Lost in the Movies: Dracula


Dracula is a film that can come full-circle if you let it. Ostensibly a straightforward chiller upon its 1931 release, it arguably launched decades of horror films - an avalanche which has kept rolling in one form or another to this day. Of course, as the form kept developing, the original monster movie (or at least the original monster talkie) began to seem creakier and creakier. Though Tod Browning had crafted some distinctive work before and after Dracula, much of his most famous film was confined to English drawing rooms; meanwhile, film technology was still adapting to the advent of sound and while the German master cinematographer Karl Freund was able to memorably maneuver his camera from time to time, the film overall is not especially fluid. Furthermore, Bela Lugosi's legendary performance may have frightened people at the time, but now it's become a museum piece, a template for hams throughout the ages (including Lugosi himself). Right?

Well, not quite. Dracula has come full-circle, albeit at a slightly different angle, because its at-times primitive technique and lack of fully self-conscious irony (though there's plenty of offbeat humor on hand) have made it seem distinctively creepy today. The complete lack of a musical score, the slow pacing, the mixture of deadpan sincerity and ghoulish creakiness all add to an eerie atmosphere which makes you chuckle and shudder at the same time. And Lugosi is central to this effect - his Dracula is actually not a hammy performance at all, because he commits entirely to the laconic delivery, haughty bearing, and erotic intensity of the famed Count.

Adding to the impact of the film are the Gothic sets by Charles D. Hall, the indicatively campy yet genuinely unsettling performance of Dwight Frye as insect-eating sidekick Renfield, and some of Browning's fleeting but unforgettable shots (like the boom to the ground as an intensely hungry Renfield, his eyes practically popping out of his head, crawls on hands and knees towards the comatose body of a nurse whose blood he hopes to suck). This is a film whose imagery and story have become such familiar cliches, that it's almost a surprise to go back to the original and discover its primal power, even amidst all the dated elements and labored plot mechanics (and the film does start to sag a bit in the final third, as everyone seems to be struggling to delay the inevitable climax).

What's ultimately so creepy about Lugosi's Count Dracula is that he isn't entirely an inhuman ogre, like Nosferatu. Rather, Dracula is part "us", part "other" - for example, he inhabits the body of a man, yet casts no reflection in a mirror. This uneasy, undefined border zone in which both Dracula and Dracula exist makes the vampire and his film all the more unsettling, even today. It won't make you jump out of your seat, but images and moments might follow you around for the rest of the day and, what's more important, into the night.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Ed Howard said...

Great post. You hit on the reason that I love so many of the classic Hollywood "monster movies" even though they mostly couldn't really be called scary by modern standards. There's nothing in these films that is going to cause me nightmares or startle me to jump in my seat, but they're nevertheless creepy... eerie... haunting...

Dracula is a perfect example, despite its clunky drawing room scenes and unengaging heroes (typical of the genre, really; the ostensible heroes, the normal folks, can't be as charismatic or interesting as the monster). What makes Browning's film especially worthy is that, seen today, it pretty much boils the vampire mythos down to its barest essence. There have been so many elaborations on this particular myth over the years; the vampire is always a resonant archetype, even when Twilight fever isn't sweeping the nation at any given time. Browning's film, by virtue of being the first and also by virtue of its antique, nostalgic aesthetics, seems somehow pure and powerful: it's like a historical document, a no-nonsense account of a story that's since been blown up into legend many times over. This is the raw essence of Dracula, and of Dracula: the electric sexuality, the tension between primal violence and urbane sophistication, the mystery and fear of ethnicity and Otherness.

MovieMan0283 said...

Ed, perhaps it's post-postmodernism but suddenly the straightforward, clean take on a phenomenon has renewed appeal...at least for me. You're right on about the "essence" - there's a certain purity to that notion which I like. For a while, the 30s was one of my least favorite decades because it didn't have the "depth" of 40s and 50s (and later) films, but a few years ago I began to appreciate the sharpness, clarity, and economy of Hollywood's Golden Age and now, in many cases, I actually prefer it (though I have not altogether lost my proclivity for the epic, tangential, and bustling.

Sam Juliano said...

Of course you rightfully point here to all the attributes. But after the justly famed opening at the castle, when the film's best lines are delivered (most by Lugosi) the film turns into a theatrical piece that isn't always interesting, and the liberties taken with Stoker's novel are ghastly. Characters are given names of other characters, with the complete elimination of Jonathan Harker's persona in favor of Renfield's.

Yes there's certainly a mythos, and the film launched the physical incarnation of Dracula as a regular looking person apart from the garb, (and on balance this is still one of the more noteworthy Universal horror films (FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY and THE INVISIBLE MAN are superior films though) and arguably with FRANKENSTEIN the most famous. Lugosi may be the most beloved Count Dracula of them all, and his campy style perfectly suits this production, but he's neither the best nor the most faithful to the soure. For the former I'd go with Christopher Lee, who played the character a number of times for Hammer, and it's generally thought that Gary Oldman honored the text in BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA.

I must say that I really liked this description you penned here:

"And Lugosi is central to this effect - his Dracula is actually not a hammy performance at all, because he commits entirely to the laconic delivery, haughty bearing, and erotic intensity of the famed Count."

In other words, he's irresistible, and I completely concur.

And I do agree the film has a kind of "primal power" though it's badly dated and it's plot mechanics are indeed "labored."

Best of all are a number of the classic lines delivered with deliberate pause. I have found myself repeated them many times over the years with friends.

Exceedingly fine review, so well written.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Sam - just saw Frankenstein again too so I'll probably have a short piece up on that early next week. In some ways I have more "fun" with Dracula, though Frankenstein is probably a stronger piece of filmmaking and has some powerful moments. Boris Karloff's performance is phenomenal - I'd forgotten just how good it was, and kind of stands head and shoulder above any other elements of the film, charming or entertaining as they might be.

That said, Bride of Frankenstein is a masterpiece, even if it's more a comedy than a horror film (or maybe because of that).

Tony D'Ambra said...

For me the first 20 minutes are magic, and the movie flounders after the Count leaves his castle.

The early sequence at the coach stop is a study in realism and does more to establish the complete otherness of place than all the rococo castle scenes.

I don't buy the idea that the Count is not a ham. He is always hamming - his realness is a fabrication that requires excessiveness. The line on the staircase about his 'children' is pure camp.

MovieMan0283 said...

I can accept that it's camp but when I say it's not ham I mean to suggest that in some sense, Lugosi takes, or at least presents, his part seriously. He never seems to be winking at the audience.

However, it doesn't have the same level of sincerity, of, say, Karloff in Frankenstein.

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