Good afternoon everybody! It’s finally started to warm up in this Godzilla-forsaken province, hopefully, it’s started to warm up where you are too.
Today, we’re continuing my analysis of Dracula (1931). Join me under the cut!
Yesterday we left off with the character of Renfield. Today, we’re going to look at the man. The myth. The legend.
Bela Lugosi! (Is dead. The bats have left the bell tower/the victims have been bled…)
Right. Anyway, this wasn’t Bela’s first turn at the role he would (pretty much) singlehandedly make famous. No, he had, in fact, played Dracula several times before on the stage, lending the world’s most famous vampire his own unique brand of menace and power (there are people who will tell you that Bela Lugosi wasn’t a good actor; ignore them).
At any rate, we first meet Bela as Drac during the infamous stagecoach scene. This scene gets a lot of flak from critics and analysts because of the way the coach driver is shot, there’s no conceivable way that Renfield couldn’t notice that the coach driver and Dracula are the same person. That close up on Bela’s terrifying gaze is what does it.
And fair enough. That close up shot does a lot to destroy the suspension of disbelief. But I think we can defend the scene more than somewhat:
- It’s pretty much taken straight from the novel, albeit with slightly different characters. Jonathan Harker is similarly approached by a mysterious coachman, taken straight to the castle and left to wait for the count to reappear. Lacking the ability to do close up shots, Bram Stoker isn’t able to make the connection as obvious, but the implications are clear: Dracula and the coachman are the same person.
- This was an age of stage plays, not big budget Hollywood blockbusters. As a recent viewing of Charlotte’s Web on the stage made abundantly clear, actors in theatre often play multiple roles in the same show. Usually without much of an effort to disguise them, either. It’s likely that the audience of 1931 would not have found this scene as silly as we do.
And on we move to Dracula’s Castle. Again, this is a very obvious artifact from the stage play, being essentially a one-roomed, three wall stage that all the action takes place in. Seriously. Renfield eats his dinner there, gets attacked by the Brides and assaulted by Drac all in the room. He even sleeps there! The only real scene change we get here is when Dracula leads Renfield through the steps into the castle proper. Again, indicative of the movie’s roots in the stage play and the effects of The Great Depression.
The special effects are pretty cheesy here, too. The bats are very clearly rubber toys on strings (I literally had a toy that was identical to the props they used in this movie, and you probably did too.) there are armadillos (!) and opposums (!!) playing rats and other rodents. Somebody ran out of money here. On the other hand, the scene where Drac passes through the cobwebs without disturbing them is kind of cool, and an effect that would either get ignored or done with cheesy CGI these days.
Drac mostly just menaces Renfield throughout these scenes, acting icily polite but with that aura of menace that only Bela Lugosi can pull off. Indeed, there is one thing that Bela Lugosi gets right about Dracula that no subsequent actor to play the role (not even Christopher Lee) gets quite right: that aura of menace. Bela’s Dracula is legitimately threatening, even with his hammy lines and accent and odd costumes. There’s just this cold, animalistic fury behind Bela’s eyes that make even his polite interactions with other characters come off as him basically threatening them.
Which is very accurate to the book. Though Bela Lugosi looks nothing like either Vlad III or Bram Stoker’s descriptions of the vampire, Bela manages to capture his aristocratic arrogance, his base fury and old world politeness masking a deep-seated malice towards every living thing. There’s a reason Bela’s version of the character has become a pop-culture icon, and it’s not because he had a bad hair day (looking at you, Gary Oldman).
The best representations of this quiet menace of Dracula are a few scenes later. First, there is his interaction with Mina, Lucy, Jonathan and Seward in the opera house. It’s kind of a weird scene: Drac shows up, largely unannounced (I mean, he hypnotizes one of the servants. That is not the traditional method of announcing oneself by any stretch), to a guy’s private opera box and starts rhapsodizing about how death is awesome and what his evil plans are for Carfax Abbey. But it’s also a great scene because Drac is nothing but charming and polite while basically ruining everybody’s night at the opera.
And then there are his interactions with Doctor Van Helsing, which are honestly the best scenes in the whole movie. In keeping with both characters roots as belonging to an older, more superstitious world, Van Helsing and Dracula are nothing but polite towards each other while attempting to thwart the other through magical means. And yes, I do mean magical: while Dracula’s hypnotism and Van Helsing’s use of mirrors, garlic, and crucifixes may seem mundane compared to today’s use of fireballs and lightning, but it’s a lot closer to how folk magic in the real world worked.
And it works just as well in this movie. The scenes between Drac and Van Helsing are intense, a battle of wits rather than of brawn.
That’s it for today, folks. I’ll see you all tomorrow!