Monday, October 25, 2010

Film Review: DRACULA (1931, Tod Browning)

Stars: 4.9 of 5.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Béla Lugosi, Dwight Frye (FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), Helen Chandler (DAYBREAK, THE SKY HAWK), Edward van Sloane (THE MUMMY, FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER), Herbert Bunston (THE MOONSTONE, THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD), David Manners (THE BLACK CAT, THE MUMMY). Cinematography by Karl Freund (KEY LARGO, METROPOLIS, THE GOLEM, THE LAST LAUGH, I LOVE LUCY; director of THE MUMMY- allegedly uncredited co-director of DRACULA). Directed by Tod Browning (FREAKS, THE UNKNOWN). Makeup by Jack P. Pierce (FRANKENSTEIN, THE WOLF MAN, THE MUMMY, WHITE ZOMBIE, THE MONKEY TALKS). Based on the novel by Bram Stoker (THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM).
Tag-line: "The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!"
Best one-liner: "For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you're a wise man, Van Helsing."

DRACULA is far from a perfect film: it's more derivative of the theatrical adaptation than the Stoker novel, it suffered persistent budgetary setbacks, the production was plagued by disorganization, and the director (Tod Browning)- despondent over losing his friend and intended Dracula, Lon Chaney- became disinterested and irritable, allegedly handing off the reins to DP Karl Freund on occasion. Despite it all, however, DRACULA is a monster classic, full of fleeting, mystical moments and ethereal majesties. Exceedingly atmospheric and possessing one of the most iconic leading performances in film history, DRACULA is a Halloween fixture and a classic of early sound cinema. Mandatory viewing not only for horror fans, but for cineastes in general, what could I possibly write to add to the critical discourse? Perhaps I'll just write about a few of my favorite moments- those sublime cobwebs of perfection which waft in and out of the nightmarish fantasia...

#1. The Fauna of Castle Dracula.

Some of you may think I'm ragging on the film by bringing this up, but I'm not–there's something so bizarre– almost alien– about the eclectic selection of critters which inhabit Castle Dracula. There're armadillos (Tod Browning spent time in Texas) wandering amongst the dilapidated furniture,

'possums skittering to and fro, and fake bats twirling on strings outside the Palladian windows.
A striped termite (?) wriggles out of its tiny coffin.

As Renfield parts the world's largest spiderweb,

we see its arachnid creator clambering up the wall.

Er, make that dragged upward by a stagehand. But it doesn't matter- in the midst of the awe-inspiring set (more on that in a bit), this strange bit of artificiality only adds to the unsettling grandeur of Castle Dracula.

#2. The sets– more specifically, the sets of Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey.

The sheer scope is breathtaking. If the production hadn't been underfunded, I can only imagine what constructed Hollywood wizardry could be dazzling us– as it stands, only the beginning and end of the film possess these towering, Cyclopean sets; for the most part, the rest is all drawing rooms and boudoirs. But it doesn't matter- even just one of these two sets could carry the movie.

#3. The Philip Glass score, composed in 1999. Purists prefer the Tchaikovsky and the silence (with a touch of Wagner during the concert scene), but I wish there could be a happy medium– I can't imagine DRACULA without "Swan Lake" playing over the main title, but I absolutely adore the rest of Philip Glass' score. It's swirling and mesmerizing, shadowy and indistinct. It billows and surges relentlessly from the darkest depths of the human soul. It's DRACULA. It often creates the illusion of a silent film (despite all the dialogue) and complements the Browning and Freund imagery perfectly. Now I find that there are moments in the film which I can't imagine without the Glass score.

#4. The first appearance of Count Dracula.

The power of this scene perhaps lies in its simplicity. The slow tracking shot. The gnarled hand steadily emerging from the coffin. The torpid mist which lends a general haze to the entire milieu. The peculiar expression upon Dracula's face- it is not one of malevolence, but one of immutable passivity. The cycle begins anew. The blood and the night and the taking of life.

#5. Freund's pencil lighting.

Today, I feel as if the actor's unions would have a problem with the director of photography shining concentrated bursts of small, high-wattage lamps directly into an actor's open eyes, but I don't hear Béla Lugosi complaining. I think he's too connected to his character to think of anything besides the tremendous hypnotic power he wields over mere mortals.

The effect is wonderful, and it proves that you don't require special contact lenses, prosthetics, or CGI to depict a monster's indescribable gaze... all you need is an inventive lighting designer and a really intense Hungarian.

#6. Dwight Frye as Renfield.

Speaking of really intense people- for your consideration, Dwight Frye:

Sort of the 1930's Crispin Glover, Frye tackled roles with a genuine, maniac élan that likely will never be matched. He was a Broadway legend (originating "The Son" in Pirandello's SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR), he played the iconic role in FRANKENSTEIN which many people mistakenly call "Igor" (in actuality, it's "Fritz"); he appeared in THE VAMPIRE BAT and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, had bit parts in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN and THE INVISIBLE MAN, and was immortalized in song by Alice Cooper (while singing in a straitjacket, to boot!).

It's easy to see why he was later typecast as this parade of lunatics, crazies, and madmen, yet before Renfield gets 'buggy,' so to speak, he skillfully plays it straight as the dandy-solicitor who's in a little over his head.

#7. Helen Chandler's (Mina's) vampire gaze.

I'm not sure I like it as well as Sybille Schmitz's in VAMPYR, but Helen is certainly bringing something to the table– something murderous and childlike.

#8. The scene where Dracula attempts to hypnotize Van Helsing.

There's an ineffable, poetic quality to this that makes it so memorable. A simple enough scene of Dracula failing to exert his will upon Van Helsing, it humanizes both characters considerably. Initially, Van Helsing falls victim to Dracula's powerful trance- he briefly appears as a wobbly, helpless old man. Then he regains his mental footing, and reveals the sheer magnitude of his determination, earning a degree of Dracula's respect and drawing his ire. The two titans have clashed without raising their voices or exchanging blows, they've merely wielded the forces of their respective wills against one another. And it feels real– the weight of tormented centuries, the fortitude of one who fights monsters- it's all made very tangible in this scene.

#9. The scene in the opera box.

It's only a brief dialogue scene, but it's quite possibly my favorite moment in the film. Dracula meets Harker, Lucy, and Mina for the first time. Dracula explains his recent purchase of Carfax Abbey and how it reminds him of the crumbling battlements of his castle in Transylvania. The girls are waxing poetic about death and other such morbidities, and Dracula interjects...

Dracula reveals himself, his true human self, to a trio of oblivious bon vivants and ingenues. Lugosi speaks deliberately- Dracula chooses his words carefully because they carry great import. "There are far worse things awaiting man than death." He breaks eye contact with the girls, because now he's looking into himself. Harker mutters some cheap, hollow sentiment, and Dracula tunes him out... he tunes out the rest of this vapid world, a world full of those who dare to speak of death as if they've experienced it...

The Philip Glass music swells, and it's a pleasure to the point of pain.

-Sean Gill

Side note: Dracula's screams during the staking have been a matter of some controversy. Available on VHS, many were angered by their exclusion on the Universal DVD, but they're actually there if you know where to look. There are three audio tracks– #1, the edited audio (but with the original music) which does not have the screams. #2, the Philip Glass score, does have the screams, but they are very faint because the music is playing rather loudly. Track #3, the commentary by David J. Skal, is with the original, unedited audio, but he's speaking nearly the whole time. So if you really want to hear the screams, choose the audio commentary during the final scene, and he actually pauses as they happen, for your listening pleasure. Why Universal did this is anybody's guess, but at least they're on there somewhere.


Jason said...

This is a genius review, Sean. You really GOT this movie in a way that I haven't been able to express. Thank you!

Sean Gill said...


Thank you, sir! I'd seen this a million times as a kid, and upon revisitation, found myself oddly touched by a number of very specific details. Thanks for stopping by.

Ethan Smith said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.