Friday, October 09, 2009

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”

I bid you…welcome, to a very special evening here at Castle RMWC, for tonight, we celebrate the movie that ushered in a… golden age of thrillers onto the silver screen. 1931 brought Dracula to the screen. Dracula, based on the play of the novel and completely legal (meaning they did not have to rename him “Orlock” or anything this time), became one of the first horror movies to make use of sound, and was the first of Universal Studios’ classic horror monsters to come on the scene. When people hear “Dracula,” its Bela Lugosi and his character in this film that they’re thinking of, even if they’ve never seen it.

A solicitor arrives in Transylvania on business. Despite the warnings of the local villagers, he travels to Castle Dracula where he meets a mysterious nobleman intent on buying property in England. The deed is signed and the solicitor is transformed into a raving madman in service to Dracula thanks to the Vampire’s influence, and the two sail to England on a ship, the Vesta. When the ship arrives, the entire crew is found dead and the solicitor, Renfield, is taken to an asylum because he is clearly off his rocker. In England, Dracula begins roaming the streets at night, seducing and assaulting women, and one man with experience in the paranormal begins to investigate the nature of the strange newcomer.

Renfield: Dwight Frye is the hapless solicitor sent to Transylvania. He starts off as a hopeless idiot, oblivious to most of the danger he’s walking into, which is part of the point, but its also a little annoying. Then he goes crazy. Crazy AWESOME. Seriously, insane Renfield is easily the creepiest, most unpredictable character in the movie. He becomes Dracula’s sidekick, but also sort of, kind of tries to warn the heroes about the danger of the vampire, all while trying to eat spiders and flies, because, well, the blood is life. He’s not the badass of the film, but by my troth he comes close. And that laugh. That laugh where he’s giving a toothy grin from ear to ear and going “hehhhhhh hehhhhhhh hehhhhhh” through his teeth is just nightmarish.

Count Dracula: Bela Lugosi in the role that both made him world famous and typecast in the eyes of millions. His Dracula is a classy, ancient, urbane fellow who’s got it together. The movie is actually pretty subtle about his inhuman qualities. For example, he’s able to walk through cobwebs while Renfield has to use his walking stick to make a hole. Of course, Drac wouldn’t be half as badass as he is if not for Lugosi’s thick Hungarian accent and slow, deliberate delivery (and no, the old myth about him not knowing English when he filmed this isn’t true) are fantastic. Lugosi played the role on stage before the film, and his comfort in the role is evident. There’s a reason why he’s the gold standard of screen vampires.

Dr. Jack Seward: Herbert Bunston is the man who runs the asylum that Renfield gets sent to (and is also Dracula’s neighbor). Aside from that, he’s pretty useless, as a man of SCIENCE is powerless before the supernatural danger of Dracula.

Lucy Weston: Frances Dade is apparently a ward of Dr. Seward’s that is fascinated (down there) when she meets Dracula the first time. She then becomes his victim, dying of blood loss soon after, then rising from the grave to terrorize children in a park, which is fairly creepy, but it becomes a plot hole and never resolved.

John Harker: David Manners is a weak spot as the standard issue hero guy. He’s bland, oblivious to the danger (even when people are explaining to him exactly why his fiancee is in such mortal danger), and he’s ultimately useless in the cause of the good guys.

Mina: Helen Chandler is Harker’s fiancée, and much more likable. She’s vulnerable, but its understandable since she doesn’t really know what’s attacking her, and isn’t strong willed enough to resist Dracula’s hypnotic gaze. She actually gets more interesting when she becomes a thrall of the vampire, and her crazy eyes when she starts going after the useless Harker are creepy.

Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Edward Van Sloan (the only other veteran from the stage version to return) is an interesting foil for Dracula. He’s a professor that shows up to investigate things after Lucy’s death, he’s a man of science, but also has a history with the paranormal. He knows the tricks and signs of a vampire, and is also prepared to encounter one, carrying wolfsbane and a crucifix with him. Most impressively, he’s able to stare down Dracula in a battle of wills that gives him a respectable third place in the movie’s badass standings. Not bad for an old guy with glasses.

Directed by Tod Browning, who was a prolific filmmaker during the silent era (and also the director of the infamous Freaks “One of us! One of us!”). The movie itself, being one of the earliest “talkies” has a lot of visual similarities to silent movies; the exaggerated acting styles, the deliberate staging, the long silent parts. It all does work in the movie’s favor though, since the atmosphere is grim, moody and has a cloying inevitability to Dracula’s nocturnal, err, missions. Pacing is an issue, and whenever Van Helsing, Renfield or Dracula aren’t on screen, the movie suffers.

Most of the effects rely on camera tricks, but a fake bat on a string gets used quite a bit. Its obviously a fake bat on a string, but I can’t fault it for that, not really.

Well, Bram Stoker wrote the original late Victorian horror novel (it’s an interesting read, by the way). Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston wrote the stage version and Garrett Fort, Dudley Murphy, Louis Bromfield, Tod Browning, Max Cohen and Louis Stevens all contributed to the Screenplay with Fort getting the billing. It follows along with the general Dracula narrative, but there are a few flaws. The Lucy as Vampire subplot is completely dropped after introducing it (that’s a pretty big narrative sin) and then the whole ending is rather underwhelming.

The original version of the film used elements from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake for the beginning, but most of the movie is completely devoid of a music track, a result of talkies being new to audiences and many theaters probably wouldn’t even have the equipment to play the audio. In 1999, composer Philip Glass was hired by Universal to score the film, and he did a very good job, collaborating with the Kronos Quartet to create an all-strings soundtrack that works brilliantly with the visuals to create a disturbing and creepy atmosphere. Either version of the “score” works, so your mileage may vary.

There’s a reason why Dracula is a fondly remembered classic, and that reason is Bela Lugosi. The film itself helped established the visual tropes of the entire horror genre for decades to come. It’s a fantastic vampire film, but not the only one released in 1931...

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