Dracula – 1931
Director – Tod Browning
Starring – Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan
Dracula is one of those movies where almost everyone knows something about it even if they haven’t seen it. Most people are familiar with the myth of Dracula, and parodies, remakes, and variations of the original story are everywhere. It is this fact that may have caused me to lower my expectations before seeing it. Like with a lot of the movies on this list of 1000 I sort of mentally rolled my eyes, sighed and told myself to muscle through it anyway. Hopefully the other movies that I have already discounted just for being part of the movie going lexicon will impress me as much as Tod Browning’s Dracula did, and I’ll have to eat my words (or in most cases thoughts).
The movie opens in a gloomy eastern European village, where all the people are superstitious and fearful. The “civilized” Londoner, Renfield, simply shakes his head and has the carriage driver take him on to the castle of Count Dracula (which brings up an interesting note: how did Dracula get to be considered a count. Was he, a long time ago when he was still alive, royalty? Did the villagers simply grant him that title out of their fear of him? Was this some sort of commentary on the upper class system in Eastern Europe, or Europe in general? I would have to say that if, in today’s day and age, there were this incredibly rich person who everyone suspected had supernatural powers and drank the blood of the living, we wouldn’t give them royal titles. I hope not at any rate. I, personally would stick to monikers like “monster”, or “that fuckin’ guy who killed all those people and drank their blood.” Anyway, back on point…).
It is at this point that the real strength of this movie begins. Like the entire horror genre, this movie provides some dazzling imagery. The juxtaposition of comfort and discomfort, luxury and decay is fantastic. Count Dracula’s castle, and later on the ruined abbey he buys in London, are at first glance voluminous and empty, but give the impression that they are crawling with cold, alien life. These canted angles and use of foreshortening are lifted directly from German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Nosferatu (although the imagry wasn’t the only thing borrowed from Nosferatu). The black and white film stock does a service to the film by amplifying the effectiveness of the dark areas and the light areas of the film, increasing the safety you feel in the light and the danger you feel in the dark. You can see the influence the high key lighting had on the 40s and 50 detective films (for those who don’t know, high key lighting is a very high contrast way of lighting in movies. Brighter whites, darker darks, and less in-betweens. Think film noir or these early horror movies.)
The rest of the story of Dracula wasn’t that much different than I had seen in other versions of the story, and as such, I won’t spend that much time on talking about it. It is essentially a vehicle for a making something that seems reliable and safe, scary and terrifying. Dracula, a well mannered and civilized individual makes his way to a populated area, and causes death and mayhem until someone figures him out and moves to destroy him.
The acting, while more typical of the movies of the day, seems stilted and halting by today’s standards. By 15 minutes into the movie, however, I was used to it and it was no longer an issue. When all was said and done, I would actually credit the pace of the movie with giving it a creepier feel than if people were saying these lines in a more straight forward cadence. There is something about the eerie stare and slow manner of speaking that gives Bela Lugosi’s performance a little bit of bite, pun completely intended.
Dracula does feel old, and doesn’t quite have the resonance it may have had if I had seen it when I was young (Freddy Krueger, and Tim Curry’s Pennywise the Clown from It have that honor), but it certainly paved the way for the movies that did have that impact on the young me.
“Fun fact: Young Bela Lugosi looks like young Lou Diamond Phillips” – Ashley