Filmsite Movie 

Review
Dracula (1931)
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Background

Dracula (1931) is one of the earliest classic American horror films from Carl Laemmle's Universal Pictures - an acclaimed masterpiece directed by Tod Browning, known also for two other vampire films: London After Midnight (1927) (aka The Hypnotist) with Lon Chaney, Sr., and his own sound-era remake, Mark of the Vampire (1935) (aka Vampires of Prague), with Bela Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore sharing Lon Chaney's dual role. On account of Universal's success with this classic Dracula film, the next year, Browning went on to direct the truly bizarre, classic horror film Freaks (1932) for MGM - a controversial and grotesque film that has achieved cult status, and was banned for almost thirty years in Britain.

With this "talkie" horror film, Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi (originally named Bela Blasko), who had starred in the smash-hit Broadway stage play, took over the part for the film when Lon Chaney, Sr. ("The Man of a Thousand Faces") died of throat cancer. [Browning had teamed with Lon Chaney, Sr. on ten films, including The Unholy Three (1925) - about a trio of sideshow freaks, London After Midnight (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928), and Where East is East (1929).] Lugosi established himself as the definitive screen vampire.

The plotline was taken from Abraham ("Bram") Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. (The screenplay by Garrett Fort was more closely adapted from the successful stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston.) The first film version of the novel was an early German silent film, Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel directed by expressionist F. W. Murnau. In Murnau's film, the rodent-like Dracula (Max Schreck) was renamed "Graf Orlock." [The film was released in England as Dracula.]

Since then, there have been about a dozen 'true' film adaptations of the Stoker novel, and literally hundreds of other Dracula sequels, farces, parodies, loose adaptations, and other vampirish variations (including the "blaxploitation" Blacula films of the early 70s). [The most frequently-portrayed character in horror films would eventually be Dracula.] It is generally thought that the BBC miniseries production (made as a 3-part television adaptation) Count Dracula (1977) with Louis Jourdan as the Count, is the most faithful to the original novel. Another reasonably faithful version is the Italian production of Dracula (2002) directed by Roger Young and starring Patrick Bergin, and disputably, Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992).

This successful, atmospheric 1931 adaptation, although somewhat flawed by its slow dialogue and static, stage-bound nature, helped to launch a long series of horror-pictures for the studio. (Universal's follow-up picture was the equally successful gothic Frankenstein (1931).) Its eerie lighting, gliding camera trackings, and moody and shadowy atmosphere were largely the work of cinematographer Karl Freund. [An impressive-looking Spanish version, with director George Melford in place of Browning, was shot simultaneously on the same sets at night, but with a different cast and crew (Carlos Villarías replaced Lugosi, and Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing, along with provocatively-dressed actresses Lupita Tovar as Eva (Mina) and Carmen Guerrero as Lucia (Lucy)).] Hammer Films generated The Horror of Dracula (1958) (with Christopher Lee as "the Count") after purchasing film rights from Universal.

Although it's hard to believe today, segments of the film were censored in overseas viewings: a gigantic bug's emergence from a coffin, the appearance of Dracula's three zombie-like wives in his castle, Renfield's begging scene to allow him to eat spiders and flies, and the reading of a newspaper account of vampire bride Lucy's victimization of children.

The Story

The opening scenes of the film are the high-point of this screen classic. It begins with the cinematic and atmospheric appearance of a horse-drawn carriage making its winding way down a steep, narrow road through the jagged Carpathian mountains in Central-Eastern Europe (the locale is NOT explicitly identified as Transylvania). The coach is going at breakneck speed in order to reach the inn before dark, jostling its passengers in its haste. A young English passenger on board asks the driver to go slower, but he is ignored. Another passenger from the local area explains excitedly that they must reach the local inn before twilight ends:

We must reach the inn before sundown!...It is Walpurgis Night, the night of evil Nosferatu! On this night, Madame, the doors, they are barred, and to the Virgin we pray.

When the coach finally comes to a halt at an old inn, the darkness is impending - it is nearly dusk and the sun is going down behind the black mountains. Most of the relieved passengers climb down to end their journey for the day.

One passenger announces his plans to proceed further: "I say, porter. Don't take my luggage down. I'm going on to Borgo Pass tonight." He is told by the nervous inn proprietor (Michael Visaroff) that the coach driver is afraid to continue, and that they should wait until sunrise. The undaunted young Englishman insists on carrying out his plans to go on to Castle Dracula:

Englishman: Well, I'm sorry, but there's a carriage meeting me at Borgo Pass at midnight.
Innkeeper: Borgo Pass?
Englishman: Yes.
Innkeeper: Whose carriage?
Englishman: Count Dracula's.
Innkeeper: Count Dracula's?
Englishman: Yes. (The inkeeper's wife superstitiously crosses herself.)
Innkeeper: (fearfully) Castle Dracula?
Englishman: Yes, that's where I'm going.
Innkeeper: To the castle?
Englishman: Yes.
Innkeeper: (tremulously) Nooo. You mustn't go there.

The passenger is cryptically warned by the innkeeper to abandon his trip until the next day, because deadly vampires appear between sunset and sunrise:

We people of the mountains believe at the Castle there are vampires. Dracula and his wives - they take the form of wolves and bats. They leave their coffins at night and they feed on the blood of the living.

The traveler, an affable real estate agent named Renfield (Dwight Frye) isn't superstitious or afraid of the warning: "But that's all superstition. Why I, I can't understand why..." He is interrupted by an announcement that the sun is setting, and the innkeeper insists: "Come, we must go indoors." The passenger demands to go further: "It's a matter of business with me. I've got to go. Really. Well, goodnight." As he climbs back into the coach, the innkeeper's peasant wife rushes over and places a crucifix around his neck, advising: "Wait. Please. If you must go, wear this for your mother's sake. It will protect you." The journey to Borgo Pass commences, as the fearful townspeople watch the coach depart.

As it gets darker, the coach presses on through the black, jagged mountains. Dracula's Castle emerges into sight, and then the audience has its first eerie dark glimpse of Dracula's coffin in his dark, rat-infested, cob-webbed cellar. The coffin lid slowly creaks opens and a hand snakes its way out. A possum lurks next to another coffin. The slamming sound of Dracula's coffin lid signals that he has risen. One of his undead brides also slowly opens her coffin with her hand. A gigantic bug, that looks like a wingless bee, crawls out of another coffin. The undead bride emerges by sitting upright within her coffin. A possum descends into a skeleton-filled coffin.

The first glimpse of Dracula, a 500 year old vampire, is shocking. He is standing upright next to his coffin, wrapped tightly in an all-enveloping black cape. His ashen face with a piercing, unmoving, cold fixed gaze is illuminated with an unholy glow from the twilight and his black hair is slickly combed straight back. Rats scurry about and wolves howl. Two of Dracula's three undead brides glide silently along.

[A vampire is a reanimated corpse that feeds off the blood of the living, turning victims into vampires.]

In the swirling fog around Borgo Pass, a coachman waits for the arrival of the dutiful English businessman on his important journey. Near midnight, the coach arrives. The terrified coach driver stops just long enough for his passenger to climb down at the bleak crossroads. The driver hurriedly throws his luggage on the ground and then abandons him. Sitting atop it, wrapped in a black cape, is a tall, silent figure staring straight ahead. The passenger nervously asks: "The coach from Count Dracula?" The mute coachman gestures for him to get in. On the way to Dracula's castle over jostling mountainous roads, he leans out the coach window to speak to the driver - but the coach is driverless. The coachman (Dracula himself) has disappeared - morphed into a large gray bat that flaps its wings above the horses and appears to be guiding the carriage instead as it hurtles through the night.

The most memorable sequence in the entire film is Renfield's arrival at Castle Dracula. Once the speeding coach arrives at the courtyard of the strange, crumbling castle, he steps off the coach and begins to indignantly protest against the driver:

I say driver, what do you mean by going at this -

However, he realizes there is only an empty seat - and no driver! The massive wooden and iron castle door mysteriously creaks opens on its own. Unsure of things, Renfield warily passes through the door and is amazed to find a huge, deserted and ruined chamber inside. In the dark cavernous room, there are round pillars framed by archways, massive windows, and a few sparse furnishings in the dim light. Bats soar outside the windows and there are other scurrying sounds inside, suggesting menace. The dwarfed figure of Renfield stands at the bottom of the wide and long stone staircase of the castle. An ominous silence hangs heavily in the air.

Dracula, elegantly dressed in a black tuxedo, slowly descends the massive staircase while holding a single candle. Rats and armadillos scurry across the dirt-covered stone floor. A giant spider web hangs from the ceiling above the staircase. When Renfield turns, he is startled to find Dracula walking through the large spider web without disturbing it.

Dracula glides toward him and memorably introduces himself in an immaculately delivered line (uttered with a Hungarian accent):

I am...Drac-u-la...I bid you welcome.

Dracula plays the part of a refined, congenial host, a strange aristocratic nobleman in tailored evening dress. He motions for his guest to climb the castle's great stone staircase behind him, just as the sound of wolves can be heard off in the distance. To reassure the frightened man, Dracula smiles and chillingly describes the sounds, in a voice with a lilting, soothing tone:

Listen to them. Children of the night. What mu-u-u-sic they make.

When he follows Dracula up through the unbroken spider web that spans the width of the staircase, he must use his cane to cut his way through. As the web's spider scurries off, Dracula ominously comments about the spider's prey:

The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield.

Renfield is invited into his "more inviting" medieval-looking guest room upstairs, where Dracula is outwardly charming. There is a fire burning, a meal spread out on the table, and a dusty old bottle of wine. Dracula takes Renfield's coat and hat and leaves through a door that opens on its own. When the host returns, Renfield assures the Count that he has kept his journey a secret - no one in England knows he has come: "I followed your instructions im-plicitly." Renfield has been hired to arrange for Dracula's relocation to a neighborhood in England where he will lease a ruined and deserted English abbey named Carfax Abbey. Only the papers need to be signed to finalize the deal: "Everything is in order awaiting your signature." "I hope I've brought enough labels for your luggage," asks Renfield, anxious to please his client. Dracula describes his 'luggage' (of coffins): "I'm taking with me only three, uh, boxes."

Dracula has chartered a ship to take them to England, "leaving tomorrow eve - n - ing." As Renfield handles the lease papers, he cuts his finger on a paper clip. [This is the sole depiction of blood on the screen in this film.] The sinister host reacts eagerly to the sight of blood and reflexively moves closer with a ravenous, blood-maddened look. Before the Count can get closer, the crucifix falls from Renfield's neck into view and dangles over his hand, sending Dracula reeling backwards - he throws his arm over his eyes. As Renfield sucks the blood from his finger, commenting: "It's just a scratch," Dracula looks hungrily at him with an approving grin. The vampire offers "very old wine" from a bottle and pours it into a glass for his guest. Renfield asks: "Aren't you drinking?" Dracula replies with another well-remembered, mellifluous line that he never partakes:

I never drink...wi-i-i-ne.

Dracula leaves his guest for the evening with: "Good night, Mr. Ren - field." Soon, Renfield feels light-headed and dizzy. Dracula's three undead wives silently appear from the fog and glide together into the room. To get fresh air, Renfield stumbles to the terrace window and opens the door to the balcony, where he notices a large bat flying above him. Renfield staggers and then collapses on the floor, drugged by the wine into a deathly slumber. The zombie-like spectral wives wolfishly move toward the body. The Count, skilled at metamorphosis, emerges where the bat had disappeared and enters from the balcony. With a silent sweeping gesture, he commands his wives to move off and they back up into the shadows. Dracula approaches and then crouches down at Renfield's neck for a meal of blood, enveloping him in his cloak.

A few days later, the sailing ship Vesta is bound for England. It travels with Dracula and his coffins (containing native earth) in a stormy sea voyage. Deep in the hold of the ship at dusk, Renfield (now robbed of his own identity) crouches and then protectively opens his master's coffin to release him. He whispers and hisses: "Master, the sun is gone." Hideously and lustfully, Renfield madly begs his steely-eyed master:

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, with blood in them? I'll be loyal to you Master. I'll be loyal.

When the ship finally drifts into an English harbor at Whitby, it is a ghost ship filled with corpses. Imaginatively staged, the voices of men investigating the ship are heard. They rove around the deck (the camera follows their wanderings) and find the entire crew on the derelict vessel dead: "The Captain dead, tied to the wheel. Horrible tragedy, a horrible tragedy." Only an enslaved, lunatic appears to have survived - they hear crazed laughter from the hold.

Renfield emerges in the hatchway from the hold of the death ship. He stares up at them, giggling and totally insane - obviously infected with Dracula's madness. With a clever lighting effect of shadows, Renfield appears multi-legged (like an insect) as he grasps the railing of the ship's hold. But he appears to have lost his immortal soul with a wild look in his eyes: "Why he's mad! Look at his eyes. Why the man's gone crazy!" The London newspaper reports the tragedy in headlines: "CREW OF CORPSES FOUND ON DERELICT VESSEL, Schooner Vesta Drifts into Whitby Harbor After Storm, Bearing Gruesome Cargo." The story reports on Renfield's madness:

Sole survivor a raving maniac. His craving to devour ants, flies, and other small living things to obtain their blood, puzzles scientists. At present he is under observation in Doctor Seward's Sanitarium near London.

In Victorian London, his new place of residence, Dracula pursues human blood to satisfy his hunger. Well-dressed in an opera cape and top hat, he strides through the foggy London streets at night and cunningly preys on women. On his way to a performance of the London Symphony, his first victim in the fog-shrouded streets is a flower girl who offers: "A flower for your buttonhole, sir? Here's a nice one." With one look at his hypnotic stare, she is placed in a trance while he slowly bends down toward her neck. Police whistles sound as he walks away from his first murder victim.

One night, during a performance of the London Symphony at the Opera House, an elegantly-dressed Dracula hypnotizes a female usher/hostess and commands her to interrupt Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) in his box, telling him that he is wanted on the telephone. Pretending to have overheard the name of Seward as he is called away to the phone, Dracula stages the opportunity to introduce himself as Count Dracula - the new neighbor in the leased Carfax Abbey conveniently located next to Seward's sanitarium. Dr. Seward introduces his daughter Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade), and Mina's fiancee John Harker (David Manners). The abbey is known for being dark and gloomy, needing extensive renovation and repair, but Dracula is comfortable in its familiar surroundings: "I shall do very little repair. It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle, Transylvania."

Lucy is hypnotically fascinated by the Count. The abbey reminds her of an old toast:

Lofty timbers, the walls around are bare, echoing to our laughter as though the dead were there...Quaff a cup to the dead already, hooray for the next to die!

She listens to him ominously intone about the deepest mysteries of life and death. Dracula pauses dramatically as the theatre lights dim into darkness for the performance and the floodlights come up and accentuate his glowing figure - the cinematography moodily underscores the power of darkness and his tragi-romantic assertion:

To die, to be really dead - that must be glorious...There are far worse things - awaiting man - than death.

Mina is amused that Lucy finds the charming Count Dracula "fascinating," with his talk of a Transylvanian castle. Lucy spends the night with the Sewards. Later that night, after Lucy has opened her bedroom windows and retired, a large bat flies in the window. In a classic scene, only moments later the Count appears at her sleeping side, leaning over her. He bends down to bite her neck to suck her blood, making her his prey. The scene cuts away and immediately dissolves into the Sanitarium's amphitheatre during a medical examination of Lucy - who has been brought there after many unsuccessful blood transfusions. Dr. Seward diagnoses that he and his colleagues are unable to save her because of "an unnatural loss of blood that we've been powerless to change. On the throat of each victim, the same two marks." [The marks are kept discreetly out of view from the camera.]


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