Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Rewatching Dracula (1931)

I'm changing up my usual format a bit today because nobody needs to hear a plot synopsis of the first classic Universal horror movie.

If you're just joining us, young grasshopper, be advised that Tod Browning's Dracula isn't based directly on Bram Stoker's novel but on a stage play by Hamilton Deane that was later rewritten by John L. Balderston and makes some sensible and some very curious changes to the novel. Some of the latter may make more sense on the stage than on screen, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Browning would have preferred Dracula to be played by his old partner in crime Lon Chaney (senior) but Universal insisted on very successful stage Dracula Bela Lugosi. Consequently, Browning had one or more hissy fits and did not bring his full creative power to the proceedings because he found his ego more important than his movie. As far as can be said today, parts of the film were really directed by supreme cinematographer Karl Freund. This part of the film's backstory has made an easy in for a lot of critics to take the film down a peg. It's difficult to completely disagree with the brunt of their arguments, for the film is often rather more stagy than necessary with too many scenes of characters telling us important plot developments instead of the film showing them (though I don't think it's all the play's fault - some of the scenes that are only told, especially Dracula feeding his blood to Mina, would just have not gone over on screen in 1931, pre-code era or not), and Browning is visually far less imaginative than in those of his films he deigned to care about. Having said this, to me there's so much about Dracula that is a remarkable achievement I can't help but have the impression these critics are so in love with mourning a film that never was they don't look at the film that actually exists with an open mind.

It's true, Browning is not at all at the top of his game here, and especially the dialogue scenes that make up most of the film's middle are filmed with little élan or interest, but all of the film's big horror set pieces are moody and brilliant and staged with a care many filmmakers don't bring to the table when they are at their best. Then there's Freund's beautiful cinematography, Charles D. Hall's impressive art direction that sets up rules of the visual treatment of gothic horror by way of German expressionism generations would go on to follow. Freund's and Hall's contributions to the film really give the joyful impression - in a fog-shrouded doom and dread kind of way - of something happening on screen for the first time.

And then there's Bela, of course. One could make fun of the curious stiffness and theatricality of the great man's performance, but then one would rather miss out on the fact how nuanced what he's doing here actually is. Lugosi doesn't play the Count as a romantic, several hundred years old noble with a lust for blood, but as a creature that may once have been human and vaguely remembers some of the surface aspects of acting like a human being. There's a reason that Lugosi's accent is thicker whenever Dracula lets his mask drop completely, and it's the same reason why he's moving less corpse-stiff in those scenes where he's trying to fit into society, even though each of his gestures then is still slightly off. This Dracula is not a dead man walking, but something deeply inhuman pretending to be a man, and for my taste, Lugosi realizes that aspect of the role brilliantly.

I also think most of the rest of the cast does their job rather well. Helen Chandler's Mina is quite a bit more convincing than one would expect going by the generally pale performances of female romantic leads of the era. Dwight Frye does an important step to be forever type-cast as the bug-eyed madman, and while this interpretation of mental illness is of course as dubious as that of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, his performance has a strong, melodramatic (in all the best senses of the word) power that perfectly fits Lugosi's performance as well as Edward van Sloan's Dutch accent by way of Hollywood-Hindustan and Hollywood-China. No, we're not in method acting land here, but in a film where intelligently melodramatic and artificial acting come together with ideas and methods of German cinematic expressionism and Hollywood commercialism to create more than just the first horror house style in cinematic history but a foggy, shadowy, weirdly accented world of its own.

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