Dracula (Browning, 1931)

Less of an enduring horror classic, Dracula (1931) feels more like a weak product of his time. That is to say, not without it’s charm, technically and thematically it falls short of being particularly interesting as a film. I’d even say it’s the weakest of four Dracula adaptations I’ve seen for the big screen, though perhaps it’s on the same level of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) , though both fail for very different reasons.

The film begins very well though, and I was really taken in by the moody atmosphere. The early scenes in Transylvania are wrapped in darkness, feeling much more like a silent film than a clumsy early sound picture. Mist seems to hang over every shot, and you have to strain to spot the figures as they move through the creeping darkness. Painfully short, it’s in these moments that Lugosi really excels. The murky surroundings certainly help, but his dominating presence is what makes these scenes. Though in the novel, it seems to highlight the excess speed that Dracula moves, Lugosi seems to work against this type moving at least twice as slow as one would normally. Highlighting a sort of heightened reality, as if he experiences every moment with far more understanding than anyone else. The only drawback to these scenes (and really, all the ones with Lugosi which are otherwise the highlight) are the overused close-ups. We get it, Lugosi does a great eye-brow, I’m staring into your soul face.

Moving beyond Transylvania, the film mostly loses it’s atmospheric and Lugosi fades into the background, leaving the mostly uninteresting 30s actors to do their whiny, very scripted stuff. The film is almost unbearable at times. The effects are terrible, especially the bats! Oh god the bats. They could have avoided them, but there are about half a dozen shots of them in the entire film. It reminds me of Val Lewton, who painstakingly wrote scripts and produced films that showed as little as possible with incredibly haunting results. The film’s biggest failure is in the script, which is painfully uninteresting. Perhaps it was more refreshing back in 1931, but I’m so familiar with the story that I expected something… more. Even Nosferatu (1922), which is a more faithfully adaptation feels far more fresh because it takes it’s time, and really allows the visuals to take action. Also, in remaining more faithful to the plot, it allows more power to Mina. Though I most appreciate Herzog’s ironic take on the “virgin in distress”, at least in Murnau’s version they allow Mina some power. Here she is a hapless victim, and all the power is relegated to Dr. Van Helsing who not only does away with Dracula, but is able to resist the dark prince’s power. Mina in this film is a weak flower, and completely uncompelling as a heroine. Aside for my own bias for interesting and strong heroines, it really weakens the film’s sexual connotations. Dracula has always been about sex, though more a puritanical view of it, mostly demonizing the “outsiders” as well as female sexuality, at the very least it upheld the intelligent and chaste Mina. In this, there is nothing. I’m reminded of Lugosi’s rants in Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) about how Dracula is sexy, and though I’m almost inclined to agree, with no one to play off to… it never lives up his claims.

Suffice to say, the film is perhaps worth seeing because of it’s reputation, but it’s almost certain to disappoint. If you’re looking beyond history, and horror completism, this film is worth avoiding. From the same year, I’d recommend Frankenstein (1931), starring Boris Karloff. Not only a better film, it stars a much more talented actor… though, as I said, Lugosi does have presence.

6 responses to “Dracula (Browning, 1931)

  1. What is it with all this horror? Justine, Justine… a million updates and they are all on horror. I can’t talk to you about movies I hate! (Grr… that Roeg pisses me off more than… something… I can’t even bear to be around this blog with that post…)
    Dracula… how strange that so many cheesy old horrors came to be classics when the true classic stars are still without recognition.

  2. You’re going to HATE October, I’m mostly going to be watching horror 😦 Though, I’m also getting into experimental cinema, so I’m picking up that box set thing on experimental film from the 20s and 30s, probably tomorrow. I’ll write about that too.

    I’ll agree with you on Dracula though, it’s pretty rubbish-y. I don’t know why it’s remembered with such fondness, while the likes of Mamoulian and Lubitsch are all but forgotten. *grumble grumble*

  3. Yup, that very one 😀 I think I’ll also pick up the Brakhage anthology, I watched “Water Window Baby Moving” this week and loved it. I’m also watching a few Maddin shorts, I saw Odin’s Shield Maiden which was kinda like a tease, I should be seeing “It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today” and “Heart of the World” soon too.

  4. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it, but I think you’ll get little dissent over Browning’s “Dracula”– though I think Jean Rollin remembers it fondly!
    Both Rollin and Argento hate Coppola’s Dracula; one called it ‘a set designer and a cinematographer in search of a director’– or words nearly similar– and the other basically said the same thing! I don’t know–Coppola indulges, throughout his films, a lot of wild mise-en-scene that my eye finds strange and cluttery, and I wish his Dracula weren’t such a melange of (above all) TONES–all these performances at odds with each other, a story that’s, what, –a Christian crusade? A Byronic blasphemy? and yet, there’s so much poetry in the film, so much I can swoon for. It may be one of those few films that is an entire world– several, arguably!– enclosed within.

    Anyway, I look forward to your October of horrific viewings and musings! Good luck!

  5. I’m not denying that Coppola’s film has some interesting ideas and touches, but I’m inclined to mostly agree with Rollin and Argento. Though, yes it is admirable for creating a fantasy world that is actually quite impressive, I think it reaches too far to the point of being over indulgant and in the end uninteresting. There is just too much going on, and as a result the good gets bogged down by the weight of the bad.

    I’m planning A LOT of horror for this month, so I hope not to dissapoint 😀

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