Universal Studios Monster Movies – Dracula (1931)
Velcome my fiends, please leave your cowls with Ygor and let ve provide you vith some vreshment , yes we are finally continuing with my ungodly and unholy trawl through the original lifecycle of Universal’s classic monster movies – let the fainthearted flee. A quick trivia question before we tuck into this tasty morsel, how many actors can you name who have played Dracula over his long and decrepit on-screen life*? I managed 11 without electronic assistance which I think is a reasonable haul, for a fictional figure whose iconic appearance is so thoroughly etched into popular culture he has made numerous appearances over the decades across many international boundaries, from comedies and exploitation, from horror to humour, and that was without knowing the names of the dudes who played him in Scream Blackula Scream, or the bizarre Kung-fu hybrid The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires which would have taken me to the unholy number of thirteen. I was going to park this series during
January well we’re already into February and appropriately enough Canary Wharf is being sheathed in lightning amidst a raucous downpour which seems appropriate timing, and despite a serious downturn in home movie watching due to work demands and the pleasures of the early year distributors choking the multiplexes with intelligent fare one doesn’t prosper if you don’t set yourself some ravenlofty ambitions, so I’ve moved heaven and earth to also get the first significant gravestone of this programme buried, burned and the consecrated ground salted to prevent any future resurrections, as it’s time to gaze upon the hypnotic visage of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula of 1931;
It’s taken a little longer to beguile these thoughts together for a number of reasons, chiefly the outstanding first disk of the boxed set is bloated with juicy morsels including documentaries on Bela Lugosi’s accursed career and a rather stilted half hour studio approved anemic piece on the movie from 1999, the former has much more bite with talking heads commentary from the likes of Joe Dante, Clive Barker, Ramsay Campbell and Chris Frayling which is well worth sacrificing a few precious minutes of your limited time on this Earth. Some so-called ‘experts’ out there probably smugly assume that this classic was the second on-screen iteration of Bram Stokers 1863 gothic classic, invoked a few years after F.W Murnau’s deeply creepy and eeriely influential Nosferatu silent picture, right? Well, they’d be wrong as in fact a slithering progenitor preceded both these generations, the sadly lost Dracula’s Death which one hopes will arise from the dead just as other allegedly lost movies have been recently unearthed. The film was the brainchild of Carl Laemdale Jr. the son of studio founder Laemdale Senior, who as a fan of all things macabre on stage and in print recognised the potential for a creeping blockbuster after the success of the theatre version of the novel which first brought the tale to a wider audience. With a reduced budget director Tod Browning, a stalwart of the silent movies was devastated when his first choice of Lon Chaney took himself out of the running for the titular part by dying of cancer in 1930, leaving Lugosi begging for the part – a part which he had made his own through hundreds of stage performances it should be stressed – for a paltry $500 a week. Given that the Great Depression was still biting and production budgets were being slashed both Laemdale and Browning had to work within the parameters of severely reduced resources, so they accepted his offer and a screen legend was birthed…
Naturally the film has dated quite considerably but it retains a strange and unearthly gothic charm, as one of those films birthed during the perverted period when cinema was shifting from silent to sound it is stilted and stammers in places, but that can actually add to the strange brooding atmosphere in which certain scenes unfold in a pregnant silence. Today of course you must have any manner of Foley artists and ADR running all over the underlying orchestral score which instructs you just how to feel and react to the scenes and sequences – just witness the three spooky handmaidens which prove that sometimes less is more. This first appearance of Van Helsing is also a departure from subsequent Dracula lore, he’s more a nebbish librarian that the fearless and steely eyes hunter we’ve come to know since Peter Cushing inherited the role in the 1950’s, and both Lucy and Mina are the theatrically clipped, upper middle class sexless clones at the mercy of the Count’s hypnotic urges. Nevertheless there is something about seeing all these icons on-screen for the first time, this was quite the controversial shocker for the pre censorship code afflicted 1930’s, and Lugosi is one of the legendary figures of horror cinema as well as being a hysterical ham with his grandiose theatrical movements and that dripping, glacial intonation. Crucially though he does emit that eeriely elusive screen presence in the role, there is a diabolical aura to the performance that has haunted the screen for over eighty years, as you still imagine him as the Count whenever the name is mentioned, as the ultimate icon of those foreign devils invading our countries and literally stealing our women’s virginity and purity. The restoration gives the picture a fresh reinvigorating new pallor, although there is something to be said for the slightly unnerving atmosphere provoking by a stuttering, cobwebbed and distressed print the significant efforts deployed by Universal to exorcise the infection accrued over the decades as part of their centenary celebrations last year is welcomed by the horror community, including the resurrection of the elusive Spanish version of the classic……
I’d never seen the Spanish version before which was quite a surreal experience to excavate, of course when the talkies swept away the silents the format of films which were previously international by virtue of their lack of dialogue and easily translated title cards suddenly had to battle international language obstacles, and it was a fairly common practice for films to be made for alternate territories with indigenous casts, utilising the same screenplay and storyboard framework, the same sets and technical infrastructure. When Browning, Lugosi and the crew wrapped up the days shoot at 6.00pm the Spanish crew would commence at 8.00pm and film throughout the night, the similarity yet slight amendments to the visual presentation of the tale refracted through two directors imaginations is quite an instructive experience, with the Spanish version certainly being a more risqué and daringly sexual translation, with more in the way of optical tricky yet a laughable figure of the Count portrayed by a mugging Carlos Villarías. Tod Browning on the other hand musters his talents through Lugosi’s immortal performance and cameraman Karl Freund’s dexterous camera which prowls the sets like a bloodthirsty wolf, they both have their strengths and weaknesses which make for a intriguing viewing exercise.
The English language film is now widely considered a classic in a myriad of ways, firmly embedding the vampire mythology in popular culture, when our minds ponder the concept of a vampires the first terrible version conjured to mind is a noble blue-blooded, angular featured member of the aristocracy with a clipped pronunciation and leering persona, the 1% parasite on the body politic in opposition to the cosumer obsessed zombie or poor blue-collar working class Wolfman, although I guess we must concede that for some the phrase ‘vampire’ now denotes a jealous, elderly pederast boyfriend who hangs around schools in order to control every function of his young mate’s life – whom she sees and socialises with, her future career, her relationship with her family – and culturally and socially speaking that’s pretty horrific stuff. The marketing of the original film also introduced a new weapon in the arsenal of the Hollywood advertising blitzkrieg, it never fails to amuse me when some relatively lurid new horror movie is released and the press eagerly devour some ludicrous story of disturbed patrons passing out or being removed from theatres in straitjackets, it’s the oldest marketing gimmick in the necronomic book which we’ve recently seen deployed in the likes of the Paranormal Activity franchise and some the later Saw movies, it’s a tradition that started over eighty years ago with Dracula although to be fair these incidents did actually occur and ambulances were called for screenings of The Exorcist. I should also vocalise the numerous scores available on the disk, I opted for the special Philip Glass composition which was commissioned back in 1998 which gives the movie a pulsating tempo, there is a choice of other soundtracks and commentaries which provide a wealth of aural accompaniment. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to begin this long and treacherous trawl through the Universal monsters folio than with this absolute classic, a superb transfer and lovingly restored update of one of the silver screens most nourishing classics, don’t be afraid as we still have a long road to travel, and it’s not as if the Pope has abdicated now is it?
* *In a vaguely historical order, Max Schrek, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Udo Kier, Klaus Kinski, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, Leslie Nielsen and Gerard Butler, I’m sure there is a whole nest of others….?