Movie lore has it that Bela Lugosi could barely speak English
when he was chosen by Universal Pictures to star in "Dracula" (1931).
Lon Chaney had been scheduled to play the role, a wise casting decision after
his success in the silent classics "The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and
"The Phantom of the Opera.” But he died as "Dracula” was going into
production, and the mysterious 49-year-old Hungarian, who starred in a 1927
Broadway production of "Dracula,” was cast. Legend must exaggerate,
because the Hungarian emigre Lugosi had been living and working in the United
States for a decade by the time the film was made, and yet there is something
about his line readings that suggests a man who comes sideways to
English--perhaps because in his lonely Transylvanian castle, Dracula has had
centuries to study it but few opportunities to practice it.
it is Lugosi's performance, and the cinematography of Karl Freund, that make
Tod Browning's film such an influential Hollywood picture. The greatest of all
the vampire films is F.M. Murnau's silent "Nosferatu” (1922, another title
in this Great Movies series), but Murnau's work was almost a dead end, complete
and self-contained, a masterpiece that stood alone. (When Werner Herzog made
his version of "Nosferatu” with Klaus Kinski in 1979, he was so in awe of
the original that he shot on some of the same locations.) The look of Browning's
"Dracula” was inspired by Murnau's gloomy gothic visuals, well known to
the German cameraman Freund, who worked with Murnau on "The Last Laugh.”
It was Freund who was instrumental in creating the startling impact of the
arrival at Castle Dracula, the entrance to the castle's forbidding interior
spaces, and such “Nosferatu”-inspired shots as the hand snaking from a coffin
and rats snuffling in a crypt.
was new about the film was sound. It was the first talking picture based on
Bram Stoker's novel, and somehow Count Dracula was more fearsome when you could
hear him--not an inhuman monster, but a human one, whose painfully articulated
sentences mocked the conventions of drawing room society. And here Lugosi's
accent and his stiffness in English were advantages.
was by all accounts a strange, deliberately theatrical man, who drew attention
to himself with stylized behavior. He made his foreignness an asset, and in
Hollywood and New York used his sinister, self-mocking accent to advantage. After
the success of "Dracula,” he often appeared in public dressed formally,
with a flowing cape, as if still playing the role. In later life, addicted to
drugs, he was reduced to self-parody, and a glimpse of his last years can be
found in "Ed Wood” (1994), set during his last picture.
vampire Dracula has been the subject of more than 30 films; something deep
within the legend is suited to cinema. Perhaps it is the joining of eroticism
with terror. The vampire's attack is not specifically sexual, but in drinking
the blood of his victims he is engaged in the most intimate of embraces, and no
doubt there is an instinctive connection between losing your virginity (and
your soul) and becoming one of the undead. Vampirism is like elegant,
slow-motion rape, done politely by a creature who charms you into surrender.
Dracula myth has been filmed so often, in so many different ways (most recently
by Francis Ford Coppola in his "Bram Stoker's Dracula,” 1992), that its
material has become like an opera libretto, or a play by Shakespeare: We know
the story and all the beats, and are concerned mostly with the style and
production. All of the serious later movie Draculas draw from Lugosi's
performance, not from the earlier work by Max Schreck, whose "Nosferatu”
was more inhuman and distant, a skeletal wraith. Lugosi, with his deep eyes
(made eerie by Freund with pinpoint lights) and his glossy black hair, created
one of the most influential of all movie performances, making a distinctive
impression that influenced movie Draculas for years to come--especially Hammer
Films star Christopher Lee, who played the character at least seven times.
the film's look and star performance were influential, so was its dialogue.
Many of movie's great lines have entered into folklore:
never drink ... wine.
one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing.
to them. Children of the night. What music they make.
story is familiar to every moviegoer. Renfield (Dwight Frye), an English real
estate agent, visits Transylvania to sell a London property to the count. He
really wants to make that sale; he takes no warning from the fear of the
villagers when Dracula's name is mentioned. He survives a terrifying ride in a
coach with no driver. And then he plunges into his doom. The establishing shots
of the fearsome interiors of Castle Dracula owe everything to the tradition of
German Expressionism. There is the sinister politeness with which Dracula
greets his guest and offers him food and ... wine. Then the overpowering of
Renfield. The return to England on the ship with its deadly cargo of coffins
(another sequence that owes much to "Nosferatu”). The ghost ship that
drifts into port, everyone on board apparently dead except for Renfield, who is
stark staring mad.
London the vampire feasts on the blood of strangers encountered in the night,
in scenes owing something to the legend of Jack the Ripper. Then he introduces
himself into high society by insinuating himself into the box at the opera occupied
by Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston). The doctor owns Carfax Abbey, which is next
door to the sanitarium where the unfortunate Renfield has been imprisoned
(giggling and eating spiders for their blood). He meets Seward's daughter Mina
(Helen Chandler), her fiance John Harker (David Manners) and her friend Lucy
(Frances Dade). They are joined eventually by the vampire hunter Dr. Van
Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who explains vampirism in more detail than the
drama probably requires.
scenes in Carfax Abbey are an anticlimax after the Expressionist terrors of the
scenes set in Transylvania and aboard the ship. They're based on the same
Broadway play in which Lugosi first played Dracula, and owe more to the
tradition of drawing-room drama (and, it must be said, comedy) than to the
underlying appeal of vampirism. Yet even here Browning is able to add
unsettling touches, as in the way he suggests Dracula's presence in the visits
of bats and in the drifting of fog.
Browning (1882-1962) is a director whose name is central to any study
the horror genre, and yet most of his best work is overshadowed by his
Lon Chaney, "the man of 1,000 faces,” seems to be the key creative force
behind Browning's silent landmarks "The Unholy Three” and "West of
Zanzibar.” Lugosi, Freund and the subject matter are the creative engines
behind "Dracula.” One Browning picture that stands alone as his personal
vision is "Freaks” (1932), set in a circus sideshow, and so shocking it
has been banned here and there ever since.
had no musical score when it was first released, apart from some fugitive
strains of "Swan Lake.” That left an opportunity. I saw a restored version
of the film in September at the Telluride Film Festival, with Philip Glass
joining the Kronos Quartet in performing his newly composed score. That is the
version now available on tapes and discs.
argue that Browning's original decision was the best one--to enhance the horror
by eerie sound effects instead of underlining it with music. But "Dracula”
has been pushed and pulled in so many different directions by so many different
artists that Glass is only following the tradition in adding his own
contribution. The Glass score is effective in the way it suggests not just
moody creepiness, but the urgency and need behind Dracula's vampirism. It
evokes a blood thirst that is 500 years old.
the 1931 "Dracula” still a terrifying film, or has it become a period
piece? The "most chilling, genuinely frightening film ever made,” vows the
reference series Cinebooks. Perhaps that was true in 1931, but today I think
the movie is interesting mostly for technical reasons--for the stylized
performances, the photography, the sets. There is a moment, though, when Lugosi
draws close to the sleeping Lucy, and all of the elements of the material draw
together. We consider the dreadful trade-off: immortality, but as a vampire.
From our point of view, Dracula is committing an unspeakable crime. From his,
offering an unspeakable gift.