Thursday, October 03, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Dracula (1931)



Who's in it?: Bela Lugosi (The Black Cat, Mark of the Vampire, Son of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Corpse Vanishes), Helen Chandler (pretty much just this), Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy), Dwight Frye (Frankenstein), and David Manners (The Mummy, The Black Cat).

What's it about?: The classic and most iconic version of Dracula, though not super faithful to Stoker.

How is it?: Based on a play rather than Stoker's novel, Tod Browning's Dracula is sort of a copy of a copy. It keeps a lot of the book's plot, but shuffles around the characters. For instance, it's not Harker (Manners) who goes to Transylvania to meet Dracula (Lugosi), but Renfield (Frye). That means that he doesn't escape Dracula's castle, but accompanies the count back to England and becomes hospitalized because Dracula has driven him insane.

Like in the book, Renfield's case is overseen by Doctor Seward. But the doctor isn't in love with Lucy as in Stoker's novel. Instead, he's an older widower and the father of Mina (Chandler). There is a Lucy who succumbs to Dracula's menace and becomes a vampiric woman in white, but she's not really connected to any of the other characters except that she's Mina's friend. She has no Arthur Holmwood to avenge her, so that job falls to Van Helsing (Van Sloan) and Mina's fiancé, Harker. But they're not so much vindicating Lucy as just protecting Mina by that point. Dr Seward completely falls out of the story by the end, but that's just one of many problems with how the story wraps up in its hurry to finish.

It's tough not to compare it to Murnau's Nosferatu from nine years earlier. The ability to add sound to movies was a great reason to do a new version of Stoker's story (with all the proper rights, instead of sneakily changing the characters' names) and Browning's style is distinct and creepy and brings some beautiful atmosphere. But Murnau's version is actually scary and Browning's never is. Murnau's Count Orlok is a true monster, from his very appearance to the strange powers that Murnau so cleverly gives him through special effects. Browning's version - the character at least is truer to Stoker's novel - is meant to be creepily charming. You don't realize he's a threat until it's too late. Which is cool, but Browning uses so little effects that even when Dracula is supposed to be frightening, it's mostly suggested by the way other characters react to him.

That can be effective sometimes, especially in the case of Renfield, who's easily the most chilling character of the film. Edward Van Sloan also adds to Dracula's menace as Van Helsing. The Van Helsing analog is a giant weakness of Nosferatu, but I always have a lot of fun watching Van Sloan work in Dracula, trying to first figure out who the vampire is (and initially suspecting Renfield), then playing a game of wills against Bela Lugosi.

I wish that Helen Chandler was a better Mina, though. If I haven't said it already, Mina is the heart of any version of Dracula and it's important to get her right. Nosferatu gives her a tragically heroic role, but in Browning's movie, she's just the MacGuffin that the other characters are all fighting over. She's not written very well, but she's played even worse by Chandler who never eases into the character. She always reminds me that she's an actress playing a role.

The movie is also dreadfully slow, but in spite of that and my misgivings about Chandler, I always enjoy revisiting it for its mood and cultural impact and especially for Lugosi, Frye, and Van Sloan. I should also shout out to David Manners' John Harker, who's mostly nondescript, but has a great moment when he throws down his newspaper in disgust and leaves the room because of Van Helsing's crackpot ideas about shape-changing, immortal blood-suckers.

Rating: Four out of five Minas.



2 comments:

Caffeinated Joe said...

Definitely not as scary as other Draculas. But something is there, some creepy atmosphere that just stuck. One of my favorite scenes is Dracula on his staircase, the webs and the "Creatures of the Night" line. Love it.

Michael May said...

Yes! And same scene: I love the editing trick of having him move through the giant spider web without disturbing it. I watched the movie a few times before noticing what was going on there.

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