Friday, July 3, 2015

Dracula (1931)

3/4

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Herbert Bunston

Not Rated (Probably PG for Horror)

Before Anne Rice created the tormented, soulful vampire that gave birth to everything from "Blade" to "Twilight," vampires were the ultimate evil.  Spawns of Satan whose signature action of drinking their victim's blood was a metaphor for rape as oppose to romantic ecstasy.  Tod Browning's "Dracula" wasn't the first time the world's most famous vampire reached the silver screen (F.W. Murnau's highly regarded silent film "Nosferatu" came out 9 years earlier, although due to a legal dispute with Bram Stoker's widow, it couldn't use the Count's name and many details had to be changed...it ended up being all for naught because Ms. Stoker sued the filmmakers, and won), but it was the first to use the name "Dracula."  It's not a great movie, but it contains enough spooky chills and a bit of campy charm to warrant a recommendation for film buffs.

Everyone knows the story of Dracula, although the film changes a lot from the source material.  A man named Renfield (Frye) has been sent to Transylvania to close up a real estate deal with the mysterious Count Dracula (Lugosi).  The locals warn him not to go, but he does anyway.  It's a decision he will come to regret as he becomes the Count's ghoulish assistant for his move to London.

When the ship that Dracula and Renfield are on arrives, the only survivor is Renfield, and he's come down with a serious case of Peter Lorre syndrome.  The doctors who are looking after him are Seward (Bunston) and Van Helsing (Van Sloan).  A number of mysterious deaths have occurred in London, and evidence suggests that a vampire may be to blame.  Van Helsing will have to act quickly in order to prevent Dracula from turning Seward's daughter Mina (Chandler) into one of his brides.

Of the performances, the only one worth mentioning is Lugosi.  The Austria-Hungarian actor made a splash playing the character on Broadway and returned to play him on screen (Lugosi was so desperate to do so that he agreed to a $500 a week salary, which even for the Great Depression was obscenely low).  He puts his accent to good use, causing his delivery to drip with malice and false niceties.  Lugosi was acclaimed in his native country for his acting, but his indiscriminate choosing of roles led his star to fall to the point where he was working for Ed Wood.  He died a penniless drug addict, giving birth to the rumor that Frank Sinatra quietly paid for his funeral.

The first half of "Dracula" is the strongest.  It has a strong sense of atmosphere and there are some truly spooky moments (Browning had an eye for the dramatic).  Unfortunately, the spookiness gives way to a clunky and underdeveloped plot and some curious (not to mention unsuccessful) attempts at humor.  Although initially a creepy cohort of Dracula's, Renfield ends up playing both sides.  At least I think that's how it goes; Browning doesn't seem to know what to do with him, and as a result he devolves into self-parody.  Martin, the simple-minded orderly played by Charles Gerard, is more openly comedic, but his character is more irritating than funny.

If I seem reserved or half-hearted in my review of "Dracula," I'm not.  I enjoyed myself, even despite the flaws of the film's second half.  The film is pretty short (one hour and 15 minutes), which could have something to do with the choppiness of the narrative, so it doesn't become so bad that it's painful.  I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone but cinephiles and film historians (if you're looking for a truly creepy vampire movie, Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu the Vampyre" is the way to go), but it's definitely entertaining.

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