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A little night music
A US region 1 DVD review of DRACULA from Universal's Dracula: The Legacy Collection by Slarek
 
"For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing."
Count Dracula

 

If F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu remains the greatest of vampire movies, then Universal's 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, could well be the most important, at least in terms of how the genre was subsequently to develop. Both films were adaptations of the same story, but Nosferatu was made without the permission of the Bram Stoker estate, resulting in a court case that saw almost every existing copy of the film destroyed. Universal, on the other hand, had all the copyright issues sorted, and with Nosferatu effectively buried and unavailable for audience appreciation, the way was clear for their version of Dracula to become the defining work for the first 40 years of vampire themed horror cinema.

Though the first official adaptation of Bram Stoker's seminal novel, the screenplay for this film was actually based on Hamilton Deane and Garrett Fort's successful stage version, itself a sometimes loose adaptation of the original text. This secondary filtering process results in the compression of characters and situations from the novel, though much of the central narrative structure remains. Probably the most drastic change involves two of the novel's key characters, Jonathan Harker and Renfield. Originally Harker, a young solicitor, travels to Transylvania to close a property deal with Count Dracula, only to become a prisoner in his castle and a victim of the Count's power. Renfield, meanwhile, is an increasingly agitated inmate of an asylum in England and in almost telepathic contact with Dracula, whose arrival he anxiously prepares for. Harker eventually escapes the castle and returns to England, where he does battle with and eventually helps to destroy the Count. In Browning's film, it is Renfield who is the young solicitor and it is his encounter with Dracula that drives him insane. Now a slave to the Count, he accompanies his new master to England, where he emerges as the only living mortal on the ship that Dracula has lain waste to, and on being locked in an asylum becomes the Renfield of the novel. Harker's role in the narrative here is a largely ineffectual one, his task only to worry protectively over the threatened Mina and accompany Dr. Van Helsing on his quest to destroy the vampire. He is, for the most part, a background character here.

In modern narrative terms, the handling of Renfield was, in one aspect at least, some years ahead of its time. Much has been made of Hitchcock's boldness in introducing a lead character in Psycho, giving her a story, introducing her to the villain and then killing her off a mere half-an-hour into the film. The story still has a villain, but seemingly no hero and no-one to stand against him – the reset button has been pushed and new characters have to be introduced to move the narrative forward. It remains a startling twist, in part because few others have attempted the same trick since (and when they have the comparison to Psycho is always made). And yet here we are, thirty years earlier, and Browning introduces the main character, has him meet up with the villain and then drives him insane, moving him over to the Dark Side and leaving us with a bad guy and no-one to stand against him. We are back in England before we meet Professor Van Helsing, the man who is to later do battle the Count.

Harker's secondary character status puts Van Helsing in the driving seat and he proves a worthy force for good, a knowledgeable sage with the moral and spiritual strength to stand against Dracula's imposing power. Which is just as well, as Harker really is hopeless here and were the battle with Dracula left to him then the Count would have laid waste to Whitby and most of Yorkshire and by now be sipping tea in Buckingham Palace. In the end, despite Harker's peripheral involvement, it is an evenly matched, two-man confrontation, Dracula verses Van Helsing, and were it not for the curse of narrative convention it would be a tough call to predict who might ultimately triumph. Of course, Van Helsing wins – good triumphs over evil, the agent of God over that of the Devil – but if the Devil has all the best tunes then he also has the most interesting characters. Van Helsing is an impressive and formidable force, but Dracula is...hell...he's Dracula!

As an adaptation of the novel, Dracula is frequently fascinating, but as a cinematic work it is something of a mixed bag. Browing was to make is mark as a Horror God the following year with Freaks, a taboo-busting but visionary work that remains startling to this day – if you've never seen it, hunt it out, as there isn't another film like it. Here there appears to be a conflict of styles, as if two different directors had given the job of handling different sections of the film. Speculation has surrounded the differing approaches of Browning and master cinematographer Karl Freund, though some have suggested that it was the restrictions of working with sound in these early days of non-silent cinema that was primarily to blame (Dracula was the first horror movie with a synchronised dialogue track). Cameras often had to be silenced inside cumbersome soundproof cabinets, making it difficult to dolly or crane during dialogue shots. Certainly the camera tends to move more in the silent early scenes in the castle crypt and in talk-free shots in the castle itself; later, despite a few notable exceptions, it grinds to a virtual halt.

This technological explanation for the immobilisation of the camera would still not explain the lack of imagination and energy in some later dialogue scenes, mid to long shots held for an extraordinary length on dialogue and performances that cannot alone hold the interest. When the camera does move, though, there are moments to savour: the slow dolly in on Dracula standing motionless in his crypt and staring directly into the camera; the sudden rapid track towards him when Renfield cuts his finger, a shot that seems as fresh as ever because of its continued use by modern film-makers (Scorsese in Goodfellas or Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example); the complex dolly-crane as we enter the grounds of the asylum, drifting through the gate and up to the room containing the protesting Renfield. These are not just great shots, but exciting moments in the film, giving a taste of just how great it could have been if this approach had been more consistently employed.

What is perhaps most surprising about the soundtrack from a modern perspective is its use of silence, something that also would have struck audiences of the time, used as they were to the orchestral or organ accompaniments to earlier silent films. The almost complete lack of non-diegetic music here is sometimes genuinely creepy, at its most effective during our first glimpse of the expansive crypt in Dracula's castle, as its occupants slowly rise from their coffins and walk silently about and Dracula himself stands and waits the arrival of his prey. Tradition tells you that there should be music here, but the scene is all the more effective because of its absence (see comments on the Philip Glass music score in the extras section for more on this). Similarly there are no dramatic chords or tension-building strings, all of which lends the best scenes a peculiar and – in vampire movies – unique atmosphere.

Despite the inclusion of many of the key characters from the novel, the film belongs to just three of them. Harker and his family are polite, awfully well spoken and thoroughly dull, and the least interesting scenes in the film are ones that feature only them (the exception to this is the one in which Lucy and Mina are imitating Lugosi's accent, little realising how iconic – and how satirised – this voice would later become). Browning's film really revolves around Dracula, Renfield and Professor Van Helsing. Lugosi's performance as Dracula is now part of movie legend and dominates almost every scene he is in, though that's not to say this is the sort of acting that modern drama students will aspire to. Lugosi immersed himself in the role so completely that he was apparently unable to separate himself from it, wandering around on set between takes intoning "I am Dracula!" to no-one in particular (he was even buried in the Count's cape when he died). At the time this performance was considered genuinely startling, Lugosi's thick Hungarian accent and suave manner attracting a huge female following, prefiguring the female fascination with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector by several decades. By modern standards, though, there is a spectacular hamminess to the portrayal that many viewers will have trouble taking seriously. This is partly the result of its iconic status – Lugosi's Dracula has become the basis for every vampire parody since, a send-up that has been so overdone that no-one in their right mind would even attempt to create a serious vampire with even a hint of an East European accent today. But Lugosi still delivers some lines with a genuinely enjoyable relish: "I do not drink....wine," or "Now that you have learned what you have learned, it would be well for you to return to your own country," and, of course, "Children of the night – what music they make" – whatever the reason, they remain memorable moments, and however it looks now, this was a defining performance in cinema history and should be seen as such.

Edward Van Sloane, a regular in Universal horror films of the period, is also armed with an accent, but makes for a commanding Van Helsing and effectively introduced the movie-going public worldwide to this character – his virtual absence in Murnau's Nosferatu left the way open for Browning and Van Sloan to shape Van Helsing for decades to come as a Sigmund Freud sound-alike of considerable knowledge and determination. This is still a stagy performance that has been aged by over-familiarity and a vastly changed belief in what constitutes great film acting (at its most obvious when the professor rubs his chin thoughtfully at the Count's reaction to being shown a mirror), but it is still a memorable and – for the genre itself – an important one.

But the wildest performance of all belongs to Dwight Frye as Renfield, whose skeletal smile, exaggerated delivery and extraordinary, demented laugh will probably cause the biggest problem for a modern audience, but is one of the most cherished by true horror fans. Frye himself developed a sizeable cult following, the Renfield laugh so memorable that years later the actor was still being presented with imitations by adoring fans, and in the 1970s horror rock god Alice Cooper paid tribute with the song The Ballard of Dwight Fry (the 'e' was dropped from the surname to sidestep any law suits). Lugosi's performance may be the one history remembers, but it is Frye that gives the film its continued cult status. And at a time when mental illness was misunderstood and feared, the moment of his discovery on the death ship, wide-eyed and laughing madly with his mouth fixed in a satanic grin, must have been a supremely chilling one. If much of the performance seems over-the-top by today's standards, it is always a delight to watch, and he still has one scene that is so strangely creepy that it has the power to chill even today: having caused an asylum maid to faint on the spot, Renfield slowly crawls towards her unconscious body, eyes bulging and teeth bared, a predatory hand reaching out to her face, only to have the film cut away before whatever the hell he was about to do is revealed.* It was also Frye, of course, who provided the acting link between Universal's other great monster movie of that period, Frankenstein, with his equally memorable turn as the mad hunchback Igor.

The support roles are for the most part little more than background detail. As Lucy and Mina respectively, Frances Dade and Helen Chandler are frightfully prim and all of a twitter, while as Harker, David Manners – who was paid four times the then unknown Lugosi's salary – reads his lines with only the minimum of required emotion. Perhaps the most groan-inducing role belongs to Charles K. Gerrard as the old asylum guard Martin, a Hollywood cockney with an outrageous accent and cartoon delivery whose every line seems intended to provide some sort of comic relief, but will prompt all English horror fans to bury their heads in their hands every time he opens his mouth.

In terms of the development of the vampire genre, the film boasts a great deal of soon-to-be-familiar iconography, but is missing just as much that we now take for granted. Lugosi's Dracula sports all of the apparel we now associate with the character, he transforms into a bat to lead Renfield's coach or visit Mina, has an adverse reaction to a crucifix, casts no reflection in mirrors, and is killed by a stake through the heart, all traditional vampire elements that were absent from Nosferatu. But unlike Count Orlock he sports no fangs (though it has to be said that Orlock's rat-like incisors were significantly different to the elongated canines we most commonly associate with the vampire), garlic as a vampire repellent receives no mention here (Van Helsing prefers wolfbane), and holy water has yet to become a method of causing vampire flesh to burn. Dracula himself is not shown to be physically powerful so much as mentally so, able to control the will of others through a hypnotic stare and a puppet-master's hand gesture.

The often sedate pace is reflected in the lack of on-screen violence and physical action. Lugosi rarely hurries anywhere and his most physically aggressive action is to push Renfield down the stairs. Dracula attacks Renfield, Lucy, Mina and a young flower girl, but the bites themselves occur after a fade-out, behind a pillar, or under cover of a raised cloak, and in one of the biggest anti-climaxes in horror movie history, Dracula himself is staked off-screen. For the first 60 years after the film's release the audience were even denied the sound of Dracula's final demise, effectively cheating them of the narrative pay-off – the death moans heard here were only restored for the laserdisk release in the 1990s. The only blood seen is when Renfield accidentally cuts his finger, immediately alerting Dracula's blood-lust in a scene that was lifted directly from Nosferatu, making it seem likely that even if the general public had not seen Murnau's film, then the film-makers certainly had.

All of this was partly the result of increasing censorship in the lead-up to the introduction of the Hays Code, but could also be a 1930s timidity over the thematic nature of the vampire film, and of Stoker's story in particular. Even the use of rats crawling around Dracula's castle on Renfield's arrival was considered inappropriate material for a feature film, hence the use of possums and the somewhat surrealistic presence of armadillos. The sexual element of the vampiric attack – the hypnotic seduction of a (usually unconsciously) willing female by a powerful male, the neck biting, the exchange of bodily fluids, the bedroom location – is a widely recognised and discussed one, but here is played down considerably. Dracula visits the sleeping Lucy and Mina in their bedrooms, but by not showing the bites themselves, removing the sight of any actual physical contact between seducer and victim, the film leaves it all to the audience's imagination and there is this little to rattle the censors' cage. But interesting titbits remain. Dracula forcefully interrupts the attack on Renfield by his brides, then descends on Renfield himself before the inevitable fade-out. What happened here? Was Renfield bitten? As with Orlock's attack on Hutter in Nosferatu, there are possible homo-erotic overtones to this, however coy the presentation. Similarly, the idea of vampirism as a form of blood rape and a spreader of disease, and specifically a sexually transmitted one, is never really explored by the film itself (later films would be more direct on this), but after she has been infected by Dracula's bite, Mina revealingly says to Jonathan that he can no longer kiss or touch her, telling him that it is "all over...our life, our love together."

The elements of race and class that have prompted attacks on Stokers original novel are also played down, but very much still present. Count Dracula is of aristocratic stock and feeds off of those from the so-called lower orders, and the film makes a clear division between the largely upper-class lead characters – who are on the whole shown as good people of taste and breeding – and the working-class guards and maids, all of whom are portrayed as boderline moronic. And Dracula's nature as an invading foreigner, seducing and infecting these sweet English women, is something endemic to the whole Dracula story and is certainly not itself made into a big issue by the film-makers, though having sent up his accent, Lucy admits to being fascinated by The Count, and look where that gets her.

More important here is the issue of religion, a key factor of the novel but completely absent from Nosferatu (which has helped make this earlier film seem so strong over time). Universal's Dracula was the film that introduced the movie-going public to the concept of the crucifix as a defence against vampires. This, of course, springs from the original story's roots in a society in which Christianity still had considerable clout and would have played logically to a largely Christian (western) viewing public in 1931. It was to be 36 years before Roman Polanski in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) was to hilariously question this whole concept that the iconography of a single religion should be able to provide an effective defence against vampirism. Browning's film also establishes, through the authoritative figure of Van Helsing, a link between science and religion, presenting the latter as somehow progressive and belief as the most important weapon in the fight against the vampire. "The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him," says Van Helsing at one point, paraphrasing a famous comment about the Devil. The thematic logic of the crucifix, of course, is that it is a representation of the resurrection of Christ, which vampirism – where the victim is killed but then rises from the dead to kill others in a similar manner – is regarded as a Satanic inversion of. At this stage it is specifically a crucifix that has this power – it was to be Hammer 's version of Dracula in 1958 that was to change all that.

Dracula has aged unsteadily as an entertainment, its sometimes slack pacing, hammed-up performances and complete lack of on-screen vampire action making it hard for a modern audience to connect with it at all on an emotional level. Certainly even its most devoted admirers would be pushed to claim it was remotely scary, and when stood next to Frankenstein, Universal's other great monster movie of the period, it definitely plays as the lesser work. But its importance in the development of the vampire genre is incalculable, and Lugosi's performance as The Count is the very definition of what we immediately think of as Dracula – ask almost anyone to do a Dracula impersonation and they will not give you Max Schreck, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Louis Jordan or Frank Langela, but Bela Lugosi. And the vast majority of them will never even have seen the film.

sound and vision

Many of the faults you would expect to find on a print of this age are evident here, with a fair share of dust spots, some flickering and minor damage, but on the whole this is still a pleasing transfer. Pin sharp it is not, but is still superior to any tape version you might like to find. The overall contrast is very good, and the black levels are excellent throughout. The picture is framed at 1.33:1, its original aspect ratio.

The sound is a little fluffy and nothing like the crystal clear soundtracks of today, but no worse than any other film of the period and though there is some minor hiss, is certainly free of any major crackles and pops, especially important considering the film's use of silence. The first horror film with synchronised sound, it actually fares rather well considering its age. (For more discussion on this, see the extras section on the Philip Glass score below.)

extra features

Previously released as a feature-packed two-disk set, this version has now been withdrawn and has been replaced by a quite superb 2 disk set that features this film, the Spanish version, Dracula's Daughter, Son of Dracula and House of Dracula, plus all the extras from that original release, most of which relate to Browning's film. The other films and their related extras will be reviewed seperately.

First up is a Commentary by horror expert David J. Skal. Many academic commentaries, those by field experts rather than those involved in the production, can be fact-filled but dry, but Skal's enthusiasm for his subject and his detailed knowledge of all aspects of the film make for a generally fascinating listen. He draws on information from a wide variety of sources, including the original script and Stoker's novel (from which he quotes from extensively). A lot of information is provided on just about everyone who appears in the film.

The Road to Dracula is a retrospective documentary introduced and presented by Carla Laemmle, Carl Laemmle's niece and the actress who delivered the first line of audible dialogue in the film, and thus also the first in horror film history. There are a number of extracts from the film, from John Badham's 1979 version (Hammer's 1958 reworking doesn't get a mention, but that wasn't a Universal film – Nosferatu is covered, but only in stills), and the Spanish language version, and a good deal of interview material, usually from modern horror experts looking back at the the appeal of the character, the story and the film, including the aforementioned David Skal and horror writer Clive Barker. More surprising is the participation of the sons of Lugosi and Dwight Frye – both share their fathers' names, but with the addition of a letter between forename and surname to differentiate them (G. for Lugosi, D. for Frye). Background information is given on the writing of the novel, the stage version and the production of the film itself. Though taking something of a fanzine approach, it is informative and interesting, and nothing like all of the information supplied here is repeated in the commentary. It is shot 4:3 and runs for 35 minutes.

In 1999, composer Philip Glass took the opportunity offered by the film's lack of a traditional music score to add one of his own, performed by the Kronos Quartet. This new score has been included on the disk and can be selected either through the soundtrack or extras menus. It's effectiveness is, to be honest, very much a matter of taste, but even as a card-carrying fan of Glass's work, I found it distracting and largely inappropriate. The music is almost constant, as it would be in a silent film, and is tinkling away even when you know it should stop and let the characters hear themselves think. Of course this view is in part prompted by a familiarity with and fondness for the film's use of silence, but there is another issue here: the soundtrack's aforementioned aged mono fluffiness has a dramatically different acoustic quality to the new score, which is crystal clear and in 5.1. As a result it never actually feels part of the film's soundtrack, and on the whole is like watching the film with the stereo on in the background. It's still a useful addition, and adds to the sense that this is the definitive DVD of the film.

The Poster Montage is a music-accompanied slideshow of posters, publicity stills and lobby cards from the film. The show moves at quite a lick and runs for over 9 minutes. As usual with extras of this sort, none of the posters themselves use anything like the full screen space available, but are still clear and well presented. The press stills, however, are full screen and zoomed (rather rapidly) in and out of. Some are in excellent shape.

The Original Trailer is a welcome inclusion and though a little jittery and crackly, is still in pretty good shape, though the contrast does tend to wander on some shots. It runs for 1 minute 52 seconds.

Finally, the only extra not included with the original release is Stephen Sommers on Universal's Classic Monster: Dracula. This shameless piece of promotion has the director and lead players of the dreadful Van Helsing selling their overblown movie, cut with a few extracts from Browning's film, which gets a couple of passing mentions by the director. Quite of a few 'making of' bits from Sommers' noisy creation failed to convince me that the project was even remotely worthwhile. It does serve to make Browning's film look even better.

summary

The original release, which included the film and all of the above listed extras (except the Sommers thing) and the Spanish version, was a cracking disk, but here you not only get all of these extras, but also the three Universal sequels, Dracula's Daughter (1936), Son of Dracula (1943) and House of Dracula (1945), all for a comparatively bargain price. For horror fans and specifically vampire movie buffs, this is a dream set. The original film, complete with the above extras, has just been released on region 2, but with just the weakest of the series House of Dracula, to accompany it. Forget it. Get the region 1 – you get all of the films, including the least seen and ironically best of them, George Melford's Spanish language version, Drácula.



* The simultaneously filmed Spanish version, Drácula, reveals, somewhat disappointingly, that Renfield was merely reaching for a fly that had landed on the woman's face.

Dracula

USA 1931
75 mins
director
Tod Browning
starring
Bela Lugosi
Edward Van Sloane
David Manners
Helen Chandler
Frances Dade
Dwight Frye

DVD details
region 1
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1 (Philip Glass score)
languages
English
subtitles
English
Spanish
French
extras
Commentary by David J. Skal
Trailer
Retrospective documentary
Poster montage
New score by Philip Glass
Van Helsing promo
distributor
Universal
review posted
9 May 2004

Dracula: The Legacy Collection
This Universal region 1 box set contains the following films. Click on the appropriate title to read a detailed review of that film.
Dracula
Drácula (Spanish language version)
Dracula's Daughter
Son of Dracula
House of Dracula