Monster Flix: Dracula

Having realized that Dracula actually preceded Frankenstein – both from Universal Studios, and together the founding pair of the entire genre of horror films in the 1930s and ‘40s, even though Frankenstein might be taken as science fiction, not horror – I rewatched Dracula a couple days ago to see to what extent there was any resemblance between the two.

Dracula was released in February 1931, Frankenstein in November. A long enough interval, I’m guessing, that the success of the first inspired the studio to find another property to adapt into film and get into theaters.

No detailed plot summary; just general reactions and observations.

  • Both films were adapted from plays that had been inspired by the respective novels. The books were published in 1818 and 1897, so in both cases decades had passed before the advent of talking motion pictures and for, in both cases, earlier stage plays and silent films to have been produced based on the novels.
  • The structures of the two films are similar. Both involve remote castles and native villagers; both involve relatively wealthy aristocratic or professional families, and an impending wedding; both involve a monster on the loose and a cavalier disregard, but the female leads, for closing their bedroom doors and windows.
  • On the other hand, Dracula ends with the monster killed through the efforts of one man (Van Helsing); Frankenstein ends with an angry mob storming a mountain-top windmill and apparently killing the monster – though, as we see in the sequel, they didn’t.
  • Dracula is noticeably more primitive in terms of production and directing. All these pointed close-ups of Dracula with only his eyes illuminated (and too much lipstick). The way the bats fly like the crudest of toys hung on strings. The lead roles are almost hilariously overplayed; Bela Lugosi as Dracula is lugubriously campy, and Dwight Frye as Renfield is comically maniacal. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing is soothingly effective as the voice of reason, while except for these actors, the other players speak in the same flat American accents as did the cast of Frankenstein.
  • Further, Dracula is very stylized in a rather amateur way. Is the direction, and Lugosi’s acting, deliberate and exaggerated in order to be creepy, or because everyone involved is incompetent? It’s almost as if the film is parodying some previous film we haven’t had a chance to see.
  • On the other hand, the film lacks a soundtrack (the opening credits are shown to a brief excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”), and this rather enhances some of the suspense. Those repeated shots of Dracula lurking in the background, with those illuminated eyes, are all the more effective without the musical cues another director might have supplied; as such they emphasize how the other characters are unaware of this lurking threat.
  • The very opening shot of the stagecoach rushing through the hills, according to a book I have, was shot at Vasquez Rocks in southern California. Everything else was shot on sets at the Universal lot in what’s now Universal City.
  • After the opening in Transylvania, and the tragic passage at sea, most of the story takes place in London, where Dracula has leased an abbey next door to the Seward Sanitarium, where the mad Renfield has been taken. Almost every scene is set at night, and even those that aren’t are dark.
    • It takes an awful long time for Van Helsing to figure out where Dracula could possibly have hidden the box of native soil he must have brought with him. Where else by the abbey’s cellar?
    • And why does Renfield, an inmate, keep wandering into the drawing room where the owner’s family and guests reside?
  • I assume the details about vampires and werewolves and Nosferatu were either original to Bram Stoker, or adapted by him from folklore – that is, not original to this film – but I find the blend of such folklore with Christian iconography – that a crucifix, like a mirror, should frighten a vampire – curious.
  • I also noticed that the terrified lady characters almost always scream off-camera; I wonder why.
  • Finally, and the very end of the film, after Van Helsing has driven the stake into Dracula and Mina has come to her senses, she and her fiancé embrace and exit that cellar up those long stone steps. But Van Helsing says he has to stay behind a moment. The End. Wait, what? Why did he have to stay behind?

A couple fun facts:

  • There was in fact a score composed for the film, years later, by Philip Glass, and released in 1999. The DVD of Dracula I have actually offers the Glass score as one of the audio options, but I left it off this time.
  • There was a simultaneously filmed Spanish language version of Dracula, using the same sets and script but a different cast. It’s also on the DVD that I have. Curiously, it runs half an hour longer than the Bela Lugosi English-language version.

SFE correction: the line in Frankenstein is “It’s alive!” not “He lives!”

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