Saturday, November 27, 2010

Classic Movie Review: Tod Browning's Dracula

What’s most striking about Tod Browning’s Dracula is how, despite being almost comically stylized by modern standards, you can still see its profound influence on horror films through the decades straight up to the present. The camera and lighting techniques were mostly still in their infancy in 1931, and (apart from Fritz Lang’s M from that same year) film makers had yet to learn how to effectively incorporate synchronized sound in a way that augments the action, but most films of the genre that have followed owe some bit of credit to Browning. That said, Dracula itself, the first official film version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, exhibits the influence of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the 1922 German silent film that was an unsanctioned adaptation of the famous vampire story.

As an adaptation of the source material, it’s hardly recognizable save the main characters’ names and the big plot points. But to condense a 300-odd page novel into a 76 minute film requires quite a bit of cutting. The unfortunate result is a choppy story that might only make sense to anyone who’s read the novel. In one edit, Lucy goes from receiving her first bite from the Count to lying dead on an autopsy table, the missing story elements merely suggested when Dr. Seward asks, “When did she receive her last transfusion.” If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that about 75 pages or more have been excised in service to a brisk running time, which was the custom at the time.

Browning’s horror style is as much on display here as it is in the cult classic Freaks, but whereas the later film still retains a genuinely ghoulish aspect, still inspiring revulsion, scares and, well, curiosity more than anything else, Dracula survives as a result of its status as a bona fide classic. It’s hard to watch it today and feel at all frightened. There’s hardly even any element of suspense. The creepiness of Count Dracula, an undead creature who feeds on his victims’ blood, has worn out its welcome to the point that the majority of today’s popular vampire sagas (Twilight and True Blood) have begun to emphasize melodrama over horror.

Bela Lugosi, of course, was made famous by his portrayal of the bloodsucking Count. I was surprised by how much I was taken in by his performance, to be honest. The films from that era tend to have performances that are either very stagy or in the style of silent films, the result of the transition to “talkie” pictures and actors who were accustomed to using big gestures and exaggerated facial expressions to convey the scene. Lugosi doesn’t need to rely on such tricks. His is as natural a performance as you’re likely to find from the early sound era. Dwight Frye as Renfield and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing are respectable as well with Frye not going too far overboard with Renfield’s madness. But Helen Chandler and David Manners as Mina and John Harker are a chore to listen to. Thankfully their scenes are minimal, despite the novel’s being told primarily from their letters and journal entries.

The novel had implicit sexual undertones. Some say the story is even an allegory for the spread of syphilis. To be sure, the nature of a wealthy count from a foreign land arriving on the shores of England and feeding on innocent young women carries connotations of the fear of foreign invasion and deflowering virginity. Except it involves a succulent bite to the throat. The film retains a bit of that sexual subtext in the way Lucy and Mina react to Dracula and also the way the men react to the discovery of bites on Mina’s neck. Think of it as if they’ve just learned that she’s just lost her innocence and you’ll see what I mean.

One of the film’s greatest assets is its reliance on silence during extended periods of time. Perhaps this was a happy accidental consequence of having limited recording capabilities, but it helps the film achieve economy of narrative. It’s a rare film nowadays that feels comfortable relying on silence. My recently reviewed Of Gods and Men is one such film.

Ultimately Dracula survives as a classic mainly due to its status as the first film version of the novel and for Lugosi’s famous role. But I’d be very surprised to find that there’s anyone today who can still watch the film and have a visceral or even an emotional reaction to it.

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