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I got into horror movies at a very young age. When I was about eight or nine years old Channel 7 in Boston ran “Classic Horror” at 11:30 on Saturday nights (this was the early 70's, before SNL). Classic Horror would soon give way to Channel 56’s late, great Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons. My mother loved the old Universal classics, and would loyally tune into Classic Horror every Saturday night. For some reason she let me stay up and watch even at that young age, .
Apropos of nothing, one of our Classic Horror rituals was cooking hot dogs on a fork over the flames of our gas stove. Not that it has anything to do with the subject at hand, but I do often remember things like that. Things like my brothers and I being driven home at top speed along dark country roads while we tumbled around unsecured in the back of an open pick-up truck. Again, nothing to do with Dracula, but it does raise the tangential question, "How am I not dead?"
Aaaaanyway, among the clips in Classic Horror’s opening montage was a slow, spooky close-up of a grimacing Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi. To a little kid, it was indeed scary. And the first time a watched the film, I was prepared for the most frightening movie of all time.
Universal Studio’s 1931 Dracula is, in my opinion, one half of a masterpiece. The first part is excellent. Ten minutes in and you’ve established a visual language that would define horror movies for nearly a century. The decrepit castle, the cobwebs, the terrified villagers, et al. At the center of it all is Bela Lugosi’s mannered, theatrical performance as Dracula. His delivery is stilted in the extreme. It works for the character, but it was a choice made out of necessity more than craft. Lugosi’s English was quite shaky, and he had to learn the part phonetically. That said, the common assumption that Lugosi was a bad actor is baloney. Watch Son Of Frankenstein. It stars Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Lionel Atwill at their flamboyant best, but Lugosi’s Ygor steals the show.
Providing ballast to Lugosi’s theatrics in the killer opening scenes is the phenomenal Dwight Frye, one of my all time favorite actors. Lugosi may have stolen Son Of Frankenstein from Karloff, but Frye steals Dracula from Lugosi. Their first encounter is note perfect, with Frye’s nervous chuckle giving the audience permission to laugh at Lugosi’s over-the-top-itude. Frye’s self-awareness as an audience surrogate helps sell the whole shebang. The first appearance by Dracula’s brides is iconic (Three wives at home? No wonder he was eager to get out of town).
The trip to England on the doomed Demeter is a miniature shot taken from another movie, but the scene of the ghost ship arriving in England, with the shadow of the dead captain lashed to the wheel is haunting and effective.
And then... all the air goes out of the balloon and the whole endeavor turns on a dime into a static, hokey, regional theater production. What happened?!?!?
There are many theories and, again, I want to give credit to David Skal’s Hollywood Gothic for its exhaustive research. The blame, whatever it is specifically, must be laid at the feet of director Tod Browning. Browning is a darkly fascinating character; haunted, non-communicative, and unafraid of enjoying tea many martoonies during work hours. He filmed Dracula more or less in sequence, and it appears as if once Dracula got to London, Browning stopped caring. However, if one reads the shooting script, available commercially as part of the Universal’s Film Script Series, you see that even the dynamic opening sequences have been trimmed, curtailed, simplified and shortened.
One reason could have been Browning’s mental state at the time. He had made his name as Lon Chaney’s director, and their ongoing collaboration produced several classics. Chaney was supposed to play Dracula, and his shocking death from cancer just prior to production must have sent Browning into a spiral. He may have just been going through the motions because he didn’t have it in him at the time. Later interviews with cast members contain stories of a distant, sullen Browning always off in a corner while cinematographer Karl Freund dealt with the actors. Indeed, it was Karl Freund who gets the credit for whatever successful sequences the film contains. Is that the truth? Who knows.
It's certainly true that Freund went on to become a great director on his own right, with film’s like Karloff’s 1932 The Mummy (which has the same plot as Dracula) and Peter Lorre’s Mad Love. But Browning would also go on to make several films that were cinematically superior to Dracula, including the Bela Lugosi’s non-Dracula vampire film Mark Of The Vampire. Fun Fact! Mark Of The Vampire was a remake of Browning’s earlier, silent, London After Midnight, which starred Lon Chaney, Sr., who was supposed to play Dracula. When Chaney died he was replaced by Lugosi, who also played Chaney's part in the remake. All three films are of radically different quality, yet all directed by the same dude. Fun fact #2! Karl Freund would go onto to be the director of photography on I Love Lucy and would, with Desi Arnaz Jr., invent the multi-camera sit-com. Attaboy, Karl!
Another reason for Browning’s apparent disinterest could likely have been spite. Universal ruthlessly cut the film’s budget, over and over and over again. Not only was Lugosi’s salary insulting, every time Browning suggested doing anything interesting, the front office was quick to question whether or not it was necessary, always replying with a quick, “wouldn’t it be cheaper if…?" I can easily imagine Browning throwing up has hands, thinking, “You want cheap crap? No problem!” It’s no coincidence that his next film (the career train wreck Freaks, see The Cinemorph’s He’ll Geek parts 4 & 5) was for MGM, not Universal.
One random note. Music. Dracula has none except for a mournful rendition of Swan Lake over the credits. This was the early, early days of talkies and soundtrack music wasn’t really a thing yet. That said, it gives the film, especially in its early good parts, an otherworldly, supernatural feel. The scene where Dracula’s three brides descend upon an unconscious Renfield is played in a wide shot and accompanied by DEAD SILENCE and it's incredibly chilling. In 1998, Dracula was re-released with a score composed by Phillip Glass. Something of an experiment, it is, in my opinion, the best argument one could make for keeping music OFF the film. With all due respect to Mr. Glass, who is obviously talented, I find his score overbearing. It smothers every frame under a thick, gooey schmear of, “Pay attention to the music! We did this arty music! Listen! Can you hear it?” Phillip? No.
Reviews for the film were mixed to positive. Some were astoundingly accurate. David Skal quotes “The Filmograph’s Harold Weight writing, “Tod Browning directed – although we cannot believe it is the same man responsible for both the first and latter parts of the picture.” BOING! It didn’t matter, Dracula was a huge hit, dumping money onto Universal Pictures by the baleful and making an overnight star of Bela Lugosi. Seizing the moment, Universal got right back to work on what would become known as their “Horror Unit.” With Lon Chaney Sr. dead, Bela Lugosi became the obvious choice for their new horror star, and he was immediately offered the role of The Monster in their next horror epic, Frankenstein.
Um, yeah. About that….
Final Fun Fact! After Tod Browning and company went home at the end of a long day's shooting, an entirely different, Spanish speaking cast and crew came in and shot THEIR version of Dracula, on the same sets, often in the same costumes. What you get is a scene by scene remake of a film shot simultaneously with the original. Long thought lost, a complete set of reels was discovered in Havana, Cuba in, I believe, the late 1980’s. “The Spanish Dracula” is fascinating to watch following Browning’s version. The good news is, it does not share the Browning Dracula’s schizophrenic style collapse when the action moves to England. The bad news is, it doesn’t have Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye or Edward Van Sloane either.