Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movie Review: "Dracula" (1931) by David Pretty

With its beautiful Gothic sets, florid performances and creepy atmosphere, Universal's Dracula is an elegiac and haunting classic. Having said that, you can't help but wonder how much better it could have been if a different director had been at the helm. Although Tod Browning did a serviceable job, quite often the story feels disjointed, the pace and is stiff and stagey and the movie lacks a distinct visual style.

Like The Mummy which followed a year later, the picture opens up to the haunting strains of "Swan Lake". As one of the earliest "talkies", Dracula didn't have wall-to-wall music like today's films. Even though a soundtrack can really heighten the impact of on-screen scares, sometimes the action can be made spookier by its absence. Prior to Dracula, Tod Browning was a successful silent film director, and many posit that he was uncomfortable with soundtracks and dialogue scenes. Whether it was deliberate or not, large swaths of the film tick by in complete silence, producing a genuinely disquieting effect. 

We follow the course of a carriage as it winds it way through the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. Along the way we're treated to some gorgeous black and white photography by legendary German cinematographer Karl Freund, who'd already worked on a lot of classic movies including the sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis. The highly-detailed sets and matte paintings look incredible and within minutes a creepy atmosphere is firmly established.

We soon meet Mr. Renfield, played by the inimitable Dwight Frye. When it's revealed that he's en route to Castle Dracula to conduct some business the locals start freaking out, claiming that the place is infested with vampires. As if to leave no doubt of this, we immediately cut to a creepy underground crypt. Freund comes through again with a wonderful dolly shot that creeps up on Dracula's coffin. The lid slowly shifts to one side and a gnarled and twisted hand with long fingernails slowly emerges from the darkness.

This whole sequence is a veritable symphony of horror and within a few short minutes we're completely invested in what's going on. Soon Dracula's three spectral, silent and slightly-hunched vampire brides emerge from their respective coffins and start drifting through this dusty labyrinth. This is followed by a series of inexplicable and unsettling images involving a giant bug crawling out of a crypt and some pissed-off possums milling around. Through it all this eerie mise-en-scène is well-sustained and perfectly convincing.

And then we're hit with a close-up of Lugosi's corpse-pale face and hypnotic, penetrating eyes. Whatever you want to say about Lugosi's acting chops, he's certainly fascinating to look at. Pretty soon he's masquerading as his own coach-driver, guiding Renfield to his estate after all of the villagers bail on him. During this sequence, Lugosi just oozes malevolent command. Eventually our nominal hero reaches the castle and ventures inside where we get Dracula's grand reveal. 

When Lugosi descends from the staircase in that decrepit and authentic-looking castle set, it's an iconic and legendary cinematic moment. By all accounts, Lugosi was still trying to master the English language so a lot of his deliveries were done phonetically, leading to a truly off-kilter and memorable performance. This line alone still gives me chills:

Another nice touch: when Renfield tries to follow his host upstairs he finds the path inexplicably blocked by a thick wall of spider webs. Sorry, but if I'd just seen Dracula drift right through that shit I would have turned around and run screaming back towards the village at top speed. Not that it would have mattered much since Drac would have just changed into a wolf, run me down and ripped my throat out.

Indeed, in the very next scene, Dracula transforms from eccentric, dignified aristocrat into a rabid animal right in front of our eyes. The predatory look he gives to Renfield after he mistakenly cuts his finger open is still super-creepy. When you add in the hyena-like approach of his three vampire brides the effect is particularly disconcerting. Between Lugosi's riveting presence and his thick Hungarian accent, he was, and still is, the personification of pure evil and the best Dracula to date.

Even though most of the production design is impeccable there are a few "special effects" that show their age including a goofy, rubbery bat and a "ship" that looks suspiciously like a kids toy being thrown around in a bathtub. Tod Browning quickly atones for this in the following scene. When the now completely bat-shit insane Renfield rouses Dracula from his slumber the Count wakes up in a pretty foul mood. The next thing we see are the authorities inspecting the derelict ship with Dwight Frye's maniacal laughter as the only soundtrack. I swear, the first time you hear this it'll be burned into your memory forever. 

After the ship makes landfall, Dracula is soon prowling the streets of London wearing a cape, top hat, white gloves and carrying a totally pimp Dolemite cane. He chows down on a Cockney flower girl, which brings to mind shades of Jack the Ripper which, at that time, had only happened about forty years prior. Between the authentic sets, the pea-soup fog and Lugosi's practiced body language, the scene is downright eerie. Fun fact: Lugosi's hypnosis is a forerunner of the vampire's "glamour" ability in modern fare such as True Blood.    

Sometimes Tod Browning's directorial choices work and sometimes they don't. While the newspaper clippings about the fate of the Vesta pays homage to the original novel, it's one of many lapses which hobble the film's visual appeal. When the action moves to London things get particularly disjointed. From the theater, to Lucy's bedroom, to a surgical ward to Seward Sanitarium these scenes get thrown at us in rapid succession with precious little connective tissue to unite them.

The camera set-ups for the dialogue scenes are particularly static and uninspired. Indeed, whenever the characters are just shoveling expository dialogue at us it's usually done in a pretty boring shot / reverse shot manner. Whenever you see a camera set up that's the least bit ambitious, such as a crane used to establish Dr. Seward’s sanatorium, we can likely credit Karl Freund for these rare and highly-welcome visual flourishes.   

But for every stylistic miss-step something really cool and creepy happens on-screen. When Dracula invades Lucy's bedroom and creeps closer and closer to her in her sleep the effect is still chill-inducing. As comedy relief goes, Charles K. Gerrard is actually pretty funny as Renfield's über-cockney handler Martin. And with his hard-to-place accent and measured delivery, I still consider Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing to be one of the best.

Indeed, whenever Van Sloan and Lugosi are on-screen together the tension is palpable. Employing the good old "vampires-don't-cast-reflections" shtick, Van Helsing tricks Dracula into looking at a mirror. I love Lugosi's reaction to this: he goes from rage to composure to contrition to regret in the space of thirty seconds. I don't know what's more satisfying: Lugosi's recovery or Van Sloan's juicy look of self-satisfaction. Regardless, this is one of the most iconic confrontations in cinema history.

Supposedly the original plan for Dracula was a lot more ambitious, but the stock market crash forced the film-makers to scale back on the production. As such, Garrett Fort delivered a script that was little more then an adaptation of the Dracula stage play. Consequently, a lot of things happen off-screen. For example, when Dracula turns into a wolf all we get is Jonathan Harker looking stage right and exclaiming "What's that? Running across the lawn? It looks like a huge dog!" This happens again when Martin reads a newspaper account of an attack on some kids and when Mina relays a story about a harrowing encounter with her now-undead pal Lucy.   

There's only one instance when this decidedly anti-cinematic technique actually works, and sole credit for this belongs to Dwight Frye. As Renfield recounts a visit from Dracula it results in one of the creepiest moments in horror film history:

The next time Dracula and Van Helsing face off the Count is ready. After hitting his rival with an hypnotic whammy it looks as if the Professor will succumb to the vampire's will but Van Sloan does a great job showing us how his character finds his way out of this mental fog. I also love everything that Lugosi does in this scene, between his twisted, skeletal hand, his stern countenance and his dead-pan utterance of "Come...hur." It's great to watch these two powerful actors indulging in this intense battle of wits.

By contrast the the two romantic leads are rather dull. David Manners is strident and protective as Jonathan Harker, but almost to a fault. With his firmly-set jaw and highly-starched upper lip, Manners spends most of his time strutting around, acting skeptical and whining about Mina. Don't get me wrong, someone had to play the part of the lunk-head fiance and Manners does a good job in this thankless role.

At first Helen Chandler is equally annoying as Mina Seward, acting as if she's constantly under threat of a fainting spell. But things get a lot more interesting when she starts to vamp out. The wanton, lustful persona she takes on after stepping out with the villain really highlights the nascent sexual overtones of the film. If nothing else, Dracula is the perfect allegory for sexual promiscuity. The Count would never think to limit himself to just one biting partner; hell, he had three willing playmates in the basement of his castle! And, as it turns out, there's a large part of Mina that would prefer some variety instead of a lifetime of monagamy with the boring and white-bread Jonathan.  

As the film races to it's breakneck conclusion you begin to realize just how intense this must have been for audences back in 1931. On an epic spiral stone staircase, Dracula stalks and murders Renfield with the enthralled Mina in tow. The rising sun forces him to take a dirt nap and not long after Van Helsing and Jonathan arrive to try and track down the Count's coffin.

Movie-goers back then must have been on the edge of their seat as the ever-resourceful Van Helsing broke up the lid of the coffin, fashioned an impromptu wooden stake and prepared to impale the sleeping vampire. Even though Dracula's death happens off screen, Mina's distinctly sexual reaction to his demise must have caused viewer's heads to explode back then. It's moments like that which remind us that certain themes, especially those explored in the horror genre, are pretty universal and, by the same definition, eternal.      

Dracula might not be a perfect film but it's influence is still felt to this very day. Granted the wonderful performances and the atmospheric first reel does segue into a stagy and relatively-drab second half, it's still the prototypical vampire flick for the ages.

      Tilt: up.

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