not in our stars, but in ourselves
Continuing my creepy week with the fully authorized, non-copyright-infringing Dracula (1931), just because I do so love a theme. Keeps me focused. Anyway. As indicated by the breathless promise in the above poster’s tagline – “The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!” – Universal was definitely going for the more Romantic aspects of Dracula. The film even opens with a selection of music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which also has a bat-like villain. No gruesome interpretation of Bram Stoker’s novel here: Tod Browning’s production explicitly emphasizes the sexy side of vampirism.
The story adheres more closely to the details of Stoker’s novel, as befits an authorized version: Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels to Count Dracula’s (Bela Lugosi) run-down castle in the Carpathians. Dracula feasts on Renfield’s blood, and they sail to England the next day. The ship arrives with everyone on board dead, Dracula moves into an equally run-down abbey adjacent to the mental hospital where Renfield has been taken, and terrorizes London by night. (London is overrun by Americans, it seems.) He especially likes Mina (Helen Chandler), the virtuous daughter of Renfield’s doctor. Somehow, it takes renowned crackpot, Professor van Helsing (Edward van Sloan) until almost the end of the film to figure out that Dracula is a vampire, that he’s “turned” Renfield and Mina, and that his coffin is somewhere in the abbey next door. No one else in the film seems to have a clue. I do remember reading the novel a couple of years ago, and rolling my eyes at how dim everyone seemed to be; the effect is compounded in the film. Count Orlok at least had the sense to hide himself. Count Dracula is always gallivanting around town, going to the symphony and attacking flower girls and the like.
Now, as you can see by that fine specimen of Eastern European manhood, this particular nosferatu is no human rat. Like Stoker’s original Count, he is meant to be alluring in the extreme. The ladies love when he bites their necks. He even has three brides – a flourish from the novel that could only have made its way into a pre-Code adaptation thereof.
“The blood is the life,” as Dracula says to Renfield, and he means it in the most carnal way.
It’s not a very good movie. It’s deeply silly, in fact. Sure, it’s a pop-culture touchstone: Lugosi’s Dracula is the most famous of them all, with everything from his thick Hungarian accent to his black silk cape and gentlemanly demeanor forming the collective idea of what vampires look and sound and act like. But it’s not very good. I was reading something – it may have been as ignoble as the Wikipedia page for this movie – about how many of the acting techniques and directorial devices were holdovers from silent film. Perhaps. Perhaps that accounts for how campy everything seems, and how decidedly un-scary. But as you know, if you’ve read enough of these: I am a big fan of silent film. I admire its fluidity and balletic qualities. Perhaps it is doomed to look absurd when it’s paired with speech.
But perhaps the issue is just that no one involved here is all that good.
Let me rephrase. Lugosi is a bit wooden, and probably would have been much better in the role when he was playing it on stage, but he’s fine. Van Sloan is fine, too, as the stock eccentric-foreign-intellectual type. Herbert Bunston, playing Dr. Seward, is, for the third time, fine as the well-intentioned and mostly baffled father of Mina. These three actors all originated their roles in the play from which the film was directly adapted. It’s those other jokers who are the real problem. Universal wasn’t quite a poverty-row studio, but it wasn’t MGM. It wasn’t Paramount, or even Warner Brothers. Top-tier talent, if it was ever there, wasn’t usually there for long. And so we have a leading lady who makes this face when she’s about to bite her boyfriend’s neck:
I make a very similar face when I’m reading train timetables.
While there are some interesting pre-Code elements, and while it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel/play, and while it’s worth seeing just to know where all those cinematic vampire tropes originate, it’s not great. I haven’t even gotten to the “special effects,” a term I use very loosely here. Universal evidently couldn’t get real bats, wolves, or even spiders. The bats and spiders seem to be children’s toys; the wolves are never seen on screen, but heard from off-screen space. We do see a possum, some armadillos, and a not-very-attractive but not-very-deadly-looking cricket – in other words, animals that were probably hanging around the studio backlot that someone must have thought looked weird and exotic enough to signify Occult powers in Dracula’s castle. Okay.
Don’t go into this expecting much of anything, except a rather rushed spin through Stoker’s romance of bloodlust. It’s not nearly as salacious as it could be, and perhaps should be. Can you imagine if Erich von Stroheim had directed?! Oh, what a dream of a film we could have had. In lieu of that, I’d recommend that you just read the book.