Horror and monster junkies rejoice, it is FINALLY that wonderful time of year, when our otherwise “odd” obsession with all things horror becomes the norm. October is here and that means it’s our time! We all have our own traditions, or marathons that we excitedly cram into this month, but for me the Halloween season is synonymous with the classic Universal monster flicks. Allow me to get personal for a minute, the “classics” and I go back to my youngest memories of sitting with my grandfather and just eating these movies up. Every few weeks, we revisited these flicks (no matter how sick of these movies he may have been!) and thus my love of the classics began. I feel there’s no greater way to honor not only my grandfather, but also my love of these movies than by dedicating this hallowed month of October to the Universal Classic Monsters. A difference you will see here is that I will not be giving these films a rating, as I feel they are all pretty much perfect and everyone should see them! So, without further ado, I am honored to present my first edition of Sundays With… Tod Browning’s Dracula!
Release Date: February 14, 1931
Run Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Bela Lugosi
Director: Tod Browning
Dracula is based off the Hamilton Dean, John Balderston stage play, which of course was based on the Bram Stoker classic.
“Children of the night. What music they make.” – Dracula
During a grueling trip to Transylvania, Renfield (Dwight Frye), is finally nearing his destination: Castle Dracula. Renfield is a solicitor who has been summoned to finish a business deal with said Count Dracula (Lugosi). Despite the warnings of the townspeople, he ventures to his destination. He is greeted by a mysterious, yet pleasant man, Dracula. The business deal he is here to discuss involves Dracula’s leasing of Carfax Abbey, in London. After the dealing is done, Renfield attempts to turn in for the evening, yet he becomes hypnotized by a bat flying just outside his window. Unbeknownst to him, Renfield opens the window and then collapses. It is at this time when the three wives of Dracula attempt to feed on Renfield. Dracula enters from the window and waves them away, taking Renfield for himself. Fast forward to the next day and Renfield, now an insane slave, is traveling aboard the Vesta, with the coffin of Dracula, and his eight boxes. The ship finally arrives in London, with every crew member dead. Renfield, the only living person on the ship, is sent to Dr. Seward’s sanitarium. A few nights later, Dracula meets Dr. Seward, his daughter Mina (Chandler), Jonathan Harker her fiancée, and family friend Lucy at a theater. Lucy is very taken with the suave Dracula, and that evening he visits her in her room, and drinks of her blood, which causes Lucy to die the next day. All the while Professor Van Helsing (Van Sloan) has been treating and analyzing Renfield when he believes he has discovered the root of insanity: that Renfield is under the spell of a vampire. Following the death of Lucy, Dracula turns his sights onto Mina, and begins feasting on her. Dracula returns the following evening as a caller, and is confronted by both Harker and Van Helsing when it is discovered he does not have a reflection. Dracula retreats, but is it too late to save Mina? She is drawn to him regardless of the danger. Now it is a race for Harker and Van Helsing to save Mina before she is fully taken by Dracula.
Dracula, in my humble opinion, is the epitome of what a vampire should be in film. Lugosi’s portrayal of the count perfectly blends the debonair sophistication of an educated man mixed with the rabid lust and animal-like ferocity of a monster. He is both a seducer and a destroyer and that is what makes him the most frightening. And most importantly, he does not sparkle! Dracula is actually the second vampire film, the first of course being the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu. Starting in in the mid 1920’s a young producer named Carl Laemmle Jr., son of Universal studios founder Carl Laemmle, started making movements to acquire the rights to Dracula from Stoker’s widow. Despite the disinterest of his father and many other studio execs, Laemmle Jr. acquired the rights, seeing the value a big budget representation of the horror classic could bring. Even though Universal now owns the book rights, they used the Deane, Balderston Broadway stage show as the basis of the film, seeing as it was already a more presentation-friendly version. The filmmakers used a combination of the stage show, novel, and even Nosferatu when putting together the script; one famous scene is even taken almost directly shot for shot. If you know which one, leave a comment!
Aside from the obvious physical and psychological horror in the forefront of this film, we also see many underlying themes that represent the period of time not only in which the novel was created but also the film. The first thing that I will simply touch on because I do not like discussing things that take away from the enjoyment of the film, but for arguments sake I will bring up, is the fact that this film deals with class distinction. Keep in mind that this film was made in the midst of the Great Depression, so through attire alone we can see who are the haves and the have nots in this society. Dracula is a wealthy, well-spoken gentleman and he is often seen using his powers to control, or use, the “lower class” (servers and helpers) to do his bidding. I like to think of this as just a vessel to further the film, however several film historians including Gregory W. Mank felt it was an important enough point to discuss when giving the narration for Dracula.
Anyone who has seen or read Dracula knows that both sexuality and religion are big themes throughout. When we think back to the golden age of monster movies we do not usually think of sex being a huge part of the landscape, but that is what made Dracula not just special but also wildly controversial at the time. Dracula was a human representation of seduction and the sexual anxiety of the period. For the most part, due to religious outrage or just the parlance of the time, sexuality was rarely seen, let alone promoted. Dracula used his sexuality for his own gains. Whether he was staring into someone’s eyes, or even feeding on his victims seductively, he controlled people. Another point of controversy was that Dracula did this to men, which seemed homoerotic, another huge no-no in this time period! In this regard, again, I do not feel like it was done to make a statement about sexuality in general, more or less that Dracula is in fact an insatiable monster. However, whether at the time it was intentional or not, they brought to life a pretty progressive character. This is something that newer versions of the count seem to miss. Religion is another big underlying theme of the movie. Numerous times throughout, even though they are not directly quoted, references to blood and the reverence of it are implied. If blood is to represent our soul, then Dracula represents evil and the temptation of taking it from us to make himself stronger. The fear of backlash from religious groups also had a big impact on the final product of the film. The early screenings ended with Edward Van Sloan giving a curtain epilogue after the film, which was removed shortly after for fear that it would promote “a belief in the supernatural.”
Tod Browning was tasked with directing this first venture into horror, and right alongside him was renowned cinematographer Karl Freund. Browning was known as a meticulous film maker from the silent film period, and thus much of the film had a traditional look to it. The use of newspaper headlines to further the script was a staple of silent film making. This traditional way of doing things clashed with the very talented Freund, who was known for his use of the rotating camera, an effect that sweeps the whole scene before landing on its intended character. However, this effect was only used twice in the film due to Browning’s traditional expectations. The acting itself also lent to Browning’s silent film days as there are long sequences with no sound or dialogue that rely entirely on the expressions of the actors involved. Luckily, Lugosi was a master at this and the film succeeded. As for the use of “special effects” of fogs and fake bats however, a technique known as a “glass shot” was used that enabled the film to feel grander than it was. In many scenes, namely the first time Renfield and Dracula meet in the castle, as well as Renfield’s trek through Borgo Pass, this technique was used in which a carefully painted backdrop was painted on a sheet of glass, and the sheet was placed over the camera lens when filming the action. From most testimonies on the production, this film was pretty disorganized and most of the production fell on Freund’s shoulders with most of the final say going to Browning. Interestingly enough, you can see whose say went where in the film.
The 1931 version of Dracula was in fact not the only Dracula film to be released that year. At the same time a Spanish version led by Carlos Villarias was being filmed on the same set for foreign release. The Spanish version is regarded by many as a superior film to the Lugosi version due to the freedom they had. The Spanish version did not have the influence of Browning and thus used a more “artsy” approach to the cinematography, employing much more use of the rotating camera, as well as using sweeping angles to capture famous shots. Both films were shot on the same sets, however the Spanish version was shot second, so they could see how the original looked and could be improved upon. Aside from the technical aspects, there was much less restraint on the foreign release and thus it was a much more sexed up version. Both versions of the film are spectacular, but it is up to you to decide which is superior. Both versions of the film are based on the Stoker classic, however most of the similarities end in name and general outline. The book version of Dracula is a decrepit old man much more similar to Nosferatu than the handsome, sophisticated version modern audiences received.
The casting of Dracula was, in its own right, controversial. Bela Lugosi, who portrayed the Count in the Broadway production that the film was being based on, was initially not even considered for the role. Studio execs wanted to go with a film actor over a stage performer, but after much lobbying by Lugosi, he landed the part, and from there film history was made. Lugosi became synonymous with Dracula, and much of that was due to how he would speak. Lugosi was in fact a transplant from Hungary and learned to speak English phonetically. So his legendary performance was in fact real and not an actor’s touch! There have been many great actors to portray Dracula over the years, from Gary Oldman to the late great Christopher Lee, but none of them are Lugosi, who to me is and always will be the only Dracula. The rest of the cast was filled by the beautiful Helen Chandler as Mina and David Manners as John Harker. Both performances were solid but over shadowed by the performances around them. Edward Van Sloan was Van Helsing and he absolutely nailed it. From his physical appearance to his attitude, Van Sloan epitomized the Van Helsing character. Dwight Frye was absolutely chilling as Renfield. The slope into insanity given to us by Frye provided for many of the memorable scenes in the film, and in my opinion his performance was on the same level as Lugosi’s. As for the score, the opening title cards are overlaid with an excerpt of Act II from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” a perfect sound for this film. However, in 1998 composer Philip Glass was commissioned to create a score for the legendary film. His score is huge and atmospheric, giving a beautiful background to the iconic images we see on the screen. Glass’ score was released in 1999, and was included in several screenings of the film between 1999-2000. The subsequent DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film all give the option to watch the film with or without Glass’ score.
The release of Dracula was the beginning of Universal Studio’s rise to new heights. The monster movie would become synonymous with Universal, a tradition that is still beloved to this day. Dracula debuted at Roxy Theater in New York, and by all accounts the crowds were “shocked” leading several people to faint from what they saw on the screen. Laemmle Jr.’s gamble paid off as Dracula became a huge success and ushered the studio into a new direction. The legacy of Dracula is a grand one as the film has been appreciated and acknowledged on many of the American Film Institute’s best of lists including: 100 years 100 thrills, 100 years 100 heroes and villains, and 100 years 100 movie quotes. Original Dracula merchandise such as movie posters is also exceptionally rare and collectible. Auctions have these posters for over $100,000. The impact of Dracula not only on the studio but on the film industry as a whole is immeasurable. Dracula proved that monster/horror films mean not only big business but could also be beloved and admired. Dracula set the mold for all modern horror and monster movies today.
Any classic horror fans in the Brooklyn, New York area? Join the UMU team and myself as we screen this classic at Nitehawk cinemas on October 26th!