Looking back at 1931’s Dracula

Dracula: The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!

 Looking back at 1931’s Dracula

There’s something very sexy and erotic about vampires. It’s probably the intimacy of their assaults and the fact that they traditionally choose to appear in your bedroom in the middle of the night, maybe. But back in 1931, director Tod Browning was pretty direct about bloodsucking as a euphemism for sex in his classic “Dracula”. You can’t get more iconic or sexually charged than Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula from his cape, tuxedo, and heraldic cross around his neck to the laconic delivery of lines like “I never drink… wine” and “Children of the night, what music they make” (about howling wolves), this is precisely what epitomizes the vampire to us. And yet Lugosi wasn’t Browning’s first choice for the role: that was Lon Chaney, who died just before production began. It’s hard to imagine what Dracula would have been like without Lugosi, but it’s almost a sure bet that Chaney’s count would have been more a monster than Lugosi’s elegant and debonair vampire. Based on a play adaptation, by John L. Balderston, of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula updates the story of the Transylvanian count to the then-present day. Renfield (Dwight Frye: Frankenstein), a London estate agent, travels to Dracula’s remote castle in Transylvania to close the deal to lease Carfax Abbey to the count, but before Dracula and his retinue can begin the trip to London with Renfield, the poor visitor is enslaved to Dracula in the usual vampiric way. Back in London, Renfield is committed to Seward Sanitorium and Dracula starts haunting the foggy night streets of London, preying on Cockney flower girls, who are always easy targets. The real story, though, begins when Mina Seward (Helen Chandler) — daughter of the sanitarium’s Dr. Jack Seward (Herbert Bunston) — and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) meet the count. Lucy thinks he’s fascinating — “castles, Dracula, Transylvania,” she sighs, plus he says all sorts of spooky stuff that chicks dig, like “There are far worse things awaiting man than death” in that momentous Eastern European accent of his. Mina thinks her friend is being silly… but it doesn’t matter: Dracula, the horny devil, has his eye on Mina’s creamy white neck. Jonathan Harker (David Manners: The Mummy), Mina’s fiancé, is not amused and calls in vampire hunter Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan: The Mummy). The count’s days — or nights, rather — are numbered. But in his last days, boy does Dracula have a blast. Browning made this movie a year after the Hays Code began its attempt to clean up movies, but he was still able to get away with scenes like Dracula stealing into Mina’s bedroom and leaning seductively over her sleeping figure, or, even more erotically charged, beckoning Mina to him on a dark country lane and wrapping her possessively in his cape, which he is still wearing. Lugosi’s performance manages to be both flat and melodramatic, and yet he’s really quite a handsome guy, for a “foul thing of the night,” as Van Helsing calls him, and the rather inert performance makes him mesmerizing. Browning was obviously taken with Dracula as well — some of the most stunning moments in the film are deceptively simple shots of the count: Dracula’s slow descent of a wide staircase in his castle, or a slow push in on the count standing near his coffin in the castle crypt. And then there are Dracula’s three wives (I’m surprised Browning got away with that one, too). In their long, spectral-white gowns, hovering over Renfield in the secluded castle, preparing to feast, they are creepily beautiful. The critical consensus on Dracula is that it’s slow and stagy. And they’re right. It was one of Browning’s first sound pictures after a long career making dozens of silent films. The production, overseen by Carl Laemmle Jr., was based on the play (which Lugosi had performed on stage) and not the book. The thinking was that plays were more “cinematic” and better suited to the new talkie format. Over 90 years after its first release, Dracula remains one of the most instantly recognizable screen titles. As is often the case with pioneers, it is ragged around the edges, but the film’s weaknesses are not enough to prevent it from being appreciated. Part of the suspense of Dracula is waiting for the characters to figure out who and what Dracula is before he can strike again. Such quaint plots are lost to us now. And yet, no vampire will ever stand up to Bela Lugosi, the most famous of them all.

By Ken Warren, 2018

Watch “Dracula” 1931 Trailer

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