(Halloween Horror Movies returns for another year! There will be new films diaried this time around, along with some favorites from last year. Please check the comments section for more details. Happy Halloweentime everyone!!)
For me, a proper celebration of the Halloween season only really begins with my annual October 1st viewing of DRACULA. Even now, 81 years since it was first released, director Tod Browning’s unparalleled achievement has lost none of its power to utterly entrance its audience. Though many filmmakers have tried, not one remake or retelling of Bram Stoker’s novel has managed to supplant the 1931 original in our cultural hearts and minds.
There is so much that is great about DRACULA that it is difficult to know where to begin. One could spend countless paragraphs about Dwight Frye’s manic Renfield. Or about the amazing sets and photography. Or about the brilliant supporting work of Edward van Sloan as Van Helsing. DRACULA is the result of the work of many, but the man most responsible for its greatness - more so even than Tod Browning - is the legendary Bela Lugosi.
Born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, Bela Lugosi is the man who indelibly created the image, attitude, and voice of the vampire for generations. Count Dracula’s wardrobe was nothing particularly new at that time (it was largely inspired by costumes worn by stage hypnotists and magicians popular in the early 20th century) but once Lugosi put it on, it became the ‘Vampire costume’ we know even to this day. Likewise, Lugosi’s natural Hungarian accent became the ‘Vampire accent’. The key to the power of Lugosi’s performance, however, is in his body language. His movements are so careful, so calculated, and so confident - like a predator stalking prey, which is precisely what Dracula is. Notice his performance in the first few scenes at Castle Dracula. Every movement is delivered with such great discipline that the result is hypnotic - almost ritualistic - in effect. And yet the whole thing feels natural and organic to the character. Lugosi’s performance became so instantly iconic that it is easy to forget just how well thought out it was and how difficult it must have been to perfect. Though this was, of course, partly due to the fact that Lugosi had played the role on the stage for years, adapting the performance to the screen was another matter. This transition was the result of long hours of intense work with his director, Tod Browning.
It is fashionable these days to disparage the directing work in DRACULA. Many people find it slow and lifeless, others go so far as to call it incompetent. This opinion is usually found in people who have only seen the film once, or who only follow the Horror genre casually, if at all. The reality is, of course, that Tod Browning’s direction is just as thought out and deliberate as Lugosi’s performance. In pre-production (and sometimes while shooting) Browning smartly whittled the cumbersome and wordy shooting script down to only those elements that kept the story moving and kept the tone consistent. From there, he keeps the camera movements, photography, and pacing in his film muted, meditative, and hushed. The result is a story that unfolds much the way a nightmare unfolds and then leaves you with the feeling a nightmare leaves you. Unsettled and disturbed, but with that strange, indefinable distance between you and what you just witnessed - as if the film is evaporating into the mist as you dwell on it.
Tod Browning’s direction is so misunderstood that many are convinced that he didn’t care about the film - that he let his DP, Karl Freund, handle the directing while he just sat around. This perception is mainly due to the recollections of David Manners, who played Johnathan Harker. Late in his life, Manners gave a few interviews (notably to the great Horror historian David Skal ) where he recalled Browning as an aloof, uninterested director who worked very little with his actors. Manners, however, also admitted that he hated the project from the beginning and that he didn’t take it very seriously at the time. His recollections also run counter to the memories of Bela Lugosi, who remembered Browning as being instrumental in every decision made and as constantly fighting the studio for more resources. Indeed, Lugosi repeatedly credited Browning for the characterization of Dracula that emerged in the film. While Tod Browning was certainly a weirdo, he was no hack. Anyone who has seen FREAKS or any of his silent film work with Lon Chaney (including the wonderful WEST OF ZANZIBAR) knows that he was a careful and intelligent filmmaker.
There are certainly many discussions and debates to be had about DRACULA. Is it superior to FRANKENSTEIN? Do you prefer the Browning version or the Spanish language version? Did DRACULA, in fact, ruin Lugosi’s career? Such debates are an awful lot of fun, and I hope many of us will engage in them here. It is important to remember, though, that such discussions are the domain of only the greatest and most interesting of movies. Yes, DRACULA has its flaws. Yes, there are moments that might even inspire a snort of derision. In the end, though, there remain few films of any genre that have so thoroughly crawled into our collective unconscious and held its place there so firmly. DRACULA is a film that we will forever come back to when we need a good shiver or two.
DRACULA fun facts - Lon Chaney was the original first choice for the role of Count Dracula, but died as the film was being developed.
The executives at Universal objected to the scene where Dracula attacks an unconscious Renfield due to the perceived gay subtext of the moment. Tod Browning was forced to tone the scene down after receiving a memo that stated “Dracula is only to attack women”.
Count Dracula - “Listen to them… Children of the night. What music they make!”
Renfield - “Rats! Rats! Rats! Thousands! Millions of them! All red Blood! All these will I give you if you will obey me!”
Van Helsing - “And I will have Carfax Abby torn down stone by stone, excavated a mile around. I will find your earth-box and drive a stake through your heart.”