Once again, What The Craggus Saw is joining in with TheMarckoGuy’s Month Of Spooks. Last year, it prompted me to finally get around to watching the classic Hallowe’en movie, “Halloween”. This year, I’ve used it as an excuse to go all the way back to where modern cinema horror began, exploring the original Universal Monster movies, starting with “Dracula”.
Ancient vampire Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) makes arrangements to move to England, enslaving his solicitor Renfield (Dwight Frye) as he does so. Once he arrives in England, he charms Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), the owner of the asylum which neighbours his property of Carfax Abbey and begins to seduce and prey on his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler) and her friend Lucy (Frances Dade). Only the eccentric Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) suspects that the Count may be more than he appears.
“Dracula”, like many of the original Universal horrors of the 1930s, sets the iconic template for the character which all subsequent adaptations are defined by, whether they are homaging and reimagining it or defying and subverting it. There’s a lot to enjoy in this atmospheric and eerie production. Lugosi is just wonderful as the charming yet sinister Count. Utterly magnetic, he dominates the screen in every scene he’s in and he has such a charismatic presence that it’s an easy leap to believe in his powers of mesmerism and control.
The film opens with the hapless Renfield obliviously on his way to Borgo Pass to meet a coach provided by his employer Count Dracula. He is warned off his journey by some wary villagers who are really quick to mention that the Count is a vampire, basically laying it out in detail to a sceptical Renfield. It’s an interesting scene because we’re used to versions nowadays where the superstitious and fearful villages tend to speak of the occupants of Castle Dracula in euphemism and innuendo but not this little hamlet. Nope, they just put it all out there, give him a crucifix and send him on his way when they can’t persuade him not to go.
All of the Transylvanian sequences are technically impressive. Tremendous set design, mattes and model work creating seamless, iconic visuals. Although there are quirks here and there – armadillos haven’t yet managed to become an important part of the Dracula mythology despite their appearance in the castle. Not known to be native to Romania, Armadillos have been sighted in Transylvania County, North Carolina, so I’ll give them a pass.
Adapted from the stage play which in turn had adapted Bram Stoker’s source novel, the deliciously melodramatic dialogue manages to make the leap to the big screen, again defining the character for the decades to follow. There’s quite an unexpectedly racy and sexual undercurrent to the film, fusing for all time the concept of vampires with a dangerous, seductive sexuality which is largely absent from the original text.
Despite its technical limitations – it’s not as visually impressive and innovative as the Spanish language version Universal made simultaneously – it stands the test of time, as eternal as its eponymous character. There are some odd performances in the rest of the cast; Van Helsing is often as creepy, if not creepier, than Dracula himself (and where is he meant to be from? Occasionally Scotland, by the sound of it). Renfield’s conversion to willing and manically crazed acolyte may be too fast and furious but it’s the almost Shakespearian unsubtly of the comic relief character of the asylum attendant (Charles K Gerrard) that sticks (out) in the mind the most. In amongst all the camp (to modern audiences) melodrama, though, there are genuine moments of cinema magic. I’ve already called out the scenes set in Transylvania but the battle of wills scene between Van Helsing and Dracula is a masterclass of acting from both performers, probably my favourite scene of the whole movie.
It may seem extremely tame by today’s blood-soaked, no holds barred horror movie standards, but it’s a deliciously creepy, deceptively innocent retelling of the classic tale, setting for all time the standards by which all future Draculas would be measured. There’s no doubt the Count is genuinely immortal, and Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance has played a huge part in making that so.