Saturday, January 29, 1977: Dracula (1931) / Horror Island (1941)

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:  90 years ago this year, 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.

Horror Island

Synopsis: Bill Martin (Dick Foran) is a happy-go-lucky entrepreneur with a losing streak a mile long. To date all of his money-making schemes have gone bust, and he is months behind on the rent on his crummy office down on the waterfront. He and his sidekick Stuff Oliver (Fuzzy Knight) are approached by a peg-legged sailor called “The Captain” (Leo Carrillo) who is in possession of half a treasure map. The Captain says that the treasure is located in a castle located on an island that Martin has recently inherited, and that if they join forces they might be able to claim the treasure.

Bill is visited by his scheming brother, who offers to buy the island from him for $20,000. This sudden interest only makes Bill suspicious that something of value is hidden there. They visit an expert in ancient maps, who assures them that the map is a forgery. Nevertheless, Martin sees this as another money-making opportunity: he takes out a newspaper ad promising an exciting treasure hunt that participants can buy their way into for $50.

After a standard-issue meet-cute with a wealthy young Wendy Creighton (Peggy Moran) Martin, Stuff, Wendy and the half-dozen tourists he’s assembled head out to the island. But someone clearly doesn’t want them to make the trip: a package delivered to the crew explodes after it’s accidentally dropped off the side of the boat, the compass has been tinkered with and the ship goes far off course before the sabotage is discovered.

On the island, the group settles in for the night at the old castle, and Stuff tries to give them their money’s worth by delivering ghostly laughter into a PA system they’ve set up. But a creeping entity called the Phantom has also gained access to the microphone, imploring the visitors to “Leave the castle!”

Soon the treasure seekers start being murdered one by one — and a mysterious body count appears scrawled on the wall in chalk. Who is the mysterious Phantom, and how can he be stopped?

Comments: The best thing you can say about Horror Island is that is was directed by The Wolf Man helmer George Waggner. The worst thing you can say about it is that it was produced by Ben Pivar, the guy responsible for such dreck as The Brute Man and She-Wolf of London. This movie is every bit as cheap as it looks: in fact, the production schedule was so rushed that the time elapsed between the first day of shooting and the theatrical release was less than a month.

The plot is so half-baked that to chronicle all its inconsistencies and idiocies would take longer than the movie’s entire running time. But the most egregious plot holes reach out and sock you between the eyes. Bill Martin is presented to us as a failed entrepreneur who is behind on his rent and constantly dodging his creditors, yet he happens to own an island with a castle on it?

None of Martin’s past business ventures (rhumba lessons, a Depression-era male escort service) attempt to make use of this resource, and when we finally reach the island, the castle (well, it looks like a medieval castle on the outside, Universal’s familiar mansion set on the inside) seems ready to receive visitors, with fresh linens and a stocked larder. Aside from a minimal amount of dust and cobwebs it’s in pretty good shape, and the place certainly seems worth a lot more than the $20,000 (slightly more than $250,000 in today’s money) that Bill was offered for it.

The treasure-map device is threadbare and dreary, the motivations of the treasure-seekers are perfunctory and the supporting characters are so hurriedly sketched that we care nothing about them; in fact we’ve barely met them before they start getting murdered. As to the standard romantic subplot between Bill Martin and Wendy Creighton, it hardly exists at all — which is a relief, because the less time we spend on it, the better.

But as thinly-written as their parts are, the lead actors are at least familiar: Dick Foran and Peggy Moran had previously appeared together in The Mummy’s Hand, and both actors are likable enough, though no one will confuse them with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

Horror Island is probably best remembered for an egregiously obvious stagehand who is clearly visible in one scene of the movie:

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