Monday, 1 August 2011

Dracula (1931)

Directed by: Tod Browning
Starring:   Bela Lugosi
               Helen Chandler              
               David Manners
               Dwight Fry
               Edward Van Sloan
Running time: 75 mins
Studio: Universal
Black & White

Dracula is a frustrating film to watch. It is undoubtedly of historical importance (in the year 2000 it was selected for inclusion in the USA's National Film Registry), it made a star of its leading man, Bela Lugosi, and its huge box-office success helped usher in the Golden Age of Hollywood horror. Unfortunately, however, I don't think it's terribly good. "Blasphemy!" I hear you cry? Well, maybe - but as a film by Tod Browning, who was still one of the leading Hollywood directors of his day, Dracula is a long way from representing his best work. Indeed, some sources suggest that Browning had very little interest in the material and left much of the shoot up to his cinematographer, Karl Freund. There are several reasons why this might have been the case. For a start, Dracula was originally envisaged by Universal as a major spectacle along the lines of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but the Great Depression put paid to that idea. Also, the screenplay was based not on the original novel but on the heavily abridged stage version that had been running very successfully on Broadway, giving Browning no opportunity to reimagine the material for himself. Finally, and probably most importantly, the original plan had been to cast Browning's long-time friend and collaborator Lon Chaney in the lead role, but Chaney died in 1930 after contracting lung cancer and suffering a throat haemorrhage. Apparently, Lugosi only got the part (which he had played in the Broadway production) because he effectively pestered the studio to give it to him and agreed to a substantial cut in his salary. All in all, it was a very inauspicious start.

Dracula is very much a film of two halves: the first twenty minutes, and the rest of the film. It begins promisingly: A carriage rattles along through a lonely Transylvanian mountain pass – on board a group of travellers including English solicitor, Renfield (Dwight Frye) are thrown from side to side while one of their number reads aloud from a guide book warning of the many evils abroad in this remote part of the world. Arriving at one of those Transylvanian villages that were to become a staple of horror movies for decades to come, the travellers alight; but Mr Renfield is travelling on to Borgo Pass to meet another carriage at midnight. The news invokes terror among the peasants. Where is he going? To Castle Dracula, he informs them. But he cannot! Dracula and his wives live there and they are shape-shifting, coffin-dwelling bloodsuckers! He must stay, especially now that the sun is setting. Renfield protests –he has no choice: it’s a matter of business and he is obliged to go. The peasants hurry away inside, but not before one of them has given Renfield a crucifix for his protection. Puzzled but not especially concerned by the peasants’ warnings, Renfield boards the coach again and disappears off into the sunset.