4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.
“I bid you…welcome.”
What is there left to say about the first of the 1930’s Universal horror cycle? Everyone knows the parts of this film even if they haven’t seen it. Bela Lugosi is still imitated to this very day by children. So why does this problematic film that is so bound to the 1927 stage adaptation remain so completely relevant 80 years later?
Because it remains the foundation for nearly every type of horror film made since. It is a relic meant to be unearthed to be restudied ever October by new generations. The staginess of the production adds to this sense of the film being a cinematic fossil to be experienced like no other.
You smile even thinking about it. The Count does this for people. He brings out the deliciousness of death.
What makes the film work is it’s overwhelming charm and old world feeling. Despite not being the studio’s first choice for the role, Lugosi truly makes it his own as if he knew it would become his trademark. Nearly every aspect of the Count’s character is detailed so that you honestly believe he is some long dead eastern European nobleman. The legendary Dracula accent is deep but somewhat musical. This Dracula likes to play the games of aristocracy and work his way into the confidence of his intended victims.
The opening deal with Renfield traveling to Dracula’s Transylvanian castle in order to sell him Carfax Abbey in London. He meets with the Count and the unwitting real estate agent becomes Dracula’s pet slave, always made to do the Master’s bidding in exchange for little amounts of fresh blood from small insects. In the only other showy performance of the film, Dwight Frye establishes a completely manic yet strangely reserved character that has been burned into our collective consciousness ever since. “We’re here Masssssster!”
The journey to England is beyond ominous. The ship is flung about by the crashing waves as if the sea itself was trying to keep the Count at bay. It arrives in a London harbor full of all of the dead crewmen and only the mad Renfield left alive.
Dracula makes his way into town, and makes his first acquaintance with British blood. At the opera, (where else is a nobleman to go at night?) he seeks out the doctor who runs the sanitarium containing Renfield and is introduced to his two main conquests Mina and Lucy.
The remainder of the film deals with the two women being plucked off by the Count in the night and the men’s failed attempts to discover the cause behind the mysterious malady. In many numerous drawing rooms discussing the obvious they consult with the visiting Professor Van Helsing. (Edward Van Sloan in his first of several wise Doctors for Universal) The Doctor’s steely reserve is all that stands between Dracula and a vampir-ized island of the undead.
The subtleties of the subject matter are quite important for American film. For the first time in this country, a movie presented something supernatural in a straightforward manner. Gone suddenly were the days of endings that pulled the rug out from under the horrifying ideas of the unknown. Dracula horrified 1931 audiences especially because Americans were unused to being frightened by some all powerful unnatural being. It is the idea that Dracula can exist that horrifies the mind-not anything that the vampire actually does.
The stalking of youthful female victims and drinking of their blood in the night alludes to sex in such a fashion that it is hard to ignore. Like the previously unseen supernatural element, this quality surfaces whenever Count Dracula makes his slow elegant way towards his next conquest. In some strange way, it is almost as if he wants to give the hypnotized goddesses (for the women are of course virginal seeming models of chastity) his life inducing bite.
The 75 minute runtime helps to disguise much of the film’s flaws. Much of the film takes place in drawing rooms with people simply discussing things and little else. It is said that the original intention was to make a more lavish adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original novel, but the effects of the Great Depression forced Universal to adapt the more economical stage play.
The team of director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney were hired to make Dracula in the hopes of recapturing their past successes. Unfortunately Chaney died of cancer before shooting began. Browning’s background in silent film making may have led him to the controversial decision to release the film sans any sort of musical score. This decision has been criticized by many as a silly mistake and detrimental to the film’s impact. Actually, when viewed with a decent sound system this silence becomes quite unnerving. Dracula rises from his coffin in the darkness and stares at your soul with glowering intensity. All of this without any music, only a deep hiss of silence and occasional pops from the optical film soundtrack.
The film was shot by legendary cameraman Karl Freund who later directed the far more atmospheric and quasi-remake The Mummy (1932). Freund was already famous for shooting Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the Expressionist influence on the Universal horror film was fully set in motion.
The film is in dire need of restoration, but unlike the 1999 job done on Frankenstein, I hope Dracula never gets fully cleaned up as most digital jobs are done nowadays. More than almost any film, Dracula needs the darkness and shadows. The Count must hide in the grainy fogs of his subterranean crypts and emerge from the depths to claim his next female victim.
Usually at this point I write a quick summary of the best available versions of the film I’m reviewing on home video. With Dracula, this becomes quite complicated.
There is a wonderful article on the three DVD versions of the film that details the transfer issues between them:
You have three DVD versions:
1. 1999 Classic Monster Collection Single Disc release
2. 2004 Legacy Collection release
3. 2006 75th Anniversary Two Disc release
According to my own experience and this article, the 75th Anniversary disc is horrible. The image is oversharpened and artificially brightened to a point that the original composition is destroyed. All backgrounds are now totally revealed. Also, the audio is complete but digitally filtered to such an extreme that is a muffled mess.
The original 1999 is the best version of the film and also contains the Spanish language version. The audio is perfect save for a slight omission of exit music from the opera scene that was accidentally erased. The 2004 Legacy version uses the exact same transfer but accidentally erases some of the death groans in the climax. However, the set includes several later sequels.
In short, every DVD library needs a copy of the 1999 disc despite it being quite outdated. After being out of print for many years, it is now back for under $10.
Maybe for the eventual Blu-ray Universal can finally get things right.
NOTE: The optional Phillip Glass score is so intrusive that I recommend never actually playing the film this way.