What's the Big Deal?: Dracula (1931)

When you think of a vampire -- your basic Halloween bloodsucker, with the Eastern European accent, the black cape, and the slicked-back hair -- you're thinking of Bela Lugosi in Dracula. Even people who haven't seen the film can imitate the voice, or at least the version filtered through the The Count on Sesame Street, and everyone knows it's a "classic" horror film from the same era that produced movies like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy. Every modern vampire, including the mopey adolescent one in Twilight, owes something to the 1931 original. But 1931 was a long time ago. Is the movie still good? Was it even good then? The praise: Combing through the many positive reviews of the film written 70 years later, I note something curious. Everyone talks about how it's a "milestone" and a "landmark" and a "historical" film, but few writers claim that they actually enjoy watching it. Glance at the film's Rotten Tomatoes page and you'll see many references to its status, yet even the "fresh" reviews tend to mention its flaws. This may be the quintessential example of a film that is valued because of its historical significance and influence on other movies more than on its merit as entertainment. Even the reviews in 1931 weren't particularly glowing. The most effusive might have been in Variety: "A sublimated ghost story related with all surface seriousness and above all with a remarkably effective background of creepy atmosphere." Time magazine was more muted: "Dracula is an exciting melodrama, not as good as it ought to be but a cut above the ordinary trapdoor-and-winding-sheet type of mystery film." In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall used a lot of qualifying words: "This picture succeeds to some extent in its grand guignol intentions.... [It] can at least boast of being the best of the many mystery films." Still, he dutifully reports, "It is a production that evidently had the desired effect upon many in the audience yesterday afternoon." (Note that apparently they called thrillers "mystery" films in those days. Note also that the New York Times had a film critic named "Mordaunt.")The audience response is crucial to understanding the movie's significance. Dracula was a big hit at the box office, and its success emboldened Universal to pursue the horror genre further, which it did so avidly that monster movies and thrillers were soon the studio's defining characteristic. Horror movies hadn't been very common during the silent era, and while filmmakers had something new to play with now that movies could talk and make spooky noises, there was no guarantee that audiences would go for it. The fact that they did was extremely important in the evolution of moviegoing, regardless of whether Dracula deserved to be the door-opener. DraculaThe context: Dracula was released in February 1931, about 3 1/2 years after Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer made history as the first feature-length talking picture. Sound caught on quickly -- you'll notice that pretty much all movies have it nowadays -- but it wasn't until late 1932 that essentially all American cinemas had added sound systems. In the meantime, studios continued to make some silent films, as well as silent versions of talking pictures for theaters that hadn't converted yet. Dracula was among the titles that were released both ways, though it's hard to imagine people responding as favorably without being able to hear Lugosi's distinctive Hungarian accent. (He wasn't doing a "voice," either, by the way. That's how he really sounded.)So the audiences who saw the sound version of Dracula were getting a double dose of cinematic innovation: a movie that not only talks but scares us, too! The relatively few thrillers that had been produced previously tended to have comic relief or to downplay the supernatural elements in the end (it was all a dream; there turned out to be a logical explanation; etc.), but Dracula was different. It has almost no light moments, and Count Dracula really does turn out to be a vampire. No twist ending there. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel had been made into a film once before, actually, but without authorization, which resulted in successful litigation from Stoker's widow. That film, a silent picture from 1922, was Nosferatu, by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau. It holds up remarkably well for a silent film, with the monstrous Dracula figure played by Max Schreck coming across as effectively creepy even now. (In 2000, Shadow of the Vampire, set behind the scenes at the making of Nosferatu, imagined that Max Schreck really WAS a vampire. Watching Nosferatu, you can almost believe it.) Hollywood's Carl Laemmle Jr. loved Nosferatu, bought the film rights to Dracula, and set out to make a large-scale silent film of it starring Lon Chaney Sr., who had already starred in Universal's epics The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). But then the Great Depression screwed up Laemmle's budget, and Chaney's death from cancer screwed up the casting. Lugosi had been campaigning for the role all along, having already played it in a successful Broadway version of the story in 1927. It was that theatrical adaptation, which deviated from Stoker's novel in many ways, that served as the framework for the film Laemmle wound up producing. You can tell, too: A lot of the scenes feel stiff, as if confined by the boundaries of a stage. DraculaThe movie: Well, there's this vampire, see, named Dracula. Lives in a castle in Transylvania. Looking to move to London, though, and has bought Carfax Abbey as his new home. Real estate agent visits Castle Dracula to have him sign the papers; winds up going insane and becoming Drac's servant. Most of the rest of the film is set in a London sanitarium that happens to be next door to Dracula's new place. I guess when you're a vampire you don't mind buying the place adjacent to the nuthouse. What it influenced: As mentioned, it influenced just about everything vampire-related, at least indirectly. It was remade in 1958 with Christopher Lee, and in 1979 with Frank Langella; those versions, their sequels, and their spoofs (like Grandpa on The Munsters) kept the Dracula character fresh in people's minds. With regard to horror films in general, Dracula doesn't seem to have been any more influential than the other Universal monster movies of the day; rather, it was their combined impact that left a mark. But there is one element of Dracula (it was in Nosferatu, too) that shows up in almost every slasher movie to this day: the fearful local who warns the traveler not to go to that castle/those woods/that abandoned summer camp/etc. I like to call this person the "You're Doomed!" Character, because the old man in the first Friday the 13th actually said those words. The "You're Doomed!" Character always turns out to be right, of course. The warnings never prove to be unfounded. What to look for: First and foremost, do not expect to be scared. There are some legitimately creepy things in the first 10 or 15 minutes, especially in Dracula's castle, which is vast and ruined and wouldn't have looked nearly as spooky in color. (This set and the one of Carfax Abbey, back in London, are impressively large considering the film's small budget.) But it's not the stuff of nightmares. Audiences in 1931 had not seen a lot of horror films. You have. Don't expect a breakneck pace, either. Even at only 75 minutes, the film feels sloooow. Again, many moviegoers in 1931 were thrilled just to hear movies talking. The fact that some of these movies talked too much when they should have been doing other things didn't matter. DraculaInstead, view the film as an artifact, the same way you'd regard something pulled out of a time capsule. Note its lack of a musical score, not at all uncommon in the early sound era. (Philip Glass composed one in 1998 that's included on some DVD editions. You should be a purist and skip it.) Note Bela Lugosi's fully committed performance as Dracula, the way he's frequently photographed in shadow except for his eyes, the way he's a lot older than you'd have thought -- Lugosi was 48 when the film was released -- considering how "handsome" and "sexual" the Dracula character is supposed to have been. It's no wonder Lugosi was typecast for the rest of his life. He pretty much IS Dracula here. The praiseworthiness of his performance has not diminished much with time. You'll find pretty much all the standard characteristics of vampires here: aversion to crosses, death in sunlight, no reflection in mirrors, ability to turn into bats and wolves, and so forth. Notice that in subsequent vampire movies, especially modern ones, there's always at least one of those elements that is dismissed as an urban legend and not true of "real" vampires. That's to make audiences think that these are cool, edgy vamps, not the old-fashioned ones from 1931. What's the big deal: I don't mean to suggest that Dracula is entirely unenjoyable for a modern viewer, just that it will probably only have a fraction of the effect on you that it had on audiences in 1931. Some parts of it are entertaining in a campy way, and a lot of us find it fascinating to watch something from an entirely different era and try to imagine what Depression-era moviegoers would have felt. Nonetheless, most of the big deal about Dracula pertains to its legacy and influence and not to its actual quality as a work of art and entertainment. It's the kind of movie you might respect more than you enjoy -- but that respect is deserved. Doff your hat to the forefather of monster movies!Further reading: Most of these assume you've seen the movie already, so they may have spoilers. You're probably pretty familiar with the basic story anyway, though. Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay, which acknowledges the film's greatness lies more in its legacy than its entertainment value. James Berardinelli's well-reasoned analysis, most of which I would have simply plagiarized if I could have. Tim Dirks' Filmsite description gives a good scene-by-scene analysis. * * * *Eric D. Snider (website) sleeps in a coffin, too, but only for comfort.