Dracula (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. Tod Browning
viewed: 12/27/09

This is “the Dracula” in cinema.  Heaven knows that there are many more, but this is the Dracula by which all others, if not measured, are at least compared.  Directed by Tod Browning (Freaks (1932), The Unholy Three (1925), among others) and starring in his definitive and defining role, Bela Lugosi, who it is still so hard to see here in this film and not think of thousands of short-hand caricatures that he inspired with this performance.  Really, it’s the tragedy and success of his career, typecast to death, and turned into cartoon.

Still, for 1931 and Universal Pictures, the monster’s of the Victorian novels were getting their defining visual representations: Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).  Of course there are many other icons, but these figures are all almost as recognizable to the average American who may still have never seen any of these films (Mr. Hyde perhaps less so).

And frankly, it had been so long since I’d seen Dracula that in many ways I too was seeing it afresh.  I’d read a book by David Skal titled Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen back in 1991 when it was initially published.  Skal has gone on to write other books about the horror genre, including a biography of Tod Browning, which I have also always meant to read.  Since that time, I’d also been craving to see the Spanish version of Dracula that was filmed at the same time as this 1931 “original” (which I have at home on DVD).

But all this time, with new-gained knowledge, I never managed to see these films.  Well, I have been going through my “classic Hollywood” or “Universal Monsters” theme since prior to Halloween this year and like any dedicated aficianado, I still am running through the catalog.

Cinematographer Karl Freund, whose brilliant work in The Last Laugh (1924) among others, adds his stalking camera movement into some of the most stunning and iconic images and moments from this film.  Lugosi is relatively comical to a modern audience, under the influence of his much copied and lampooned Hungarian accent.  Yet, his face is dramatic and strikingly handsome.  One truly wishes that he’d had a chance to do some other more dramatic work before so quickly being turned into a cartoon.

The film is based on the play, Dracula, slimmed from Bram Stoker’s novel, and has several moments of gothic spectres.  Dracula’s brides, the ghostly vampire women in white, are evocative.  Helen Chandler as Mina is spritely and lovely.  Edward Van Sloan is almost as iconic as Van Helsing as Lugosi is as the Count.  And Dwight Frye gets his money’s worth out of the deranged Renfield.

But the film lags a little, the bats are pretty silly, flopping around on the ends of wire.  And even the most dramatic moment, Dracula’s spearing on the end of a wooden stake, happens off-screen in less dramatic fashion (not even a reaction shot of Lugosi, for instance.)

Still, it’s a fine film, a plum example of early American horror at its best, as Hollywood appropriated the Victorian monsters for their own stable of scary icons.  And even now, as near cartoons, the film has moments of drama a dread.