Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Tod Browning
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Helen Chandler, David Manners
It’s almost impossible to underestimate how important Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula is to the history of horror cinema. It’s a classic, there’s no doubt about that, while Bela Lugosi’s performance pretty much defined the primary image of what a vampire looks and behaves like for decades.
The strange thing is, there’s a fair amount of it that is pretty far from classic material, with far too much of it feeling it was cracked out without much care and consideration, as if Browning was happy to stick the 1924 stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston up on the silver screen without bothering to open it up to the new possibilities a cinematic adaptation could offer.
Ignoring the locals warnings that the nearby Castle is inhabited by vampires, a solicitor named Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels to meet his new client Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to discuss his rental of Carfax Abbey in London.
Dracula feeds on Renfield almost immediately, making him his thrall to escort his coffin onboard the Vesta, a schooner travelling England, while feeding on the entire crew as they travel. Once there, the solicitor has been driven quite mad and is sectioned immediately, while the Count ingratiates himself in amongst London’s high society, initially via Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston), who runs the asylum in the grounds next to Carfax Abbey where Renfield has been interred.
Seward introduces his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker(David Manners) and the family friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade, who not only becomes Dracula’s victim, but rises from the grave to feed herself. When Dracula turns his attentions to Mina, Professor Van Helsing(Edward Van Sloan) begins to suspect that the Count may be more than he seems..
For all its stiff theatricality and staginess, there’s a hell of a lot to like about this film. Right from the off it wastes no time laying out its stall, first teeing up the very real concept of nosferatu in the first scene then the local innkeeper naming Dracula and his wives as blood-drinking vampires who leave their coffins at night, take the form of wolves and bats, and feed on blood! All in the first few minutes.
Those early scenes in Castle Dracula are visually magnificent. There’s an otherworldliness to the whole thing that’s almost hypnotic, tracking Renfield’s creeping damnation as he is lured like a fly in a spider’s web.
Castle Dracula is a beautiful ruin, given room to breathe with languid, long shots of the crumbling ruin, framing both its master and his brides in front of jaw-dropping backdrops, from the bug (and armadillo) infested crypt to its grand staircases and windows.
Lugosi is a remarkable presence from his first entrance on that staircase. Commanding, charming, malevolent and playful all at once, but with a layer of repressed carnality that occasionally rises to the forefront. He doesn’t always have the best lines to recite, but when he does, such as the iconic “Listen to the children of the night…what sweet music they make!”, he’s truly magnificent and impossible to take your eyes away from.
The other highlight of the cast is Dwight Frye’s poor, doomed Renfield. He pitches him as a weird, edgy and very fey character even to behind with, but from the moment the Vesta doors open and we get that long, drawn-out shot of him cackling over and over again, he crawls a fine line between empathic and repulsive. Forget the bug-eating, it’s that laugh. Brrrrr.
From the moment we leave the Castle though, the film’s roots as a play are more and more apparent. There’s a lot of telling instead of showing going on for one thing. The massacre on the Vesta works well, with just the silhouette of the captain lashed to the wheel, some newspaper reports and a voiceover letting us know what horrors we’ve missed. It’s minimal sure, but chilling too.
It’s when you get regular descriptions of giant dogs running across the ground, thousands of rats flanking Dracula or worse of all, Mina merely describing the Count forcing her to drink his blood that you just wish Browning either had the vision or even cared enough to open his film out.
That latter scene in particular is crucial and should have been one of the most memorable incidents in the whole film, but it’s just described and worse still, the more sexual elements are only hinted at by gesture.
With both Van Sloan and Bunston coming over from the Broadway adaptation with Lugosi, you just can’t shake the feeling you are watching a play up on the screen. It’s often stilted and feels smaller than it needs to, despite featuring some beautiful glass paintings of Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey, while failing to make the most out of both its source material and it’s star.
You know what though? It doesn’t really matter all that much. Bela Lugosi *is* Count Dracula and he more than carries Browning’s film through its weaker moments. Could it be better? God, yes. But it’s still an all-time classic in every sense of the word.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy