Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)

Van-Helsing

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The same locations as the book, though the only scene set in Whitby is the shipwreck. Noisy traffic in London tells us it’s the 20th century.

Faithful to the novel? After a fashion. The screenplay is based on a stage adaptation of Dracula that had been successful in both the UK and America. The story is therefore a slim-line take on the book’s plot. A major change is that it’s Renfield, rather than Johnathan Harker, who visits Transylvania. He falls under the vampire’s thrall after a brief encounter with Dracula’s Brides, then helps the Count travel to England on a ship called the Vesta. Once in the UK, the troubled Renfield is looked after by Dr Seward, who runs the sanatorium next to the house Dracula has bought. Meanwhile, Dracula specifically seeks out his new neighbour and learns that he has a daughter called Mina; she has friends called John Harker and Lucy Weston. (Rejigging the core characters’ relationships will happen a lot in future films too.) Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood have been dropped from the story – as has the climax where the good guys chase Dracula back to his castle.

Best performance: Dwight Frye as Renfield goes from dapper and slightly camp to wide-eyed and batshit crazy. Elsewhere, Bela Lugosi is building a cliché in front of your eyes. From this point on, people will think of Count Dracula in evening dress with a cape, holding a candle and speaking in a stilted accent. (In the novel, the character is said to have perfect English.) Lugosi had actually already played Dracula – in the Broadway production of the play. He’d taken over from future Upstairs Downstairs actor Raymond Huntley, who’d been in the West End cast. Appropriately enough, Lugosi was Hungarian: in 1897, when the original novel had been published, Transylvania was in Austro-Hungary. The film’s cast also has another apt connection: Dr Seward is played by Herbert Bunston, who had actually worked with Bram Stoker at London’s Lyceum Theatre at the turn of the century.

Best bit: In one of the scenes that highlights this is based on a theatre play, Dracula is visiting Seward in his sitting room. Van Helsing spots that the count doesn’t appear in a mirror so confronts him – and Dracula smashes the mirror. (Vampire attacks, by the way, come after fades to black. This might be a pre-Code film, but they still weren’t going to get too violent in 1931.)

Alternative versions: A silent version with intertitles was also prepared for cinemas that had yet to convert their equipment to sound. Sadly it seems that cut is now lost. But what does survive is the Spanish-language Dracula that was made concurrently with this movie. Rather than a badly dubbed copy, this was an entirely separate endeavour filmed by a different cast and crew but using the same script and sets. They filmed overnight while the main unit was sleeping. By some accounts it’s the much better movie of the two.

Review: This movie is only 70 minutes and it doesn’t hang about. It’s a brisk telling of the essential Dracula story. So brisk, in fact, that drama gets left by the wayside. As soon as Renfield arrives in Transylvania, the Count tells him they’re leaving for England. Lucy is killed after just one encounter with Dracula. Van Helsing rumbles him on their first meeting. It’s hardly nuanced stuff. Thankfully, for the first half at least, the film is very creepy. We meet Dracula via a terrifying shot of him in crypt, while his castle has vast, shadowy interiors like a cathedral. But there’s no getting away from the feeling that this is a lacklustre movie. Director Tod Browning made his name in silent film and it shows: dialogue scenes are lethargic and stilted. There’s also an unwelcome debt to the stage play. Characters actually stand at the French windows and describe what’s happening off-screen! Director of photography Karl Freund also shot Metropolis (1927) – one of the most visually ambitious movies of the silent era – but you can sense him wrestling with Browning’s static style. When the camera moves it impresses. But too many scenes play out with no tension, and sadly the story feels flat. Is this a classic despite its director? That would be apt, I suppose: the novel is a classic despite being a poorly written potboiler.

Eight crumbling castles of a bygone age out of 10

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