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.

We cut to Castle Dracula, a forbidding edifice that is almost indistinguishable from the mountain peak on which it sits (the mountains are a high point of the film, evoking a genuine sense of the darkly Romantic, for all that they are obviously painted backdrops). The gliding camera takes us down into the castle's crypt, where mysterious mists swirl, rats forage, and in a scene that would be repeated in virtually every vampire movie that followed, bone-white hands push open creaking coffin lids and the vampires emerge from their sleep. Silently, with undead expressions on their faces, the three female nosferatu glide in unison toward their waiting master, the Count, who then ascends the crypt's stairs to the accompaniment of distant baying wolves. What can one say about Lugosi's Dracula that has not been said before? To many, the bloodless complexion, the slicked back hair, the glowing eyes and, above all, the high collared cloak, are elements - along with the actual performance, of course - that add up to the quintessential Dracula. I'm not of that group, I have to confess (I prefer Christopher Lee's more animalistic interpretation), but there's no denying the iconic status of Lugosi's king vampire and it would be silly not to admit that his first appearance does make an immediate and strong impression.


Renfield, meanwhile, has been abandoned in the fog at the Borgo Pass. Entering the mysterious black carriage that then appears, he is taken on a frightening journey along a precarious road and through the yawning gateway of Castle Dracula. When he alights, the carriage disappears, taking his luggage with it. A nearby doorway creaks open of its own accord and, somewhat nervously, Renfield enters the castle. The Great Hall of Castle Dracula is a truly magnificent set  - vast, cathedral-like, and festooned with cobwebs, it is home to bats that circle in the moonlight and, bizarrely, a family of armadillos that appears to have taken up residence among the hall's dilapidated furniture. Lighting his way with a single hand held candle, Dracula descends the wide staircase and greets the dwarfed Renfield with one of horror cinema's most famous lines: "I am Dracula. I bid you welcome." In fact, the scene is filled with famous lines: "Listen to them," Dracula intones as wolves howl, "the children of the night. What music they make!" It has been said that Lugosi's eerie speech patterns were the result of him not being able to speak English very well. True or not, they certainly gave his Dracula an exotic, otherworldly quality that undoubtedly helped to establish the character in the public consciousness.

In a justly famous shot, Dracula appears to pass through a giant cobweb without disturbing it; but when Renfield follows, he has to fight his way through the sticky strands, disturbing a fat spider in the process and causing the Count to remark that the spider has been "spinning its web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr Renfield!" If Renfield isn't suspicious by now that the Count isn't everything he appears to be, then he should be! The Count leads him to more inviting quarters, where - despite the fact that doors still open and close of their own accord - Renfield relaxes and produces the lease for Carfax Abbey, the house in England that the Count intends to buy. Renfield has also brought labels for the Count's luggage, but Dracula informs him that the labels will not be necessary - he is only taking "three boxes" with him and has charted a ship which will be leaving "tomorrow eeevening."

In a moment borrowed from Murnau's Nosferatu but not in Bram Stoker's novel Renfield cuts his finger (on a paper clip, of all things, rather than a knife) causing Dracula to react violently (by throwing his cloak over his face to shield it from the sight of Renfield's blood). Recovering, the Count offers Renfield some wine, but does not join him. In another famous line (taken from the stage play, but, again, not in the original novel) Dracula informs the solicitor that he never departs. Of course, the wine is drugged and very soon Renfield is feeling its effects. While he is being bothered by a bat that has flown in through the window, a door opens silently behind him and, in one of the film's most effective shots, Dracula's three wives glide in like ghosts through a supernatural mist and advance on the Englishman, who promptly passes out. On the verge of feasting on his blood, the women are repelled by Dracula, who appears at the open window (presumably he was the bat) and claims Renfield for himself, although the picture fades before we can see exactly what Dracula does to him - indeed, thanks to the censorship of the time, we never actually witness Dracula feeding on any of his victims.

In the next scene we find ourselves on board the Vesta, a ship bound for England. A terrible storm is raging (though the shots of the boat's crew battling the elements were actually taken from another film) and down in the hold, Renfield, now under Dracula's control, is about to release the Count from his coffin. The sequence is helped immensely by the lighting, with Browning eliciting as much menace from his shadows as he can, and by Dwight Fry's performance as the now insane Renfield, begging his master for the reward of "lives...small lives, with blood in them!" once they reach England. The transformation of Renfield's character from nice-but-slightly-dim Englishman into sniggering lunatic is impressive and, for my money, Fry's performance (which at times reminds me just a little of Andy Serkis's Gollum in the way he delivers some of his lines) is the best and most entertaining thing about the film from here on in.

In the next scene the Vesta has arrived in England and we learn that its captain is dead and its crew are nowhere to be seen. In a nicely suggestive shot, we see the dead captain's shadow cast against a wall - it appears that he tied himself to the ship's wheel before meeting his doom. The only living person on board appears to be Renfield who is found (in another excellent shot) grinning and sniggering in the hold. The newspapers the next day inform us of a crew of corpses has been found on a derelict vessel. We learn that the sole survivor is a "raving maniac" whose craving to devoir ants, flies and other small animals baffles scientists. At present he is under observation in Dr Saward's sanatorium near London...

All the above is dealt with in little more than twenty minutes, which is a shame as it is by far the best part of the film. While it has a stagy, slightly stilted quality to it, it is saved by the inclusion of some fine and influential imagery, and Lugosi's evocative dialogue. Sadly, however, once the action reaches England, things fall very flat indeed and the film's origins as a stage play become glaringly obvious as the main story turns out to be little more than a drawing room drama.

When we next meet the Count he is strolling through the foggy streets of London looking very much the aristocratic man about town. After snatching a quick meal by draining the blood a Cockney flower seller, he makes his way to the local theatre, where he meets Dr Saward (Herbert Bunston), owner of the sanatorium (which happens to be situated next door to Dracula's new home) and is introduced to Saward's daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler), Mina's fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and family friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dale). Lucy, it seems, harbours a slightly morbid streak: she approves of the Count's decision not to renovate the ruined Carfax Abbey, and is fascinated by his talk of death ("To die, to be really dead...that must be truly glorious!").

In a conversation with the straight-laced and terribly nice Mina later that same evening, it becomes clear that Lucy is, potentially at least, a rather naughty girl; it's therefore no great surprise when she's found close to death the next morning, virtually drained of blood. Attempts are made to save her with blood transfusions, but to no avail. At her autopsy, two small puncture marks are noted on her neck and it's at this point that we are introduced to Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), whom we assume is an associate of Saward's (or possibly he's just the coroner). Van Helsing's suspicions are immediately raised by the two marks on Lucy's neck and after a conversation with the insane Renfield at the sanatorium a few days later, during which Renfield reacts badly to the sight of wolf bane (interestingly, garlic doesn't feature in the film), he concludes that Lucy's death was the work of a shape-shifting vampire (Dracula does indeed turn himself into a bat - and a wolf-  several times during the film, but we never see the actual transformations - apparently the studio felt that audiences would find the notion too ridiculous. Go figure.)

One evening, Dracula decides to pay a visit to the sanatorium. We learn later that Renfield – who despite being crazy is occasionally allowed out of his cell to roam the house - has invited the vampire in. During the rather awkward conversation that follows, Van Helsing notices Dracula does not cast a reflection in the mirror. When he brings this strange phenomenon to the Count’s attention, Dracula reacts violently, smashing the mirror and confirming Van Helsing’s theory.  The Count leaves, but later that night Mina, who has been receiving visits from the Count at night (although she only remembers the encounters as dreams) sleepwalks her way into the garden where Dracula is waiting for her. She is found unconscious by a maid a few minutes later. The maid herself faints shortly after, prompting Renfield (who has been eavesdropping) to crawl up to her unconscious body and, in a deliciously creepy scene, contemplate tasting human blood for the first time. 

Over the next few days, reports start coming in of a mysterious 'woman in white' who has been luring children into a local park with promises of sweets, then biting them on the neck. Van Helsing surmises that the woman is in fact Lucy, who has risen from the grave and is now a vampire, and Mina, who seems to be taking much longer to die than either Lucy or the flower seller (presumably Dracula is savouring her), agrees. John wants Mina to return with him to London, but Van Helsing convinces him that Mina will be safer under his care. To this end, he places wolf bane around Mina's neck and orders a nurse to keep a close watch on her.

At this point Dracula arrives and a confrontation ensues between him and Van Helsing. Dracula boasts that Mina is now his, but Van Helsing threatens to sterilise the Abbey and drive a stake through Dracula's heart.  Dracula tries to bend Van Helsing to his will, and almost succeeds, until Van Helsing manages to brandish a crucifix, forcing the Count to leave.

Meanwhile, Harker and Mina are sitting on the terrace where Mina, who is growing weaker,  confesses a newfound love for "nights and fogs". John, being the dimwit that he is, likes this new change in Mina's character - at least until a bat appears and seems to prompt Mina into attacking him. He is saved by Dr Saward and Van Helsing, but it seems that his relationship with Mina is over - the girl is far too aware of what is happening to her and can see no future for their love.

And so the film moves to its conclusion. Dracula manages to kidnap Mina by mesmerising the nurse into removing the wolf bane from around the girl's throat. He is pursued to the Abbey by Renfield (who is still lusting after his reward), Harker and Van Helsing. Mistakenly assuming that Renfield has led the others to him, Dracula strangles the lunatic and throws him down the crypt stairs. Forced by the rising sun to take refuge in his coffin, Dracula is trapped and can do nothing to prevent Van Helsing from driving the promised stake through his heart. As Dracula dies, Mina, who has been in a trance, miraculously reverts to normal (though one assumes her blood count is still low).

And that's it, although the sound of church bells at the end does suggest that Mina and Harker are able to overcome the horror and save their relationship; but, frankly, who cares? With the exception of Dracula and Renfield, none of the film's characters are particularly interesting or endearing. As far as the story itself is concerned, considerable economy is used in its telling, which need not be a bad thing in itself, but nothing is fleshed out, giving the film the feel of an outline or first draft that was never completed.

What's particularly frustrating is that there are occasional glimpses of the film that could have been: for instance, Renfield's description of a vision in which he sees Dracula commanding an army of rats is genuinely chilling; and a scene in which Mina rebuffs her fiancé's advances because she feels diseased and unclean hints at the darker sexual undertones of some of Browning's other films. Best of all is the scene in which Dracula confronts Van Helsing, for here Lugosi is able to rise above the somewhat hammy nature of much of his performance in the second half of the film and deliver a scene in which he commands real authority and respect. But none of this is  enough. Overall, I find the main part of the film dull and indifferently directed; basically, it's a domestic drama about Mina and her boring boyfriend.

Dracula sorely lacks the disturbing intensity and depth of Browning's other films; but in fairness it was conceived and promoted as a straightforward shocker, nothing more, so perhaps I'm being unduly harsh. It did, after all, succeed in its aims (perhaps the idea of having the life sucked out of you resonated with victims of the Depression) and for all its faults, it was hugely influential and remained the template for vampire movies for decades after (it's interesting to note how many of Hammer's Dracula films share Dracula's intimate, domestic concerns). Lugosi's Dracula is almost certainly still the most famous version of the legendary Count. What's remarkable about this is that Lugosi in fact only played the Count once more in his career, when Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein seventeen years later. That he is still remembered for the role eighty years after the event is testament to his skill, however limited that skill might have been. So, whatever my personal doubts about the film's merits, it's impossible not to class Dracula as one of Universal's classic horror movies.


  1. Nice Blog. Great to see someone loving on the oldies.

    Here's a favorites question: what scene (if any)does it for you in phantom of the opera--the unmasking or some other

  2. Hi Keith

    Thank you for your comment. Glad you're enjoying the blog.

    In answer to your question, I think the unmasking scene is the highlight of the film, but I also find the final scene (when the Phantom is beaten to death and his body thrown in the Seine)quite disturbing - but then I have a dislike of crowds anyway, so anything involving mob violence tends to make me uneasy!