DRACULA (director/writer: Tod Browning; screenwriters: Garrett Fort/based on the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston/from the novel by Bram Stoker; cinematographer: Karl Freund; editor: Milton Carruth; music: Philip Glass-new score 1999; cast: Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina Seward), David Manners (Jonathan Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), Edward Van Sloan (Professor Abraham Van Helsing), Herbert Bunston (Dr. Jack Seward), Frances Dade (Lucy Weston), Charles K. Gerrard (Martin), Michael Visaroff (Innkeeper); Runtime: 75; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.; Universal; 1931)
“…the film survives as a classic horror talelargelybecause of Lugosi’s distinctive portrayal as Dracula.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
For such a well-known version of Dracula, the first authorized one (it follows Murnau’s unauthorized silent “Nosferatu” in 1922, and there must be at least 30 other modern-day versions) that has received a reputation for greatness and was also such a tremendous box-office hit, this one disappoints because of its haphazard direction by Tod Browning, its hammy acting, and by not always following Bram Stoker’s book but basing the film on the American play presented in 1927 by Hamilton Deane which was Americanized by John L. Balderston. Browning by not going back to the book for references, but dreaming up his own lesser scenarios further weakened the film. The film’s infamous Count Dracula is played with panache by the 49-year-old Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi, who had been living in America for the last ten years and was for two-years Dracula in the Broadway play but who had unfortunately never learned how to speak English and therefore was rather limited as an actor. Though this role certainly launched his career and made him a favorite with the public forever after. His limits as an actor come into play when he’s required to speak more later on. That comes after the first twenty minutes of the film, which was basically silent to that point. Dracula is in his eerie Transylvania elements at his castle with bats flying around and the noises from werewolves abounding, and his deliberate speech patterns and the great camerawork by Karl Freund work very well in setting such a dark and scary atmosphere. At that point it all seems poetical and richly imaginative, despite the cheesy painted sets in the backdrop. When the story moves to London, it breaks down as everything becomes less fluid and more stagy.
It should also be noted that Lon Chaney had been scheduled to play the role, but he died as “Dracula” was first being filmed.
The film opens with the affable English real estate agent Renfield (Dwight Frye) driven by coach to the Carpathian Mountains in search of his client Count Dracula just as day ends. It’s Walpurgis Night, the night of evil Nosferatu, and the coach driver is reluctant to go out at night to the castle of Count Dracula, where Renfield is heading to on a secret mission of getting the Count’s signature to his purchase of the abandoned Carfax Abbey just outside of London. Renfield is warned by the locals that Dracula is a vampire, but is cocky and dismisses it all as merely a peasant superstition — though he accepts a silver cross a concerned woman at the inn gives him for protection as he is taken alone to Borgo Pass to meet the coach Dracula promised him. Renfield is then driven to the castle at breakneck speed by the unseen driver, as he spots a bat hovering over the coach as the only possible driver. At the spooky castle, Dracula’s first words of greeting to Renfield are classics in movielore: “I…am…Drac-u-la. I… beed you… vel-come.” Dracula, dressed formally in a black tuxedo, further exclaims at the noises heard — “Listen to them. Children of the night. What mu-u-u-sic they make.” Dracula then leads the stunned Renfield up his castle stairway behind a huge cobweb and watches with astonishment as Dracula shoos away a woman vampire, one of Dracula’s three undead wives. Renfield shields himself from his advances with his cross when he accidentally cuts his finger and bleeds. Later after drinking wine, in which the gracious Count serves but doesn’t join him because he emphatically declares that he does not drink, Renfield falls in a slumber and Dracula envelopes him in his cloak and crouches down at his neck for a midnight snack of blood–leaving two strange visible marks on his neck.
Dracula travels by the ship called Vesta for England, and he brings along no luggage but coffins for his three vampire wives and one for himself (all containing native earth). At dusk Renfield, who is robbed of his soul and identity, awakens his master who is sleeping in his coffin and tells him it’s now dark. Renfield has become a stark raving madman and begs Dracula: “You will keep your promise when we get to London, won’t you Master? You will see that I get lives, not human lives but small ones (spiders), with blood in them? I’ll be loyal to you Master. I’ll be loyal.” The vessel arrives in England as a ghost ship, as the crew is all dead. The only survivor is the lunatic Renfield, who is taken to the insane asylum which adjoins the property Dracula just bought and where the respected Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) heads the sanitarium and lives nearby with his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler) who is engaged to John Harker (David Manners).
In London while attending the opera, Dracula runs into his new neighbors, Dr. Seward and Mina, in their opera box, and also meets Harker and Mina’s naive friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade). Lucy is fascinated by his stories of his Transylvanian castle and how he does not intend to repair the abbey he purchased but will keep it as a ruin to remind him of home.
Lucy spends the night with the Sewards. After she has retired, she opens her bedroom windows and a large bat flies in the window. Moments later the Count appears at her sleeping side, leaning over her. He bends down to bite her neck and sucks her blood. She’s next seen in the operating room in Seward’s sanitarium, and is being given blood transfusions because all her blood was sucked out. But she succumbs.
Dracula’s next chosen victim is Mina, who complains of feeling weak and of having weird dreams and when later examined it is discovered that she has two tiny bite marks on her neck. But her dad gets help for her through the wisdom of Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), Seward’s dear friend. Van Helsing uncovers that Dracula is a vampire when he observes there is no reflection of him in a mirror, and with his great belief and knowledge in vampires he determines that he can only be killed in daylight while in his coffin by driving a stake through his heart. This part of the film was too stagebound to be effective, as the drawing-room scenes among the Seward family and friends and the vampire hunter going after Dracula were acted in too hammy a way and were too verbose to be scary or endearing. But the film survives as a classic horror tale largely because of Lugosi’s distinctive portrayal as Dracula. Also, “Dracula” should be acclaimed for the superb camerawork throughout by Freund and its few great campy moments, not the the least of them being Renfield ranting like a lunatic in his cell about vampires, his need for eating flies, his futile request to be sent far away, and spouting on about his loyalty to his master.
REVIEWED ON 11/11/2002 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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