The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!
Year of Release: 1931
Running Time: 75 minutes (1:15)
Director: Tod Browning
Bela Lugosi ... Count Dracula
Helen Chandler ... Mina
David Manners ... John Harker
Dwight Frye ... Renfield
Edward Van Sloan ... Van Helsing
Herbert Bunston ... Doctor Seward
Frances Dade ... Lucy
Joan Standing ... Maid
Charles K. Gerrard ... Martin
Tod Browning ... Harbormaster (voice) (uncredited)
Towering ominously among the shadows of the Carpathian Mountains, Castle Dracula strikes fear in the hearts of the Transylvanian villagers below. After a naive real estate agent succumbs to the will of Count Dracula, the two head to London where the vampire sleeps in his coffin by day and searches for potential victims by night.
Dracula, one of the all time classics among people who hate movies with things that happen in 'em. Only kiddin', that Bela Lugosi though, he was way ahead of his time. Cause when you stop an think about it, he's really the guy who pioneered that horrifyin' emotionless stare that your mom always used to give you after she'd get that call from the vice principal sayin' you'd been involved in a near fatal dog-pilin' incident at recess. I can still see my mama's stern, P.O.'d face givin' me that look after I'd stuck the handle of my bug net into Otis Turlinger's bicycle spokes... kinda sticks with you. An that's why Lugosi's a legend, cause even without the benefit of television, he still managed to bring horror directly into people's livin' rooms. Or the back porch anyway, that's where most of my whoopins took place. More open space back there, so your parents were a lot less likely to accidentally take out a lamp while rarin' back with that mahogany paddle.
An speakin' of swollen butt cheeks, this past weekend Cleave Furguson an I went over to Walleye's Topless Dancin' an Bait Shop after hearin' Tetnis mention this new girl they got workin' there who's not only under 45, but who still had all 'er teeth. Tetnis generally works at Walleye's as a bouncer durin' the winter months cause the demand for black market healthcare tends to dry up a little when huntin' season's closed. Helps 'im drum up a little extra business when people start gropin' the produce. Anyway, the place was surprisingly empty considerin' church'd let out over half an hour before... heck, fact is, besides Silas Tankersley sittin' in the corner soakin' up the ambiance an about eight ounces of Keystone Light with his hypertrichosified face, it was completely empty. I really like Walleye's though, cause it's the only strip club I know of where the dancers're honest enough with themselves to attach little coin purses on the hips of their g-strings. The real clever ones make belts outta those clear sleeves the kids put their baseball cards in so people can pay for dances with their EBT cards. But I'm gettin' off track here. So finally, this girl comes up on the runway an she's hot enough that even Silas glances up from his tallboy for a coupla seconds to look 'er over. Unfortunately, when she went to show everybody that she could twerk hard for the money she slipped on what I'm hopin' was a pool of airplane glue that was holdin' the pole in place, an she ended up hittin' me right in the eye with 'er coin purse an landin' on toppa Cleave out in the first (an technically last) row. Dang near put his eyes out. Then, outta nowhere, Silas is outta his chair an on toppa Cleave throwin' punches like Mike Tyson at a press conference til Tetnis could finally pull 'im off, all the while Silas is bellowin' somethin' about "family pride" an how he knew this'd happen the moment he "agreed to let 'er work." Apparently, little Randine Tankersley got 'erself someplace with electricity an took the shaver to 'er Sasquatchian shapeliness an chose a career path that Silas didn't exactly approve of. That whole incident was still completely outta line though, I mean, how were we supposed to know Georgina the dog faced girl'd gotten a shearin' an decided to whip 'er pair back an forth? It's not like there's ever been a local girl dancin' in there before, an to my knowledge, the entire roster's always been made up of 22 year old high school runaways from Idaho an hitchhikers tryin' to scrounge up enough cash to grab a Big Mac between rides. Cleave's doin' much better now, though. Tetnis says he'll even be able to go back to work once he can dig that last piece of Silas' beer can out of his shoulder. Unfortunately, I think that's prolly the last we've seen of Randine's dance routine, cause once Silas got outta jail he stapled a buncha "before" pictures of 'er all over town an now people're gettin' all stuck up about 'er werewolfism. I thought she was kinda cute, but you know how small town politics are. Easy come easy go, I guess.
Gettin' back to the movie though, because this happens to be the first non-silent (relevant) vampire flick ever made, I thought it might be prudent to ask some of the hard hittin' questions about the vampire's mythology. After all, this one is pretty much the catalyst that started the theme in motion an if we haven't got the rules straight from the beginnin', it'll only get harder an harder to make sense of as we get into the 90s where the subgenre really started to take a stake in the ass. So my first observation is; if a vampire hasta sleep in their "native" soil every night, we really need to define what the heck "native" soil is. I mean, say the vampire lives the first three years of their life in Transylvania, but then their parents move to Fumpknuckle, Montana an stay there for the next 20 years. At three years old is the kid technically a native of anywhere? An if so, at what point can they rightly claim to be naturalized as a bonafide citizen of Fumpknuckle so they can finally ditch that antique Transylvanian dirt they've been holdin' on to all this time? Second, if all vampires recoil at the sight of crosses, does that mean it's impossible for them to enter the homes of insufferable middle class families who hang those "welcome to our pad" signs (ya know, the ones with the two frogs on lily pads burnt into a chunk of perfectly good pine with a solderin' iron) next to their door, if the family happens to have a lowercase "t" in their surname? An third, if they cast no reflection, how the heck do they always manage that dapper, sophisticated hairstyle where not a single strand is out of place? Max Schreck in Nospheratu? Fair enough. But if you expect me to buy that Gary Oldman got *that* hair do to work without a mirror, you're gonna have better luck sellin' socialism to Rand Paul. These're just a few issues we're gonna need worked out if we're gonna be certain our vampiric perceptions're based upon solid foundations of historical fact, rather'n the hollow words of some sparkly chested claptrap.
But what got me thinkin' (between scenes where Bela gives the camera the stink eye) was how well Dracula demonstrates why womens' rights're so important in a society. I mean, just look at the kinda desperate, pitiful situation a woman can get 'erself into in a place like Transylvania where they don't have the kinda basic rights an protections we do in this country. Within the first 15 minutes of Dracula, Bela Lugosi up an leaves his three wives high an dry. No home (the castle's in his name), no food (he snags the last available entree for 'imself), an absolutely no alimony, even though its clear the guy's got more capital than the Koch brothers an God put together. Now, what do you suppose happens to these women once Bela hits the road? First of all, the only work they can get is on a graveyard shift. That alone guts their employment potential quicker'n a white-tail deer bein' run over by a combine harvester. Second, they've been dependent upon Bela for so long that their resumes're way outta date an they're pretty much without any marketable skills. An third, they're what, 300 years old? Even the pimps won't give 'em a second look. I tell ya, it's rough without a man in these kinda places. So even though we've still got some work to do here in America, sometimes it's important to take a moment to be grateful for what we've got.
The movie begins with a carriage clippin' along through Sheryl Crow pass where every day it's a winding road, while this wimp in a suit (Renfield) whines about the speed bumps givin' 'im a hemorrhoid flare-up til another passenger tells 'im to shut his yap an that they can't stop there cause it's bat country. After awhile the carriage makes it to town where a buncha poverty-stricken locals head outside to suck up for tourist dollars, til Renfield asks 'em not to unload his luggage cause he's headin' up to castle Dracula to discuss the Count's stock portfolio, an everybody gets this look on their faces like somebody just deep fried their pet gerbils. Meanwhile, Bela's up on the hill starin' into the camera til it wets itself an shorts out, while his vampire babes crawl outta their death beds an start reachin' for the coffee pot. Then Renfield's carriage makes it to the point of no return an dumps 'im quicker'n a first date that tells you she's savin' 'erself for marriage, where he's to catch his connectin' drive up to Bela's place. So once the carriage pulls into Bela's pad, Bela takes 'im upstairs an shows 'im to a room bigger'n Skunky Hernandez' cow pasture, at which point Bela asks to see the lease for his new digs in London. Bela wants to crash there for a while cause he's dodgin' an APB (Angry Peasant Bludgeoning) an cause he hates the idea of there bein' a country usin' "merry ole" as a prefix. Then Bela gives Renfield explicit instructions for safely packin' his antique Bavarian snow globe collection an starts lickin' his chops an doin' The Creep when Renfield gets a paper cut offa the deed to Urquhart Castle, til Renfield's crucifix flops out an Bela hasta spin around an vogue like Madonna. So now Bela hasta get sneaky an give Renfield some homebrewed wine he got from Bill Cosby, an once he folds up like a hide-a-bed Bela's Mormon vampire harem shows up an he hasta remind 'em that the alpha always eats first. The next day, Renfield's actin' goofier'n a brain damaged Disney character on board a ship bound for England til it's time to wake up Bela, only by the time the ship finally makes it to port the whole crew's been sucked drier'n Octomom's mammaries. Course, the only person the port authority can find on board is Renfield, who they send to a sanitarium cause he won't stop gigglin' like Rhonda Sheer at a penis joke an cause he's startin' to look like The Joker before he puts on his makeup in the mornin'. So finally, night falls an Bela stops off in the hooker district to grab some ghoul-aid an then heads over to the symphony where he makes goo-goo eyes at the usher so she'll go tell Dr. Seward (Bela's new neighbor) one of his patients at the sanitarium's on the phone appealin' the sentence. This gives Bela the opportunity to introduce 'imself to Seward, his daughter (Mina), her boyfriend (John), an Lucy, but mostly he's just there to weird everybody out durin' the intermission.
Then, around bedtime, Bela chugs a buncha supercharged Slim Fast so he can shrink into a bat, fly up into Lucy's bedroom an check 'er out in 'er Lucy unmentionables, sniff 'er hair a little bit, an then turn 'er into Bloody Mary mix. The next mornin', Renfield's over in the schizo suite beggin' the orderly (Martin) not to take his spider away cause the only time he can get any nourishment in this torture chamber is when they serve blood pudding for desert. Upstairs, there's a meetin' of the minds goin' on between Seward an Dr. Van Helsing who's takin' a little time off from his unsuccessful attempts to get permission to dig up Vlad Tepes an make 'im stand trial posthumously against claims of vampirism. Apparently the Catholic church only lets you do that if you're the pope, though. But anyway, not unlike Larry Craig in a glory hole, Van Helsing's balls deep in the latest murder investigation, an he says the two teeth marks that're bein' found on the victims're textbook vampirism an that it's prolly Renfield cause he's got teeth an behaves strangely. So Martin hauls Renfield in an Van Helsing shoves some Wolfsbane in his face til he gets all P.O.'d an tells Van Helsing he knows too much an that if he doesn't watch it he's gonna get slurped down like a sentient cherry slushie. Then Bela finally slaps the snooze button for the last time an flies over to Renfield's window to tell 'im he's gonna go grab 'imself a Bloody Mina. About that time, Renfield gets this look on his face like his big brother just stole his Kit-Kat bar an ate it right in front of 'im, but Bela don't care an flies 'imself up into Mina's room where he proceeds to revamp 'er image. The next evenin', John starts launchin' a tirade against Mina cause he thinks she's wearin' a scarf indoors as part of an incremental conversion to Islam, at which point she finally tells everybody what happened. Course, she thinks it was a dream, an after John tells 'er that if she wants to bear his overbearing, stuffy, mansplainin' children she'd better clean up 'er act an that mess he made in the bathroom earlier. But Van Helsing spots the telltale hickies an about that time Bela invites 'imself over an explains that he's just been tellin' Mina scary stories from the old country, an that any hysterical ravins of this socially maladjusted woman're nothin' more than an attempt to tarnish his reputation. Then Mina goes to bed an Bela tells 'er he'll be up later to suck 'er in, all the while Van Helsing's noticin' that while Bela casts a whole lot of aspersions, he doesn't seem to cast a reflection. So Van Helsing ends up shovin' a mirror in Bela's face an Bela hasta slap it down like a hyperactive Jack Russell Terrier before takin' his leave. Unfortunately, while Van Helsing's runnin' down all the rules he learned from Interview with the Vampire, Mina heads outside to go neck with Bela cause frankly, the exposition scene is, an always has been, the best time to do that.
Then Renfield waltzes in an tells Seward an Van Helsing they've pretty well blown it at this point an Bela hasta fly up to the balcony to get Renfield to quit divulgin' state secrets, only then the maid runs in to tell everybody that Mina's done passed out on the front lawn like a Secret Service agent after a liquid lunch break. So with all this strangeness afoot, England loses interest in Nessie an is suddenly awash with sightins of a mysterious woman in white galavantin' around London, preyin' on the necks of children. This leads Van Helsing to the conclusion that he's dealin' with a rookie vampire, cause the seasoned ones understand how little blood a child contains an how unsanitary their necks generally are. Then Mina confirms that the woman is in fact Lucy, an that she'd like for Van Helsing to kindly explain to John why he may as well stop tryin' to talk to 'er about silverware patterns for their wedding reception. I'm just gonna come right out an say this; John's about as swift as a one-legged unicyclist. But anyway, John wants to take Mina someplace safe like Italy where you can actually measure the garlic content of the air in parts per million, but Van Helsing vetoes that cause he's real anxious to try out his state of the art cold-seekin' stake launcher. Only about that time, Renfield escapes from his cell again (Yeah, takin' Mina away from this place is an awful idea. God damn, Houdini didn't escape from confinement this often) an Martin explains that the bars on his cell'd been bent worse'n an iPhone 6 in the back pocket of Tom Arnold, leadin' Van Helsing to conclude that Bela's in the hiz-ouse. By now, Seward's just about had it with all the security breaches, an when he an Martin leave to go stuff Renfield in a dryer an weld the door shut, Bela shows up an tells Van Helsing to get the heck offa his turf, an Van Helsing hasta get in Bela's face an tell 'im he'd better invest in an espresso machine an some caffeine pills, cause the next time he tries to nap he's gonna get staked to the ground like a pup tent. Elsewhere, Mina an John're out on the terrace stargazin', when Mina starts eyeballin' his jugular vein an salivatin' like Cujo in a meat packin' plant, an tries hypnotizin' 'im like a stoned hippie with a lava lamp, til Van Helsing shows up an hasta tea-bag 'er with his crucifix. John's P.O.'d, but Mina finally breaks down an admits that Van Helsing was right when he said she was gonna suck the life out of 'im, an worse still, that she's gone vampire on 'im. So finally, they stick Mina in bed an try hangin' Wolfsbane wreaths all over the room to keep Bela outta there, but he just does the Vulcan mind meld on the nurse so she'll open a window for 'im, an pretty quick he's got Mina back at his place an is explainin' how the place could use a woman's touch, but that it's all he can afford an still make the mortgage payments on Castle Dracula. Unfortunately for Bela, Van Helsing an John're followin' in the darkness, an Van Helsing's lookin' to stake out the uncharted territory.
Alrighty, well, this is about as good a movie as you can expect prior to the 1950s. I still don't have much affection for these moldie oldies, but even I can't watch a flick like this and not be impressed by what Tod Browning was able to do 80+ years ago with nothing but atmosphere, creepy sets, and raw acting talent. So when I tell you that my favorite decades for movies are the 70s and 80s, that doesn't necessarily take into account how much easier it was to make a good movie 40 - 50 years after Dracula was released. Heck, even in 1931 the plot was old hat, cause the original Dracula story written by Bram Stoker was over 30 years old by the time Dracula came out, and of course Nosferatu preceded it by nine years as well. So even though these older flicks don't do as much for me as the ones from the golden era, I think it warrants mentioning how difficult it must have been to make a movie of ANY genre in the 1930s that managed to stand the test of time as well as Dracula has. Besides, it's important to check out the classics every now and then because, if nothing else, it helps us to see how the genre got started and, more importantly, how these flicks influenced more modern works. Even if you don't care for these as much, you have to respect the fact that without these early movies, we would never have gotten flicks like From Dusk Till Dawn, Dog Soldiers, or any of the other exceptional modern takes on these old ideas. All that not withstanding, Dracula clearly had a fairly generous budget for the time (Though not as large as Universal had originally intended. It was ultimately pared back heavily due to the Great Depression) and bizarrely, after the principle cast and crew finished their shooting for the day, an entirely new cast and crew would come in and begin shooting an all Spanish version of the movie, shot for shot. Some fans of the Universal classics even believe the Spanish version to be superior to the English version. I haven't seen it, but I have a hard time believing anybody else from that era could upstage Bela Lugosi as the villain, and an even harder time buying that someone could upstage Dwight Frye. Another thing I find interesting (because it's something you'd probably never see today), is that Lugosi had enjoyed portraying Dracula on stage to such a degree that he pretty much worked for peanuts just to be able to reprise the role. And in reality, Universal probably exploited his deep desire to reprise the role when the matter of pay came up because they knew he'd do it for practically nothing. Pretty shitty of them, but you've gotta respect the heck out of Lugosi for doing it because it speaks volumes about his character, and the fact that his craft was of far greater importance to him than money. My favorite Tod Browning movie is and probably always will be Freaks. But Dracula is still a classic, and one of (if not the) measuring sticks I reach for when contemplating the worth of any horror flick from the classic era.
Okay then, lets tie this sucker up, put it under a hot light, and give it the stink eye until it wets itself and reveals its secrets. The plot is classic, and because it was one of the earliest film adaptations (and obviously the one that really gave birth to the vampire subgenre) there will be no begrudging it for the fact that it's been duplicated probably more than any other subgenre in the history of horror. Vampire movies kinda make my eyes glaze over, but if there's any subgenre where I'd rather watch a classic film than one from the golden era, it might be the vampire flick. I mean, just look at what they've done to Lugosi's legacy in the 21st century, it's a goddamned disgrace. If Stephenie Meyer were to just drop trou an take a steaming piss right on Lugosi's grave it'd be a refreshing note of subtlety. The acting is easily the high point, and even though I generally find the acting in classic horror to be a little dry, I'll say this for Dracula; Dwight Frye gives as good a performance in this as anyone you'll see in any horror flick, of any era. Everybody talks about Lugosi, and while he is absolutely a cut above just about any other horror villain of the era, Frye is the guy that makes this movie special. He's simultaneously a horrifyingly menacing creature, and a pitiful wretch. It's purely speculative, but the parallels between Renfield and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings are pretty obvious. Kinda makes you wonder. Edward Van Sloan isn't bad as Van Helsing either, but he's no Peter Cushing. So pretty good on the acting front with standout performances by Frye and Lugosi. Here's who matters and why (less Lugosi because, duh): David Manners (The Mummy 1932, The Black Cat 1934), Dwight Frye (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Dead Men Walk, Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Vampire Bat), Edward Van Sloan (Dracula's Daughter, Frankenstein 1931, The Mummy 1932, The Mask of Diijon, The Masked Marvel, The Monster and the Girl, The Phantom Creeps, The Black Room 1935), Herbert Bunston (The Monkey's Paw 1933), John George (Mesa of Lost Women, The Creeper 1948, The Black Room 1935, Mark of the Vampire, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Black Cat 1934, The Monkey's Paw 1933, Island of Lost Souls, The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1923), Carla Laemmle (Mansion of Blood, The Phantom of the Opera 1925), Michael Visaroff (Invisible Agent, Mark of the Vampire, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Freaks, House of Horror 1929), Florence Wix (Murders in the Zoo).
As is often the case, the special effects are few and far between or non-existent in movies of this era. Though Dracula does have a few, including the flapping bats on strings and a hand-sized spider scurrying up a pillar. The shot of the spider is brief enough, and dark enough, that it comes across pretty well. And while there's not much you can do with a bat on a string, I've seen far, far worse than what we're given here. I'd imagine that if the movie had been in color one could probably rate the makeup jobs on Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, but as it is that's kinda difficult. Really, in most movies from this era, the crew had to use things like mood, sound effects, elaborate sets, and costumes because special effects really didn't exist and the ones that did were pretty basic. The shooting locations are definitely the second biggest contributing factor to the movie's success. Both Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey are creepy as all get out, as is the winding path leading to Castle Dracula. That wide shot of the dead, winding path that leads to the castle is a fantastic piece of cinematography, and one of my favorite scenes in the movie. The rest of the sets are rather uninteresting, but really, the entire movie can't take place at Dracula's place, so complaining about the ordinary interior shots doesn't make much sense. The soundtrack can be explained in much the same way the special effects are, in that back in the early days of film, not many movies utilized a soundtrack that played continuously throughout the movie. Many had one track that would play over the opening and/or closing credits, but in general, the idea of a soundtrack hadn't really come to fruition yet. Dracula follows the trend of having music play strictly over the credits, and features an excerpt from Swan Lake over the opening credits. If nothing else, I find it to be far more appropriate than a lot of other flicks from the 30s that feature some goofy, cartoonish track that gets the movie off on the wrong foot. As is usually the case in horror movies from the 30s, it's heavily dependent upon sound effects rather than actual music, and the sound effects are pretty effective. These days they're such a cliche that most people would turn up their noses at them, but again, the fact that they've been imitated to such a degree over the last 80 years to the point that we're a little sick of them is not an indictment of one of the movies that started that trend. After all, if the creaky doors, wolves howling, and bats shrieking weren't effective, they would have faded away over time. Overall, I'm still not gaining the kind of appreciation for these classics that they probably deserve, but I still respect the heck out of the ones that have high production standards, and Dracula absolutely does. On a technical level it's damn near perfect, but still not really my thing. Definitely mandatory viewing material for any horror fan however, even if the soul purpose is due to the historical significance.