Monday, June 28, 2010

Dracula (1931)

In 1931 Universal Studios released Dracula, which was based on the stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The Horace Liveright production was based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. The Broadway production was successful, running 261 performances before touring. The star of the stage production and subsequently the film version was Béla Lugosi, playing the role he would forever be identified with, Dracula.

The film was part of a series of successful horror films that Universal would release from 1923 to 1960. The director of Dracula was Tod Browning (Freaks, The Unknown), who was most famous for his silent film collaborations with the legendary Lon Chaney Sr.

Dracula begins with Renfield (Dwight Frye), traveling through the Carpathian Mountains via stagecoach. His fellow travels are afraid that the coach won’t arrive at the local inn before sundown. When they do arrive, Renfield refuses to stay at the inn and asks the driver to take him to the Borgo Pass, so he can make his way to Castle Dracula. The innkeeper and his wife warn him about vampires and give him a crucifix for protection before he leaves for Borgo Pass. At Borgo Pass, Renfield is met by Dracula's couch which will transport him to the castle. During the ride, there is a unintentionally comedic moment when Renfield leans out of the coach and sees that the stagecoach is being driven by a giant bat, which looks terribly fake, and probably even looked silly by 1931 standards.

One of the most visualizing interesting moments of the film comes when Renfield arrives at Castle Dracula. Browning pays tribute to the German Expressionists with a gorgeous and creepy shot of the castle. Renfield then meets Dracula for the first time. Bela Lugosi is sublime as the Count. Eerie, suave, and haunting from the moment he comes on the screen for the first time. Renfield and Dracula then discuss the Counts desire to buy Carfax Abbey before a tired Renfield heads to bed. Dracula then leaves and Renfield goes to his bedroom. Dracula hypnotizes Renfield into opening a window and then causes him to faint. A bat is seen at the window, which then morphs into Dracula. Dracula's three wives suddenly appear and start to move toward Renfield to attack him, but Dracula waves them away, and he attacks Renfield himself.

When the story picks up, Renfield is now a madman aboard the schooner, Vesta, on his way back to England. Also on board the ship is Dracula, who takes the opportunity to feast upon the crew. When the ship finally docks in jolly old England, Renfield is found to be the only living on board. Based on his mental state he is quickly taken to the sanatorium run by Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston)

Now is England, Count Dracula starts to make the rounds. At theater he meets Dr. Seward, who in turn introduces the Count to his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and Lucy Weston (Frances Dade). Lucy is immediately intrigued by Count Dracula, and that night, after Lucy falls asleep, Dracula enters her room as a bat and feasts on her blood. She dies the next day after a string of transfusions. At this time two tiny marks on her throat are discovered.

Dracula then visits Mina, asleep in her bedroom, and bites her, leaving neck marks similar to those on Lucy. The next morning, Mina tells everyone about a dream she had the night before in which Dracula paid her a visit. Later on Dracula stops by the Seward's for a visit. Van Helsing, already suspicious of the Count, notices that Dracula does not have a reflection in a mirror. When Van Helsing draws attention to this "most amazing phenomenon", Dracula smashes the mirror and leaves. Van Helsing deduces that Dracula is the vampire.

Things start to pick up at this point in the film. Mina is attacked by Dracula in the garden and later found unconscious. Lucy rises from the dead and begins luring children with treats then feasting on them. Renfield escapes from his cell and listens to the three men have a discussion about vampires. Before his attendant, arrives to take Renfield back to his cell, he relates to Van Helsing, Harker and Seward how Dracula convinced him to enter the sanitarium by promising him thousands of rats.

Dracula and Van Helsing have a confrontation at the Seward's and Dracula informs him that Mina now belongs to him. Harker and Mina are on terrace and Harker notices Mina’s changes, not realizing that she is slowly transforming into a vampire. Mina then tries to attack Harker. Fortunately, Van Helsing and Dr. Seward arrive just in time to save him.

The film now rolls into its final moment. All the major players are assembled at Carfax Abbey for one last confrontation as dawn approaches. Dracula has brought Mina there to be his bride, but his plan is quickly thwarted when Van Helsing and Harker arrive hot on the heals of Renfield, who had been following Dracula. Dracula, feeling that Renfield had betrayed him, strangles him. Unfortunately for the Count the sun is almost up and he is forced to sleep in his coffin. Van Helsing prepares a wooden stake while Harker searches for Mina, finding her in a strange stasis. Van Helsing impales Dracula, Mina returns to normal. Mina and Harker leave Carfax Abbey together, while Van Helsing stays behind. At the very end Church bells are heard.

This version of Dracula is by far less sexy than the Francis Ford Coppola remake, and nowhere near as terrifying as Nosferatu. All in all its a pretty good film and definitely the high point of Bela Lugosi's career. There is also a terrific Spanish version of the film that was shot at the same time, using the same sets. It's include in the Universal Studios Dracula Legacy Collection set.


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