The name of the game is — Dracula! Two movies

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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Filed under Movies

5 responses to “The name of the game is — Dracula! Two movies

  1. Zosimus the Heathen

    I’ve not actually seen any version of Dracula myself (I believe they also made a remake in the early 1990s, and no doubt there have been others as well), just a bunch of later vampire movies and TV series that were no doubt inspired and influenced by it (the latest being the series The Strain, which I’ve just finished watching the third season of). Thankfully, despite falling in the Generation X demographic, I can’t say that the image that automatically pops into my head whenever I hear the word “vampire” is Lestat or (shudder) Twilight’s Edward – it’s probably actually Dracula himself, given what an iconic figure he’s become, and how recognizable he is even to people who haven’t seen any of the movies about him.

    Interesting how many of the ideas we have about vampires come from Stoker’s novel. It reminds me of how I once heard that a lot of the ideas we have about pirates also come from just one novel (in this case, Treasure Island). It’s probably the case with a lot of other historical or legendary figures as well – a lot of the things “everyone knows” about them turn out to derive not from a large body of folklore or actual historical facts, but instead a single person’s imaginings. Interesting how people had to actually drink Dracula’s blood in order to be turned into vampires themselves – that was something I did not know until now. It certainly avoids one of the most obvious problems that presents itself in all those vampire stories where a person merely has to be drained of their blood to be turned into a vampire: that is, whenever a vampire satisfies its hunger, it creates another hungry mouth in the process, and that eventually (and probably quite quickly) the aforementioned undead beings are going to find a world where *everyone’s* a vampire, and there are no “unturned” humans left to feed upon (I remember one vampire movie, 30 Days of Night, cleverly avoiding this problem by having the vampires simply break their victims’ necks after drinking their blood).

    A pretty good vampire novel I once read was called They Thirst, and featured vampires attempting to take over LA during the early 1980s. Unfortunately, it was one of those books where people were turned into vampires merely by having their blood drained, and the vampire “king” was revealed to have been “turned” in the 14th Century himself (as a result, it sort of strained credibility that he and his followers had been merrily turning other folk into vampires for the better part of six centuries, yet when the book opened, there was still no shortage of regular humans for them to prey upon). It also pushed the *really* annoying message that the vampires’ near-immortality was actually a curse, and that ordinary humans were “lucky” to grow old and weak, and eventually die. Ironically, the author ended up undermining that message somewhat by having the mother of one of the main characters end up suffering a truly miserable old age – afllicted with dementia, and stuck in some wretched nursing home. Hard to see her as one of the “fortunate” ones rather than someone like the vampire king, who despite being over six hundred years old, still retained all his youthful strength, good looks, and vitality. If only the rest of us could be so “cursed”!

  2. To paraphrase the late SF critic Baird Searles put it, even people who’ve never seen or read a Dracula story know him–heck, he’s even in breakfast cereal (Count Chockula). I’m pretty sure I knew the name before I ever saw a vampire movie and certainly before reading the book.
    I think the biggest influence from Anne Rice will turn out to be less Lestat or any character than the idea of vampires as a subculture. Pretty much everything I read before Rice has them as individual predators or an anarchic mob of killers. Since then, they’re an organized society in most stories.
    Barnabas Collins in the 1960s supernatural soap Dark Shadows used the neck-breaking trick to prevent breeding offspring too.

  3. Zosimus the Heathen

    Count Chockula reminds me of another funny Dracula parody that exists: a vampire duck named (what else?) Count Duckula! I believe he started off as a character on a British animated series called Danger Mouse before getting his own series when, not surprisingly, he proved popular with viewers.

    Talking of Dracula’s iconic status, I remember once coming across a rather funny list that counted him among the 5 most hated figures of the 20th Century, the other four being Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Richard M. Nixon!

    • That’s a wild list.
      Ah, Count Duckula. I’ve seen some of his stuff, and a lot of Danger Mouse. There’s also a kids’ book with the vampire rabbit Bunnicula — and astonishingly, an earlier vampire duck, Quackula.

  4. Pingback: A monster girl, a monster show: Books read | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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