Wednesday, June 2, 2010

#17 Dracula (1931)

Although the connotations of the concept and name “vampire” have changed massively in the last decade, especially with the advent of the popular book (and film) series “Twilight”, when I was a kid it was rather different. Vampires were something to be feared, to me anyways, they were scary, horrifying even. And the image that came to mind when one thought of Vampires was that of Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula; pale, regal, with a costume from the late 19th century, and piercing, striking eyes. This is the image of Dracula that has pervaded for what is now nearing on a century. It is a testament to the greatness of this film, and the great acting ability of Bela Lugosi.

This film, like Nosferatu, is quite true to the original novel. Unlike Nosferatu, however, this film features the actual character names. The story opens to a sequence that is rather similar to Hutter traveling to visit Orlok in Nosferatu. This time, Renfield is traveling to arrange a deal with Count Dracula. The whole sequence is rather spooky, and culminates in Dracula himself. Dracula talks to Renfield about buying the abandoned Carfax Abbey in London. After this is concluded, Dracula hypnotizes Renfield, and feasts on his blood.

The scene then cuts to an opera, where we are introduced to the main characters, Mina, Harker, and Lucy, accompanied by Dr. Seward. Dracula comes to the box, and the characters all become acquainted with one another. Later that night, Dracula visits Lucy and feasts on her blood, resulting the next day, in Lucy’s death after a series of failed transfusions. Meanwhile, Renfield has also returned to England, but has been institutionalized as his experience with Dracula has obviously driven him insane, and he rants endlessly about blood and life, primarily the lives of flies, spiders, and other arthropods. After befuddling the doctors, an expert is consulted, on Dr. Van Helsing, who, after interviewing Renfield, confesses a suspicion that a Vampire is to blame. A few nights later, Mina starts succumbing to the same illnesses Lucy showed. Van Helsing again lends his expertise, and through a series of stratagems, he proves to all that Count Dracula is a vampire. Despite all of his ensuing guiles after this dramatic reveal, Van Helsing and Harker eventually track Dracula to his lair in Carfax Abbey, and kill him while he sleeps, by driving a wooden steak through his heart.

The acting in this film is stupendous. Bela Lugosi is Dracula. He plays the role so well, and so true to the novel. He isn’t a monster, or grotesque, as described in Nosferatu, but a regal, suave, and smooth Count, who is quite capable of fooling and seducing just about everyone he meets. Bela’s accent, his delivery, and his gaze make this a truly stunning role. He isn’t the only great act in this film however. Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, also gives a spectacular performance. His portrayals first as a bumbling salesman put out of his element, and later as a deranged psychopath are equally compelling, and really add a lot to the film. Finally, Edward Van Sloan, who plays Van Helsing, also gives an excellent performance as the primary protagonist to Dracula’s antagonist. You feel yourself shouting “no!” when you see Bela Lugosi nearly lead him astray, only for him to flip the crucifix, and for you the viewer to release a sigh of relief.

The camerawork is also quite well done. The director Tod Browning has a lot of close ups, particularly on Bela’s Eyes, and on the little, insignificant insects that captured Renfield’s passion, and these are well done. Another great shot is the one of Renfield looking out of his cell door, and onto the field, where he sees Dracula standing, waiting. Another, equally great shot is the one at the end of the film, in which Dracula pushes Renfield down the stairs. These scenes are compelling, and you feel sorry for the deranged Renfield.

This film truly marks the start of the “monster genre” that dominated Hollywood and inspired viewers for another two decades, instigating other great monsters, such as Frankenstein, the Creature of the Black Lagoon, and the Wolf Man. I wanted to do a week of monster classics, featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, but neither Frankenstein nor Wolf Man were available on Watch Instantly, and moreover, a Dracula week was just too tempting. But I digress. This film is on the list simply because of what it did for film, and for the horror genre. This film really popularized Vampires, and provided an archetype from which all other vampire films were based. It established a lot of vampire tropes. And seriously, when you think of Vampires, the first thought that pops into your head, I can guarantee you, is that of Bela Lugosi, the king of Vampires.

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