Dracula: Eighty Years In His Shadow

PrintE-mail Written by Tom Roberts


Is there any hope for the human race? Vampires are everywhere, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t escape them, and we certainly can’t fight them. There has been a recent invasion of vampires in popular culture, spread across TV, films, books and comics like the blood of their victims. Twilight is, of course, the big name at the moment (forgive me, I’ve not seen the films or read the books), but we also have True Blood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and so many, many more.

However, whenever Halloween comes around, which vampire is represented with the highest number of costumes? Spike and Dru? Blade? Edward? No, it’s all about Bela Lugosi, his accent and that hungry, terrifying smile of his.

It has been eighty years since Universal released their version of Dracula, and this short black and white feature still has a grip on the public imagination that no other vampire has been able to touch.

The film is based on a theatrical production which first toured the UK, and then – following a few changes – America. Whilst the reviews weren’t all spectacular, the play was hugely successful. At first Universal wished to make a big-budget adaptation of the novel, but once the Depression really set in, the expense couldn’t be justified. The rights were bought for the play, and the film eventually went into production.

Of course, I didn’t see the film on its release or even on the big screen. In fact, until recently I hadn’t even seen the film all the way through at all, believe it or not. Yet, I have always known the film well.

Opening to Tchaikovsky’s stirring Swan Lake, the first scenes set the tone for the rest of the film. A lone carriage travels the crumbling roads of Western Europe, with dark night approaching and heavy clouds in the sky. Renfield (Dwight Fry) is on his way to Castle Dracula. A brief stop, and conversation with the locals illustrates the fear that they have of the castle and the night.

The Castle itself is decrepit and gothic and filled with so many classic horror icons that it feels almost like a dream, or nightmare. Huge cobwebs stretch across rooms, the walls are crumbling, the windows smashed. Bats fly amongst the rafters and – oddly – armadillos live amongst the shadows. The castle is no longer a home to a civilised man, but is becoming consumed by nature. The Count descends the grand staircase, candle in hand and wrapped in his cloak. In the distance, a lone wolf howls, and the classic line ‘the children of the night. What music they make’ is heard on screen for the first time.

The following scene is a perfect example of Lugosi’s Dracula. He leads Renfield to a warm, welcoming room and provides food and wine. He is at once a courteous host, and also very threatening. Renfield is offered food and ‘very old wine’, although Dracula does admit that he never drinks… wine.

Once Dracula leaves, Renfield is joined in his room by three vampire women, all dressed in flowing white nightgowns. As is well known, this image was one of the first that came to Bram Stoker that led to the book being written. In the novel it is sexually loaded, but here less so, due, undoubtedly, to the strong censorship in Hollywood at the time.

A ship  - the Vesta - arrives at England, and the entire crew is dead, killed by Dracula. We see the shadow of the Captain, tied to the ship’s wheel. It is truly horrific. Investigators hear manic laughter, and find Renfield staring up at them. Even now, I find this scene chilling.

We see Dracula in London. He’s a predator in the city. A very symbolic little scene, I think. He is a parasite, living off civilisation. This just seems more apparent in a city, than in ruined castles. It is here that he meets Mina (Helen Chandler), Lucy (Frances Dade) and John Harker (David Manners). I find these three the weakest characters of the film. This is probably because they have been the most diluted from the characters in the novel. Harker in particular doesn’t serve any purpose, and has nothing to do for most of the film.

Van Helsing is investigating the unexplained deaths that Dracula’s presence has brought. He quickly deduces that they are being caused by a vampire, or Nosferatu, and sets out to prove his theory. He eventually catches Dracula’s lack of reflection in a mirror.

Director Tod Browning made his name on several successful silent horror films, and he uses many of the techniques he learnt with them in Dracula. Indeed, it almost seems as if he is reticent to make the jump to sound – many of the most iconic shots are silent. This silence, though, really helps to create a sense of being alone with the vampire. These shots often feature Dracula by himself, shrouded in mist. He seems mysterious, dangerous and lonely. There are also some great close-up. It is almost as if we have become transfixed by Dracula himself, and are being pulled in against our will.

Dwight Fry gives an amazing performance as Renfield; tortured, terrified and insane. His manic, throaty laughter is truly disturbing, even now.  I believe that he wants to eat insects and rats, and that he serves Dracula, but also that he wishes to escape. There is still some part of him that remains human, and at times, he understands what he has become.

Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing is also worthy of note, carrying an authority that makes it believable that he can match wits with the Count. He had played this character in the stage version, and the experience he had working with Bela Lugosi is evident.

Of course, most praise must go to the star of the piece, Bela Lugosi. He had been playing the part on stage for some time, and it shows that he understands the character of Dracula. His Hungarian accent, along with a lyrical, carefully paced delivery creates an eerie quality to the Count, as if he is hypnotising everyone who is listening. The Count can be both courteous and menacing at once. Amazingly, Lugosi wasn’t the first choice for the role, despite having played Dracula on stage, and had to fight for it. Some of the exaggerated moves that he used on stage make it into the film. The clawed hands, the swirl of his cape, and his unnerving stare.

So much that is now associated with the character of Count Dracula comes from Lugosi’s performance. It is difficult to really appreciate how much his version of Dracula has become a part of popular culture. Of course, some very big names have played Dracula over the years. Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman and Frank Langella spring to mind. Each of these actors has brought something different to the role, but each has been judged in comparison to Lugosi.

At the end of the night, he is Dracula.

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