Bela Lugosi was born on Oct. 20, 1882—and to mark that milestone the Thursday Horror Picture Show is running his most famous film, Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), on Oct. 20, 2011. (It seems improbable that Mr. Lugosi will attend, but you never can tell about these things.) Though it is often given short shrift these days—and Browning is often villified—it’s not going too far to say that Dracula is the true granddaddy of the horror film. It was the first talkie horror movie, and it provided the template for nearly everything that was to come after. Had it not been a success, the history of the genre would have been very different indeed. Historically speaking, it is perhaps the most important horror picture ever made. The argument today is that it’s slow, that its horrors are very reticent, and that after the first 20 minutes, the film becomes little more than a replica of the 1927 stage play that brought Lugosi to prominence in the first place. Well, the film isn’t exactly fast-paced, and its horrors are certainly more suggested than stated. The first 20 minutes are the most effective, but the rest is not without merit—and it really isn’t that much like the play. What the film’s detractors fail to see—apart from the undisputed value of Lugosi’s performance—is that the entire film is bathed in an atmosphere of nightmare, dread and otherworldliness that is unlike anything else in American horror cinema. While subsequent 1930s horror films are undeniably better and certainly slicker, nothing else captures the strange funereal poetry of Dracula—and the equally otherworldly performance of its star.
Dracula is significant in several ways. It’s not just the first talkie horror film, but it’s only the second vampire movie ever made (and the first American one). Beyond that, it’s one of the first American-produced films that takes the supernatural seriously and doesn’t come up with some half-cocked “rational” explanation that’s usually harder to believe than the supernatural. No, this is the goods. It’s hard now to realize that the whole idea of vampires—as anything other than seductresses after a wealthy man—was not a common idea in 1930 when the film went into production. Universal themselves were none too sure of what to do with the film. The early advertising, though horrific in imagery kept the word “vampire” at bay and went with “The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known.” Well, I suppose that’s fair enough.
There’s no denying that the film’s first 20 minutes are its best. The evocation of a nightmarish Transylvania swathed in mist and mystery simply could not be better. The enormous, oppressive, even crushing architecture of Dracula’s castle has never been touched by any version of the story. Browning’s otherworldly vision of a crypt in which fog seeps right out the earth remains unsettling after 80 years, as does his somewhat improbable collection of wildlife (Carpathian armadillos?) that wanders the less inviting parts of the castle. The Borgo Pass midnight meeting with Dracula playing a very startling coachman for his guest remains a shuddery piece of filmmaking.
However, the idea that the film grinds to a halt once it hits England is just demonstrably untrue. The first scenes in London haven’t the gothic power of the opening, but there’s nothing wrong with them—some of them are even surprisingly fluid—and they have their own appeal. Once it gets to the drawing room state, things do slow down (though there’s actually very little of the play in these scenes), but it’s hard to overlook such prime horror movie moments as the business of Dracula smashing the mirrored cigarette box and the duel of wills between the Count and Van Helsing. And really, why would you want to? These are iconic moments in horror cinema.
While the film has some clunkiness to its construction, it does lay down the basic outline for Universal horrors of the 1930s. In fact, the next year’s The Mummy is virtually the same story and structure, but with a different monster and a lot of the bumps smoothed out. (That’s not surprising, since 1932 was the year where the movies and sound finally worked out their differences.) It is, however, a mistake to view Dracula as stodgy or unsophisticated in its use of sound.
A great deal has been written over the years—and often by otherwise sensible people—about the film’s lack of a musical score and how it hurts the film. I don’t agree. First of all, the lack of a musical track is not strictly speaking a by-product of early sound recording. Frank Borzage’s Liliom (1930) has a score (and a surprisingly effective one). But that to one side, there are a number of horror films as late as 1933 without a score. Dracula hardly needs singling out in the matter and, frankly, I think it’s perhaps the one horror film that benefits from the lack of one. The eerie stretches of complete silence only enhance the film’s atmosphere. People seem to forget that one of the things the talking picture did was give the filmmaker mastery over the soundtrack. With pianists, organists, and even small orchestras accompanying silent films, there was no such control. Talkies actually allowed filmmakers to use silence for the first time. That unearthly dead-of-night silence that accompanies Dracula’s attacks on his victims is chilling in a way that a score could not convey nearly so well.
Moreover, the sound in Dracula is occasionally more than simply a case of recording the dialogue. The entire sequence involving the examination of the dead ship that brought Dracula to England is done through the soundtrack. I’m sure this was partly an economic decision, since it cut down on the cast and required little in the way of sets, but it’s still a striking use of sound. It’s also a scene that has a terrific visual payoff when the hatchway is opened to reveal the grinning, insane Renfield (Dwight Frye)—and his trademark laugh—standing at the bottom of the stairway with the lines of the rails converging like a spider web.
Today it’s become quite the fashion to use the Spanish language version of Dracula—filmed on the same sets with a different cast and director (George Melford) at night—as a cudgel against the Browning version. This is based almost entirely on the fact that George Melford makes some really clumsy attempts at traveling shots and shot the script as it stood. The latter is interesting in that it explains why the first time we see Van Helsing he appears to be at a laboratory in the Carpathian mountains. And more notable still, it includes Van Helsing and Harker disposing of the vampire Lucy, which also explains why they’re wandering around outside to see Renfield going to Carfax Abbey to meet Dracula. Browning either never shot those scenes, or they were cut somewhere along the way.
The absence of those scenes does make the continuity in the Browning version awkward, but it seems a small price to pay for other trade-offs like the vampirization of Renfield by Dracula in Browning rather than leaving it to the three vampire wives as the script had it and as Melford shot it. Browning is not only closer to Stoker’s intention, but he gives (as does Stoker) the proceedings an element of subtext. There’s also the scene where Renfield crawls over to the maid who’s lying unconscious on the floor. Browning leaves this disturbingly vague, while Melford turns it into a gag where we see that the object of his interest isn’t the maid at all, but a spider.
Of course, the biggest thing that Melford doesn’t have is Lugosi. No, he has Carlos Villarias, who not only has the grave misfortune of looking like Topo Gigio, but is apparently of the eyes-and-teeth school of acting, since he’s always as wide-eyed as possible and appears to be advertising for the quality of some toothpaste. But really, it’s the fact that it’s just not Lugosi—and for some of us, if it’s not Lugosi, it’s just plain not Dracula.