There's as much of a shortage of filmic adaptations of Bram Stoker's Magnum Opus as there is a shortage of Cell Phones in an AMC Theatre. Hell, Universal themselves released not one, but two versions of Dracula within the year of 1931, less than two months apart (see Drácula for the rest of the story). I, myself, once wrote a screenplay called "Dracula: The Final Chapter (Because Fifty-Seven Dracula Movies are enough... Damn It!)". Yes, it's safe to say that if Dracula could change himself into Oil as easily as he can change himself into a Bat, there would be no more energy crisis... or breathable air.
Throughout all the various incarnations, tributes, rip-offs and travesties, there is one that remains as the single Ideal Vampiric Form that springs to mind any time the name "Dracula" is uttered. That's one Béla Lugosi. Lugosi's Dracula isn't Stoker's. In fact, this Dracula owes much more of a debt to the stage play by Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort than the legend of ol' Vlad the Impaler. That said, no one so easily comes to our thoughts as the shining Iconic Vampire than Lugosi's Tuxedoed and Suave creature of the night.
Directed by Tod Browning (already considered a "Horror Master" for his work on Freaks, amongst others), this dark delicacy takes a good number of liberties with Stoker's original Epistolary Novel, combines a few characters and eliminates a great deal of his work for a more direct and immediate scare-fest. We begin with the visit of hapless Mr. Renfield (oh that Dwight Frye), who finds out all too well what the hospitality of dear Count Dracula (Lugosi) really leads to. After inking the most famous real-estate deal since God gave Israel to Abraham, our Gentleman Ghoul traverses the Ocean to his new home at Carfax Abbey. We get to see Lugosi and Browning experiment with the persona of "Drac the Ripper" as he preys upon the ladies of the evening, just before he takes a shine to the young women hanging out at the sanitarium next door.
Enter the appetizer, Lucy Weston (instead of Westenra, as played by Frances Dade), whom the count meets at the Opera along with her friend Mina Seward (instead of Murray, as played by Helen Chandler), AKA: The Main Course. Let's not forget "John" Harker (David Manners), Mina's Fiance, and Dr. Jack Seward (Herbert Bunston), Mina's forlorn father. The group seems to have a hard time grasping the fact that something rather untoward might be going down in what passed back then as "The Hood". Lucky for them Old Man Seward's got an Ace in the Hole in the form of a certain Vampire Expert named Prof. Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Abie-Baby is quick to see the writing on the wall (if not the reflection in the mirror), and soon has what's left of his Super-Team defending their lives against the maniacal Count, his many forms and his many minions.
There are many flaws in this very dated movie, most of which can be traced back to the fact that "Talkies" were still new at the time. Very little of the film feels less than over-acted, the special effects don't stand up as well as a two-legged tripod after this many years, and many Literary Purists may still be turned off by the nip-tuck act done on the original book. Yes, sometimes it can be a little silly, sometimes, downright laughable. However, setting all that gloriously aside and simply appreciating Browning's work, as one might have from the Zeitgeist of the 1930's, Dracula is a wonderful slice of classic horror, as only Universal could have served up. Browning, a veteran of the silent era, takes his time and paces the film's tracking shots, appreciating every inch of the lavish sets and almost dreamy landscapes. His eye for the smart camera movements may not wow the casual viewer today, but considering his precursors, it's impossible not to call Tod Browning an innovator. His use of shadow (almost at the expense of visibility) makes the columns of light and surprisingly well-lit moments all the more rich. Further, this technique makes the Count's Hypnotic eyes actually appear to glow.
And then there's the acting. Again, much of it is over-expressive, almost stage-oriented delivery. To criticize the acting too much would be to miss the valid points of this era in film evolution (not to mention sound recording) almost completely, however. This simply was the way it was then, and it's hard to say that anyone did a particularly poor job. Van Sloan, in particular, is a definite standout as the stoic Van Helsing. Further, Dwight Frye is incredible as Renfield. The conflict he brings to the role of this tortured and frightened man is much more than the script alone demands. Renfield the professional Businessman is owned by Frye; Renfield the Leering Lunatic is perfected by Frye; Renfield the Phantom Menace is nailed by Frye; and Renfield the Frightened Lackey is simply made for Frye. His varied approach to a complex character does even Stoker proud, and he's still incredible to watch today.
Let's not forget Lugosi, who started playing Dracula on the Broadway Stage (and in Touring Companies throughout the United States). Lugosi originally learned his lines phonetically (speaking very little English as a Hungarian Immigrant), and the resulting clipped speech and rolled consonants remains a staple of Dracula imitations today. "Good... Night... Mis-ter... Rrrrrrrren-Field!" can still raise the hackles of any self-respecting Goth anywhere in the world. What's more, even if the "look" of Dracula (described by Stoker as a repulsive monster) isn't quite canonical, the accent most certainly is (in that Vlad III Dracula was Romanian in real life). The voice was perfect, yes, however it's the presence of Lugosi that made him "THE Dracula" and the silent acting that made this movie scary. While it might not quite chill the Post-Millennium horror fan today, that cold stare, that one raised eyebrow and that occasionally appropriate smile still packs a certain punch coming from that dark silver screen. Lugosi's use of the now-famous cape is also a treat to watch, especially as it's used only for the right touches here and there. Is there any question that many of his moves went into Dear Mr. Kane's creation of Batman? Bela Lugosi might not be the most accurate representation of Stoker's Vampire, but Bela Lugosi IS Dracula nonetheless. His image is the one we think of when Dracula's name is incanted, whether we've seen the film or not. That is how ingrained Lugosi's performance has become in the collective consciousness. The poor man was typecast after this, because even then no one could think of him without Dracula, or Dracula without him. Now, after decades upon decades, it seems clear that this isn't such a terrible thing. You could play a hundred parts and never be thought of again... or you could play one big ICON, and be remembered fondly for generations to come. Personally, I'd take the latter... or if possible... BOTH!
Lugosi isn't the only reason that Dracula is remembered so well as such a good film. It took a village, from Laemmle on down. Regardless, this is THE Classic Dracula (a title it shares only with 1922's Nosferatu) and its impact on film is hard to estimate. Four Stars out of Five for Tod Browning's Dracula. Even for the time it had its flaws, and today it's hard to say that every little piece of it stands the test of time. However, after this many decades, Dracula's longevity speaks for itself. They just don't make them like they used to anymore, now do they? Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a gentle rapping at my chamber door. Ah, it's an old friend... he says he won't come in unless I formally invite him. Dumb luck... I thought he was dead. Go figure. See you in the next reel... I hope.
The man who will Mesmerize you into...
PRACTICIIIIIIING PROOOOOOOPER OOOOOORAAL HYYYYYYYYYGIIIIIIIINE!!!
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