Like rereading Sherlock Holmes, it’s hard for me to see DRACULA (1931) clearly — for example just seeing someone greet Bela Lugosi as “Count Dracula” without even reacting to the name now feels bizarre. Which shows what an hold Dracula has on us.
Stoker’s novel established a lot of what would be vampire canon for the next 90 years or so, and the movie solidifies it further. The vampire dressed in formal evening wear with the Hungarian accent. The vampire recoiling from sunlight (not an issue for Stoker’s Dracula). Though most later stories I’ve seen or read ignored that victims have to drink Dracula’s blood to rise as undead themselves, instead making the trigger having your blood drained. I don’t think having victims drink came back into fashion until Anne Rice, but since then it’s become common.
The movie itself? Pretty damn cool. Lugosi has a genuine screen presence as Dracula, and the spooky sets are awesome. That said, it feels awfully rushed in the final section (the whole thing only runs 75 minutes): Mina (Helen Chandler) gets turned and tries to seduce Jonathan, then Dracula takes her away, but it’s almost dawn and Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan) and Jonathan Harker show up and stake him. Lucy, who’s already risen as a vampire is completely forgotten.
Fears of crossing the line into bad taste also hindered the movie. We don’t see much of the vampire attacks. Because rats were just too gross, Dracula’s castle has armadillos instead. The difference shows in the 1931 Spanish-language version of DRACULA, which was on the same DVD (the main reason I bought it).
Carlos Villarias lacks Lugosi’s screen presence, but I can see why some people think this version did a better job. This was shot for the south of the border market so Universal didn’t have to worry about US censors. We see more of the vampire attacks, which adds to the movie (even though they’re tame by today’s standards), particularly Eva’s (the Mina counterpart) attack on Juan (and Lupita Tovar makes much more of an impression than Chandler). The movie runs an added half-hour, and most of it’s put to good use. The confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula is effectively drawn out (it’s also more intense). Lucy is at least dispatched off-screen. I don’t know I’d prefer it, but it’s definitely worth seeing. ”What gives vampires their power is that people refuse to believe in them.”
Horror expert David J. Skal provides the commentary track and a companion documentary, The Road to Dracula (narrated by Carla Laemmle, who speaks the first line in the movie, and was also part of the Laemmle family that ran Universal back then). Some of what Skal covers is stuff I know (the erotic and anti-immigrant overtones Dracula had for Victorians), but a lot of it I didn’t: the origins of “Nosferatu” (apparently someone just made up the word as it’s not actually Romanian), a history of the stage play (it was seeing the play that showed Universal the unfilmable novel could be done cost-effectively) and the enduring impact of the film. Though I have to wonder if it has the same impact for Generation X or millennials that it does for Skal or me (he’s a few years older) or whether their image of “vampire” automatically defaults to Lestat or Twilight‘s Edward (or for that matter, Geraint Wyn Davies in Forever Knight).
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