With the release of the third film in the “Twilight” series, “Eclipse,” this week, I thought I would take a look at one of the earliest of vampire films, “Dracula” (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, for this week’s review.
Watching “Dracula” for the first time, the silences are what stand out the most. Working just at the end of the silent film era, director Tod Browning opted against providing a traditional film score for the action. This choice lends the film a mesmeric quality; the images are that much more chilling because the composer isn’t constantly telling you what to feel about them. They stand on their own and force the viewer to imagine their worst fears.
Later versions of the film, I learn, had musical score added to, but I can’t imagine them being as frightening. One of the things that works so well in Bela Lugosi’s frightening performance as Dracula is that Browning simply lets it play — he doesn’t underline its creepiness with unnecessary nuances. As a result, Dracula feels like a truly evil force rather than a cheesy movie monster.
Browning’s film remains a high watermark in the history of Hollywood horror films. Aside from Lugosi’s performance, the film’s most impressive achievement is in its atmospheric visuals. It owes a lot to the work of directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, champions of the German Expressionist style of the 1920s. Karl Freund, the cinematographer who shot Murnau’s silent classic “The Last Laugh,” brings a similar power to the look of “Dracula.”
In the film’s early scenes, Castle Dracula appears as a dark, looming fortress filled with grand staircases and bits of debris littering the ground. Fog hangs on the edge of every frame as Dracula and his fellow vampires appear before the viewer. There are plenty of creepy little shots Freund uses to set to mood, like a hand inching out to open the lid of a coffin, or of animals scattering as the vampires emerge.
And with Dracula himself, Freund’s work is brilliant. He uses pinpoint lights on closeups of Lugosi to give his eyes a crazed, devilish look. He is also careful never to show Lugosi moving into frame; throughout most of the film, Dracula simply appears with the camera already on him, like an indisputable fact. The abruptness of his appearances keeps the viewer slightly surprised and off-balance, and makes Dracula seem like an unstoppable force.
The story begins with Renfield (Dwight Frye), a real estate agent, traveling to Transylvania to close an important deal with the mysterious Count Dracula. Villagers warn Renfield of the danger at Castle Dracula, but he is desperate to close the deal, and refuses to listen. After surviving a terrifying coach ride where his driver seems to disappear into thin air, he arrives at the castle.
The Dracula he finds is polite and welcoming, but unavoidably sinister. Lugosi is far from subtle in these scenes (his appearance alone is enough to give him away), but his manner is still chilling. He speaks slowly and deliberately, letting long silences hang after each sentence. He seems to measure the impact of each syllable, as if his words are another weapon to use on his victim. Though there is an exotic charm about his Dracula, he is never less than absolutely threatening.
He overpowers Renfield after drugging his wine, and turns him into his vampire minion. They board a vessel for London with Dracula feeding on the crew members as they go along (in a sequence that owes a lot to Murnau’s “Nosferatu”). After arriving, Dracula insinuates himself into London society. He snakes his way into the opera box of Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), and seeks to turn his daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler) into a vampire.
Seward runs an insane asylum where Renfield, now raving mad and feeding on spiders, is placed under the care of Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), a vampire expert who immediately spots the threat in Dracula. Along with Mina’s fiance Jonathan Harker (David Manners), he fights to keep her from the vampire’s clutches.
The film’s early passages establishing Dracula are its best — once he enters London society, some of the life goes out of the film. The scenes involving Seward and his family feel like something out of a society comedy, not a horror picture. The visuals also suffer, as Browning trades the gloomy gothic setting of Transylvania for bourgeois London.
Still, the story is engaging through the London scenes. Browning is helped by a couple of memorable supporting performances. Frye, wild-eyed and raving, chews up the scenery as Renfield, wearing on his sleeve the madness that Dracula seems to hold within.
And Van Sloan brings dignity and wisdom to Van Helsing. His character has an endless supply of knowledge about vampires, but never overplays the power this lends him. He wears his self-assurance modestly, but still seems like there could hardly be a question he didn’t know the answer to. He proves a formidable foe for Dracula.
Lugosi, a Hungarian actor little known before this role, creates a landmark character with his performance. His combination of malevolence and politeness has seldom been matched since. His work still feels unique because of its simplicity — Dracula never works at being frightening, he simply is. With the strange light in his eyes and the unnatural patterns of his speech, he radiates creepiness like few characters before or since.
Dennis O’Neil can be reached at 270-887-3237 or .