Having just finished Bram Stoker's classic horror novel, Dracula, I thought I'd take a look at some of the film adaptations that have come out through the years. After all, he's probably more well known for terrorizing the silver screen than from the world of literature. While the unsanctioned Nosferatu is the first actual adaptation, Universal's 1931 release is the first proper Dracula film, and perhaps the most famous, even today, over eighty years later.
Review by Crispy
Added: April 01, 2014
After being summoned to the castle of one Count Dracula to finalize his purchase of a rundown English mansion, Renfield quickly gets more than he bargained for when he finds himself both a meal and slave to the Count in short order. After using the real estate agent to move him to London, Dracula dismisses his services and he finds himself a patient at Dr. Seward's asylum. This asylum just so happens to be next door to Drac's new pad, and the vampire quickly zeros in on his daughter, Mina, and her friend, Lucy. After having no luck with Renfield and fearing for the girls' rapidly declining health, Seward calls for the aid of Dr. Van Helsing who, as luck would have it, is quite knowledgeable at just what Dracula is. With time running out, he teams with Mina's fiance, Johnathan Harker, to slay the beast and save her very soul.
Obviously, whenever a novel is adapted to film, a major condensing process has to be undertaken. After all, the book probably took me somewhere between fifteen and twenty hours to read, and now we're turning that story into an eighty-five minute movie. But wait, that's not all. This movie wasn't directly based on the 1897 novel, but rather a 1924 stage play adaptation. This is actually the source of the very many plot deviations from Stoker's book; in truth, they really just took an extremely vague outline and crafted an original story on top of things. But wait, that's not all. When Tod Browning signed on to direct, he was promised a golden opportunity to film Dracula: a big-budget affair with horror mainstay Lon Chaney in the titular role. Unfortunately, in the few years between accepting the position and principal production began, the Great Depression killed his budget, throat cancer killed his Count, and the man no longer gave a damn about the movie. Hell, he decided on a whim not to film certain scenes, and left much of the actual directing to cinematographer Karl Freund. Long story short, the entire affair was a total clusterfuck. As you can imagine, the story is kind of neglected; it hits some of the major points of the tale it's attempting to tell without actually taking the time to tell it. The end result is a pretty shallow affair, with undeveloped characters and unresolved subplots.
With that said, the movie projects a tone which simply can not be overstated. Primarily, the lighting used throughout the film was masterfully done, and was a large part of what made the film so memorable. I absolutely loved the shots of Dracula with a beam of bright light across his eyes, with the rest of his body in the shadows. Even his minion Renfield gets a moment, and the shot when he's discovered on the boat, with the light from the door illuminating the dark cabin and his mad cheshire grin, is probably my favorite scene in the movie, aesthetically speaking. I have to assume it was more Freund than Browning that actually pulled these shots off, so kudos to the man for making the most of a bad situation.
So we got a shitty story that looks amazing. Under normal circumstances, this combination would receive an "avoid" recommendation from yours truly, along with most other reviewers. However, Dracula has an ace in the hole, and that ace is the assembled cast, chief among them being Bela Lugosi. If you tell someone to think of Dracula, there's a damned good chance they just conjured up Lugosi's face. At some point, his interpretation of Count Dracula became the very status quo for the character. Between his icy stare, the slow, deliberate way he moved and spoke, his accent (that's Lugosi's natural accent actually, he lived in Bulgaria for over thirty years), every ounce of it would go on to become part of the "stereotypical" Dracula. As great as he was, the best performance of the whole movie was given by one Dwight Fry. While the purist in me wasn't a fan of the way they criss-crossed Harker and Renfield's characters, I absolutely loved both sides of his Renfield. His first scene, a conversation with a Romanian innkeeper (Michael Visaroff), was awesome, and so was his post-transformation into a wide-eyed lunatic. That laugh in particular is particularly unnerving. Finally, Edward Van Sloan was everything I wanted in a Professor Van Helsing. He was able to portray wisdom, the fact that even if he wasn't saying so, he knew more than he was letting on. Not an easy feat, that. If only they kept his penchant for addressing people by "friend (name)" he'd be perfect. Yep, despite all of the bullshit that went on behind the camera, the personnel in front of it were top-notch. Hell, Lugosi and Van Sloan actually played their respective roles four years prior when that aforementioned stage play made it's way to Broadway. That's destiny right there.
This is the classic example of a movie that should have imploded in on itself from the very start. Yet, while the flick is barely able to get out a coherent story, its tone and mood are just that good to cover up the loss from all those clerical problems that got in the way way. Combined with the legacy it created and Lugosi's performance practically defining the character, and Dracula '31 is a miracle slam dunk. Maybe a 6.5/10 for the film itself, but it gets a perfect 10 for its incredible legacy.