(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
Tod Browning’s Dracula is one of those iconic horror pictures that everyone has to see at least once. The 1931 film is actually based on the 1924 stage play of the same name by Hamilton Deane, which in turn was the first authorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. The production was brought to Broadway and revised by John L. Balderston, with the one and only Bela Lugosi starring as the titular character.
And Lugosi is the star of Browning’s motion picture, although he was far from the first choice. He took a pay cut to land the job and subsequently set the standard for the Count, with his combination of old world charm and seductive varnish suffusing the part with sure magic. One now winces considering the other possibilities.
Dracula opens with the lawyer Renfield (Dwight Frye) heading to visit the shadowy Count Dracula (Lugosi) at his joint in Transylvania. Renfield is cautioned about the Count by the locals, who tell him of vampires in the area. Regardless, Renfield is greeted by Dracula and finds the castle crumbling and full of bats and armadillos. Later, the solicitor is spellbound by Dracula and his blushing brides.
Renfield, now a crazed nut, takes Dracula to England and is locked in an asylum. The Count is free to roam in the city and meets Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunson), the head of the asylum. He also meets his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners) and young Lucy (Frances Dade). Dracula sets his sights on Mina and tangles with Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan).
Browning’s silent film background serves him well with Dracula, with prolonged periods of stillness contributing a sense of disquiet. Cinematographer Karl Freund, sometimes also credited as a director of sorts, blends elements of German expressionism with some eccentric angles to come up with the unmistakable Dracula aesthetic.
Freund starts with a glorious tracking shot to draw the audience in, creating the sensation of an enticing tug to the Count’s sarcophagus. The first sight of Lugosi in his cape is staggering given both the impact of the actor’s lit eyes and the slightly disconcerting movements of the camera. It’s a remarkable and enigmatic way to set the tone.
Browning’s world is one of creepy-crawlies and curiosities, with Count Dracula’s stronghold full of all sorts of bugs and animals. The use of the bat as a sort of transportation device is marvellous, especially as it dashes from place to place and hovers near open windows. There is immense power in that doggone bat and the audience knows it, even if the “transformation” scenes take place off-screen.
While Dracula may no longer have the same primeval effect that it had when first released, it still stands as an example of how to construct a mood piece in the horror genre. Browning’s picture overcomes its restraints by focusing on the utter strangeness of the tale. It tracks the odd Van Helsing as he antagonizes Dracula with all manner of objects, charts the vampire’s sneering and cape-swirling.
While F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu represented the novel’s layers using expressionism, Browning’s establishes Dracula as an ethereal superman capable of great fantasy and great mysticism. It defines the archetype of the heartrending rogue and produces a new genre in the process, inaugurating the figure of Count Dracula as a force to be reckoned with.
Featuring a star that folklore says could barely speak English and Freund’s impeccable camerawork, Dracula manages to be a masterwork of early horror. It’s not a faultless vision, but it growls with such raw power and passion that it’s a captivating thing to watch even now. It weaves the music of the children of the night, telling its tale with care and elegant presentation. Such precision is rare, indeed.