No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Dracula’ (1931)

Dracula 1931 poster

While at a party celebrating the DVD, Blu-ray and Digital release of “Ouija,” I was one of several people who won the DVD box set of “Universal Classic Monsters,” a complete 30-film collection of all the movies from Universal Pictures’ Monster Universe which played in theaters from 1931 to 1956. These movies included such iconic characters as Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Phantom of the Opera, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. With the occasion of Halloween rapidly approaching, I decided to sit down and watch the 1931 English-language version of “Dracula.” While I am familiar about Count Dracula and how he says “I want to suck your blood” on what seems like a regular basis, this marks the first time I have taken the time to sit down and watch this particular movie.

Having grown in a time of horror movies like “Jaws,” Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” I wondered how this would affect my enjoyment of this horror classic which was first released back in 1931. Watching “Dracula” today made me wonder if I would react to it in disdain, and I came out of it wondering how I would have reacted to it were I alive and watched it when it first came out. Nevertheless, I can see why this version of “Dracula” remains such an unforgettable cinematic classic. While certain aspects of its production seem cheap by today’s standards (we all know it took a fishing pole to make the bat fly), time has been kinder to this version than I expected.

“Dracula” begins with a group of people riding in a stagecoach to a local village, and among them is Renfield (Dwight Frye), a solicitor on his way to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula for business purposes. The mention of Dracula’s name, however, has everyone reacting with wide-eyed expressions (and we are talking really wide) as his reputation for sucking blood is never in doubt, and the townspeople beg Renfield to reconsider going to his residence. But unlike some stupid kid in an 80’s horror flick eager to tempt fate because he thinks he is invincible, Renfield has actual business to do with Dracula, so it’s understandable how the man will not be deterred from meeting with the man everyone rightfully believes is a vampire. Of course, by the time Renfield discovers this, it is too late.

The first thing I want to talk about in regards to this particular version of “Dracula” is the man who plays Bram Stoker’s iconic character, Bela Lugosi. Before watching this movie, I was more familiar with what happened to Lugosi’s career after he played Dracula than what came before it. A victim of typecasting, he would later descend into oblivion to where he appeared in Ed Wood’s infamous films, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” being the most memorable, and people in Hollywood had long since assumed he had died. Lugosi would be memorialized years later by the late Martin Landau who played him in Tim Burton’s delightful and thoughtful biopic “Ed Wood.”

But seeing him here made me realized just how perfectly cast Lugosi was why he remained forever typecast as a result. From his first appearance, Lugosi is an insidiously frightening presence as all he has to do is stare in the distance to give you an idea of how threatening he can be if you dare cross him. When he claims his first onscreen victim, he simply waves his arm to let his three undead wives know this one is his to turn. When it comes to movies, this is an example of showing power as the character doesn’t need words to show how commanding they are.

Lugosi is wonderfully mesmerizing throughout “Dracula” as he just needs to give off a look with his eyes to let you know what is going on in his obsessive mind. Every physical step he takes is tinged with a sheer menace, and the actor also benefits from the wonderful cinematography by Karl Freund, whom many consider an uncredited director on this film. When he tells a character to “come here,” the power in his voice more than suggests you should take his order very, very seriously as he doesn’t need any additional dialogue from David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin.

It should be noted how when this film was made, Hollywood had just emerged from the era of silent movies.  As a result, the acting is more emotive than the kind we often see in movies today. The transition from silent films to talkies was not without its bumps, so the actors we see here are still used to a process of trying to get things across to an audience by acting out emotions instead of inhabiting their characters. Still, I did get a kick out of Dwight Frye’s performance as Renfield as he is clearly having a blast playing an infinitely possessed human being whose suffering, caused by a vampire’s bite, comes close to equaling Nicolas Cage’s present-day theatrics.

“Dracula” was directed by Tod Browning, a filmmaker who these days is better known for his 1932 cult classic, “Freaks,” one of the movies which is impossible to erase from the mind once you have seen it. I really liked how he used silence to the film’s advantage instead of giving us a music score. The tension is still taut as he follows Dracula’s every step, and this is a vampire who moves ever so gracefully because he doesn’t have to move quickly for anybody.

There was a score composed for the film by Philip Glass in 1998 and performed by Kronos Quartet, and you can tell it’s a Philip Glass score right from the start. It suits “Dracula” well, but I enjoyed the film more without it.

If there is anything disappointing for me about “Dracula,” it was the ending. Now this is largely the result of me being spoiled by countless slasher movies from the 80’s, but I think things could have been handled in a far more spectacular fashion than just driving a stake into a character’s heart and the happy couple running off together. It seems such like am abrupt ending to a classic motion picture, but then again, I am watching it close to a hundred years after its release.

There are many other versions of “Dracula” I need to watch now as I am eager to see how this character has evolved cinematically from one generation to the next. Browning’s 1931 version is a good one to start with, and lord knows there are also many other classic horror movies I need to watch. In order to better understand and appreciate the present, we at times have to go back to the past to discover how things got started.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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