Friday, June 29, 1973: Dracula (1931)

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Synopsis: Renfield, a young attorney from London, arrives by coach at a small Carpathian village. His fellow travelers are staying in the village overnight but he insists on continuing on to the castle of a local nobleman, Count Dracula.

The natives turn pale at the very mention of the name, and beg him not to go. But Renfield is there on business, and insists on completing his journey.
After an unnerving trip to the castle, Renfield finally meets the count, who signs documents to complete his purchase of Carfax Abbey in England. It is to England, Dracula says, that he will go the very next morning.
Later, a ship drifts into an English harbor, all aboard her dead — save for Renfield, who is now a raving lunatic.  Several crates from the ship are delivered to Carfax Abbey.

 

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From one of these crates emerges Count Dracula, who insinuates himself into London society, befriending Dr. Seward, owner of the Seward Asylum where Renfield is confined. The asylum is, we learn, next door to Carfax Abbey. Dracula meets Dr. Seward’s daughter, Mina; her fiancee Jonathan Harker, and their friend Lucy.

Meanwhile, a string of bizarre murders has caught the interest of Dr. Van Helsing, an unorthodox scientist and student of the occult. Two small puncture wounds, he finds, were on the necks of each victim, including young Lucy.

When Mina relates a dream of a man coming into her bedroom and biting her neck, Seward is surprised to see that Mina has been hiding two small puncture wounds herself. But Van Helsing is not surprised. He insists that a vampire is attempting to make Mina its slave by visiting her over a series of subsequent nights.

Mina can only be protected, he says, by locking her in her room, and sealing the windows with wolfbane and crucifixes, which vampires find repellent.

Count Dracula pays a visit to the Seward home, and Van Helsing quickly realizes that the nobleman himself is the vampire they seek. A battle of wits ensues, with Van Helsing battling Count Dracula for Mina’s very soul….

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Comments:  A long, long time ago now  (four score and seven years ago, as of this writing) Tod Browning’s Dracula was released in theaters. It was a smash hit, re-released a number of times in the ensuing decades, and rediscovered by a new generation when it was distributed for television as part of the Shock! package in the 1950s. Its tropes have been endlessly parodied and its plot elements have been stolen again and again. Yet it is as elemental a horror film as you will ever see, remains the definitive adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, and still works quite well today.

Like Night of the Living Dead, the film single-handedly created an entire subgenre of horror, and if filmmakers have struggled with the vampire genre over the years it’s only because Dracula had already said everything worth saying. In the decades since we’ve seen the same story dressed up in Egyptian garb, given a scientific spin, turned inside-out, transplanted to the Old West, or 20th-century Germany, or 20th-century America, or done as a police procedural.

I mentioned that the film is based on Bram Stoker’s novel, and that’s true. But it hews more closely to the Hamilton Deane and John Balderston stage adaptation from 1924. That production streamlined Stoker’s narrative, blending various characters together and simplifying the sequence of events. Both Lugosi and Edward van Sloan appeared in the stage show, and reprised their roles for the film version.

It was clear that the Laemmles didn’t want Lugosi in the lead role in spite of his success with it on Broadway. They saw it as a perfect vehicle for Lon Chaney. But even after Chaney’s death in the summer of 1930, Lugosi still wasn’t on their short list. Paul Muni was seriously considered, as was Chester Morris, who later starred in the Boston Blackie films. But Lugosi lobbied relentlessly for the part, and wound up offering his services at a bargain-basement price — a willingness to make big concessions that looked smart at the time, but which eventually caught up to him as his career waned.

Modern audiences and modern critics have found much fault with Lugosi’s performance, suggesting that other actors would have been far better. I think such revisionist takes are wrong. While Lugosi’s performance might seem overbearing and stagey to our modern eyes, it had quite an effect on audiences of the time. Lugosi brought an eeriness and exoticism to the role that no one else — including a burned-out old ham like Lon Chaney — could have supplied.

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The rest of the cast ranges from solidly wooden to dreadful. Only Edward Van Sloan, as the unorthodox scientist and vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing and Dwight Frye, as Renfield, stand out. While Frye is rather stiff and unconvincing in his early scenes as Renfield, he brings a nice touch of nuttiness to the role once he becomes Dracula’s assistant. David Manners, who would also star in The Mummy, is quite forgettable as Jonathan Harker (Manners specialized in being forgettable) and Helen Chandler is probably the cast’s weakest link as Mina. She delivers her lines with the sort of vapid tremulousness that was fashionable in the early days of talkies (Gloria Stuart was cut from the same cloth).
Becoming a vampire would no doubt make Mina a far more interesting person than she’s been up until now, but the movie never seems to consider this; and in the end she and Jonathan get to walk off into the sunset (or maybe the sunrise) stuck together not for eternity, but presumably for life.
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One comment

  1. For all his success as Dracula, poor Bela only played the role twice on screen, and only played a genuine vampire in one other feature film, Columbia’s THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE.

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