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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dracula (1931) review


Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing)

Directed by Tod Browning

The Short Version: It may not hold up nearly as well as the later FRANKENSTEIN (1931), but Tod Browning's classic horror film has remained an iconic example of horror cinema due in large part to Bela Lugosi's genre defining interpretation of Count Dracula. The first twenty minutes are truly mesmerizing while the remaining fifty-five sputter with little energy, few notable moments of horror, and no music to enliven things. DRACULA (1931) remains essential viewing if for no other reason than to see the blueprint for the thousands of vampires that have feasted on the fears of moviegoers for decades since.

Renfield, a lawyer residing in Great Britain, travels to Transylvania to procure the signature of Count Dracula for the purchase of Carfax Abbey back in London. Warned by frightened villagers to stay away from the Count's castle, Renfield ultimately becomes a slave to Dracula. Upon arriving by boat at their destination, Dracula sets about vampirizing Lucy Weston and Mina Seward while attracting the attention of Professor Van Helsing. Familiar with legends of vampires, Van Helsing sets out to destroy the Transylvanian Count.

Without doubt the most famous interpretation of Bram Stoker's wildly popular novel is Universal's B/W spooker from famed silent film director Tod Browning. The first horror talkie (as well as the first vampire film shot with sound), Browning's movie often feels like a silent picture, or even a stage play with its exaggerated performances. It benefits from a staggeringly surreal atmosphere that's most noticeable, and successfully implemented during the films first 20 minutes. The remainder of the movie rarely captures, nor is it able to maintain this macabre momentum. 

James Whale's  FRANKENSTEIN (1931) released ten months later is far more consistent, but it's worth mentioning that DRACULA was influential on it just the same. It retained some of DRACULA's cast members such as Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye -- the latter of which played a similar character with the same amount of bug-eyed, insane reverence.

The influence of Browning's groundbreaker is unmistakable some 80 years later. There had been a 1922 German production, the silent classic NOSFERATU, that used Stoker's novel as inspiration. While Murnau's movie is deserving of its critical accolades, Browning's 1931 version has since become the benchmark for vampire cinema; and much of the adulation is due to its star, Bela Lugosi.

Lugosi set the template for the hundreds of cinematic vampires that have followed since. He gets a bit too theatrical at times, and often breaks up his lines with occasional pauses in his delivery. His mannerisms are memorable, if overdone looking at it now. Again, his best moments are during the first 20 minutes with only sporadic instances of menace from there on out. His entrance is still immensely imposing as is his first utterance of "I bid you welcome." 

The Hungarian film star became synonymous with this role, and more in a similar vein followed -- testifying to DRACULA's speedy penetration into American iconography. While his vampiric interpretation lasted decades, Lugosi's career did not. Roles of prestige for the actor rapidly declined by the dawn of the 1940s. At that point, he was relegated to supporting roles for pictures that seemed more interested in using his countenance for marquee value as opposed to his acting ability. His occasional co-star Boris Karloff saw his star maintain its brightness. In contrast, Lugosi's dimmed, ending his career toiling in low-end comedy spookers and Ed Wood movies.

Regardless of the rocky avenue his career eventually veered onto, the esteemed actor headlined and co-starred in a nice smattering of 30s horror thrillers that are signature of Lugosi's talents. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and WHITE ZOMBIE (all 1932), THE BLACK CAT (1934), THE RAVEN, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (both 1935), THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) are among the man's best works.

Lugosi wasn't the only actor who left a lasting impression in this movie. American actor Dwight Frye did for homicidal servants what Bela did for the undead. Frye's mannerisms and line delivery are unforgettable. His wild-eyed visage and preoccupation with rodents and insects are among the films highlights. By the midway point, Frye's Renfield balances out the occasional absence of Dracula which serves to keep the film from plodding for too long. Frye is notable for appearing in four major horror films of the Golden Age -- these being DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

Regarding Dracula's popularity, the film received a sequel in 1936 that aborted the return of Lugosi's iconic bloodsucker, but instead focused on DRACULA'S DAUGHTER. In 1943, the character was resurrected once again with SON OF DRACULA. Lon Chaney Jr. took up the role that is never quite clear if it's Dracula or his son. At any rate, Chaney's performance lacks bite although the special effects are very well done. Other Dracula movies followed of varying quality; most in name only in their relation to Universal's original. 

A Spanish version of DRACULA from 1931 was shot on the same sets as Browning's movie, but at night. This version is often referred to as being superior to the American production. Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy interpreted Dracula in the silly, but sexy and heavily atmospheric COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE (1972). Mexico did their own version of the legend with the excellent, Universal style infused THE VAMPIRE (1957). Toho of Japan even got in on the act with LAKE OF DRACULA (1971) and EVIL OF DRACULA (1975). 

The most famous of course, is Christopher Lee's massively popular rendition of Stoker's phenomenally popular vampire in Britain's HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Lee went on to play the character six more times for Hammer Films in movies that increasingly featured very little Dracula who was reduced to a bit player in his own movie. Lee also played the role again under the aegis of Jess Franco in the anemic COUNT DRACULA (1970).

1979 saw a comedy version of Dracula that featured a myriad number of iconography laid down by Tod Browning's picture with the release of AIP's hilarious LOVE AT FIRST BITE.  In that film, George Hamilton played Dracula and Arte Johnson expertly essayed Dwight Frye's Renfield.

The 1931 film was remade in 1992 from Francis Ford Coppola in an overblown, effects heavy production, and again most recently in a laughably bad envisioning of Dracula by famed Italian horror director Dario Argento.

While Lugosi and DRACULA were largely responsible for the innumerable big screen bloodsuckers that entranced audiences for years afterward, director Tod Browning suffered a worse fate than Lugosi ultimately did. After directing the controversial FREAKS (1932), Browning's career was more or less ruined by this dark revenge movie that featured a cast made up of real life freaks. He did two more horror pictures -- one of which was MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), which featured Lugosi in a sort-of remake of Browning's own LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927). The other was THE DEVIL DOLL (1936) about a mad scientist devising a serum to shrink the Earth's population.

Lacking the steady visual intensity of FRANKENSTEIN (1931), DRACULA (1931) runs out of steam before it's even half over. In its favor, Bela Lugosi made horror movie history with an array of mannerisms and indelible dialog. It will always be an important motion picture in the annals of American cinema. It not only started a profitable flood of Universal monster films, but laid the groundwork for the Silver Screen's classic vampire.

This review is representative of the Universal DVD.


Francisco Gonzalez said...

Agree, starts off awesome then it looses steam, the second half is lifeless...but the images presented on the first half of the film are so memorable.

Thanks for the info on all those other versions of Dracula, as you know, I'm doing an all vampire month this Halloween and I am very curious for all the different versions of Dracula that exist, they are many!

venoms5 said...

If you enjoy the Universal style, you'll likely get a kick out of the Mexi-horror versions as well. I'm a big fan of those, and they always add some things to the mythology.

And the Japanese ones are unique in their way.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

I want to see those Japanese versions of Dracula at some point! I see you've reviewed them! Also, the mexican versions must be fun as well...I will make it a point to see all those soooon!

venoms5 said...

Yeah, there's links in the review to the two Japanese Dracula movies. There's also a third which I didn't link because it doesn't have Dracula in it. It's called THE VAMPIRE DOLL. It was the first in Toho's trilogy. I did write ups for all three.

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