Monday, October 31, 2011

Dracula (1931)

Every Scene Screams 'Classic'

- A coffin lies amongst stone and dirt of an aged Transylvanian Castle in the dead of night. Slowly creaking open, a pale, old hand is revealed shaking as if awake for the first time in years. Count Dracula has emerged - awaiting his prey, Renfield, the man come to finalize the Count's leasing of Carfax Abbey in Great Britain. The young Lucy and Mina live at Mina's father's home connected to the Steward Asylum for the Insane that boarders the grounds of the Count's Carfax Abbey, where the two lovely ladies quickly attract the attention of the evil Dracula. When the strange things begin to happen to both Lucy and Mina, the brilliant Dr. Van Helsing is brought in to help Dr. Seward and Mina's fiancé Jonathan Harker....

We all know the story because 1931's Dracula is a timeless classic that has seeped deep within Western culture and has stowed away in our subconsciousness whether one has actually watched the film all the way through or not. Dracula is the definitive vampire film with Bela Lugosi as the definitive Count Dracula. Other actors have given good performances as Count Dracula as well but Lugosi gives not just the best and most memorable Dracula/vampire performance of all-time but one of the memorable film performances in film history as Count Dracula, his screen presence and Eastern European accent forever shaping the way Dracula is viewed and interpreted. The way that Lugosi stands gives the film atmosphere in and of itself and the way in which the words "I am.... Dracula" or "I bid you.... welcome" slither out of Lugosi's deathly grin makes it so that the words are permanently ingrained into our minds. In most films, Dracula or whatever vampire is usually all-too-easy to hate but Lugosi captures our attention in an uncanny way that makes Dracula a cinematically likable character throughout each horrible action. We even catch ourselves rooting for him now and then! Few performances have the ability to live beyond a decade let alone the near 80 year life that Lugosi's performance has attained, having the same effect on each new generation as it did to the generation that saw it first.

Although Bela Lugosi is certainly the film's main attraction, there are other excellent pieces that make up 1931's Dracula. The word on the street is that director Tod Browning, who came from a background mostly in silent films, had a general disinterest in the film since he was unable to get Lon Chaney to play Dracula due to the actor's health and that cinematographer Karl Freund played a bigger role than he normally would have in the film's visual presentation. Whoever had the bigger role, it does not really matter - somehow the film turned out as visually spectacular as it did and, as good as Lugosi is, it is the best aspect of the film. Browning's silent film background actually gives Dracula suspense, mystery, and atmosphere and Browning and Freund's use of light and shadowing is one of the finest this side of film noir. Lugosi also does not run a monopoly on the film's acting: Edward Van Sloan gives a very entertaining and subtle portrayal of Van Helsing, Helen Chandler is perfect for her role as Mina, and Dwight Frye gives an extremely creepy performance as Renfield.

Unfortunately, while Dracula is indeed an excellent film it does include some less-than-perfect aspects. As good as Frye is overall as Renfield he does frequently overdo it and David Manners is just awful as Mina's fiancée Jonathan Harker - the expert acting from Lugosi and Van Sloan cover up some of the bad performances however. Also, as visually striking as the film is, it does include some less-than-polished moments that one can attribute to the level and quality of 1930s editing technology or just flat-out unprofessional workmanship - the choice is yours. Still, the film is plenty exquisite visually to cover up this many of these aspects as well.

A few versions of the film are also available. There is a quite inferior Spanish-language version of the film called Drácula, there is of course the original version that includes no soundtrack except for the piece from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" played in the opening, but there is also a version of the film that includes music from brilliant composer Philip Glass. I am usually one who is against tampering with a classic film - I especially loath the whole Full Screen pan-and-scan nonsense - but Dracula is the exception because Glass's score is so incredibly good. I might be biased because I am a general fan of Glass' work but his score for the film, written and recorded in the late 1990s by Glass and the Kronos Quartet, is one of his finest scores ever - thick with attitude and mood that lends itself amazingly well to the film. I think that the original version of the film with no soundtrack may be superior since it creates a chilling vibe with silence but the version of the film with Philip Glass's score is also excellent.

When you think of horror movies or monster movies, 1931's Dracula is one of the first films that immediately come to mind. Lugosi's Dracula and the film's look and feel (with or without the help of Philip Glass) are simply unforgettable. The first of Universal's trail of "talking" horror classics (preceding Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), etc.), Dracula is still as creepy and enjoyable today as it was when it was first released.

CBC Rating: 10/10

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