Universal Monsters: Dracula (1931)

Written by Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston
Based on the play by Garrett Fort
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler
US Release Feb. 14, 1931
RT 85
Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

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Warning: reviews contain plot spoilers.

With so many screen versions of Dracula produced during the last 84 years, it’s sometimes easy to overlook Universal’s 1931 original. Everyone has a favorite Dracula, whether it is Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Jack Palance, or one of a host of others.  However, every so often we should pay tribute to the original, Bela Lugosi.  I daresay without his performance in the title role, few others would have followed.

We see Lugosi first rise from his coffin five minutes into the movie. Age has been kind to the atmosphere of Dracula.  Any loss of film quality only adds to the foggy, dreamlike quality of the scene.  As his bony fingers slowly emerge from the coffin, various rats and insects likewise crawl in and out of other confined areas of the castle’s vast basement chamber.  While we witness one of his three “brides” actually sit up in her coffin, we only see Dracula standing by his while the camera moves closer to his mesmerizing eyes.

His reputation precedes him. En route to the castle, Renfield (Dwight Frye) hears from the Transylvanian townspeople rumors that Dracula and his wives take the form of wolves and bats and leave their coffins at night.  The stories don’t deter him, though; he’s there to deliver a lease on Carfax Abbey.  After a mysterious, driverless carriage ride to the castle, Renfield enters a cavernous foyer where his host slowly descends from the stairs and bids him welcome.

Renfield’s time at Castle Dracula is not long, though, and ends with a visit from a bat and the three zombie-like brides. We next see him “aboard the Vesta,” a ship “bound for England.”  He’s now become a raving madman, opening Dracula’s coffin and telling his master when the sun has gone down.  This scene, familiar in many other versions of the story, unfolds here with little mystery, even though the ship arrives in London and is found with everyone dead and its captain tied to the wheel.

In London, Lugosi’s Dracula is the only lit man walking down the street. On his way to the theater, he stops for a “cocktail” from a woman selling flowers.  Once arrived, he introduces himself to Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston), the man caring for the now institutionalized Renfield, his daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler), her friend, Lucy (Frances Dade) and Mina’s beau, John Harker (David Manners).  I’m not sure why Dracula is drawn to them, unless the connection is Renfield.

Lucy finds Dracula “fascinating,” but Mina wants someone more normal. If by “normal” she means bland, that certainly what she has with Harker.  He’s largely ineffective as a hero.  Then again, that role is usually reserved, as it is here, for Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan).  After Dracula quickly disposes of Lucy during a nighttime visit, Van Helsing examines “another dead” body with the same two marks and concludes that “we are dealing with the undead.”

Here, the 74-minute movie begins to drag and this version’s origins as a stage play become apparent. Van Helsing knows that Dracula is living at Carfax Abbey, but instead of going to dispose of him right away, a couple of days pass talking about him.  I guess that’s so Dracula has time to sink his fangs into Mina.  It’s not clear why he targets her and extends her transition instead of killing her right away like he does his other victims.

If there are weaknesses in the screenplay by Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston, adapted from the play by Garrett Fort, director Tod Browning does his best to lessen them with cobwebs and Gothic mood. And the plot holes are often filled by a number of classic lines, including

“I never drink… wine.”

“Listen to them. Children of the night.  What music they make.”

“To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious!”

It all leads to Van Helsing and Harker following Dracula and Mina to Dracula’s crypt at Carfax Abbey. I like the creative touch of Van Helsing tearing apart a coffin lid to make a stake, although you would have thought he’d come prepared.  As you would expect from a 1931 movie, we don’t see Dracula’s demise; instead, we only hear it as Harker searches for Mina.  She screams, he finds her and she’s OK.  “There’s nothing to fear.  Dracula is dead forever.”  Well, at least until the next version.

It had been a long time since I’d seen Dracula and I recognized nuances to Lugosi’s portrayal that I had either forgotten or never realized were there. He moves very slowly and deliberately, appropriate for one of the undead, I suppose.  While we never see him step out of his coffin, a couple of times we see him curling up from the waist beside it.  When he bends over to bite Lucy, I could swear he smells her first.  There are times that he truly looks like he’s in pain and suffering.

And those eyes… My favorite effect in the movie is the lighting used to highlight his eyes. Call it glowing or pulsating, the simple strip of light across his face accentuates that feature.  If eyes really are windows to the soul, then Lugosi’s eyes lead to a dark place that remains scary even today.  Dracula may have no soul, but Lugosi’s performance does.  While the movie may be flawed, Lugosi is flawless.  You cannot overstate what he did for Dracula, for Universal Pictures, and for the horror genre altogether.

Dracula (Spanish Version)

Written by Baltasar Fernandez Cue
Based on the play by Garrett Fort
Directed by George Melford
Starring Carlos Villarias, Eduardo Arozamena, Pablo Alvarez Rubio, Lupita Tovar
RT 104
Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)

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At the same time Dracula was filming during the day, a Spanish version was filming at night using the same sets. With the addition of some adaptation of the script by B. Fernandez Cue, this Dracula (1931) actually improves upon some of the American version’s flaws.  However, due to Lugosi’s absence in the title role, the movie is ultimately not as good.  In fact, the sometimes-comical performance of Carlos Villar as Conde Dracula detracts from any mood that may be simmering.

The Spanish Dracula begins much the same as the American Dracula; however, director George Melford uses more blatant devices to create atmosphere: smoke comes out of his coffins and doors take an awfully long time loudly creaking open. On the other hand, when Renfield (Pablo Alavrez Rubio) first encounters Dracula, he’s merely standing on the stairs in the castle instead of eerily descending down them.  But this Dracula is more crazed than scary.

One improvement to the plot is that, once in London, Dracula heads straight to the theater. There is no scene of him attacking a woman on the street.  This scene seems out of place in the American version.  In the theater, we actually see a ballet being performed on stage; in the American version, we only hear it.  It’s odd the little setting choices that are different, such as this scene and the one where Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) examines a woman’s body in a small room instead of a large hospital theater.

If you think it’s Lugosi’s Dracula who envelops victims in his cape, you’re wrong. His attacks are cut short by editing while Villar’s are perhaps extended a little bit.  And we see actual bite marks in the Spanish version that we never see in the American version.  Overall, the movie is not as polished; however, it occasionally surprises with a little detail, such as Renfield stopping in the middle of a rant to catch a fly.  The American version could have benefitted from such a moment.

Speaking of Renfield, he’s much more Joker-crazy here than Dwight Frye was in the other Dracula. Intermittent scenes between him and Van Helsing in the other Dracula play more as interrogations in the Spanish version, which both makes sense to the story and makes it drag a little less.  In fact, the total running time is nearly 30 minutes longer and doesn’t really feel like it.

The Spanish Dracula follows the script of the American Dracula pretty closely, even though some scenes occur in a different order. However, near the end, it takes some distinct turns of its own.  The same scenes in a different order extend the final attack on Eva (Lupita Tovar) and add a bit of excitement as orderly Martin shoots at a bat.  Dracula carries Eva down his Carfax Abbey stairs and tosses Renfield over the edge instead of down them.

The climax adds the factor of the rising sun that is absent from the American version. There’s also an explanation for why Eva isn’t in her coffin that is never provided for Mina in the American version.  As Juan Harker (Barry Norton) and Eva go up the steps, Van Helsing stakes his vampire.  There’s no pithy speech to end the movie; it closes based on its own merit.

Truth be told, neither version of Dracula is perfect. If Tod Browning had directed something closer to the actual script used for the Spanish version and made similar editing choices, it would come a lot closer.  But it would have to star Lugosi.  I’m a superficial guy; the look of the American version wins out for me over the story in this case.  On the other hand, there’s a reason we still hear about the Spanish Dracula when we don’t hear about the Spanish Frankenstein or the Spanish Mummy, if they even exist.

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