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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Retro Review: Dracula (1931)

"There are far worse things awaiting man than death..."

My last post on the most overrated horror movies of all time brought something interesting to my attention. A few people suggested that one of these films should be Tod Browning's original Universal production, Dracula. The reason this is interesting to me is that I both understand where these folks are coming from, yet I also strongly disagree with their assessment.

In my opinion, the 1931 Dracula is very slightly overrated, in that it gets often equated with James Whale's Frankenstein, a film which is superior to it. Nevertheless, I would not in a million years consider it one of the most underrated horror movies of all time, specifically because I think it is excellent. Flawed, but excellent. And it richly deserves to be one of the most famous horror films ever made.

Let's address the 500-pound gorilla first and foremost, and talk about Bela Lugosi. If you were to look up the word "iconic" in the dictionary, you may just see a picture of Lugosi as Dracula. The legendary Hungarian actor so completely merged himself with the role that to this day, we cannot think of the character without thinking of him. Literally. Say what you want about stagey-ness, but that's one seriously effective performance right there.

Lugosi, who had originated the part in the stage production, thoroughly and completely puts his mark on the role, forever transforming it--for good or ill--from Bram Stoker's conception of the Transylvanian count, with the assistance, of course, of Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston's entrancing script. It is a script which drastically departs from Stoker's novel, taking the story in a sexually charged direction I don't believe was as strongly intended by the book, but which has permanently altered the vampire as perceived in popular culture.

On screen, Lugosi grasps your attention with a level of completeness that most actors only dream of. He is particularly strong in the first half of the film, during the scenes that take place in his native land, as well as his early encounters with Van Helsing, Mina, Lucy, and the other England-based characters. Stripping away the many decades of familiarity and kitsch that have accumulated around it, it is a performance that still has great things to offer.

And yet, for my money, the film's most powerful and memorable performance isn't even Lugosi--it's the impeccable Dwight Frye as the mad Renfield. Almost as iconic as Dracula himself is Frye's leering performance, complete with that unforgettable, oft-imitated laugh. There's a reason I named the Best Supporting Actor category of the Cyber Horror Awards after this man, and it has to do with performances like this one, in which he takes full advantage of his somewhat limited screen time to leave an impression on the viewer that lasts a lifetime. Every word that leaves his lips, every motion of his body, is perfection.

I will admit to a certain amount of stagey-ness to the overall production from a set design standpoint, even more so than other Universal flicks of the era such as Frankenstein and The Mummy. Dracula is quite literally a filmed play, and it's evident at times. And yet I consider this a forgivable trait of much early '30s cinema, which sees filmmakers still learning how to best make an effective sound picture in a studio. It's part of the experimentalism and maverick mentality that makes me cherish this era so much.

And this stagey-ness of the production certainly does not extend to the brilliant camerawork of Karl Freund, a German expatriate whose innovative talents for camera movement add a tangibly vibrancy and excitement to the film, most notably in the initial reveal of Dracula in his castle very early on. Freund's skills go a long way to counteracting the stagey feel of this adapted Broadway production.

When it comes to the kind of stiffness often referred to, the one actor who does come to mind is Edward Van Sloan in the role of Abraham Van Helsing. An accomplished stage actor who would later improve on what he could do in front of a camera, Van Sloan is indeed somewhat too stagey and deliberate, and a classic example of the bumps in the road that occurred as filmmakers continued to fine-tune the process of adapting to sound films--namely the type of dramatic performances that would work best in the new medium. It wasn't until Peter Cushing in the 1950s that filmgoers would get the definitive Van Helsing.

Dracula kicked off the venerable Universal cycle of monster movies, and while I wouldn't consider it the best of them, or even the second best, I do find it to be extremely effective and enjoyable, and the kind of film that I appreciate more each time I see it. It is hurt somewhat by a noticeably less engaging second half, degenerating just a bit from gothic horror into drawing room melodrama. Nevertheless, through it all, Lugosi and Frye keep us enthralled.

Some of the film's weaknesses have been attributed to director Tod Browning and his notoriously low comfort level with sound productions. An accomplished director of the silent era, he seems to be much more at home directing scenes which require the least dialogue. Some point to the famous wedding banquet scene of another classic of his, Freaks--a scene which could just as effectively played out without any sound, if not moreso. In Dracula, we get amazing, minimally verbal moments such as Renfield's encounter with the Brides, and the Count's subsequent "claiming" of him.

For moments like that, I'm also willing to forgive Browning's dated technique. He was a filmmaker with a flair for the visually stunning, and he puts that flair to great effect in this film.

In short, Dracula remains one of the most important and influential horror films of them all, with a level of quality that may not be at the exact same height as its importance or influence. Yet even if it's only to see Bela Lugosi create the most famous horror movie character in history right before your eyes, this is a film that is the very definition of a "must-see", and rewards the viewer each and every time. It is imperfect, yes, but it is also more powerful than the majority of horror films you will ever see.

11 comments:

masterymistery said...

ditto for Lon Chaney as wolfman

masterymistery at cosmic rapture

Seth Canes said...

I like the movie, though more because of it's historical importance and influence. But the first half is so much more interresting than the second one. I just think Browning didn't have his heart in this movie which makes it inferior to his other movies like Freaks and The Unknown.

B-Sol said...

There was actually a Spanish language version which was shot on the same exact set, with different actors, after the English version wrapped each day. And many consider it even better!

Wings said...

You said it all and said it well. I love the movie, it is just made of awesome.

And hey! You have been given an award:
Once again to the podium... Congrats!

Pax Romano said...

One of my earliest memories is watching this film with my dad...I have such a soft spot for Dracula because of that.

Have you seen the Spanish version? It was filmed on the same set apparently at night after the American cast went home ... it's much more sexually provocative than the American version - though the actor playing the count, Carlos Villar, is a regular ham bone!

Planet of Terror said...

B-Sol/Pax, I just got a copy of the Spanish version. Watching this weekend and I'll share my thoughts.

Great write-up.

B-Sol said...

Excellent! I, too, was planning on watching the Spanish version for the first time over the weekend. We should compare notes.

Carl (ILHM) said...

I totally just commented in your question box..

I am with everyone that feels Dracula is overrated, it is far too staged and wordy, but the atmosphere and powerful performance by Lugosi have obviously left a lasting impression

B-Sol said...

You just can't get around the greatness of Lugosi. He's timeless.

Mike Snoonian said...

It's funny, because I feel just the opposite about Lugosi. I find his performance so ham fisted and staged that it pulls me right out of the film frye is amazing to behold and the sets are gorgeous though.

B-Sol said...

To each his own, Mike! Karloff, on the other hand, is a very very different performance. Understated, sublime, subtle.

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