
The other actors do a good job as well. Dwight Frye nearly one-ups Bela with his performance of Renfield, a servant of the Count who goes insane and is reduced from a business man to a man serving evil while being rewarded with insects. He goes beyond crazy with a manic expression, wide eyes and a laugh that is neither too over-the-top or soft to be creepy. Dwight is the total opposite of Lugosi who is calm and quiet as Dracula. The best remembered moment has to be his soliloquy about being offered to serve his “Master” with rats to dine on in return. The way he gets excited when he mentions the word “rats” really sends a chill imaging how hungry he is for rodent.
Edward Van Sloan’s take on Van Helsing is also notable in its own right. You can tell he knows so much about the occult and supernatural that he is prepared for what’s coming. You can tell from the way he studies the vampire guest that he knows all the myths and legends to prove just how more of a monster he is. This man is truly determined even the point of putting his life on the line in a famous scene where he comes face to face with the villainous Count but yet the Transylvanian is defeated with a simple cross.
The only negative I can think of it is the depiction of Mina and John Harker. David Manners and Helen Chandler do a decent job as the love interests but nothing really stands out about the two. Perhaps seeing how much attention is focused on the antagonist, crazy lunatic and resourceful professor so much that we feel more adjusted to them and less of our two love leads. I do want to see Mina be cured from Dracula’s curse and John have his happy ending but the romantic chemistry between the two doesn’t stand out to me. Its nowhere near the comedic yet charming feel of King Kong’s Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot and far from feeling tried and cliched. It just has a standard feeling to it that doesn’t feel like there is much in peril.
Overall, Dracula may not be strong in the storytelling department but what sets it apart is the performances. There’s an overall quiet feel to the movie that works when we see the Count’s catacombs but at times it drags in spots. Its a slow paced movie that is strong in atmosphere and acting that a strong narrative. I can probably point my finger onto the fact that this “adaption” has more than one source in play. True, it is loosely based from the novel but its blueprints came from a stage play that was Americanized in 1927 for Broadway. It almost feels like your watching a recorded stage performance considering the way the actors are placed and the open living room of Mina’s house and Dracula’s dinning room feels almost like it was built for a stage performance. And to top it off, some of the screenwriters took influence from the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu, so there is a lot plugging in here behind this film that doesn’t go credited.
I find it more strange hearing that this movie was marketed as a romance film and yet had some implications of horror in the poster or none at all. Its ironic seeing it did come out Valentine’s Day nationwide and yet on its premier two days before, there was some nervous tension as reports of fainting viewers at the Roxy Theater in New York were being spread. Still Dracula proved to be a huge gamble and it payed off well. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Count, we wouldn’t have other Universal Monster Classics like Frankenstein or the Wolf Man. Of course, this wasn’t the first thriller placed on the market but this was the first straight up horror movie that had no comic relief of twist ending to ensure the supernatural elements where fake and that is where the scares of the time came in. Thanks to its success, it showed you can do horror with natural supernatural elements and none man-made.
If you are curious to see this movie, I highly recommend checking it out. Not just to see where it all started or how important it is in horror history, but because this is a good movie overall. Sure it can be slow in the pacing but seeing it was made when talkies were making a rough transition, exceptions can be made. The silence almost settles in the eerie dark tone and add that with Bela’s haunting delivery and you have one truly memorable picture.
Now, I should address that there exists a couple of different versions of this film for those curious. Originally, Dracula premiered at a length of 85 minutes but later was re-edited in 1936 when the Production Code was being enforced. Many horror movies at this time where being forced to be chopped down or censored to accommodate for certain things they couldn’t allow. Currently, the film runs at 75 minutes with no news on what was cut in terms of major scenes. However, there were two bits of sound that were muted in the 1936 reissued that included Renfield’s screaming as he was being strangled and Dracula’s death groans that were thankfully restored for home video. This “restored” cut with the re-instated sounds is what exists today. And on a stranger tidbit, the 2004 Legacy Collection set has these “infamous sounds” muted but can be heard when selecting different audio options. Talk about a weird DVD Easter Egg.
In 1998, Dracula was give a new score by Philip Glass and conducted by the Kronos Quartet. This version was the first one I saw and I honestly wish it wasn’t. The original was absent of a film score save for two bits of “Swan Lake” music in the opening credits. On its own, the Philip Glass score is interesting to listen to but not as part of the movie. The quiet atmosphere added a unique eerie element to the film and now it was being overpowered by loud violin strings. There are moments when the music fits like when we see Dracula for the first time but then there are moments when it either doesn’t fit the mood or dominates the delivery of one’s lines. It doesn’t even take a break and keeps scoring scenes that feel like they have no intention to have music and thus things like Dracula seducing Lucy or the first carriage scene loose impact. Not a bad score but I still recommend watching the movie without it first.
Lastly, there also exists a Spanish-language version but its talk here is very crucial. Its not really a foreign-language dub but more of “on the set” remake. Back then, it was common for studios to have a crew film a foriegn-language versions on the spot with the same sets and costumes. The day would be reserved for the American crew and the other crew would film their version at night. As it turns out, the crew working on the Spanish version had access to see dailies of the Lugosi version in plans to “top” it. As a result, we got a version of Dracula that was sleeker and even “sexier.” Ok, the dress for the Mia and Lucy characters were more “revealing” exposing some cleavage but you probably get the idea.
Surprisingly, I had the opportunity to view this version in preparation of this blog-a-thon and I have to admit, its marginally superior. The camera angles and the lighting are a vast improvement while also extending the running time for more character development. For example, when we see Dracula for the first time in the Lugosi version, its a simple static shot of him walking down the steps. In the Spanish version, the camera dollies into him up the steps giving more dramatic tension. There’s even some extra shots that make clear of Helsing testing the mirror trick in the Spanish cut while in the Lugosi version, we get the idea but its not clear enough.
The performances are also appropriate for this version with Carlos Villarías’ Dracula being creepy and intense with his wide-eyed stare and Pablo Alvarez Rubio’s Renfield also a delight with his over-the-top manic expression and crazy performance. They both bring the best out of their characters as everyone else has a different take to separate it from the Lugosi version. Its funny seeing both versions share the same script but are executed differently. Even there’s more violence in the final act that I’m sure censors of 1931 wouldn’t allow and elements like vampire Lucy killing kids by offering candy (that is mentioned off-screen via newspaper) that wouldn’t even be used back then. While the original Dracula is highly iconic and memorable, this one is to but in its own right. Blu-Ray purists will be happy to know it has been beautifully restored with the exception of a damaged Reel 2 print cleaned up as good as possible.
To think the monster craze really started with this horror classic even after the run of the silent era with Phantom of the Opera or London After Midnight. It was probably the first horror talkie of its kind to break new ground that no other would do. By bringing the fantasy elements to a real state without the “its a dream” twist really was new in those days and made viewers question just how realistic can a movie like Dracula be. Perhaps it’s best said from the film’s original epilogue (that is unfortunately missing and can be partly seen on the DVD’s documentary) when Edward Van Sloan first stepped out from the curtain telling the audience that if they were to walk on home and find themselves alone in the dark, just remember “there really are such things as … Vampires!”
Posted on October 1, 2014, in Horror-Wood 2014 and tagged 1931, Bela Lugosi, Blog-a-thon, Bram Stoker, Classic, Dracula, Dwight Frye, Halloween, Horror, Universal, Universal Studios Monsters, Vampires, Van Helsing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.