Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bela Lugosi stalks the night as Dracula

When Universal’s Dracula premiered at New York’s Roxy Theater in February 1931, the critic for The New York Times wrote that it “can at least boast of being the best of the many mystery films.”

Today, no one would likely regard Dracula as a “mystery.” In 1931, however, “horror” had yet to take its place as a genre like the western, the comedy, the romance, and the drama. There had been “horror” films before Dracula, including Nosferatu, a silent, unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they were few and far between. Dracula and the same year’s Frankenstein established “horror” with moviegoers who would be introduced to more vampires, monsters, and mad doctors, as well as mummies, ghouls, giant apes, and zombies in the years ahead.

Certainly, no mere “mystery” concerned itself with a character like the Count from Transylvania. Dracula is a vampire, Professor Van Helsing tells us, one of those curious undead creatures that can “take the form of wolves and bats. They leave their coffins at night and they feed on the blood of the living.”

If not for its historical significance and Bela Lugosi’s signature performance, it’s tempting to wonder how famous this film would be today.

In that initial review, the Times’ critic praised Tod Browning’s “imaginative direction,” but imaginative direction is one thing this now classic film lacks. The opening scenes at Dracula’s castle are memorably eerie, with Lugosi descending a cobwebbed staircase while a wolf howls in the distance. “Listen to them,” Dracula tells his visitor, “Children of the night. What music they make.” The Hungarian actor’s slow delivery, the effect of having to learn his dialogue phonetically due to a poor grasp of English, adds to Dracula’s otherworldly personality. He is a vampire, after all, who comes to life only after sunset.

Once the Count and the hapless fly-eating Renfield arrive in London, Dracula is as slow as Lugosi’s delivery. Although the film is never as good as those first 15 minutes, it has an almost hypnotic quality, due mainly to the star’s fascinating presence. Like most early talkies, there is no music score (the opening titles are accompanied by a snippet of “Swan Lake”), but that only contributes to the film’s deathly mood. All that silence gives the film the ambience of a tomb. When characters speak, it has the effect of a coffin lid being pried open. In the late ‘90s, Universal commissioned Philip Glass to compose a score for the film, but the Kronos Quartet’s music actually detracts from the film’s power.

Although it takes wolf bane, a crucifix, or a stake through the heart to keep a vampire at bay, Dracula was not immune to the 1929 stock market crash and the economic depression that followed. Universal abandoned plans for a big budget film that would have adhered more closely to Stoker’s novel, and filmed Hamilton Deane’s rather mundane play instead.

Though much about the film is disappointing, Dracula is a landmark in cinema. Everybody over the age of 10 probably knows of Bela Lugosi, or did in those bygone days when people were still culturally literate. For fans of classic horror, however, even such obscure performers as Edward Van Sloan, David Manners, and especially Dwight Frye are legends of a sort due to their participation in this and other now revered shockers. Frye, a tragic figure who found himself typecast as freaky deviants after playing the hysterical Renfield, was even the inspiration for a song by Alice Cooper (“The Ballad of Dwight Frye”).

But Dracula is Lugosi’s showcase. No matter how many actors have donned the Count’s flowing black cape and bared some sharp, blood-stained fangs (which Lugosi does not do), it’s a role he continues to own.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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