Fear of the unknown is a popular elixir among movie goers. The supernatural, with all its mysteries and danger has endured as a cornerstone in pop culture because, secretly, human beings are drawn to the unexplained. Remember what they said about curiosity and the cat? Fear and excitement are really first cousins, tantalizing our intellect with the promise of more to follow. The allure is even more profound and – on occasion - toxic when it is sheathed in a sort of fetishistic sexual attraction. Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, better known to American audiences as Bela Lugosi, may have seemed an unusual choice as the recipient of such adulation from adoring female fans, but this Hungarian-born sophisticate was to experience a surge in popularity after his debut in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931); an iconic re-envisioning of the classic Bram Stoker horror story.
The roots of Dracula can be traced all the way back in history to Voivode of Wallachia, (a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler); a prince in name only, belonging to the House of Drăculești, and whose practice of impaling his enemies on spikes (rumored to have totaled in the tens of thousands) earned him a very bloody reputation in Central Europe between 1456 and 1462. Stoker’s take on ‘Dracula’ retained some of Vlad’s more promiscuous bloodlust, blending history with a new mythology about this morbidly undead creature, who feasted on innocents to remain eternal; so far, hardly a prospect most of us would find even remotely sexually arousing.
Ah, but then came the movies with their ability to conjure to mind any fantasy imaginable, their visual trickery making the impossible probable and blurring the lines between reality and escapism. The illusions only possible in the movies were the subject of many an early experimenter; the elaborately concocted becoming the art of the early ‘magic lantern’ show. In 1922, director F.W. Murnau created the definitive homage to Stoker’s bloodsucker with Nosferatu – an expressionist masterpiece that, unfortunately, did not have the consent of Stoker’s widow. As such, a lengthy and costly lawsuit ensued, concluding with a court decree ordering all prints of Nosferatu destroyed. Thankfully, all prints were not and the film today does indeed survive.
Nosferatu is, in fact, a far more faithful interpretation of Stoker’s demonic creature of the night than any of the various incarnations soon to follow it – including Browning’s Dracula. Partly to skirt the issue of rights, the influential Broadway reincarnation of ‘Dracula’ by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston significantly deviates from the Stoker novel, Dracula now transformed into an elegant – if mysterious – European sophisticate whose ‘alternative lifestyle’ is not immediately apparent. The play was a resounding smash and Carl Laemmle Jr. – into whose capable hands the fate of Universal had been placed at the tender age of 23, felt reasonably confident Dracula would resurrect the studio’s waning box office. The Deane/Balderston play was already a proven commodity. But perhaps the best thing about it was the discovery of that vampire essence in Bela Lugosi; a soft-spoken Hungarian with a unique and deliberate cadence in his phonetically-learned English who, ironically, was first passed over to reprise his role in the movie.
By all accounts the shooting of Dracula was chaotic; Browning relying heavily on Karl Freund to lens many of the scenes, while the script by Garret Fort daily evolved as a work in progress. To complicate matters and inflate the overall budget, in the days before post-syncing made it possible to overdub actors for the foreign language market, Dracula was photographed twice; by day by Browning, then at night with an all-Spanish cast after the Browning unit had gone home. Viewing the two movies side by side, one is awestruck by Browning’s restraint, and the punctuated visual splendor of the Spanish language version. They’re really two separate experiences; the Browning version relying on Lugosi’s intangible ‘charm’ – at once both inviting yet terrifying – to carry many of the sequences, while the Spanish version explores the mobility of the camera with some fairly impressive cinematography. The liquidity of this camerawork does much to mask the shortcomings of its star, Carlos Villarias; who adapts Dracula as the leering and clichéd figure of Gothic terror.
But Browning’s version had Lugosi and the actor gives a startling – occasionally bone-chilling – performance as the diabolical Count who keeps vampire brides in his castle cellar. Our tale begins with solicitor, Renfield’s (Dwight Frye) perilous journey to Castle Dracula. The Count assures his victim no harm will come to him, but later hypnotizes and devours Renfield. The master and his now hapless slave, having gone mad from being bitten by the vampire, board a schooner for England. Renfield is committed to a sanatorium and Dracula meets the kindly Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) his daughter, Mina (Helen Chander), her fiancée, John Harker (David Manners) and a close friend, Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) while attending the theatre.
Lucy becomes transfixed by Dracula who wastes no time feasting on her blood. When Lucy dies from this encounter, an autopsy reveals two small puncture wounds on her neck. Meanwhile, Renfield’s obsession with eating bugs causes Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) to do an analysis of his patient’s blood. Dracula turns his attentions to Mina. Although his love bite does not destroy her, Mina too becomes dreamlike and aloof. Thus, when Dracula returns for a more cordial visit, Van Helsing and Harker quietly deduce he is responsible for their recent tragedies, especially after Dracula shows no reflection in a mirror.
Meanwhile, Lucy has risen from the dead to prey upon young children in the park. Van Helsing plans to take Mina away to spare her a similar fate, but instead orders Nurse Briggs (Joan Standing) to guard her with a wreath of wolf bane. Dracula attempts to hypnotize Van Helsing but is driven back by the crucifix. After Dracula’s hypnotic compelling of Mina to bite Harker fails, Harker and Van Helsing pursue Dracula to his coffin and wait for daylight, whereupon Van Helsing drives a stake through the Count’s heart, thus releasing Mina from his curse.
Viewed today, Dracula is hardly as profound or as disturbing as it must have seemed to audiences back in 1931. And yet, it retains an air of palpable foreboding, thanks to the meticulous craftsmanship afforded by John Hoffman and Herman Rosse’s mammoth production design, creating some truly sumptuous and spooky visuals, superbly lensed by cinematographer, Karl Freund. Yet, the crux of the movie’s success remains Bela Lugosi. From the moment we are introduced to this incandescent glowing-eyed Count, thick black hair slicked back to reveal his severe widow’s peak, his murderous intent thinly disguised beneath a strained, but still very affable smile; Legosi seems to exemplify not only this avaricious terror but also a luxuriant – nee decadent – old world charm. At a time when American audiences were genuinely fascinated by European folkelore, Dracula emerged as something of a thoroughly devious reconstitution of this romanticism, brought tragically forth to wreak havoc on the 20th century.
Dracula is tame by today’s standards. Film censorship had yet to take complete hold of the industry, but its early signs are already in place. Universal was, in fact, ‘encouraged’ to keep the story’s more suggestive aspects at bay. Perhaps more out of concern his audiences might be repulsed rather than intrigued by this tale, Carl Laemmle Jr. elected to merely imply Dracula’s ‘shape-shifting conversion’ from bat to man; his ‘relationship’ with the undead catatonic brides in his cellar also inferred rather than explained. Indeed, the most visually repugnant aspect of the movie remains Dwight Frye’s Renfield. The actor had been considered something of a rising star with great potential as a leading man prior to the release of Dracula. Afterward, the public would not accept Frye as anything but variations of this insane, bug-eating victim destined for the asylum or worse.
Dracula also typecast Bela Lugosi. Today, we tend to forget Lugosi only played Count Dracula twice; in this 1931 original, and then as pure camp in Universal’s hilarious spoof horror/comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In the interim, Lugosi’s movie career greatly suffered. Infrequently cast as a demented henchman in support of Boris Karloff, this stereotype clung to his reputation as an actor, despite the fact, in reality, he was a relatively soft-spoken, genial and well-read connoisseur of fine art and music. Bowing to the will of the public’s fascination to see him repeatedly resurrected as these monstrous dregs, Lugosi eventually allowed this line between his personal and public life to blur; becoming something of a cliché of his former self in later years. He was buried in full Dracula regalia in 1956.
Today, Lugosi’s legacy as the Count has virtually eclipsed both the stature and the reputation of Braum Stoker’s original novel. It really is a remarkable achievement considering virtually every film maker since 1931 has had to reference Lugosi’s iconography in one form or another to re-tell the story. Remember, the concept of the widow’s peaked, elegantly attired patron with cape and walking stick are not part of Stoker’s novel. They have absolutely nothing to do with the historical trappings either. Yet, ask most anyone today to conjure to mind the image of the vampire and a cheap imitation of Lugosi’s Hungarian accent mimicking the lines “I want to suck your blood” or “Look into my eyes…blah, blah, blah” are likely to be recreated. If nothing else, Lugosi has achieved the same sempiternity as his darker creation. His Dracula is an immortal.
Universal’s re-release of Dracula sports the same exceptional 1080p transfer. If you already own the previous release there’s no need for a repurchase here. Dracula has undergone a formidable restoration using original nitrate elements. Minor imperfections still exist – contrast fluctuations, scratches and specks. But the overall presentation is one of startling clarity, depth and detail. Contrast correction has produced inky black levels and a pluperfect midrange of tonal grays with excellent reproduction of grain. The image is both crisp and clean. While DNR has been applied, the effect achieved has not obscured fine details.
The inherent shortcomings of the original noise floor are faithfully reproduced in DTS-HD mono, forgivable and tempered by an even more aggressive restoration effort. Through their technological wizardry, Universal has managed to salvage virtually all of the monaural clarity in dialogue and effects while marginalizing the hiss and pop that for decades has plagued Dracula’s sonic presentation. Extras are plentiful to say the least; the 35 min. vintage ‘making-of’ hosted by Carla Laemmle, two comprehensive audio commentaries, one by David J. Skal, the other by Steve Haberman, a 36 min. biography on Bela Lugosi; the Spanish version (also meticulously restored and presented in 1080p), an introduction to the Spanish version by Lupita Tovar; an alternative stereo score composed by Philip Glass, archives of vintage poster art, marketing and other photographic stills, ‘monster tracks’ that provides a litany of trivia on the movie, trailers for all of the movies in the Dracula franchise, and finally, a 9 min. look at how Universal restored both versions for this hi-def release. Bottom line: highly recommended if you don’t already own the Universal Classic Monsters box set. My only caveat would be…why don’t you own it?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)