A Century of Film is Devin Wilger’s attempt to watch a movie from each year between 1917 and today. The film for 1931 is Dracula.
There is something inherently creepy about a large, empty building. You know it was made for something, that people should be present, that it should not be collapsing around anyone who dares visit it. Entering the grand foyer of Dracula’s castle should be extremely unnerving for Renfield (Dwight Frye), it’s already unnerving for the audience, the cobweb-laden entryway clearly hasn’t seen much use in the past century, and yet this man has been summoned there for some reason by the occupant of the castle. It’s not the audience’s first clue something is wrong - there was a paranoid village, a carriage driver who mysteriously disappeared, some really cheap looking bats - but it reminds you that Renfield should have listened, and he should not have came here.
Dracula is strongest when it’s in these large, empty, neglected spaces. The spaces themselves are creepy enough, a big disused castle that surrounds Dracula himself. It keeps the tension high entirely because the space itself is wrong. It also keeps the focus on two characters, the oblivious Renfield and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, and the ratcheting tension that comes from the audience picking up on something being wrong much faster than the character in front of them.
Lugosi’s performance helps here too, since he makes it unnerving just by behaving just unnatural enough. He puts Dracula in the uncanny valley by moving a bit too slowly and talking in an unplaceable accent with strange pauses in his sentences. Everything he does is wrong, or at least wrong if you’re expecting a human being, nobody actually acts like this and the audience knows it instinctively. That makes everything he does perfect for Dracula, who hasn’t been human for a very long time.
Unfortunately Dracula is not all Lugosi being strange in his castle. The entire reason that Renfield visits is to help Dracula move to London and a much less interesting movie. While their trip to London does lead to a great sequence on a ship – and sets up the totally unhinged performance Frye gives in the second half of the film – when it actually gets to London the film starts to stumble. Not immediately – Dracula attacking women in the fog is cruelly effective – but you soon meet Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), an exposition machine who spends all of his time explaining what vampires are and none of it being all that interesting. We also meet Mina (Helen Chandler) and John Harker (David Manners), a young couple who exist to give us a bit of a crisis, as Mina falls under the influence of Dracula and John falls under the influence of his own stupidity. Suddenly we have a lot of conversations in offices - which doesn’t make great horror - though we also get a really effective sequence with a mirror. This all leads to a conclusion that is strangely rushed and half-hearted for a movie that’s only 70 minutes long.
Some of this could be the result of the budget for the film being slashed part-way through production. There’s a wolf that you never see, implied to be a form Dracula takes, but which is represented by a sound effect. This is probably for the best, since the bats that you do see look like the world’s worst Halloween decorations. There’s a sense that a lot of the film is trying to stretch out a short’s worth of material to feature-length, generally by having Van Helsing prattle on about vampires for minutes on end.
However, when it works, it works great. There is some really effective tension built in a lot of scenes, and thanks to Lugosi a lot of tension is built in the most innocuous moments - a meeting at the symphony goes from a necessary bit of table setting to genuinely unnerving entirely because of his deliberately unnatural performance. It’s far from perfect, and it feels increasingly patched together as it moves on, but it’s good enough to launch a brand for Universal. They became known for monster movies, and in recent years has been trying to turn that into a brand yet again, except that films like Dracula Untold and the Tom Cruise version of The Mummy haven’t been nearly as effective at getting people in the theatre.
I also have to give credit to Frye, who goes from buttoned down to incredibly manic. He’s arguably over-acting, but he also provides some welcome energy to the film, a counterpoint to Lugosi’s unnervingly slow Dracula. It’s not a performance that would work everywhere, but in a film where behaving oddly is a way to build tension, it’s important to have a couple kinds of odd.
The original film didn’t have a score, but in the ‘90s Universal commissioned Philip Glass to write one. A purist would naturally eschew the score because it wasn’t what the filmmakers intended - even if one suspects a lack of score was a budget consideration or maybe just a quirk of early sound editing - but I’m also inclined to go with the quieter version mostly because the score gets irritating after a while. It insists upon itself too much.
Dracula could have been better, a bit more money and a bit more focus (and a bit less Van Helsing) could have made a truly great movie. That hardly means it’s bad, and the frustrating thing is that you can see how great it could have been in the scenes where it works well. It feels unfinished more than anything, a bit unpolished and the seams show a bit too much. But it contains enough good to keep it worth watching.
Next time, it’s Scarface. No, not that Scarface, a much earlier Scarface.