Director: Tod Browning
Release Date: 1931
This is one of the most famous screen adaptations of Dracula and stars Bela Lugosi as the Count.
For those unfamiliar with the film, a quick synopsis is in order. Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels in secret to Transylvania to complete a real estate deal with Count Dracula. Dracula is buying Carfax Abbey in England.
They are carried back to England on the ship the Vesta, and by now it is clear that Renfield’s mind has completely snapped and he is completely in Dracula’s thrall. When the ship docks all the crew are dead and the only survivor found is Renfield. He is committed to Seward’s Sanatorium, next door to Carfax.
In the theatre Dracula introduces himself to Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), who is there with his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners) and Mina’s friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).
Lucy is soon dead, like many others she has lost much blood and has two small marks on her neck. Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is consulted and suspects a vampire. He quickly realises that Dracula is the fiend, but Dracula has already set his sights upon Mina.
The film is a minimalist’s dream. Normally the soundtrack to a film helps develop the atmosphere. Dracula has no real soundtrack, except over the opening credits and yet still manages to conjure a thick atmosphere. The DVD has a new soundtrack created by Philip Glass as an option, and yet I do not like to play that soundtrack whilst I watch the film, as I feel that it can make the film feel cluttered.
In much the same way Lugosi has very little dialogue. All the famous lines are there, yet it is Lugosi’s presence that gives the character his edge. The perfect illustration of this is when the brides stand above Renfield’s fainted form. Dracula dismisses them without a word, just a glance and a gesture, and yet we can feel his authority, a testimony both to Lugosi as actor and Browning as director.
It has to be said that the death, and undeath, of Lucy is so glossed over that in many respects it is not even minimalistic, it is more an irrelevance.
It is interesting to note that the film diverts away both from the book in many ways, including both the roles and names of key characters as well as plot, but it also diverts from what we would normally associate with the vampire, and more specifically Dracula, mythology.
The ship Dracula takes to England is called the Vesta and not the Demeter. This is a change from referencing Demeter, Goddess of agriculture, to referencing Vesta, Roman Goddess of hearth and home – though in truth the name change probably means very little.
In Dracula’s castle we see armadillos. The creatures are not normally associated with the vampire myth; indeed there is no reason why they would be in Eastern Europe as they are native to the Americas. Interestingly Mick Farren, in his vampire series the “Renquist Quartet” published between 1998 and 2004, lists the armadillo as being sought after by vampires as a source of good luck.
One noticeable change to the mythology is that Van Helsing tells Dracula that, even if he cannot save Mina’s life, he knows how to save her soul. Dracula retorts that he can save her soul if she dies by day, but he will ensure she dies at night. This is quite a rarity in the mythology, indeed I cannot think of another film that uses such an idea.
One intriguing line from Dracula comes in the theatre when Lucy quotes an old toast about the dead. Dracula replies, “To die… to be really dead… that must be glorious.” Within that one line we discover a creature almost at odds with his unnatural existence.
Most interestingly garlic is not used at all in the film. Van Helsing uses wolfsbane to ward off the vampire – a herb more commonly associated with the werewolf myth.
The two most notable performances in the film are those of Lugosi, for sheer presence, and Frye. His performance as Renfield is utterly fantastic and is reason enough to watch this film. The menace in his voice as he declares, “You know too much to live, Van Helsing!” is palpable.
The film does have problems, watching it with fresh eyes. Its minimalism can mean that exposition is lacking, leaving the viewer to fill in blanks. We know Van Helsing has been consulted regarding the mysterious deaths and yet the film never explains why, not even with a throw away line. We assume that Van Helsing has “taken care” of Lucy and yet we really do not know.
Yet at other times that minimalism works in the film’s favour. Whether it is Renfield holding a conversation with a silent Dracula or Mina holding a conversation with ‘someone’ as a bat flies around the terrace, we are left in no doubt about Dracula’s telepathic abilities.
Some might complain that I am giving this a score of 8 out of 10, it might be argued that this is a classic and should get higher and yet I don’t feel the film deserves any more. The film is certainly iconic, groundbreaking and influential, and it is a necessary addition to any vampire genre fan’s collection, and yet, in some respects, it is a flawed classic.
The imdb page is here.