Bram Stoker's Dracula Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    Bram Stoker's Dracula Review
    “I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.”

    And I bid you welcome to another entry in the Retrofest, folks. This time it is the turn of Bela Lugosi's immortal embodiment of Bram Stoker's most famous creation, the Dark Prince himself ... Dracula. So, without further ado, let's have the vintage chiller stand up and be Counted on this, the seventy-fifth anniversary of its original cinematic unveiling. As with the Frankenstein 75th Anniversary Edition, this new release of Tod Browing's adaptation of John L. Balderston's famous Broadway play of Dracula, sees a freshly spruced-up print, handsomely bound in an aged book-style case that promotes the atmospherics of the story. Although released as part of the Monster Legacy Series a little while ago, this edition offers even further digital restoration, a brand new feature on its leading man and an added commentary from Steve Haberman (screenwriter of Dracula: Dead And Loving It), whilst ditching the patronising Stephen Sommers documentary.

    “To die ... to be truly dead - that must be glorious!”

    Now, I must admit that I have never really been a fan of this film, always finding the melodramatics too theatrical, too stage-bound and Lugosi's performance just a slice of ham too thick for my taste. And when I approached this movie with a view to its entry into the Retrofest, I did so thinking that it would be more out of a sense of duty than out of any love I had for it - that it should be covered more so, perhaps, than it deserved to be. Yet, watching it again and somehow shutting away my thoughts of what could have been, I have found a new respect for the mood and atmosphere that it creates. It is slow - almost funereal, in fact - and the performances regularly travel over the border to the pantomimic, but the film does posses a sublimely hypnotic power that works the kind of magic only a horror movie from this era can ever truly evoke. The plot surely needs no introduction. Lonely old vampire seeks new blood away from his dusty, cobwebbed and decrepit castle in legend-suffused Transylvania (sounds a bit like a Lonely Hearts ad, doesn't it?) and journeys to bustling Victorian England, whereupon he sets his sights upon the lovely Mina, played by the delectable Helen Chandler. Only the crusty old Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) can spot the traits of the undead in the scenario, and only he can save Mina from the Count's vile clutches.

    “Ah, listen to them - the children of the night. What music they make.”

    Lugosi's performance has long been hailed as highly camp, and I cannot dispute that. But, it has to be remembered that this style was both intentional on the actor's part, and expected of him by those who had seen his portrayal on Broadway. With that syllable-mangling accent, gestures as overly-drawn as to border on the excesses that silent films adopted and a penchant for mesmerising stares that Chris Barrie's hologram Rimmer from Red Dwarf would have been proud of, he creates a presence that is instantly iconic - a characterisation that he could inhabit so totally that it will be associated with him forevermore. And, watching him, it is apparent that he knew this at the time. His contemporary - and arch-rival - Boris Karloff, was an infinitely better and much more versatile actor, but Lugosi, on occasion and given the right material, could more than hold his own. Check out their great face-offs in The Black Cat, The Raven and The Invisible Ray for proof of this. If the part was right, Lugosi could devour it like it was Shakespeare. Personally, I don't think his Dracula is his best work, although a great many other people do. The thing is, his cinematic rendition of the Count is hampered, and becomes unhinged, by Tod Browning's flaccid direction. His big moments are let down by prolonged takes that simply beg for a cut or two to lend them impact. But, looks-wise, he makes the most dapper of cadavers, with that regal black suit and cape ensemble and the majestic medal he wears on a ribbon around his neck. And you can't complain about those spidery long fingers of his as they inch open the lid of his coffin, or curl around the wine bottle and goblet that he offers to the unsuspecting Renfield.

    “You know too much to live, Van Helsing!”

    The story of Dracula, however popular it remains, is still one that is more a collection of set-pieces than a coherent whole. The only film version of the tale that makes a clear-cut, linear narrative out of it is the first one that Hammer Films made in 1957, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Lee would, of course, go on to make the role of the Count his own in the many sequels of ever-diminishing returns that it churned out. Louis Jourdan essayed the Lord of the Vampires in the highly stylish and atmospheric BBC TV adaptation from the 1970's and Frank Langella turned him into a smouldering rogue, whilst Gary Oldman took a valiant, yet much too lovelorn stab at the part in the lavish, but ultimately hollow interpretation from Francis Ford Coppola in 1992. None, though, could ever be considered Great Films. It strikes me that the story is just too steeped in its own mythology to ever break beyond its rigid set of clichés. Only when the Count is removed from the well-worn formula does any fresh imagination ever stake a claim upon his actions. But then Bram Stoker's novel - a gothic romance, in the original adventurous spirit of the term “romance”- contains such indelible imagery and symbolism that it must be extremely difficult for filmmakers to shrug off the urge to capture them. But, the thing is, after we leave Castle Dracula - in the book and in most of the film versions - the story just goes downhill, depicting little more in substance than the wistful tale of a lonely old vampire seeking to relocate and becoming, quite literally, the neighbour from hell. The 80's guilty pleasure Fright Night, starring Chris Sarandon, took this theme to its most logically blatant extreme.

    “God will not damn a poor lunatic's soul. He knows that the powers of evil are too great for those with weak minds.”

    As Renfield, Dwight Frye is fantastic. Very much an unsung hero of both this and Whale's Frankenstein, Frye gives the role his all. His descent from duty-bound, but adventurous, estate agent to demented, bug-eating disciple to the undead is totally abrupt - drug-induced bite-victim one second and raving, maniacal coffin-opener for the damned, the next - but he delivers such wild-eyed gusto that he carries it off with a smirk-inducing lunacy. He practically steals every scene he is in and this is doubly fortuitous as this is one of the relatively few elements of the novel that actually translates well to the film. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Edward Van Sloan's quite pathetic Van Helsing. Sloan would also go on to star in Frankenstein, with an equal lack of spark, or humanity. A grave disappointment (pun intended) to those who are used to Peter Cushing's sterling portrayal, or even Anthony Hopkins' gleefully obsessive vampire hunter from Coppola's wayward interpretation, his scenes are stilted and terribly un-dramatic, especially so when you consider the ripe exaggeration that Lugosi, as his nemesis, delivers. The moment when he realises that Dracula has no reflection is ridiculously protracted - how many times does he have to look in the mirror to check? Although I think it is neat the way that Tom Waites' Renfield in Bram Stoker's Dracula actually comes to resemble Van Sloan - look at those spectacles to see what I mean. His confrontations with Dracula only gain a level of excitement when you really allow them to, his frighteningly deadpan expressions doing the tension of such scenes a cruel disservice.

    “Gentlemen, we are dealing with the undead.”

    “Nosferatu?”

    “Yes ... Nosferatu.”

    The mood definitely works, though. From its atmospheric start in the Carpathian Mountains to the final moment when Van Helsing does the thing that his character hasn't stopped doing for seventy-five years (mind you, turning into a werewolf in Stephen Sommers' CG-soaked version was something he certainly hadn't spotted in the job description's finer print), we are in a land of hushed threat, hinted-at depravities and dream-like sexual menace. The death-trance pace acts like a drug - a slow-seeping hallucinogen that smothers you like a mugger made of mist - the aura generated one of the uncanny, rather than the horrific. When Dracula's eyes ignite in the needle-gleam of the mini-spotlights, the effect reaches beyond the screen, leaving the sniggering comedy behind and becoming an icy, breath-snatching grip. The sensual quality of the film cannot be overlooked either, with Lugosi's unstoppable intensity quite disturbing to behold. Nothing is graphically shown - the killer's embrace just a swoon-inducing swish of a cape and a gentle lowering of the predator's head - but the vampire's lust and sexual dominance is never less than overt. That female members of the audience became overcome by Lugosi's erotic magnetism is documented fact. But then they fell for him when he worked his demonic magic on stage, as well. Despite the vowel-strangling accent and agonisingly laboured poises, he possessed an undeniably mysterious power to captivate. This dark passion is the one ingredient that has made Dracula, in all its forms, as long-lasting as it is. The story may have the potential for horror and blood-sucking thrills, but what version other than Hammer's first couple of forays into the Count's escapades has ever delivered a frisson of actual danger? No, it is the sly menace of someone who can assiduously disarm you with a deadly charm that you cannot escape - and don't actually want to, such are the devious skills employed - that slowly and surely unnerves. Hair slicked back from a wicked widow's peak, makeup de-saturising his already pallid features and lips painted into a pout, Lugosi's Count Dracula (even sans fangs) would be a pure parody of the image if his hadn't been the first to officially hit the screen. He certainly looked more effective than Carlos Vallerias in the Spanish language version, but more on that later. The air of aristocracy-gone-bad is the flavour running through Dracula's corrupted veins. He is no mere monster. Lugosi understood this and bestows his Count with brute nobility, the vestiges of regal breeding. That a terrible past is locked away within the remnants of his soul is conveyed through his eyes, and through the sheer weight of his performance. Gary Oldman did exceedingly well with the haunted history of his romantic-warrior interpretation, but then he had many more script-given angles to exploit. Thanks to Garrett Ford's much more ambiguous screenplay Lugosi reveals absolutely nothing of the blood-drenched days gone by - but we still feel the pressure that they exert upon him with the remarkable passion of his acting.

    “And then I saw two red eyes glaring at me. And a white, livid face came down out of the mist. It came closer and closer.”

    As Mina Seward, Helen Chandler is stunningly attractive. Her porcelain features and pensive, fear-filled eyes make for a heartrendingly poignant victim. When she realises the danger that she is in and pushes her lover, Harker, away there is a desperate tragedy at work here that only the combined lack of talent from Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, as the wooden Harker, can undermine. Her performance is terrific and much more modern than anyone else is in the film. The great moment when she reveals her nascent vampirism is an element that Browning botches with an unfortunate cut-away and an act off-screen of urgency that eliminates the mini-climax that would have been a real shocker. This sedate pace is something that Chandler seems to try hard to get around, her fading from humanity as strangely alluring as it is emotionally gripping. Listen, especially, to her telling of the strange dream she has had - her voice and the frightened, doom-laden grace she adopts possibly the creepiest things in the film.

    “A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire. And then he parted it, and I could see that there were thousands of rats, with their eyes blazing red - like his, only smaller.”

    Tod Browning made a film that he believed would be forgotten by the end of the year. Bela Lugosi acted in the certain knowledge that it would be immortal. This is the eternal paradox of Dracula, its failings and its successes inextricably entwined. It's also strangely poetic that, whilst Stoker's book was much better (in my opinion, obviously) than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the film versions turned this outcome on its head - with Whale's Frankenstein ending up much better than Browning's Dracula.

    But be that as it may, there are still many nice touches to be savoured here. Look out for Dracula's ability to pass through that enormous spider's web at the top of the stairs, which is almost mirrored when, on his first night's prowling in old London town - turned out in top hat and cloak, like the stereotypical Jack The Ripper - he seems almost to glide through the other pedestrians on the street. The notorious fate of the ship's crew that brings the Count and his caskets of earth to England - the marvellous image of the captain of The Vesta (not The Demeter of the book) lashed to the ship's wheel but seen only as a grim shadow. Mina's playful impersonation of the enigmatic foreigner's strange accent and her later recollection of the nocturnal visit he pays her - just as Van Helsing happens along to overhear. And the face-off between the wily old Professor and the vampire when Dracula returns to give Mina her final embrace is a wonderful little sequence composed of un-showy supernatural powers and ice-cold conviction that is the closest that the film gets to an exciting showdown. It is also a spectral delight to see the sultry Lucy (played by Frances Dade) moving, wraithlike, through the shadows and the trees.

    “The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield.”

    Some lamentable comedy relief, in the form of Martin (Charles K. Gerrard), the warden from Dr. Seward's Sanatorium and the antics of nurse Briggs (Joan Standing), detract from the story in much the same way as that of Henry Frankenstein's old father, the Baron, and his buffoonery in James Whale's original Frankenstein. These scenes feel more like something that has time-slipped into the film from the later Laurel and Hardy series and are examples of the era's tawdry belief that a bit of brevity is needed to compensate for the otherwise grimness of tone. But, the many stylistic and narrative pitfalls aside, this re-watching has still assured me that there is a lot more to Browning's film that succeeds, than does not. The breaking of new ground always comes at a cost, but audiences, at the time, flocked to Dracula and were spellbound by what they saw. For me, the most unsettling aspect of the film - and the story at large - is the notion that someone you love and trust can be so devastatingly swept away by a complete stranger, leaving you virtually powerless to intervene. Dracula, at heart, is about the ultimate love-rival, the charming viper that inveigles his way into your relationship and pilfers that which you hold most dear, typifying the theme of the Count's power to arouse women and instil fear, loathing and jealousy in men. And it is surprising to discover that the feeling of unwitting betrayal and the slow-corruption it wields over a lover's bond is actually more acutely realised in this vintage melodrama than it has been depicted in, well, any version of the story since. Winona Ryder's hysterics and dark, panting lust in her portrayal of Mina Harker, for example, are nothing when compared to the slow fading dissolution of Helen Chandler's forlorn damsel as she feels herself literally slipping away from her fiancé.

    “You are too late. My blood now flows through her veins. She will live through the centuries to come, as I have lived.”

    The Spanish version, located on Disc 2, is well worth a look. Produced at exactly the same time as Browning's film, using the same sets and pretty much the same script, this was from the time when Hollywood, attempting to maximise profits, would oversee foreign-language editions of their movies. This was a bit of a departure though, as this time around, it was deemed that Dracula was such a hot property that a totally Spanish-speaking cast would actually perform their own film, as opposed to just dubbing the original. As many commentators have remarked, this version has so much going for it that it even surpasses the Lugosi film in many ways. Technically, it is leagues ahead. Director George Melford had the benefit of seeing the dailies that Browning had achieved and, when the Spanish cast and crew took over - filming began the moment that the American crew left each day and carried on until they arrived at the start of the next, the cast literally keeping “vampire” hours - they worked hard to improve the visual look, art direction and cinematography, creating the same story, but told in a much more elaborate and involving way. With a running time that is almost half and hour longer, this version finds time to expand scenes with more cast movements, dialogue and fanciful camerawork. In my view, this extension is only partially successful. For instance, when Renfield (here played by Pablo Alvarez Rubio) first arrives at Dracula's castle, scenes take a really long time to unwind, without actually adding anything of merit. In fact, Browning's often slow and measured piece can now seem like it has an ultra-edited-down, break-neck pace when viewed after Melford's version. And something that is quite rewarding in a rather more amusing manner is hearing the Spanish dialogue emitting things like “Senor Renfield,” and “Juan” Harker.

    However, the two leading ladies in this version, Lupita Tovar and Carmen Guerrero as Eva and Lucia, respectively, are not as attractive as Helen Chandler and Frances Dade, despite some sexier and more revealing clothing. But the most damaging aspect of this film is the casting of Carlos Vallerias as Count Dracula. Although a popular and acclaimed actor in his own right, he simply is not as effective as Bela Lugosi. Quite obviously studying the Hungarian's approach very carefully, he adopts the poise, the expressions and the mannerisms to the letter, but attains none of his presence. So often he is left just grinning like a loon when he should be fulfilling the sinister passion of the part. His gestures seem even more like a parody than Lugosi's, his aura of menace evaporating the wider he grins.

    But, for all this, the film still has its moments and is whole lot better looking than its more famous namesake. The tantalising notion I am left with is of a combination that could never be - Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler and Frances Dade in the version made by George Melford. And in English. Then, and only then, would we have had a film adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous creation that was truly worthy of the term “classic”.

    As with the 75th Anniversary Edition of Frankenstein, it is worth mentioning again that the packaging for this release is simply gorgeous, coming in a wonderfully evocative book-style case that is browned with age and adorned with terrific tinted imagery front and back. Inside, behind the hubs for the two discs, are more atmospheric stills from the film. In all, the two movies - Frankenstein and Dracula - look terrific together. All we need now are matching editions of Bride Of Frankenstein and The Wolfman ... though these will be quite some time off, yet.

    Next time, the Retrofest will be returning to Hammer Films, and a glance back at an overlooked gem - Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. Aye, bloodsuckers again.


    The Rundown


    8
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10
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