Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)

Look at this picture of Bela Lugosi in his signature role.  Study it well.  And most importantly, get used to it, because once you delve into “Dracula,” you’re gonna be seeing that face, that facial expression (complete with the Mr. Spock cynical raised eyebrow), and that head taking up that much of the screen a lot.  In this first official screen version of the Dracula tale (actually based more on the play than on Bram Stoker’s book), Tod Browning will lean on that face and the presence of that wily Hungarian Lugosi like a crutch, completely banking on the possibility that Lugosi has a kind of terrifying psychosexual aura that transcends a typical villainous performance.  So is it there?  I guess it is the first couple of times you see those hypnotically intense eyes staring you down, but after another 9 or 10 times, it gets stale.  Actually, other than the outstanding beginning passages in castle Dracula, “stale” is the perfect word to describe “Dracula.”

Here’s some irony for you: “Nosferatu,” made 9 years before “Dracula” when cinema was really on its first legs, was essentially a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” because F.W. Murnau couldn’t secure the rights to the story and basically just changed the title and character names.  Despite that, “Nosferatu” was and is a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest horror film ever made.  And nine years later comes the official “Dracula” film, and what’s the verdict?  Well, it feels a lot like a rip-off of “Nosferatu,” the original rip-off.  But first, the good – the element of “Dracula” that’s most similar to “Nosferatu,” and therefore the best, and that’s the opening section where real estate agent Renfield ventures to the ominous Transylvanian castle to do business with the Count.  Plot-wise the two films are exactly the same here, all the way down to the agent in both films pricking his finger while eating, and the Count looking on ravenously.  The dread of the townspeople is just as exaggerated and laughable as in the silent “Nosferatu,” but you get past that once you see what everyone’s shitting their pants over.  The set design, and staging of the characters in it, of Dracula’s castle is magnificent.  Entering the castle, Renfield is but a tiny blip, swallowed up by the massive and dark hallway, complete with that grand staircase and the cobwebs to make it all the more ominous.  Bats can be seen and heard flying by the window, and cuts to rats, bats, and other vermin scuttling across the ground are frequent both here and in the Count’s coffin chamber, as if the awakening of he and his brides upset nature itself.  Lugosi’s entrance is appropriately celebrated and famous, with his stiff movement and extremely inflected speech, his words like macabre poetry (“Listen to them.  Children of the night.  What music they make!”).  When he ascends those stairs and that poor sap Renfield can only look on in confused terror, the Count seems to glide rather than walk…and notice how he starts walking toward those cobwebs, camera cuts to Renfield, and then back to the Count, now behind the undisturbed cobwebs.  It’s all very subtle stuff pulled off with grace by both Lugosi and Browning.

And then there’s those eyes.  The first time we see Lugosi’s face up-close, shadows conceal his lower face, with his eyes, wide and terrifying, bathed in light.  It’s a startling shot that grabs Renfield, and grabs us.  It’s a testament to Browning’s outstanding use of lighting and shadows in an already ominous setting, maximizing the dread as Renfield becomes a small and cowering figure in the midst of the dark and unusually large castle, and the tall and confident Count Dracula.  This is horror-expressionism at its finest (it’s just too bad that “Nosferatu” staked a claim to this exact territory nine years earlier 😛 ).  It’s just a shame that that face is meant to be as deep as Lugosi’s performance will go.  First time, it was startling.  By the eight or ninth, I started chuckling, as Lugosi’s face of death just seemed to get more and more exaggerated.  And it’s when that face starts repeating, once Dracula moves to jolly ol’ England, when the movie comes crashing down.  

In Transylvania, Lugosi’s Dracula was a demigod in his macabre domain, as sinister as the castle around him.  Once in England, though, he just takes a back seat as others sit around and share stories about the biology, physiology, psychology, and consumer spending habits of the vampire.  Van Helsing’s there to lecture us on stuff we can pretty much pick up from what the movie shows us anyway, Mina’s the helpless, innocent victim, and John Harker’s her idiot Prince Valiant…all while a deranged, spider-eating Renfield (practically the one thing about the LONG England stretch of the film that was damn-near interesting) frequently interrupts their little closed-door meetings.  And the best part is, they’re basically offering themselves up buffet-style while they sit around planning this and that, and Dracula, who I guess is supposed to be immortal and super-strong or something, can come in and feast on some good old’ O-Neg whenever he likes.  Instead, we get a shitty-looking bat model hanging from a fishing line flying outside the window or, yes, shots of Lugosi’s intense-to-a-T face.  What’s he waiting for, the salt and pepper shakers to give his prospective victims some seasoning first?  And it doesn’t help matters that there’s no musical score.  Believe it or not, having no music actually works in the Transylvania scenes, as the deafening silence around that shrew Renfield makes you that much more apprehensive that something’s lurking in the shadows, and as a result, the emergence of Dracula’s brides from the hallway and the Count himself from the window, all descending upon the fainted Renfield to no music, no sound, is actually really creepy.  But cut back to England, where we basically have a parlor play that’s boring as all hell, and Tod Browning doesn’t even give us the courtesy of a score to take our mind off of the mind-numbing dialogue.  When you’ve got zero musical score, glaring plot holes (one subplot in particular involving an undead Lucy, first victim of the Count, kidnapping children in the night, one that I would’ve loved to explore deeper, is unforgivably glossed over after one mere mention), and a huge chunk of time where plot progression is stopped dead, a horror movie becomes an exercise in looking at your watch.

The idea of a regal, hyper-sexual bloodsucking demon ingratiating himself in a huge, unsuspecting society is a frightening one, but in Browning’s film that idea falls flat.  I want to be scared by a horror movie, but one extended scene of genuine tension at the beginning, followed by an hour of nothing ain’t gonna cut it.  In “Nosferatu,” Count Orlok was one of the most terrifying creatures ever put on screen just by look alone – the shriveled physique, the two front fangs, those HUGE eyes and fingernails, that ethereal rise from the coffin.  Just watching that…thing carry his coffin around gave me chills.  Here, though, I’m sorry, but I’m just not as intimidated by a handsome, well-spoken Eastern European who hob-nobs it with England’s elite.  There are moments where Lugosi is brilliant, especially when he is indeed the king of the castle, and others where he’s laughably over the top (as in his wide-eyed war of wills with Van Helsing, complete with forceful but mispronounced “Come HURR” 😆 …my apologies to any Hungarian who might be reading this).  It’s an elegant and commanding performance in the expressionistic realm of Transylvania, but in England he’s woefully out of place.  It’s funny, “Nosferatu” had all music and no dialogue, and was a brilliant bundle of tension with one of the most romantically surreal endings you’ll ever see, while “Dracula” has no music and a shitstorm of dialogue, and ends up collapsing within itself, complete with one of the most rushed and generic endings you’ll ever see.  Sorry, that face that’s launched a thousand vampiric imitators is great and all, but I guess I just prefer a hideous bat-like, pointy-earred abomination of a face to get my vampire kicks.

Yeah, you’re supposed to be at the edge of your seat, concerned about Mina and her waning health as the Count, as a man, wolf, or bat might be right around the corner, but when all was said and done, all I could think about was how when the Count didn’t have a reflection in the mirror and somehow his tux also managed to vanish in that mirror.  Obviously vampires have no reflection, but what about a vampire’s tuxedo?  Does anything even touching a vampire not have a reflection?  Was it a special Transylvania-brand tux that conforms to a busy vampire’s non-reflection needs?  Did Tod Browning just get lazy?  Of all the things to get bothered about with “Dracula,” this of all things bothered me the most, and boy is this a pointless way to end everything I have to say about the movie.  But I just had to get it off my chest, it pissed me off that much 😆 .



5 comments so far

  1. gugulovesme on

    Only a handful of errors creep into the text and all those were based on the best information available at the time. Good Domain

  2. Eli on

    I have no idea how you can give this a better rating than Vampyr.

  3. Simon M. on

    because Vampyr put me to sleep. This, despite its flaws, did not.

    A 6.5 is still a shitty score in my book, by the way, just not as shitty as a 3.5.

  4. DG on

    Too lazy to read the whole thing but I also did not like Dracula all that much. The parts in the castle were pleasantly dark and Gothic but everything else – most of the movie – was pretty bland and boring. Which is a little bit weird since one of the really cool things about the two Browning silents I’ve seen – The Unknown and The Blackbird – is how well atmosphere is built up using purely visual means, it’s like he forgot about it completely when he had sound to work with. Or maybe (no, definitely) Lon Chaney is a better actor than Bela Lugosi.

  5. Simon M. on

    “it’s like he forgot about it completely when he had sound to work with”

    that was my problem with a movie like The Great Dictator. With no sound, Chaplin was one of the great artists of the 20th century, but once sound became a factor, he could still make a damn good movie, but it all became very, very awkward.

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