Friday, 9 February 2018

Dracula (1931)

Taking the theatrical play of the late twenties (of which Lugosi himself was also the star) as a template Universal Studios put together a script that was more faithful to the stage version than it was Stoker’s book.  Nevertheless, it was their biggest financial success of the year and really was to change the future as it almost single-handedly sparked a whole generation of films, primarily from the studio itself but also from those influenced by their output, whether directly or indirectly.  From the opening it’s clear that there are liberal differences to the original literature as Renfield (yes, Renfield) is travelling with a group of passengers with the intention of making his way to the count’s castle in Transylvania, the objective being to offer him property in London.  Parting company with the group he is taken by carriage to the rather derelict castle which is occupied by an offbeat count (who is revealed to sleep in a coffin from the opening scenes) and three mysterious women.  Dracula soon enslaves the estate agent, turning him mad and using him as a servant.  Both of them return via ship to London where Renfield is imprisoned for his insanity and Dracula continues his quest to ensnare a woman who has attracted his attention: Mina.  John Harker does make an appearance but it’s later on in London, his position in the film being much less prominent than in the book (or, indeed, other filmed versions).  On to the scene comes Van Helsing, naturally, the man who recognises that several of the people in the vicinity are in the grip of a vampire curse, the cause of which is the count himself.  From there onwards Van Helsing attempts to persuade the most relevant people of the count’s true undead nature in order to despatch him forever, although such proposals are not unanimously welcomed of course.

The feel of this movie compared to Universal’s subsequent chillers is closer to that of silent cinema, despite it being quite talky - I’m really thinking about Browning’s filming techniques, plus Dwight Frye’s very old-fashioned performance of Renfield.  His exaggerated expressions and movements remind me of something from the silent era (though, aside from a small appearance in one film, Frye’s only work was in ‘talkies’, whereas Browning was very experienced with the silents), however his distinctively insane laugh is something of a spectacle.  There are two actors that really strengthen the proceedings: Edward Van Sloan is captivating as Van Helsing, his recital of lines being emphatic, deliberate, and authoritative.  He could feasibly convince anyone that vampires exist, so serious and articulate is his delivery of words.  Then of course there is Bela Lugosi as the count.  Aside from hinting at a possible lack of versatility his portrayal is quite domineering thanks to his incredible accent and odd way of expressing vocal emphasis; it’s difficult to take your eyes (and ears) away from him.  The other actors are generally quite conventional and service the picture adequately without standing out (though really, it’s difficult to stand out next to the likes of Van Sloan and Lugosi).  The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film features Renfield’s trip to the castle, the introduction of the count, and Renfield’s succumbing to madness, and this is the best segment of the whole film.  The creepiness is laid on quite effectively and the ruined castle is an incredible piece of gloomy, ancient architecture, its huge stones broken with massive cobwebs ubiquitous.  Actually, there is one nice little sequence involving a cobweb where Dracula appears to walk right through it (much to Renfield’s understandable shock), something achieved with no special effects whatsoever and all the more potent for it.  The three brides make a brief appearance, almost token but welcome they are nonetheless.
After the return to England things become very dialogue driven and not as gripping as the Transylvania-bound act, with the exception of certain sequences generally involving Lugosi and Van Sloan.  For the final segment the movie gets back to great production design with a beautiful underground crypt and what must be one of the stunning gothic staircases ever seen.  Speaking of crypts, I love the introduction of the count at the beginning where we see first him climb from his coffin, followed by his bride climbing from hers, then a cockroach crawling out of its own small box - nice touch.  Another humorous aspect is Renfield’s persistent ability to escape from his cell, even turning up at one point to engage in a discussion with Van Helsing in Dr Seward’s office - they can’t seem to keep the slippery man imprisoned long before he finds a way of wandering off somewhere.  The use of bats in this film is pretty hopeless with them bouncing up and down remarkably like rubber on string (indeed, on the discs you can actually see the string in at least one scene).  Unfortunately Hammer were insistent on using this same effect some forty years later - surely it didn’t convince audiences even in 1931?  So, Dracula is of course a classic; it was highly successful, formed the catalyst for a whole sub-genre and was generally influential, but it’s not wall-to-wall excitement, more so an average film with a number of high points that make it worth watching. Tod Browning himself was to go on to much more notoriety a year later with Freaks.

Universal get some mileage out of these films, with several DVD incarnations across the globe having been in existence hitherto, followed by various Blu-rays.  From the beautiful Monster Legacy collection containing carefully painted busts of the three main creatures, the DVD I have features a transfer that fluctuates between very good in some shots, to very awful in others.  The 75th anniversary disc (later released in the US) is reportedly an improvement.  A couple of instances of censored audio exist in my print unfortunately (again, corrected for the 75th anniversary): Dracula’s death moans, and some screams from Renfield. There’s a choice between two soundtracks on the DVD - the original mono track of course and a score composed a few years ago by Philip Glass, presented in surround while the dialogue and effects remain centred.  It’s something that purists probably can’t accept (the original track is almost completely music-less) but it’s a great score and very reminiscent of the period (possibly earlier) so it fits well.  It is a little overly present but there are occasions when it enhances the film just like any great score should, my favourite being the scene where Dracula almost hypnotises Van Helsing - the music here embellishes the moment exquisitely.  Despite the rough print used the package (including commentary and documentary) is a very good one.  I do intend to upgrade at some stage to the Blu-ray of course.

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