ZC Note: I first posted this in 2007. If you haven't seen Bela as Dracula yet (where the hell have you been?) this review does contain spoilers.
Zombos Says: Classic
It seemed the whole room was filled with mist. Then I saw two red eyes glaring at me, approaching quickly, giving way to a livid face contorted into the gravest mask of terror. It was only Zombos.
"For god's sake, hide me!" he cried.
"Daddos, where are you daddos? You've got a dance question." Zombos Jr was getting closer.
"Playing High School Musical the DVD Board Game, I see," I said, applying more steam to the corpse plants. I had been enjoying the warm, pleasant quiet of the solarium as it filled with mist, attending to my botanical chores. Warm, pleasant, moments never last, do they?
"I don't know why Zimba ever got him that hellish game!" Zombos frantically looked about the room for a hiding place.
"Try behind the bench over there," I pointed. For a man his age, he did move fast when given sufficient reason.
Perhaps I should mention I recommended the game to Zimba. It did make such a wonderful Christmas gift for Zombos Jr; the little fellow simply can't get enough of it.
Zombos Jr came running into the room.
"Did you see my daddos?"
Before I could answer, Zombos sneezed loud enough to wake the dead.
"There you are!" He gleefully ran to Zombos and hustled him out of the room. Zombos let out a moan of despair that followed him all the way up the stairs and down the east hall to the playroom. Wait a minute; I mistakenly told him to hide behind the bench next to the orchids. Silly me, the man’s terribly allergic to them. How could I have forgotten? I turned back to my duties, pondering on another pair of red eyes glaring through dark mist, deep into the dead of night.
The year was 1931. Universal Studios had originally planned a big budget movie, more along the lines of 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1925's The Phantom of the Opera, but the Great Depression squelched those plans. Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces and master of extreme characterizations, was onboard to star in Dracula, playing both the titular vampire and Van Helsing, the titular vampire's nemesis. Chaney succumbed to a throat hemorrhage before production began, leaving director and creative partner, Tod Browning, disappointed and disheartened.
Other names were bandied about to replace him, including Conrad Veidt, but only one person was born to play the role of the undead count: Bela Lugosi. Say what you will about the shortcomings of Browning's movie, it’s Lugosi's performance as the aristocratic count of corrupting evil that has defined the sartorial look, voice, and mannerisms of Bram Stoker's Dracula ever since. Lugosi was and still is Dracula, down to his hypnotic stare, sensual cape swirl, and suave malice and upper-class pretentions.
Amazingly, Lugosi, who had starred in the smash stage play Dracula, by Hamilton Deane and later John L. Balderston, had to fight fang and nail for the movie role. The expatriate Hungarian actor whose singular, syllabic voice was both a blessing for playing the blood-thirsty count, and a curse for most of his other roles, took less pay then his fellow actors to get the part. Yet, it’s his performance that has provided horrorheads everywhere with undying dreams of immortality, and punsters with a Google's worth of Lugosi-like enunciations.
Lugosi took Dracula seriously, even though Browning may not have.
Cinema historians and fans have written and debated much on the movie's immobilized camerawork, long silent pauses, dialog-weighted pacing after we leave Transylvania, and a stifling confinement to the play's drawing-room set-pieces, with mostly Lugosi's performance making it all worthwhile. In every one of his endeavors, from B-movie to Poverty Row quickie, he never acted down to the material. And while the Spanish version of Dracula, filmed concurrently at night and on the same sets, may be technically superior to Browning's version, the overly melodramatic acting of Carlos Villarias as Conde Dracula is distracting.
Beginning with what would become the signature Gothic-neverworld of Universal; frightened villagers, dreary mist-shrouded landscapes, and expansive interior sets awash with ominous shadows and portents of supernatural danger, poor Renfield (Dwight Frye) doesn't know what he's in for as he heads to Castle Dracula to deliver the lease for Carfax Abbey to its new owner, Count Dracula—on Walpurgis Night, no less. Ignoring the pleas of the villagers not to go, he hops in a coach to make a midnight rendezvous with another that will take him the rest of the way.
The rendezvous with Count Dracula’s coach, pulled by black horses, in the mist-shrouded forest at midnight is foreboding. Renfield barely gets his feet on the ground before the frightened driver who brought him throws his bag down and whips his horses into a gallop to get away. Dracula himself is the driver of the waiting coach. Cinema historian David Skal points out how the scene as written differs from how it was filmed, leading to an anomaly.
In the script, Dracula has his face covered so only his piercing eyes can be seen by Renfield. On film, Dracula's face is not hidden. Renfield can clearly see him, but at the castle he doesn't realize his mysterious host was also his silent coachman. Or perhaps Dracula simply mesmerized him?
Dracula greets him in the cavernous hall of the castle. Renfield sheepishly walks toward the great stone staircase while Dracula slowly descends it, with both framed and dwarfed by the decaying battlements and desolation. The censors wouldn't allow rats to be shown so Browning chose armadillos instead, hoping they’d be creepy enough. They are. He even has a fat vampire bug crawl out of its tiny coffin, which is more odd than creepy. The art direction by Charles D. Hall, combined with Karl Freund’s cinematography generates eeriness and an underlying and indeterminate dread we sense as well as Renfield.
Hall would go on to helm the memorable art direction in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, while Freund continued casting ominous shadows in his brooding camera work in Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Mummy.
The howling of wolves prompts Dracula to wax poetic as he implores Renfield to "Listen to them…the children of the night…what music they make." Renfield, not quite sure what to make of all this, haltingly follows the count, who effortlessly passes through a large spider web blocking the stairs.
At this point, I'd be running down the stairs, but Renfield shirks it off and uses his walking stick to open a path through the enormous web. He follows his creepy host to a comfortable room, cheerily lit by a crackling fireplace. Greatly relieved, he even mentions how cheery it is.
It’s as cheery as the movie gets.
Before you can say " I don't drink...wine," Renfield is drugged, tapped out of a pint or two of blood, and turned into a raving lunatic who eats flies and fat juicy spiders for their life's fluid. In an energetic performance that would typecast him, Dwight Frye vividly illuminates the pain, pathos, and sinful pleasure of Dracula's questionable "gift" of immortality. His near feverish ravings contrast sharply with Lugosi's studied, methodical performance, setting the tone for every mad doctor's assistant to come.
Unfortunately, the movie leaves its momentum at the Borgo Pass in Transylvania when Dracula and Renfield sail to London aboard the Vesta. As Skal notes, the shooting script had scenes involving Lugosi baring fangs and attacking the Vesta's crew like some all-you-can-eat seafood smorgasbord. In the movie, the budget and censors took their toll, along with Browning's seeming disinterest, and the Vesta’s voyage is a short run of herky-jerky stock footage from a previous silent movie. Except for one chilling scene in which Renfield laughs and glares maniacally from the ship's cargo hold as he’s discovered when the ship drifts into port, the voyage is not a highpoint it could have been. A movie long in development hell called the Last Voyage of the Demeter aims to capitalize on this shortcoming. (Demeter is the name of the Russian schooner carrying Dracula to England in Bram Stoker’s novel.)
While the ponderously static drawing-room scenes slow momentum, the tete-a-tete between Dracula and Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), and Renfield's more colorfully lucid moments between raving insanity and pitiable remorse, give sufficient animus to the proceedings to hold attention.
This character-driven intensity is lost in the Spanish version. For instance, Carlos Villarias’ Dracula clumsily uses a walking-stick to smash a mirror box that betrays him, diluting the defining confrontation between him and Van Helsing with bug-eyed theatrics. In comparison, Sloan’s Van Helsing quietly tricks Dracula into viewing the box just before he reveals the mirror. Realizing he’s been outwitted, Lugosi’s Dracula smashes the box to the ground with his bare hand while jumping back, his hatred and contempt burning through the short distance between them. Van Helsing calmly strokes his chin as if he’s conducting an experiment. Lugosi's feral glare turns to an apology as he regains composure. He gives Van Helsing a parting compliment to his cunning and a warning, noting how Van Helsing’s not lived even a single lifetime.
Renfield's vexing ability to roam freely around Dr. Seward's house provides humor and energy, enlivening what would otherwise be dialog-heavy situations. Frye alternates Renfield through bouts of ecstasy and damnation as he obediently, and at times unwillingly, helps Dracula get to Mina (Helen Chandler). His description of the thousands of rats with red eyes, shown to him by Dracula as a future reward, would have been an incredible scene if the censors and budget had allowed it.
I've seen Dracula many times over the years, but never noticed the large piece of cardboard placed next to the lamp in Mina's room until more astute viewers wondered at why this mysterious, ragged piece of paper is visible in the scene. Cinema historians and fans differ in their opinions: is it a mistake, having been used to diffuse lighting for a certain camera angle and forgotten? or is it there as part of the script, purposely positioned by Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) to keep the harsh lamp light out of Mina’s eyes so she could sleep? Either way, it’s a testament to Lugosi's riveting performance that it usually remains unnoticed in the background.
The current consensus on Tod Browning’s directorial involvement is that he didn't direct much of the movie, but left it to Karl Freund, whose talents as a cinematographer were exceptional, and more adequate than his directorial abilities. I wonder what kind of movie Dracula would have been with Lon Chaney playing the parts of the undead count and his astute, unwavering nemesis Van Helsing. Would Browning have realized a different vision? Would Chaney have used his incredible make-up talents to fashion a more horrific Dracula than Max Shrek's in Nosferatu? If so, would he have been more or less effective than Lugosi's more socially mobile, suave, and seductive vampiric aristocrat?
While no longer scary—given today's desensitized audiences, not much is—Dracula still remains an iconic and important movie in the pantheon of horror cinema due to its initial art direction, and the eternal performances of Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan. As Universal’s first talking horror movie, it set the tone for a new style of terror, creating generations of undying fans to come.