The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina. (IMDB synopsis)
What a coincidence that the day I have to review this Dracula film is the day everyone learns of the death of another iconic Dracula, Christopher Lee. What a shame. Lee was one hell of an actor and I’m sure he’ll be sorely missed.
On with the review, I guess. The 1931 film features a definitive performance by Bela Lugosi. He himself was so typecast in his role that he was actually buried after his death in his Dracula costume. I can’t work out if that’s badass, or a little tragic. It’d be like Jack Morrison taking his Gary Goodman character to the grave. (BOOM, inside joke!)
First of all, our man Renfield (who is much younger than his 60 years in the book) is warned against meeting Count Dracula and, ooh, his wives. One of the locals gives him a crucifix with which to protect himself.
Next we see a coffin, and out of it comes a creeping hand. Dracula appears as a tall and handsome man wearing a long cloak and slicked-back hair. He disguises himself as a carriage driver and takes Renfield right up to his castle, which Renfield duly enters. The castle’s interior is more grand and Gothic than in Nosferatu, the structure more elaborate, and… there are armadillos walking around. Well, all right.
Drac appears holding a candle and bids his guest welcome in the creepiest way possible, before ascending the stairs and walking through a giant cobweb without breaking it. Unfortunately, Renfield doesn’t catch on to the many many MANY signs that Drac is a vampire and gets himself drugged, bitten and turned into ONE OF THEM. It is then that Renfield and his new master journey back to London to, er, creep and crawl in search of blood and terrorise the neighbourhood.
It’s amazing how scary Bela Lugosi as Dracula can be. He doesn’t need prosthetics or huge ratty teeth – it’s just his face, albeit very well lit around the eyes. (I believe Morticia Addams has the same lighting in the Addams Family feature films.) However, this Drac is by no means subtle. I like the way the wooden doors in his castle all seem to swing open as he approaches, and I just love the way he talks. He’s hiding nothing.
“I am taking with me only three… boxes.”
“I never drink… wine.”
And later on, as he beckons to Van Helsing with a curled hand:
This film has a couple of differences to Nosferatu. First of all, Drac’s victims don’t just die; instead, they turn into vampires themselves. This happens to Renfield, Lucy and Mina, although they do manage to turn Mina back to normal in the end.
Drac also has some other unnatural powers in the 1931 version. He’s capable of hypnotising people to behave as he wishes, and can also take the form of an animal – usually it’s a bat, but sometimes it’s a wolf. (This is interesting, considering Lugosi would have a later role in The Wolf Man. Clearly this is a man who plays by his own rules.) However, he can be nuisanced in many ways other than by exposure to sunlight – he flinches at the sight of both mirrors and crucifixes, and can be repelled by wolfbane.
There are certain things the audience goes without seeing. There’s no biting onscreen, and certainly no death. In fact, due to heavy censoring at the time, even Drac’s dying scream was edited out. Another thing worthy of note is the lack of any musical score. Perhaps this is a good thing, though, as it allows every spoken word to sink in.
The supporting characters are OK. Jonaphan and Mina are a bit dull, but they only really serve as plot devices so it’s not their fault. Renfield steals every scene once he’s transformed into a raving lunatic, and Van Helsing is, well, kind of a badass. He stands up to Drac, and his will is too strong to be taken away from him. Also, he gets to put a stake of wood through Drac’s heart at the very end – which, again, we never see. Booooo.
This is the Dracula that everybody thinks about when they think of Count Dracula, even if they’ve never seen the film. That’s some accomplishment, and I think everybody ought to see this movie at least once. It also looks a lot better than Nosferatu in my opinion, probably because the filmmakers didn’t have to worry about incurring the wrath of Bram Stoker’s estate, and probably had more money and time to work with. A very solid effort that stands the test of time.
8 jam sandwiches.
So, should I review Frankenstein tomorrow as planned, or should I do Horror of Dracula as a tribute to Christopher Lee?