Dracula (1931)

It seemed the whole room was filled with mist. Then I saw two red eyes glaring at me, approaching quickly, giving way to a livid face contorted in the gravest mask of terror.

"For god's sake, hide me!" Zombos cried.

"Daddos, where are you daddos? You've got a dance question." Zombos Jr was getting closer.

"Playing High School Musical the DVD Board Game, I see," I said, applying more steam to the corpse plants. I had been enjoying the warm, pleasant quiet of the solarium, attending to my botanical chores. Warm, pleasant, moments never last, do they?

"I don't know why Zimba ever got him that hellish game," Zombos cried, as he frantically looked about the room for a hiding place.

"Try behind the bench over there," I pointed. For a man his age, he did move fast when given sufficient reason. Perhaps I shouldn't mention that I recommended the game to Zimba. It did make such a wonderful Christmas gift for Zombos Jr, though; the little fellow simply can't get enough of it.

Zombos Jr came running into the room. "Did you see my daddos?"

Before I could answer, Zombos sneezed loud enough to wake the dead.

"There you are!" He gleefully ran to Zombos and hustled him out of the room. Zombos let out a moan of despair that followed them all the way up the stairs and down the hall to the playroom.

Wait a minute; I mistakenly told him to hide behind the bench next to the orchids. Silly me, the man is terribly allergic to them. How could I have forgotten?

Glenor the maid came in with a small package. "This came for you," she said.

"Finally! My 75th Anniversary Edition DVD of Dracula. Thank you very much." I opened the box. With Zombos preoccupied, the library would be the best place to watch it. I ran up the stairs, popped it into the player, and settled back to enjoy the timeless performances of Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan, in the first American supernatural horror film.

The year was 1931. Universal Studios had originally planned a big budget film, more along the lines of 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1925's The Phantom of the Opera, but the Great Depression squelched those plans. Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, and master of extreme characterization, was onboard to star in Dracula, playing both the titular vampire and Van Helsing, the titular vampire's nemesis.

Chaney succumbed to a throat hemorrhage before filming could begin, leaving director and creative partner, Tod Browning, disappointed and disheartened. Other names were bandied about to replace him, including Conrad Veidt, but only one person was born to play the role of the undead count: Bela Lugosi. Say what you will about the shortcomings of Browning's film, it is Lugosi's performance as the aristocratic count of corrupting evil that has defined the sartorial look, voice, and mannerisms of Bram Stoker's Dracula ever since. Lugosi is Dracula, down to his hypnotic stare, sensual cape swirl, and suave, upper-class maliciousness.

Amazingly, Lugosi, who had starred in the smash play, Dracula, by Deane, and later Balderston, had to fight fang and nail for the film part. The expatriate Hungarian actor whose singular, syllabic voice was both a blessing for playing the blood-thirsty count, and a curse for most of his other roles, took less pay then his fellow actors to garner the role that would forever typecast him. Yet, it is his performance that has provided horrorheads everywhere with undying dreams of immortality, and punsters with a Google's worth of Lugosi-like enunciations.

Lugosi took Dracula seriously, even though Browning may not have. Film historians and fans have written much, and debated much, on the film's static camera direction, long silences, dialog-weighted slow pacing after we leave Transylvania, and stifling adherence to the play's confining drawing-room set-pieces, but Lugosi's performance makes it all worthwhile. In every one of his films, from B-movie to Poverty Row quickie, he never acted down to the material. And while the Spanish version of Dracula, included in this edition, may be technically superior to Browning's version, the wide-eyed, overly melodramatic acting of Carlos Villarias as Conde Dracula makes it mostly unwatchable.

The film begins with what would become the signature gothic atmosphere of Universal horror films; frightened villagers, dreary mist-shrouded landscapes, and expansive interior sets awash with ominous shadows and portents of the unnatural.

Poor Renfield doesn't know what he's in for as he heads to Castle Dracula to deliver the lease for Carfax Abbey to its new owner, Count Dracula — on Walpurgis Night, no less. Ignoring the pleas of the villagers to not go, he hops in the coach to make a midnight rendezvous with another coach that will take him to the castle.

The rendezvous with the count's coach, in the mist-shrouded dark, is foreboding. Renfield barely gets his feet on the ground before the frightened driver who brought him throws his luggage down, and whips his horses into a gallop to get out of there. Dracula, of course, is the driver of the waiting black coach, pulled by black horses. David Skal points out, in his enlightening commentary, how the scene as written differs from how it was filmed, leading to a script-logic error. As written, Dracula has his face covered, so that only his piercing eyes can be seen by Renfield. As shot, Dracula's face is not hidden. Renfield can plainly see his face; but at the castle he doesn't realize his mysterious host was also the silent coachman.

When Renfield arrives, the count greets him in the great hall of the castle. As Renfield reluctantly walks toward the great stone staircase, while Dracula slowly descends it, both are framed, and dwarfed, by the decaying surroundings and desolation. The censors wouldn't allow rats to be shown, so Browning chose armadillos instead to liven up the scene. The art direction by Charles D. Hall, combined with the cinematography of Karl Freund, is eerie and ground-breaking here. Hall would go on to helm the memorable art direction in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, while Freund continued his atmospheric, brooding camera work in Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Mummy.

The howling of wolves prompts Dracula to wax poetic as he implores Renfield to "Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make." Renfield, not quite sure what to make of all this, follows the count, who effortlessly passes through a large spider web that crosses the stairs. At this point, I'd be running down the stairs, but Renfield shirks it off, and uses his walking stick to open a path through the web. He continues to follow his creepy host to a more comfortable room, cheerily lit by a crackling fireplace.

Before you can say " I don't drink...wine," Renfield is drugged, tapped, and turned into a raving lunatic that loves to eat flies and fat juicy spiders for their life's fluid. In an energetic performance that would typecast him for future horror films, Dwight Frye brings the pain, pathos, and sinful pleasure of Dracula's questionable "gift" of immortality to vivid life. His near feverish ravings contrast sharply with Lugosi's studied, methodical performance, and set the tone for the mad doctor's assistant in subsequent films.

Unfortunately, the film loses its momentum when Dracula and Renfield sail to London aboard the Vesta. As Skal points out, the shooting script had scenes involving Lugosi baring fangs and attacking the Vesta's crew like some all-you-can-eat seafood smorgasbord. On film, the budget and censors must have stepped in and, along with Browning's disinterest, the Vesta voyage is short, and full of herky-jerky stock footage from a previous silent film. Except for a superbly framed shot showing Renfield laughing and glaring up from the ship's cargo hold as he is discovered, the voyage is not the highpoint it should have been.

While the ponderous drawing-room scenes slow the action, the intimate confrontations between Dracula and Van Helsing, and Renfield's more colorful moments between his raving insanity and pitiable remorse, give a gravity to the proceedings that holds our attention.

Lugosi and Sloan play their cat and mouse game with intensity and precision. In the Spanish version of the film, Dracula clumsily uses a walking-stick to smash the mirror box that betrays him, diluting this powerful scene with theatrics. In the American version, Van Helsing brings Dracula intimately close to view it. Momentarily falling into Van Helsing's trap, Dracula smashes the mirror box to the ground while jumping back. Van Helsing calmly strokes his chin, as if he were conducting an experiment as Lugosi's feral glare turns to an apology to his hosts. He gives Van Helsing a compliment for his wisdom, even though he's not lived a single lifetime, as he leaves.

Renfield's vexing ability to roam freely around Dr. Seward's house, livening up scenes that would otherwise be dialog-heavy, helps to keep the story moving. Frye moves Renfield between bouts of ecstasy and damnation as he obediently, and at times unwillingly, helps Dracula get to Mina. His description of the thousands of rats with red eyes, shown to him by Dracula as a future reward, would have been an incredible visual if the censors and technology allowed it.

The commentaries by David Skal and Steven Haberman provide a fascinating and eye-opening viewing experience. I've seen Dracula a few times over the years, but never noticed the continuity errors, or that large piece of cardboard placed next to the lamp in Mina's room. Both commentators differ in their opinions as to why that cardboard is there, but it is a testament to Lugosi's riveting performance that it remains unnoticed in the background. Comparisons of scenes in the shooting script to those actually put on film, indicate what the film might have been if budget, censors, and Tod Browning had been up to it.

Speaking of Tod Browning, the current consensus among critics is that he didn't direct much of the film. That task was left to Karl Freund, whose talents as a cinematographer were exceptional, but whose talents as a director were not adequate to the task at hand. I wonder also what kind of film Dracula would have been with Lon Chaney playing the parts of the undead count and his astute, unwavering nemesis Van Helsing. Would Chaney have used his incredible make-up talents to fashion a more horrific Dracula than Max Shrek's Nosferatu? If so, would he have been as effective as Lugosi's more socially mobile, suave and seductive presence?

The ending, whittled away by overly zealous censors and Browning's lack of direction, is a sedate affair with Van Helsing pounding a stake into Dracula's heart offscreen. Mina's scream, and Dracula's death moans have been restored in this version.

The many wonderful extras in this two-disc edition include the new audio commentary by screenwriter Steve Haberman, and new documentaries; Lugosi: The Dark Prince, and Universal Horror. Another new feature is the Monster Tracks, which pop-up text notes that play as the film is running, providing tasty tidbits of information on the production and actors. Extras returning from previous editions are David Skal's interesting commentary and Road to Dracula documentary, the Spanish version of Dracula, which was filmed concurrently with the American version using the same sets, and the Philip Glass instrumental scoring for the film.

The film itself is sharper than previous versions, and more details can be seen. While no longer scary — given today's jaded and desensitized audiences, not much is — Dracula remains an iconic and historic film in the pantheon of horror cinema due to its creative art direction, and the immortal performances by Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan.

Béla Lugosi as Count Dracula
Helen Chandler as Mina Harker
David Manners as John Harker
Dwight Frye as Renfield
Edward Van Sloan as Abraham Van Helsing
Herbert Bunston as Doctor Jack Seward
Frances Dade as Lucy Weston
Joan Standing as Nurse Briggs (in an error on the opening credits, she is misidentified as "Maid")
Charles K. Gerrard as Martin, Renfield's attendant
Uncredited roles include:
Michael Visaroff as Innkeeper
Carla Laemmle as Coach passenger
Wyndham Standing as Surgeon
Dorothy Tree as one of Dracula's three wives
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