While filmmaking has obviously moved on in leaps and bounds since the 1930s, there’s still something very evocative and beautiful about the old Universal monster movies. Dracula (1931) was the first of these, introducing us to Bela Lugosi, who is still the person everyone sees when they imagine the character.
I just want to take a self-indulgent moment to hit the emergency Bauhaus button:
Okay, here we go with the film.
Swan Lake plays over the opening credits, which is very pretty.
The action opens in Eastern Europe, where the superstitious locals are scared about Englishman Renfield going to Vorgo Pass. A woman crosses herself at the mention of Dracula. ‘You musn’t go to the castle, there are vampires, Dracula and his wives, they take the form of wolves and bats,’ says the innkeeper. Renfield insists, so the woman gives him a cross to protect himself.
Not everyone’s English accent is on point in this film, though in general it’s not bad for the 1930s.
A creepy scene with some hands coming out of coffins, and immediately I’m struck by how much filmmaking has moved on since Nosferatu nine years previously – nothing in the previous retelling was as scary as this. Some lady vampires emerge from the coffins. Dracula is already up and about, with a strange effect of light shining in his face.
Renfield meets the coach driver at Vorgo Pass at midnight. It’s obvious to the audience that the driver is Dracula himself. He turns into a bat, willing the horses onwards by psychic means, then disappears with Renfield’s luggage. Missing luggage is my pet peeve when travelling, so I can understand Renfield’s annoyance!
We get the iconic image of Dracula with his candlestick coming down the stairs. ‘Listen to them, children of the night; what music they make,’ he says at the sound of wolves howling outside, which has become a bit of a goth cliche. He then walks through spiderwebs without moving them.
Dracula turns out to have bought an abbey in Whitby, and Renfield has arrived to sort out the paperwork. We then get the traditional scene with Renfield getting a paper cut. Dracula approaches him but is deterred by the cross the local woman gave Renfield.
‘I never drink…wine,’ says Dracula, which is a gloriously campy line!
There’s a bit of a continuity problem with the geography. When Dracula and Renfield arrive in England on a ship, Renfield having gone mad, a newspaper clipping is shown that says they arrived in Whitby but Renfield was taken to Dr Seward’s sanatorium in London. However, when Dracula shows up in London and meets with Seward, their dialogue indicates it’s the other way round, with Seward’s sanatorium being said to be in Whitby.
The hokey effect of light in Dracula’s eyes is apparently meant to indicate that he’s hypnotising people!
The two female characters, Mina and Lucy, have a lovely character moment with Mina taking the mickey out of Lucy having a crush on Dracula, and mimicking his accent. These kind of touches are few and far between in 1930s film! Unfortunately it’s soon forgotten about, and when Lucy dies abruptly, Mina isn’t shown to grieve or mourn her at all.
Another striking change in the nine years since Nosferatu is the sexual subtext of the story. This is actually more striking a change than the captions being replaced by spoken dialogue.
Renfield has been eating insects, and has moved on from flies to spiders. ‘Who wants to eat flies?’ he says scornfully. ‘You do, you loony!’ says the porter, who is probably my favourite character in the film.
Van Helsing appears and somehow knows exactly what’s going on with Renfield and Lucy’s death, which saves the film a lot of trouble.
Renfield is apparently allowed to wander around the sanatorium freely, largely because the porter’s not that good at his job! As I said, I do like the porter and his maid friend, as they provide a bit of comedy relief. ‘They’re all crazy except you and me, and sometimes I have my doubts about you,’ says the porter to the maid.
At the end of the film, Van Helsing stakes Dracula offscreen, which is a bit anticlimatic. Maybe they weren’t able to do a good enough effect on camera back then. ‘Aren’t you coming with us?’ says Mina’s fiancé Harker to Van Helsing as he and Mina prepare to leave the creepy abbey, but just like Dr Loomis in Halloween 6, Van Helsing still has some business to take care of (presumably staking other vampires that Dracula has created).
As a result of watching this film, Geth decided to put on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Buffy vs. Dracula, and I really enjoyed the way they did all the cliches – especially Xander turning into the ‘Renfield’!
I did actually spend two hours writing a much longer version of this post, but WordPress ate it. Thanks, WordPress software.
Back to the Halloween films tomorrow!