Dracula (2 of 4)

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The horror genre’s second movie for me is Tod Browning’s 1931 movie Dracula, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire novel, Dracula. The story of Count Dracula is a familiar one to all audiences. A salesman Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, travels to Count Dracula’s castle to have lease papers signed. Of course Dracula is creepy at first meeting, all of his cooing about the wolves howling, but he’s still cordial enough to entice Renfield. Dracula signs the papers, and then after poisoning Renfield (and shoo-shooing off his three, blood-thirsty–literally!–vampire brides) he bites Renfield. The bite of a vampire, as all vampire rules state, turns the victim into a vampire. And so, Renfield becomes an undead servant to Dracula.

After increasing his undead family it’s time for Dracula to move of course. He needs a place with a higher population and more potential for feeding on blood, like London. So he moves to London, where everyone seems to walk alone at night. Seriously, what is wrong with those people? The screenwriter gave everyone impossible over-dosages of naïvety. I’ll come back to this point.

Once in London, Dracula begins killing and bloodsucking until he encounters his foe–the great Van Hellsing, played by Edward Van Sloan (who is now a familiar face to me after viewing Frankenstein). Van Hellsing exposes Dracula as a vampire when miracle of miracles Dracula’s reflection doesn’t appear in any mirrors! Using some cool shooting techniques they eliminate him from sight creating what might be the movie’s only startling moment.

Once exposed it becomes the job of Van Hellsing and side-character John Harker to kill the vampire before Harker’s beautiful fiancé Mina is transformed into another undead monster. Vampire rules are straight-forward and since Van Hellsing knows them all, he knows that Dracula must be sleeping in “the earth he was buried in” during the daytime. Hellsing and Harker raid his castle, find the coffin Dracula rests inside, and drive a stake through his cursed heart–shattering the spell he cast on Mina.

Movie ends abruptly.

I have many issues with Dracula. As I’ve already mentioned the low intelligence of most characters is astonishing. People simply aren’t that stupid and would never be so consistently gullible. I mean let’s be honest, Dracula is never acting like a normal dude. So why isn’t everyone at least a bit suspicious or show any hint of hesitation? I’m also profoundly perplexed at the sexual attraction that Dracula receives from the women he meets. They’re all goo-goo-eyed around him. Bela Lugosi isn’t exactly Brad Pitt or anything close. Actually, he’s a pretty ugly guy–my wife confirms. So does vampirism come with some innate sexual prowess?

Throughout the film Dracula stalks into different women’s bedrooms and moves “closer and closer,” as Mina describes, until she “felt his lips.” But as little sense as vampire sexuality makes to me it actually may give this movie a deeper meaning.

Dracula is a killer, perverter, con and sexual deviant, and his victim that finally fights back and resists his temptations of immortal life and power and sex happens to be an innocent, Christian virgin. I know, this is something that stems from the novel and not the film, but I didn’t read the novel. I watched the film. And nobody cared about the novel until 1931 after the movie was made anyway. The fact that Dracula is presumably slain in the films final minutes and Mina is recovered and healed is an assurance that righteousness triumphs over wickedness, even creepy wickedness that is supernatural beyond our understanding.

Further on the positive side, Dracula has framing and cinematography that most films only dream of. The lighting on Dracula’s face, the set and camera placement in his opening hall, the cob-web infested ruin of a castle all perfectly shadowed from every angle are unmatched (although attempts have been made in many horror films since). The films perspective is consistent even with the choppy editing of the 1930s, you are always sure where you are and what you’re looking at. The genre’s current films have strayed from this practice, in favor of “cheaper” techniques of invoking fear. Which is a shame, when you see such artful camerawork that’s almost 80 years old, and it can’t be duplicated.

Finally, but not least of importance is the impact of Lugosi and Frye’s acting. Not only remakes of Dracula but nearly all vampires of film have followed his example. Some do it even better than he did. He set the tone for a sleazy and suave combination of vampire acting that has become synonymous with the vampire sub-genre and horror in general. Frye stood out more than Fritz from Frankenstein because of a larger role and frankly better acting. But he helped cement the grovelling minion side-kick role that villains still seem to have today. Think of Pain and Panic from Disney’s Hercules or (and I know I just used Lord of the Rings in an example yesterday) Grima Wormtongue from The Two Towers. Think about how those characters are played and you’ll see the mad influence of Dwight Frye.

So watch it for the camera framing and iconic performances, not to be scared, too many effects and props didn’t age well and are laughable now.

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  4. Your lead photo is NOT from Universal’s 1931 Dracula but from M-G-M’s 1935 Mark of the Vampire. Aside from Lugosi and the same director (Tod Browning), the films have little in common.

  5. I like to watch these kind of movies with friends who will make jokes all the way through.

    • A little MST3000 w/ friends-movie-night can be a blast for sure. Also an interesting place for some creative experiments in dialogue dubbing. Dracula as a silent?

      I’ve got some friends who could do the voice-over.

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