Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Universal Monster Classic, Part 1 - Dracula (1931)

October is, for my money, the best month of the year for a myriad of reasons. The reason applicable here involves Halloween, and the urge to consume scary movies almost on a daily basis as the leaves and the weather change outside. There are great scary movies, some not so great, and then there are the classics. Universal’s monster movies may no longer be frightening to most, but they are the most important horror films in the history of cinema. The scares may have become outdated, but without the unmatched run of great classic monster movies Universal Studios released over twenty plus years, so many films would never have happened. It’s debatable where the Universal string began; some may site Lon Chaney’s silent masterwork, The Phanton of The Opera, as the kick off. I site Dracula as the official, unofficial, beginning of greatness for Universal and all those wonderful actors, directors, and filmmakers involved in creating unforgettable characters and pictures.

Rather than trying to cover all the classic films, I have decided to use Universal’s recently-released Blu-ray anthology of the heavy hitters in their catalogue. There have been countless sequels to Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and so on, and a great deal of side projects like White Zombie, Tower of London, etc. Some are fantastic fun, some not so much. All this being said, let’s stick to the monsters of the monster movies and work our way through these classics, admiring and dissecting their impact along the way…

DRACULA (1931) – This was not the first vampire film. That title belongs to F.W. Murneau’s Nosferatu, a silent chiller with a skeletal creature as its representation of the Bram Stoker creation. But Dracula was the first “talkie” to center around the Prince of Darkness, and the creation from director Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi, and cinematographer Karl Freund created an indelible world of visual, gothic gloom. The opening moments of Dracula are magnificent, but the picture as a whole tends to fizzle as we leave Castle Dracula and head back to London.

The story is so ingrained in our consciousness there is no real need for a plot synopsis. We know about the Real Estate agent, Renfield, driven mad upon his visit to do a deal with Lugosi’s Count Dracula. We know about the trip to London, the “Ghost Ship,” and the women, Lucy and Mina, in London. The opening scenes of the picture are easily the strongest and most memorable. Karl Freund utilizes German Expressionism in these early scenes to show the angles and shadows and impending doom of Castle Dracula. There are a few introductions of Lugosi’s character, the first being his sinewy fingers reaching out from a closed coffin. We see him again as the carriage driver who picks up Renfield outside of town before disappearing on the way to the castle. But the true introduction of Dracula is a classic movie moment, as he seemingly floats down the grand staircase and speaks for the first time.

Lugosi’s personification of the character is legendary, influencing just about every interpretation of Dracula for the foreseeable future. The slick, black hair, pale skin, and gothic attire is inseparable from the vampire in cinema. Lugosi had grasped the English language at this point in his life, but he plays with the prim and proper dialect of the upper crust at the time with long, drawn out words. Although this is considered a talking picture, most of the strength in Dracula lies within its look and mood. Lugosi’s eyes, lit up with pin lights and surrounded by darkness, must have generated scares in 1931.

Dracula slowly overtakes Renfield’s mind before they travel across the sea to Carfax Abbey in London. Once the ship arrives, the entire crew is dead, save for Renfield who has gone mad. Now in London, Dracula works his way into high society and seduces young Lucy (Frances Dade). Here, we are introduced into the vampire hunter, Van Helsing, who eventually gets the best of the Count in the climactic moments. These scenes in London are much less memorable than the opening moments, as the story ambles towards its finale. There are moments, like Dracula strolling down the foggy London streets in a top hat as people die in the alleys, and Van Helsing exposing Dracula’s inability to cast a reflection in a mirror, that push the story forward and strengthen the classic tale. But, all in all, the picture cannot sustain the power of the opening act.

Much of the credit is given to both Lugosi and Karl Freund, whose imagery trumps the language. Tod Browning would find success in later pictures, namely Freaks, but he is often overlooked as the director of Dracula. Regardless of who deserves the bulk of the credit, it is the picture as a whole that deserves the lion’s share of kicking off the classic barrage Universal horror films. The film has been tweaked and restored and, in the 90s, was given a new score to accentuate the horror. Both the original version with spare music and the restored version with the score from Philip Glass have their merits, but perhaps purists will point ot the original cut of the film to see the classic for what it was.