Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)
The Hollywood films of the 1930s were the invention of modern American culture. The iconography of gangster films, musicals, fantasies, war — the stories we tell and the way we tell them — is written on these celluloid frames. King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs… this is the folklore we’ve adopted for ourselves. Even against that backdrop, the impact on popular culture of James Whale and Tod Browning when they were making genre-defining horror pictures at Universal in the early parts of the decade might eclipse all else. Where would we be without Browning’s Dracula, created and defined for eternity by Bela Lugosi? Moreover, how would we even think of the baseline of a predatory vampire tale or the related literature without its contributions to what would soon become hoary clichés to forever dominate the popular imagination? It’s sometimes tricky to look at a movie that made us who we are without feeling detached from it, and because of both its flaws and strengths Dracula is a more demanding film than any of the aforementioned. Whereas Whale entertained us with flamboyant visions of cathartic terror that are wont to induce wide-eyed enthusiasm just by their willful extremity, Browning and Lugosi’s Dracula suggests death and misery emanating from a world very much like our own — its murderous fervor strikes forth from the mundane and ordinary. But Browning’s version of the immortal tale also boasts palpable atmospherics that are at once creepy and inherently witty in their unbroken oppressiveness — “It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle…in Transylvania!” The narrative is unbalanced and stilted, the screenplay containing only random shreds of Bram Stoker, but the film is so completely delightful and the acting so shockingly and marvelously subdued (a true rarity in horror films), that the Browning-Lugosi collaboration manages to provide us with one of the most deliriously fun early talkies made in America.
Lugosi had already portrayed Count Dracula on the Broadway stage, and was touring with a production of Hamilton Deane’s play adaptation when he lobbied for a role in the Universal film. The dashing, handsome Hungarian actor — a far more multifaceted performer than is often remembered — is typically credited as the first filmed Dracula who is not grotesque. The most institutionally beloved interpretation up to this point (and perhaps even today) was Max Schreck’s in F.W. Murnau’s unbilled Stoker lift Nosferatu, and Schreck had been deliberately repulsive and subhuman, indeed as the character was described in the novel. In the Browning picture, however, the Count is a suave and well-mannered society figure who mingles easily with ordinary people, despite coming off as a bit of an oddball in extended conversation, and maintains a level of decorum that earns the trust of potential victims. Another major departure from Nosferatu and other earlier variants that would have a permanent impact on generations’ worth of vampire movies through the century to follow is the sensuality in the film, especially Lugosi’s erotic movements in his moments of violence. Though Murnau went quite far in treating his vampire’s attacks as a kind of coded rape (as Carl Theodor Dreyer would in 1932’s Vampyr), it’s Browning whose love of perversity, so obvious in his work both before (The Unknown) and after (Freaks) this, makes the inherently ridiculous image of a bat functioning as a peeping tom outside a woman’s window stick in the mind as unnervingly surreal rather than just kooky. Lugosi gives us a Dracula who treats even the enemies he considers his intellectual equals, like Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), with calm respect, but whose presentation of humanity is offset just enough by the sense that he is an embodiment of the dead, as exemplified by his frequently stilted dialogue and his machine-like, instantaneous responses to dangerous obstacles (mirrors, crosses, wolfsbane).
One of the great flaws of F.W. Murnau’s visualization of Stoker is its heavy concentration on both exposition, almost entirely avoided in Browning’s film (there is much speculation and explanation, but it is situational and reasonably believable, well-integrated into the action), and in the blandness of the hybrid Jonathan Harker-R.M. Renfield equivalent portrayed there by Gustav von Wangenheim. Browning’s casual moral ambivalence nixes this problem; he’s unimpressed by both Renfield’s arrogance when laughing off the Transylvanians’ apprehension about his midnight visit to Dracula’s castle and by his subsequent fear of the unfamiliar behaviors he witnesses in Dracula’s home, drinking the wine as his host all too gleefully watches. Browning then dispenses quickly with the strange real estate-related setup for the body of the story, and seems to take pleasure in watching actor Dwight Frye become the film’s first casualty; his derangement after he becomes one of the Count’s many wards is chillingly absolute, and a fearsome contrast to the cool dignity of Dracula himself, broken only by his uncontrolled lust at the sight of blood. While Browning’s film is inevitably less mysterious than Nosferatu, its atmosphere of unforgiving dread is remarkable for a Hollywood studio picture, and in this respect in trumps not only Murnau and Dreyer’s films but, quite incredibly, James Whale’s more classicist and soulful Frankenstein. So many of the Universal horror pictures remain delightful and strange, but seldom do any of them except Browning’s Dracula are really able to disturb us today.
And perhaps the average audience member will not have such a response to the film; Dracula demands undivided attention to be truly effective, but that’s really a mark of its advantages over so many films of its ilk and vintage — as mentioned before, the low-key acting is an asset all through the picture, propping up the lone over-the-top role filled by Frye. Helen Chandler’s Mina is icily distant, reading her lines almost in a monotone after she’s initially overtaken by Dracula, but it works tremendously well, allowing the performance to be built by others’ responses to it. Van Sloan’s Van Helsing could very easily be the usual embarrassing parade of expository claptrap, but his rationality and what Dracula calls his “will” make him an ideal, positive portrait of scientific knowledge and curiosity, deliberately avoiding the potential sidelining of him as a superstitious quack. (It’s a bit of a call ahead to Francois Truffaut’s part in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in that regard.) Of course, Lugosi is the glue of the picture; absent of the filth and plague of Nosferatu, his cleaned-up and sexual feeding patterns and destructive behavior position death and murder as a gentleman’s game, and he’s able also to softly imply his own character to be a victim of his own impulses. “There are far worse things awaiting man,” he announces, “than death.”
Dracula exists on a tantalizing threshold, just between the moment when the primitive nature of early talkies was a handicap and when directors like Browning learned to harness their limitations; additionally, of course, there is the absence of Hays Code regulations, which allow the film to wallow a bit in its hideousness. For both reasons, the movie’s impact would almost certainly be dulled had it been made just three or four years later. Though DVD versions exist with conventional scoring tacked on, the absence of music (apart from a somewhat incongruous Swan Lake extract underneath the credits) and the few scattered, sparse sound effects contribute to a overpowering stillness, making the experience all the more grim. Visual effects are also limited, in direct contrast to Whale’s films from the same period (especially The Invisible Man); we never actually see Dracula transforming, so the sudden entrance of the bat at various points remains inexplicable, a weakness that becomes an advantage in the narrative. Indeed, apart from the fog and the beautifully shadowy, horrifying scenery and set designs by Russell A. Gausman (lit as impeccably as ever by Ufa veteran Karl Freund), the most striking effect in Dracula is the simple light set upon Lugosi’s eyes when he casts his hypnotic spell on his victims; when a similar treatment is given to Helen Chandler’s thousand-yard stare, the feeling of doom, that feeling that we are ourselves unsafe, is inescapable.
Purportedly, Tod Browning was stressed and unhappy during the making of Dracula; he never fully warmed to sound cinema, arguably never having the positive experiences Whale did after the transition, and the casting of Lugosi as well as Universal’s budgetary requirements led the film far afield of its director’s original wishes and intentions. (It’s often said that the Spanish version of the film, shot simultaneously on the same sets, is far superior; but because it has an entirely different director, cast and even screenplay than the English language picture, it should be considered a wholly separate affair that merits its own consideration as an unrelated title.) Actors complained of the “chaotic” environment of the set, and despite the film’s major commercial success, it would sadly prove Browning’s last uncompromised triumph as a director. It’s common to complain that the difficulties in Dracula‘s creation and the marked inefficiencies of the available technology are obvious in the finished product, but in comparing it to nearly any other cinematic tackling of the legend it seems clear that the subtlety thereby forced upon the filmmakers is to its benefit (not even permitting us a happy ending that doesn’t feel hollow and eerie), and the permanent vitality of Lugosi’s performance — both as a direct experience and as a cultural phenomenon — speaks for itself. It’s still the stuff nightmares are made of, daring you to contend that you’re well past being susceptible to it. These shadows show no sign of lifting.