Rethinking DRACULA: Why the Lugosi version remains a classic


Eighty-five years ago this February, the massive New York movie palace Roxy's was abuzz with excitement as staff and audiences awaited the premiere of the Universal "Super-Production" of DRACULA, starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning. Critics and filmgoers weren't disappointed with the results of the 75-minute feature adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous novel about the vampiric nobleman Count Dracula. "It'll chill you and fill you full of fears. You'll find it creepy and cruel and crazed," enthused the reviewer for the New York Daily News upon DRACULA's Feb. 12 debut (quoted in Richard Bojarksi, THE COMPLETE FILMS OF BELA LUGOSI, New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1992, p. 55).

In the near-century that has elapsed, this version of DRACULA, widely considered the linchpin to the horror movie boom of the 1930s, has lost some of its luster for successive critics and historians, with complaints focusing on its pace, lack of faith to the original source novel and the perceived dearth of interest from Browning, known at the time as Hollywood's Edgar Allan Poe for such famous silent films as THE UNHOLY THREE (1925), LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) and other bizarrely-themed productions featuring the late Lon Chaney Sr. as their star.

A consensus emerged among fans -- including until recently this writer -- that the 1931 DRACULA was a missed opportunity, Browning was asleep at the wheel, and the film maintains whatever power it has due to Lugosi's portrayal of the role that ultimately defined his career. But all of the preceding being said, what is it that draws us back to view DRACULA over and over again? 

Lugosi's performance is a major factor, yet there is much about the production, previously dismissed, that makes the film a genuine classic deserving of its reputation. Some folks may not find it scary, but it is an unsettling experience for viewers, with enough nightmarish images that cannot be easily forgotten. Perhaps too old-fashioned for today's audiences, these images are like illustrations from 19th and early 20th century literature whose content still raises as much of a shudder for the beholder as they did on first publication.

That DRACULA still has the ability to frighten, chill and mystify audiences logically speaks to a fully involved and dedicated filmmaker being on board at the time of its creation, and it has to be Browning (1882-1962). This assertion is the thrust of Gary Don Rhodes' exhaustive study TOD BROWNING'S DRACULA (Sheffield, England: Tomahawk Press, 2014), which under the weight of solid research and new information, is an inescapable conclusion. Rhodes also credits the commitment of Universal production chief Carl Laemmle Jr. (1908-1979), son of the studio's founder Carl Laemmle Sr., to the project in an attempt to upgrade Big U's overall cinematic output.

Contrary to popular belief -- even from those scholars and fans who normally like Browning's work -- that he somehow disengaged himself from the production of DRACULA is convincingly debunked by Rhodes. A film version of Stoker's 1897 novel had been one of Browning's fondest dreams for at least a decade before cameras rolled at Universal City in the autumn of 1930, and Rhodes considers the now-lost LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT to have been some kind of fulfillment of the director's desires before the opportunity arose to film the actual property. Secondly, as Rhodes logically argues, Junior Laemmle would never have assigned a disinterested director to an A-list project, as no evidence exists that Browning simply bailed on the production.

The opening sequences of the Universal shoot reveal how serious the studio was about making DRACULA a "Super-Production" on the scale of its 1930 filmization of Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war story ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, at a cost of $1.4 million then one of the most expensive features yet made in Hollywood. The sets for Castle Dracula, and later for the entrance to Carfax Abbey's catacombs (with that tricky staircase) are the most visual sign of Universal's intentions. The production design enhanced the atmosphere that Browning, working in concert with cinematographer Karl Freund and other studio craftspeople, created to establish in particular the other-worldly nature of the Transylvania scenes. 

These images truly begin with the sequence in the bowels of Dracula's domicile, rats skittering around decay, dampness and rotted coffins as the camera closes in on one resting place for the undead, the lid slowly opening and a hand emerging from inside. We also view one (Geraldine Dvorak)of the cadaverous-looking women who are Dracula's "wives" lift the cover of her coffin. As a rat squeaks in the background, we catch our first view of Dracula, facing the camera with his hypnotic gaze on full power. The scene nicely fades from his climbing a set of stone steps to his eerily-lit face, the rest of his being clothed in black as he sits in the driver's seat of the horse-drawn coach at the Borgo Pass, awaiting the midnight arrival of Renfield (Dwight Frye). 


With fog and silence dominating the scene, the increasingly nervous estate agent from England begins an uncomfortable ride to the castle. As he leans out of the carriage window to chide the driver, Renfield discovers to his horror that the conveyance is being led by a bat.

Things continue on their unearthly path as Renfield reaches the castle, finding the driver, and his luggage, gone. The jarring sound of the castle's front door creaking open on its own further unnerves Renfield (and the audience) as he enters to find what is evidently the castle's great hall a ruin. With tree branches poking in broken windows, armadillos (not native to Hungary, but Browning believed they added to the fearful environment) rooting around and a huge spider web dominating the top of the grand staircase, Renfield quite rightly believes he "came to the wrong place," as he tells Dracula after the count descends the stairs and they exchange greetings. 

As Dracula prepares to lead Renfield upstairs, the baying of a wolf in the distance inspires the count to utter one of the film's most famous lines: "Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make!" delivered in Lugosi's accented yet chilling pronunciation. Renfield, again rattled, can only mutter "yes" in reply.

The carriage ride with its nightmare-like composition notwithstanding, Browning's conception of the scenes in the castle are starkly simple, as Dracula and his guest stand out against an ever-present gloom. "I hope that you will find this part of my castle more inviting," Dracula tells Renfield as they enter the room that will serve as Renfield's overnight stay. Despite the glow from the blazing fireplace, the room is as dank as the rest of the pile, but as we learn more through dialogue of Renfield's mission -- arranging Dracula's move to England -- we are focused more on the count's behavior, which becomes more curious when Renfield accidentally cuts a finger while slicing a piece of bread for his dinner. 

The count can barely restrain himself from attacking Renfield to obtain the substance that we learn has kept him in an undead state for centuries. Drugged by the wine Dracula offered him, Renfield passes out, apparently to be victimized by Dracula's three "wives," but they are silently dismissed by the nobleman, who descends upon the helpless man as the scenes fades to black.

Bereft of incidental music and extensive dialogue, these are quite rightly the most famous scenes in DRACULA, detailed here to support the thought and care that Browning and associates put into them. For some fans and critics the remainder of the film is an unimaginative restaging of DRACULA -- THE VAMPIRE PLAY, the 1927 Broadway success by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston that brought Lugosi to stardom. But the continuity of the screen version following the opening has numerous scenes that linger in the memory for their horrific elements. Among the most effective are those in the nighttime London sequence after Dracula and Renfield, now the count's slave, have arrived by ocean voyage. On a foggy corner, Dracula, in full evening dress, hypnotizes a girl (Anita Harder) selling flowers, the better to slake his thirst for blood. As the count walks away, a constable's whistle announces the discovery of the girl's body.

Going to a theater for a concert, Dracula, the new owner of Carfax Abbey, arranges (again putting the hoodoo on a female attendant) a meeting with his neighbor, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), operator of the asylum where Renfield, found to be insane, is kept. He also meets Seward's daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiance John Harker (David Manners) and Mina's friend, Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) during a break in the program. In the soft light of the box where the group is viewing the concert, the conversation takes a dark turn, ending with Dracula's wondering aloud how to be truly dead "must be glorious." When the others find his comment curious, Dracula ominously responds, "There are far worse things awaiting man than -- death." As the concert resumes, Dracula smiles down at Lucy, soon to become his next victim.

Lucy's apparent death leads to a remarkable set of shots in an operating theater in which surgeons determine her passing was from "an unnatural loss of blood." The sequence begins with an overhead shot of the theater, filled on one side by seating for other physicians clothed in white and masks. The camera moves in closer for each successive image, in which the observing medical staff appear almost somnambulistic as they hear the attending doctors discuss another unusual death. The last scene is the closest to the action, with the examining surgeon noting, "And on the throat of each victim the same two marks." The sequence was hailed by historian and biographer Arthur Lennig, a disciple of all things Lugosi but not of Browning's DRACULA, as "one of the more cinematic episodes in an otherwise stagy film."(From Lennig, THE COUNT: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF BELA "DRACULA" LUGOSI, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1974, p. 99).

And in full bogeyman mode, Lugosi contorts his face into that of a monster on three occasions. The first is in a shocking closeup as he approaches to bite a sleeping Mina; the second when he lunges at Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) before the scientist produces a crucifix from which Dracula recoils; and finally on the abbey steps when he throttles Renfield. These images remind us of childhood fears surrounding the dark and the supernatural, of terror striking in the night, which Universal would further exploit with its production of FRANKENSTEIN later in the year.

That DRACULA may have looked to the play rather than the Stoker original was to make the film more cinematic. The novel, told from different character viewpoints in the form of journals, letters and even phonographic recordings, is notoriously difficult to adapt, prompting dramatists and scenarists over the years to take their own liberties with the story. The journey to Dracula's castle described by Jonathan Harker (and not Renfield) in the novel was dropped entirely for the stage version; its action occurs solely at the Seward Sanitarium. Placing much of the film at the asylum recalls the influence of the play, but the move also simplified not only the script but the budget by eliminating the need for major scene and location changes.

Rhodes is in agreement with other scholars that despite DRACULA's status as a major endeavor for Universal, declining profits in the first year of the Great Depression were felt by the studio, and his research finds Browning cut some scenes, such as the later destruction of Lucy by Van Helsing and John, to save money and running time. This does not mean DRACULA is any less a classic due to these decisions. The narrative continues to flow to its logical conclusion with Dracula, hiding in his coffin as dawn breaks, being staked by Van Helsing and thus releasing Mina, whom the count had abducted to be his companion "for the centuries to come," from his influence.

Some of the character actions and motivations, such as Renfield's shifting loyalty to Dracula and his enemies, remain confusing and are perhaps better explained in the George Melford-directed Spanish-language version of DRACULA shot almost simultaneously with the Browning production. The superiority of the Melford version over Browning's film has been a matter of debate since the former became available on home video in the early 1990s, and is worthy of a later discussion in this space. However, the at-times bumpy continuity of the Browning film, necessitated by budget and time, failed to harm its overall impact. And why? The Browning production is dedicated to spook and thrill, and even the attempts at comic relief (mainly offered by the cockney sanitarium attendant Martin, played by Charles Gerrard) are forgettable given the lingering imagery and feeling of dread the film created.

It is interesting to reflect on what effect DRACULA had on audiences when first seen in 1931. As the first Hollywood film to embrace the supernatural in the acceptance of Dracula's undead existence by horrible means (drawing upon the blood of the living), it had a certain novelty value. Judging by the encouraging financial returns from ticket sales, moviegoers were intrigued with the concept. Many probably already knew the story either from reading the novel or having seen the play, which had been released to stock company staging and was performed in several U.S. cities even while the film was in production. It's possible a certain segment of viewers had little or no idea of DRACULA's content, with Universal downplaying the horror story aspects by billing the movie as a mystery or romance. Thus the appropriateness of having Van Helsing appear at the end of the film (in its original release form) to deliver the play's tease of a closing speech: "... remember that after all there are such things!" 

A vampire was something entirely different from a ghost or a gorilla, agents of fright most often seen in thrillers of that time. DRACULA opened the door for exploration of other fantastic beings marking the first horror "boom" that lasted until the mid-'30s. That Universal led the way in this field gave the studio an identity that Junior Laemmle's father reportedly disliked, but kept the company afloat in difficult economic times.

Popular plays of the previous decade, such as THE BAT (1920) and THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1922), hinted at horrific content but were billed as mysteries, partly due to the unwholesome connotation the word horror engendered. The mystery designation applied to the silent film versions of each of the above classics (1926 and 1927, respectively) and also stuck to the sound version of the former, retitled THE BAT WHISPERS, which United Artists put into distribution as production wrapped on DRACULA in late 1930. (Universal also remade THE CAT AND THE CANARY that year as THE CAT CREEPS, now a lost film). 

Rhodes and other historians have proven to later fans that the "boom" in horror pictures was slow in taking shape, although the popular press started using "horror" to describe such movies within weeks of DRACULA's release. Labeling thrillers as mysteries at the time was no doubt a safe proposition because prior to DRACULA there was little or no supernatural content to them, even if some fantastic elements were added to embellish the stories. The villains of THE BAT, THE CAT AND THE CANARY, and similar plays and movies were human, not a vampiric creature from Central Europe.

Universal, flush with the success of DRACULA, soon announced it would produce an adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, the tale of a young scientist obsessed with creating life and the monstrous result of his experiements. Work began on that film in the summer of 1931, with a version of Edgar Allan Poe's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE going before cameras that autumn. In May, Warner Bros.-Vitaphone released SVENGALI with John Barrymore in the title role of the creepy music teacher whose hypnotic powers transform a comely artist's model (Marian Marsh) into a singing sensation. The film was taken from George Du Maurier's 1895 novel TRILBY, which actually rivaled DRACULA as the top fictional thriller-romance of its time. Archie Mayo directed the movie version with an eye toward the supernatural in Svengali's skill at mind control, including a knockout sequence demonstrating how his influence reaches across a mid-19th century (and stylized) Paris cityscape to possess the young girl.

FRANKENSTEIN, directed by James Whale, starring Colin Clive in the title role and Boris Karloff as the Monster, premiered in December. MURDERS followed in February 1932 under the direction of Robert Florey with Lugosi cast as Dr. Mirakle, the mad scientist nowhere to be found in the Poe original, one of the early classics of detective fiction. Florey and Lugosi were at first assigned to FRANKENSTEIN, but their collaboration lasted no longer than a screen test of the actor in disfiguring makeup, which served to put Lugosi off the role and opened the way for Karloff's casting as the creature under Whale's guidance.

FRANKENSTEIN was as much a boxoffice smash as DRACULA, while MURDERS was less so despite Florey's Caligari-esque atmosphere and a fine Lugosi performance. But with the subsequent releases of Warners' DOCTOR X, M-G-M's THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, WHITE ZOMBIE (with Lugosi) from UA, RKO Radio's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, Mayfair's THE MONSTER WALKS and Universal's DRACULA-inspired THE MUMMY, the boom in horror pictures was well under way as 1932 closed.

Perhaps the ultimate tribute to DRACULA was seen in October 2015 when Turner Classic Movies issued it and its Spanish version on a double bill to theaters for matinee and evening showings. Restored by Universal, the Browning DRACULA could only have been that much more impressive on the big screen again than in its numerous television and home video screenings. Perhaps not as elaborate as one could have wished, Browning's production of DRACULA remains a classic of fright cinema that draws irresisatbly draws back its supporters for multiple viewings.

Like its namesake, the film lives on even after decades of restagings and reimaginings, for the enjoyment of those who treaure all movies mysterious and fantastic.

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