Sunday, August 11, 2013

DRACULA (1931, English version)

IMDB keywords: goth, opera, master vampire, opossum

I have seen DRACULA a bunch, but I never noticed that possums play the giant rats until IMDB pointed it out.

There are also armadillos!  Is Transylvania in Oklahoma or something?

Almost ten years after NOSFERATU worked its unauthorized charms on the world, this iteration of the Stoker story hit the silver screen.  For a while, DRACULA was the crown jewel of the Universal monster pantheon.  Its reputation was basically sterling, exceeding THE WOLF MAN (maybe) and FRANKENSTEIN (lol no) in critical eyes.  That's changed quite a bit as time has gone on and now I think the pendulum has swung a little too far the other way.  People usually dismiss this film as a one-man show, with Bela Lugosi's performance being the only real reason to revisit it.  Not really true or fair, but let's start by admitting the flaws, then moving on to the triumphs.

The effects are bad and the bats look like rubber bats on strings.  Despite this, the movie insists on showing them repeatedly, flopping outside open windows.  DRACULA incorporates the wolf of the Stoker story, but never shows it, basically just letting character reaction sell the concept.  That probably would have been a wiser choice for the bats, given the limitations here.  

This DRACULA owes a lot to the Deane and Balderston-authored stage play and it shows, because things frequently get stagey as fuck.  Long ponderous conversations unfurl and light comic-relief scenes that might be necessary in a theatrical setting get ported into our movie.  Sometimes the film becomes a film about people talking, which is only effective when it's handled carefully.  So, okay, things aren't perfect, but...  

Dodgy effects aside, the camerawork and enveloping sets are glorious.  I know I said that the Transylvania scenes are usually the low point of Dracula movies, but that's not true at all here.  We get monolithic rooms with all the emblems of decay and disrepair and it's just fab as hell.  

These scenes also give us the perfect debut for Lugosi, who plays Dracula with freakishly elongated speech patterns and lunging physicality.  It really helps that his first interactions are with Dwight Frye as Renfield.  Renfield's the sort of "gee, golly!" good guy that ordinarily gives me the hives at this point, but A) he makes a great foil for Dracula and B) his brisk nature gets 180ed into wanton corruption really quickly, establishing Dracula's power.  

Frye is great throughout, especially once he arrives in England as Dracula's pet nutbag.  The other actors are sort of unremarkable (although mostly serviceable).  I'd say that Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing is another acting highlight, though.  He plays Van Helsing as this stiff martinet and it makes a great contrast to Dracula's (literally) old-world charm.

The direction and editing are sometimes memorable.  Tod Browning had a lengthy career in silent cinema before landing this gig and we get masterful shadowplay, straight out of the expressionist playbook.  There's a scene in which Dracula is announced that could be inserted right into an episode of Archer, too, which proves this film's timeless quality.

So DRACULA.  I wouldn't put it at the tippy-top of the horror ladder and it's certainly got enough issues to keep it from nipping at FRANKENSTEIN's heels.  But, beyond being tremendously successful and setting the template for horror flicks for a long while, it's a good time.  You'll have to overlook some stuff and maybe try to transport yourself into a 1931 mindset, but it's worth the effort.  Lugosi's performance is still compellingly weird and Browning (or Karl Freund) offer some technical ecstasy along the way.  Plus armadillos!


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