“To die. To be really dead. That must be… glorious”- Count Dracula
It’s hard to believe that the first screen Dracula was filmed ninety years ago. Okay, technically, not the first Dracula as such, that honour belongs to the German silent classic Nosferatu, which was released in 1922 and directed by F.W. Murnau. The problem with Nosferatu is that it was a blatant plagiarism of Bram Stoker’s novel, with some names changed. However, it still breached copyright laws, Stoker’s widow sued successfully and all prints were ordered destroyed. Thankfully, a print was missed which is how we’re able to enjoy it on DVD today. When I started watching horror movies in the early to mid-seventies, it was still a lost film.
Dracula is based on a stage play, which was in turn based on the book by Bram Stoker. Originally, Lon Chaney, the biggest horror star of the silent era was cast as the Count, but tragically died of throat cancer before filming started and the role went to a little-known Hungarian actor who had played the role in the stage play, Bela Lugosi.
It’s worth noting that the notion (absurd as it is) of Dracula wandering around his ruined castle, formally dressed in tails and an opera cape started right here. It caught on, and has become the popular image of the character ever since. This was the first Dracula I ever saw, and even more than Christopher Lee, Lugosi is very much my Dracula of choice. In fact, the Universals are the first encounters I had with the monsters that would become staples of Hammer Films almost thirty years later, and it’s still my opinion that much as I love Hammer, Universal has the edge.
Dracula opens with an excerpt from Swan Lake as a theme music, and it works well. So well, in fact that Universal used exactly the same track again for The Mummy in 1932. (They also used a few of the same cast members in broadly the same roles, and reworked the same plot, but hey – it worked. More on that later in the month.)
A carriage is on its way through the mountains of Transylvania (a truly great glass painting backdrop). On board the carriage is an assortment of travellers, some local, some not – including Renfield (Dwight Frye) on his way to Castle Dracula to complete the signing of some documents for a lease on Carfax Abbey in England and to assist in his move there.
At a stop, the locals warn Renfield against going on to the castle but he insists, dismissing their superstitions of vampires leaving their coffins and sucking the blood of the living. If it all sounds like a cliché – remember, this is where the cliché started. But consider this – ask someone, practically anybody, to describe or imitate Dracula and they’ll invariably include a cape and a strong accent, with probably slicked back dark hair and formal evening wear. And that image began with this film.
It's never been clear exactly why Dracula wants to come to England, maybe a change of diet, but in any case, Renfield makes his way to the Borgo Pass, and is met by a coach and taken to the castle. The ride is fast and bumpy, and when poor Renfield sticks his head out of the window to complain to the driver, all he sees is a large, ominous bat guiding the horses. (And he STILL goes on – and he STILL hasn’t figured out that his coachman is actually Dracula himself, nor does he make the connection at the castle, when Dracula introduces himself on the stairs in the ruined great hall.)
I’m going to backtrack a bit – as Renfield is arguing with the locals at the coach house earlier, the sun goes down and we see Dracula and three of his brides rise eerily from their coffins in the cellar of the castle – all mist and rats and damp, dank corruption. One of the visuals that has always struck me as particularly effective is that as Dracula is rising from his coffin, the camera cuts away to a small wooden box, out of which crawls a wasp. So simple, yet appropriate and tells you everything you need to know.
But as Dracula greets Renfield in the hall, the camera cuts away to a scurrying pair of armadillos. This has always confused me. What the heck are armadillos doing in Transylvania, when they’re native to South America? I have a theory – a Spanish version of the movie was filmed simultaneously with the American version. Same sets, Mexican cast. The Americans shot by day, Mexicans at night. I’m of the mind that the armadillos are a holdover from the Spanish version. What’s even odder, though is that I’ve never read anything that questions the inclusion of armadillos in Castle Dracula. It seems pretty obvious.
The scenes between Dracula and Renfield are where Lugosi’s dominance in the role is firmly established, and some of his most quotable lines are uttered. Lugosi is often accused of overacting, and to a degree, he does exaggerate his movements at times, such as covering his face with his cloak when Renfield’s cross and chain falls in to view. Lugosi’s strong accent and his peculiarly stilted delivery are used to their full advantage here, as is his deliberate, slow pronunciation as if he’s almost relishing certain words. It conveys a confident sense of menace. He has the mouse in his trap and he’s just playing with him. In truth, at this point, Lugosi spoke very little English and had learned his lines phonetically. But the result works to his advantage, though that wouldn’t last as Lugosi would almost always be typecast as a villain due to his accent and menacing presence.
Poor Renfield doesn’t last long, he soon succumbs to being Dracula’s sidekick, but loses his mind in the process, giving actor Dwight Frye full rein to smile and laugh maniacally, which he alternates with a straight performance of normality before switching suddenly to unfettered lunacy and rage while indulging in his appetite for flies and spiders. He watches over his master’s coffin until the sun sets and the Count can eat his way through the crew of the schooner Vesta, bound for England.
It’s when Dracula is on the loose in London that we realise that the film is actually set in the (then) modern day of 1931, and after stopping for a quick bite on the way to a concert (poor flower girl) he makes the acquaintance of the rest of the cast, his neighbours from the sanitorium that adjoins his leased, ruined Abbey. Sadly, they’re a kind of foppish, lightweight bunch of characters that are just limp compared to Lugosi, and oddly enough romantic leading man David Manners was paid several times the salary of Lugosi for his role as petulant drip Jonathan Harker. Helen Chandler plays Mina Seward with a vagueness that is more irritating that alluring. Frances Dade takes the role of Lucy Westwood, and she seems to have a spark to her – no wonder Dracula picks her off first, and then there’s Herbert Bunston as the completely ineffectual as Dr Seward who rarely finishes a sentence during the film, and stands around looking bemused as if he’s wandered on to the wrong set.
With Lucy gone, Seward enlists the help of Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) an occult who knows there’s a vampire afoot and knows exactly how to deal with it. If the film has a slow, saggy part – it’s the over talky, drawing room scenes, which betray the stage play origins of the script, with the only relief from the tedium of David Manners and Helen Chandler coming from Renfield, who seems to escape his confinement in the institution at will and wanders to the living room to issue threats and generally make a nuisance of himself. And of course, visits by Dracula who’s also busy turning Mina into his bride, making Helen Chandler even more lifeless.
It takes a while, but Van Helsing finally convinces these modern-day thinkers that the ancient superstition of the living dead is indeed scientific fact, and they head off next door to corner and kill Dracula who has fed Mina some of his blood and is close to making her his latest bride.
Dracula makes a fatal error in killing Renfield, who he believes has led Van Helsing and Harker to his lair, so now Dracula’s daytime protector has gone and he’s helpless in his coffin when Van Helsing stakes him, tastefully off camera. Now he’s dead, as in REALLY dead, his spell over Mina is broken and she presumably lives limply ever after with Harker.
They leave Van Helsing alone in the catacombs. To find out what happens next, you have to wait a few days.
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