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Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- DRACULA (1931)

I wish I could see more of the classic horror films on the big screen. Watching Dracula, (or Bride of Frankenstein or Creature from the Black Lagoon or even Psycho, other classic horror films I’ve had the opportunity to view theatrically) you can see how these movies were always intended to be larger than life. In the Thirties, filmmakers like Tod Browning and James Whale probably had no idea their movies would one day primarily be viewed on a little box yet they seem to have crafted them specifically for these giant canvases. Today, I’m grateful I’m able to watch them on my 52 incher, but that still doesn’t compare to the enormity of the silver screen.

I’ve read that Dracula was a troubled production, with a drunken Tod Browning deferring much of the actual directing to cinematographer Karl Freund, fortunately with a strong cast and some beautiful art direction, the film suffers little for it.

First and foremost, we have Bela Lugosi; poor Bela may have been low on the list of candidates for the title role, but today it’s hard to imagine it having gone to anyone else. It’s with good reason that Lugosi as Dracula has influenced the image of vampires in our collective subconscious, and I’m certain he will continue to do so long after the Cullen brood has faded into obscurity. When he’s acting on his vampiric nature, he’s frightening and imposing, yet he’s perfectly charming when he’s the seductive Count. I know I’m saying this with some bias, but I really can’t see any other actor (not even Lon Chaney) pulling off such an iconic performance. The same day as this screening, I felt compelled to watch Tim Burton’s excellent Ed Wood which is as much a film about Lugosi to me as it is about Wood, and although it’s sad to see how far Lugosi fell from the Studios’ graces, it’s nice to think he achieved an immortality much like that of the character that made him famous.

A bit must also be said about Dwight Frye, who played the deranged Renfield. Frye is mostly forgotten today except among horror aficionados, but many of them will tell you his performance is one to be celebrated as well. His maniacal laughter, piercing stare and appetite for spiders and insects make him almost as frightening as the Count himself. Frye also turns up as Fritz and Karl respectively in the first two Frankenstein films and has a cameo in The Invisible Man, unfortunately the size of his roles continued to diminish until his untimely death in 1943. Dracula was truly his time to shine.

I’m glad to say that 80 years later, Dracula still possesses some truly chilling moments: Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) nearly succumbing to Dracula’s hypnotic influence, the undead Lucy (Frances Dade) walking the night as the Woman in White, or the enthralled Mena’s (Helen Chandler) attempted attack on her beloved John Harker. I found it particularly gratifying to hear many in the audience gasp as Renfield advances on all fours toward an unconscious housekeeper. (I hope that somewhere Mr. Frye was feeling some gratification as well.) I might also add, as this is the first time I’ve seen the film since reading Bram Stoker’s book, that it has more elements from the novel than I remembered.

I won’t say the film is without its weak points. David Manners as John Harker is yet another bland do-nothing leading man, and Dracula’s final moments are a bit anti-climatic, although that has been said about Stoker’s novel as well. And I do wonder about some of the filmmakers’ choices. For example, why is castle Dracula infested with opossums and armadillos? I suspect the opossums are meant to be giant rats, and maybe Hollywood thought armadillos would look downright alien to middle America. There’s also something annoying about a scene where Dracula escapes off-screen in the form of the wolf, I would guess the wolf’s no-show was a budgetary problem, but having Harker watch it runaway off-screen only seems to call attention to that fact.

A few more words on seeing it in a theatre in the present day: watching it on the big screen may be great, but sometimes sharing that experience with a modern audience may be a bit annoying. Yes, as a fan of the likes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I’m guilty of laughing at old bad movies, but the operative word there is “bad”. Usually, when I watch old movies, I like to throw my mindset back in time and watch the movie on its own terms. For example, there’s a sequence set underwater in the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad. This was, of course, a time when you could not take a camera underwater, so instead the actors are on wires and all of the sea creatures are puppets, on the surface to today’s viewer it may look ludicrous, but I preferred to marvel at it for the accomplishment it was, considering the limitations of the day. As I sat watching Dracula there was much laughter at the expense of the limitations of 1930s filmmaking, and I found that rather disappointing. I could understand a chuckle or two, but at some point, I wish my fellow audience members could just accept that yes, it’s just a bat on a string, but it’s time to move on and enjoy the film for what it is.

Next week’s film:

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger and Valerie Hobson

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