Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Written by: Garrett Fort, based on the play by Hamilton Deane, John Balderston and on the novel by Bram Stoker
Directed by: Tod Browning
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 75
Date: 02/12/1931

Dracula (1931)

4 Stars (out of 4)

What Music They Make

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I believe that Dracula (1931), directed by Tod Browning, may be the most famous movie in the world. There are more successful movies, like Gone With the Wind (1939), E.T. (1982), and Titanic (1997). And there are more popular movies, like internet poll winners The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995), and Braveheart (1995). And although Charlie Chaplin may be the world's most famous performer, I believe that a good deal of the population who can recognize Charlie by sight cannot name even one of his films. The Frankenstein movies are famous as well, but I suspect that their popularity is split between the original Frankenstein (1931) and the superior Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

On the other hand, I believe you could mention Dracula to nearly any person in any country of the world and they could tell you who Dracula was and what he did -- even if they hadn't seen the movie. The reason for this popularity is not the book or the play. It's the movie starring Bela Lugosi. And now that movie has a brand new -- and improved -- touch.

The critical consensus on Dracula is that it's slow and stagy. And they're right. It was one of Browning's first sound pictures after a long career making dozens of silent films. The production, overseen by Carl Laemmle Jr., was based on the play (which Lugosi had performed on stage) and not the book. The thinking was that plays were more "cinematic" and better suited to the new talkie format. Dracula must have been a production not terribly unlike the fictional troubled talking picture The Dueling Cavalier in Singin' in the Rain (1952). Even at 75 minutes, Dracula can be rather dull.

But, of course, the good outweighs the bad. Bela Lugosi is inspired in the role of the vampire. One can no longer label it a good performance or a bad performance. Lugosi embodies the role. He has become one with it. Casting another actor as Dracula is as pointless as casting another actor to play Rick in Casablanca or to play Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. Lugosi is charming, stylish, evil, elegant, sinister, leering... everything he needs to be. And he does it with relish.

Another great element of Dracula is the work of cinematographer Karl Freund. Freund had worked on such groundbreaking movies as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), and M (1931), F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), and Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). He used shadows in a sinister way. He lent a German art-deco, expressionist look to the film -- at least to the creepy settings, like the castle, the ship, and the basement where Dracula sleeps. He invented the pinpoint spotlights in Lugosi's eyes to make him seem more hypnotic (as if he needed any help).

Browning himself was known for his long career of macabre and sinister movies like those he made with Lon Chaney: Outside the Law (1921), The Unholy Three (1925), The Road to Mandalay (1926), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928), and Where East Is East (1929). Browning had wanted Chaney for the role of Dracula, but the man of a thousand faces was too ill at that point and would not be alive much longer. Lugosi, the second choice, had worked with Browning in a small part in The Thirteenth Chair (1929), and would work with him again in the silly Mark of the Vampire (1935). Though there are many other directors today who chase out their personal demons through the horror film, Browning was the first, and perhaps the most tragic and interesting. With Dracula he seems to have been more concerned with the staging and the sound than its essence. Yet he seems to be fascinated with the insane Renfield (Dwight Frye) who eats spiders. The picture comes alive when Renfield is onscreen. Could it be that Browning was actually making the picture about him?

Part of the reason the movie seems so static is its lack of music. There are a couple of public domain snippets here and there, such as in the opera house, but long passages are deadly silent. In 1999, composer Philip Glass wrote a new score for the movie which was performed by the Kronos Quartet. They toured the country, playing the new score live with screenings of the film, but now the whole works is available on home video. The new score is performed just right. It doesn't try to be scary or shocking. It has a note of melancholy along with a sinister edge. I'm normally not too excited about tampering with films like this, but the new Dracula shows a marked improvement. I own both versions on tape, and I don't think I'll ever go back to the original now. The music actually helps the film move along better.

And so Dracula continues to fascinate us. Today we have vampire movies of all conceivable kinds, and the characters in current movies know what a vampire is. Part of the suspense of Dracula is waiting for the characters to figure out who and what Dracula is before he can strike again. Such quaint plots are lost to us now. And yet, no vampire will ever stand up to Bela Lugosi, the most famous of them all.

DVD Details: See the Universal Monsters Legacy Collection.

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