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Movie Review: Dracula


Dracula (1931 Universal Dir. Tod Browning)

Um, Karl? You want to stop doing that, please? You’re sort of freaking out the tourists.

Wait, what? I’ve never done a review of the Classic Universal Monster movies? For reals? WOW! Well then. Yeah, let’s get on that shall we? This is the start of Universal Studio’s domination of the horror market, or at least the definition of great horror icons. Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, are all greatly defined by their appearances in these early thirties movies. There is also The Wolfman in 1941, which almost completely defined werewolves for all of us, but that’s not important right now because we won’t be reviewing that one. I could review it, but I’d have to buy it and I have a rule about not buying things just to review them. If I started buying things just because I thought it would be fun to write reviews for them I’d have crossed the line.

He was pretending to decide, but really it was down to the cute chick or the old man.

Let’s start by talking about what this movie is or isn’t. It isn’t actually an adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, but rather it adapts the stage play which was based on the book. Before you ask, yes it is a little important to have that settled before we begin. I don’t want to keep harping back that this isn’t to the book or that isn’t to the book. It’s not the book, it’s the play. Get it? Got it? Good! One of the first changes you’ll notice is that the movie is actually set in the then present day of the late 20s and early 30s instead of being set in Victorian London. Actually, you won’t notice it as first because the movie opens in Transylvania and that’s portrayed as a sort of quaint area of the world where electricity hasn’t arrived yet. The Transylvanians are stuck in the late 1800s in this movie, but there are signs that this is the (then) current day in a few costumes and comments. This is fine since, despite the outdated style of the gothic novel, Dracula was meant as an up to the minute story including the latest technology such as Dictaphones and modern ideas fighting against the ancient evil. Except of course, this isn’t the novel, it’s the play. So forget I ever said anything about it.

Coffee… gimme coffee.

Now, we’re not dealing with Jonathan Harker here. This is Mister Renfield, who is strangely one of my favorite characters. I have no idea why, normally I greatly dislike lackeys and bootlickers. There is something in this character though, that I can’t fully describe. Like Gollum from The Lord of The Rings, there is just something that keeps me feeling sympathetic toward him, no matter what evils he may eventually commit. It depends on what version you’ve got how much they use Renfield, but I still feel some affection for him, the poor mad blighter. Normally, Renfield is only seen as a maniac, but in this he plays the Harker roll for the opening of the movie. The problem here is that Jonathan Harker is the single stupidest character ever to originate in the English language. There may be stupider characters in German Folklore or possibly Greek Comedy, but in English, it’s Johnny Harker. This means that Renfield is portrayed as being as dumb as a sack of rocks for nearly 20 of the movie’s 73 minutes after which he more or less vanishes. Well, no, maybe not. It’s about 17 minutes in that he’s taken by Drac, so I guess he’s only dumb up till then. Anyway, the peasants try to get him to stay instead of rushing off to the Borgol Pass, which he ignores and goes onward. You’d think, after the 200 some adaptations that the peasants would just stop trying to persuade people. They’d just make a token effort and then mutter to themselves “Chump don’t want no help, chump not get no help.” before going inside for a drink. But then, you’d think people would be warned off trying to sell real estate to Dracula by now, so there you are.

In Castle Dracula, even the bugs are vampires!

There is a slight problem in watching Dracula, in that we know it’s all old and we’re supposed to see it as sort of goofy today, but there is an actual sense of menace in Lugosi’s performance. There is a tremendous atmosphere in some of the scenes, which if you didn’t know that you’re supposed to be worldly and above all this, would be sort of creepy. It’s not campy, it’s not silly, it actually manages to maintain a serious level of chilling strangeness in the entire coach scene… right up until the plastic bat on a string is seen driving the horses. I’ve got this terrific sense of “And you were doing so well.” as I watch that bit. However, once that’s over and Renfield enters the genuinely huge and cavernous castle, the creep factors return. The set is massive, and it looks more like a ruin than a castle anyone might live in. Everything about the place radiates a sense of wrongness and it shows on Renfield’s face. There is almost more in the reaction from the actor playing Renfield working on your nerves here than there is
Lugosi’s friendly welcoming manner.

Yes. Take it off, but take it off slow.

The first time I get any sort of sense of real menace from Lugosi as Dracula, beyond the sense of something being just plain wrong, is when Renfield cuts his finger. There’s something deeply disturbing in how Dracula looks at the young man, particularly when you consider the post-just-about-everything education I have. In this version, there is as much sexuality as they would let the characters get away with, but Dracula’s attack on Renfield becomes extraordinarily sexual when you consider that for the rest of the movie Ren is going to be panting after Drac looking for another bite. It’s a great relief to me for them to get on the boat because Renfield is much better as a lunatic than as an innocent victim. He’s almost more freighting than Dracula, because he’s just sooo uncool and trying so hard to please. He’d eat your face if he thought it would make Drac happy. At any rate they arrive and Ren gets locked up as it should be. Drac starts wandering around London for a while, whacking victims left and right for a couple of minutes before we have to settle down and have some plot.

This is a happy, happy man.

Drac meets Lucy, Dr. Seward, Harker and Mina all at once at the opera. This leads to Dracula fixating on Lucy, as he always does. Two hundred and some odd versions and they never do protect that poor girl. It’s like a sacrificial lamb being staked out for the great tiger to eat. In this version, Lucy is dead almost on the instant. We get Drac coming in toward her and then we see her pronounced dead in what has to be the biggest operating theater in Christendom. The poor girl is simply thrown away, killed in a single fangless thrust. Yeah, there are no fangs in this movie, or any of the Universal Dracula movies as I remember. I could be wrong and there might be some in the later sequels but I seem to remember no fangs and almost no blood, besides the tiny amount on Ren’s hand when he cuts himself at the beginning. There’s more blood in The Public Enemy than there is in Dracula, which is a movie primarily about blood. There must be something to that, maybe because it’s so pervasive in the plot and the minds of the censor board they wouldn’t allow much too actually be shown.


Doctor Van Helsing just sort of shows up in the movie. I think he’s supposed to have been working at Seward’s Sanitarium, or was brought in for the emergency. Either way, he’s here to be the authority figure and chief exposition device. He’s not the most interesting Van Helsing in my collection, nor is he the best, he’s the most bookish though. At least in this version Ren doesn’t vanish from the story, he’s interrogated by Dr VH and has some wolfsbane shoved all up in his grill. Ren reacts badly and Dr VH announces that there are indeed vampires about. I have to say though, having smelled things that have “bane” in their title, I’d react badly too. There’s a reason those things keep animals away. Dr VH can be portrayed in so many different ways, and this is one of the good ones but not the best. He’s not as interesting as some of the guys we’ll be seeing later, but is he one of the most reassuring. There is something almost grandfatherly about him. He’s also the most investigatory of the three interpretations we’ll be seeing. Normally the gathering of evidence is just presented so that Dr VH can stand there and say “See? I was right.” but here I get the idea that he’s really trying to make sure that his suspicions are correct. There is something less arrogant and more likeable here.

Where will you be when your laxative starts working? Which one of them has just realized what’s about to happen?

After the first encounter of Drac and Mina, she relates the event as a nightmare to Harker. Johnny boy then cements his reputation as being the stupidest character in the history of English Literature by telling her not to worry her little head, that she shouldn’t talk about it anymore and just to think about something cheerful. Yeah, his advice is to forget about everything and think of cheerful things. It’s a good think Dr VH is around to check her neck and discover the bite marks. When the bites are reveled Johnny runs to her side and asks why she didn’t let him know about the bite marks. One can only suggest that she knew if she did tell him he’d tell her to sing a jolly song and not to worry about them or something. Since Johnny here isn’t exactly a smart person, almost anything he has to say can be discounted and ignored. At least with Johnny stupidly reaching for a cigarette it give Dr VH, the one competent person in this tale who isn’t evil or insane, a chance to notice that Drac can’t be seen in a mirror. This confirms things for Dr VH, instead of just giving him a point to tell everyone how right he was. He explains things to the group, and has to get out the big print edition with drawings and small words so Johnny Boy can follow along. He has to spell everything out for dumb old John, not just because John Harker is stupid, but because this was one of the first times in American Cinema where the supernatural was allowed to be completely supernatural. It had to be fully and firmly established that this was not going to end with some convenient, but ultimately mundane explanation. As a result, they had to pound it into the audience’s head that this is a supernatural tale. It’s just fortunate that they have someone as stupid a John Harker to explain things to so we know if he gets it, then everyone in the audience gets it. This paragraph got a little long, but I can’t be bothered to cut it now. The screen caps have all been uploaded and resized and stuff. It would screw up all my arrangements.

It just occurred to them that I’m trapped in a middle class existence of near impenetrable spiritual isolation. Either that or I have gas.

Once the supernatural has been firmly established, we pretty much move at a good clip from there on out. Lucy becomes the woman in white, Johnny says something stupid, Dr VH asks Mina about Lucy, Johnny says something stupid, Dr VH and company discuss how to get rid of Drac, and Johnny has to get a thinking brain dog to stop him from choking on his own tongue. I wish that this was just a joke or something, but Jonathan Harker is always the stupidest person in any given presentation of Dracula and in this version, he’s panicky too. I must also now talk about the fake English accents of some of the people. There are faux cockney folk in this movie, and they are so VERY faux cockney. Even if they’re English actors, they’re still trying to fake the cockney-ness of their accents. It’s really painful listening to them, particularly since they’re played for comedy and they just aren’t funny. By comparison, this paragraph feels really, really short now. I should have cut the last paragraph in half. Somewhere around the mirror stuff. Too late now, live and learn. Only not because almost all the Halloween stuff has been written at this point and I’m just punching up a few things now. Still, I did manage to pad this section out a few lines, and that helps.

I’m too dumb to understand what’s going on here.

So there is some talk between Renfield and Dr VH in which he reveals all as they used to say. Then there some talk between Drac and Dr VH where in they have the traditional battle of wills. It’s actually sort of cool because Drac does the whole come to me bit and Dr VH manages to resists, but the whole thing is done in the looks between the two of them. Meanwhile, Mina is up and about, running around and trying to get herself eaten by Drac. Johnny performs the duty of the complete and total moron, thinking that nothing can harm Mina because he’s around. No really, he actually says “It’s alright, now that I’m here.” like anyone named Harker has ever done a single competent thing in the history of stupid men being stupid. Everything he does is the definition of stupidity, and he is frankly the most useless lump of meat in this movie. No, actually, useless would be better because he’s actively part of the problem. I can’t stress enough to you how dumb Jonathan Harker is. If I stood and chanted “stupid, stupid, stupid” for an hour and a half it wouldn’t be enough. If this were a slasher movie, Johnny Harker would be the one to leave the room and investigate that sound he heard outside or possibly suggest that they should split up to search the place.

Doesn’t he look cheerful? He’s just happy to be here.

Fortunately, we have Dr Van Helsing to fall back on. He follows Renfield to Drac’s hide out with steak and hammer in hand. That is Van Helsing has the hammer and spike, Renfield only had mindless devotion and an oh-so-breakable neck. After Drac throws Ren down some stairs he dies a sad and lamentable death, being the best Renfield in the history of cinema. Actually, I forgot, Dr VH doesn’t have the spikes, he has to improvise. The killing of Dracula happens off stage, and we actually see his death in the reaction of Mina as she is released from Drac’s mental grip. Dr VH tells her that Drac is dead and everything is going to be all right now.

I heard the movie was running low on smug, so I came to see if I could help and of course, I can.

Of course things couldn’t just end that way. There had to be sequels. There was the Daughter and then the Son and eventually House of Dracula in which the whole thing sort of fell apart. The problem is that each movie was only about one third as good as the last, so you can imagine how bad they got at the end. Not just bad, but goofy. As the audience started to grow younger and censors grew more powerful, they ruined these movies and turned them into something that can only be mocked. We won’t even get into Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, because… just no. I have my pride. Suffice to say that in the end, the whole thing collapsed under its own weight and it was years before Dracula could show his face again. Fortunately, you only have to wait until next week to learn about it instead of the thirteen years that Drac had to wait.

Yeah, still not feeling anything. Pretty much just a lot of ennui.


September 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment