History of Horror: Dracula

Dir. Tod Browning, USA, 1931

The horror film genre didn’t exist before Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. There were occasional horror movies – particularly Nosferatu, which casts a long shadow over this first official adaptation of Dracula – but it was Universal in 1931 that kick-started the first cycle of horror films; the re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 that initiated the second, and re-makes by Hammer that launched the third. And the two characters have been popularly linked ever since. Andy Warhol and Dan Curtis tackled them both in the 1970s, and there were big-screen adaptations in the 1990s.

Of the two movies, the earlier is infinitely weaker. The extract from Swan Lake and the Batman-style logo opening titles are cute, and the first act is pretty good. Renfield’s journey through Transylvania, encountering superstitious peasants on his way to meet Count Dracula – encountered, like Count Orlok, in the guise of a sinister coach driver – all owes a debt to Murnau’s film. Nosferatu even gets name-checked in the first scene. The tracking shot through Castle Dracula, complete with a strange giant insect crawling from a coffin, and a huge cobweb that Dracula seems to float through, is visually stunning. And throughout the film, many of the visuals – from the shadow of the murdered ship captain lashed to his wheel; Dracula striding, like Jack the Ripper, through the London fog to menace a flower girl, and the gliding vampire brides – are almost as good as anything Murnau has to offer.

However, the film is fatally compromised by its script. Unlike Frankenstein, which is a novel of ideas, Stoker’s Dracula is a novel of sensation. The script doesn’t rise to the visuals. Too often, it undermines them: the bathos of Renfield’s paperclip cut; the endless, staid drawing room scenes in England; Lugosi’s laborious line readings feel more comical than sinister. Indeed, for all the praise heaped on him, Lugosi isn’t a particularly compelling Dracula – he has none of the cadaverous, hungry menace of Orlok, and the numerous sequences of his ‘hypnotic’ eyes just make it look like he’s bemused that someone is shining a light in his face.

The lack of a score or any special effects (besides some cute flapping bats) reinforce the sense that, as soon as Browning’s film departs Transylvania it falls into the trap of being a filmed stage play (which, indeed, it is). So was The Cat and the Canary – but that still feels like a fully-formed movie in its own right. Many Dracula films sag between the thunderous opening and close, but this sags deeper and longer than most.

As such, Browning’s Dracula is a compromised thing: too clearly a stage play, with no energy to it beyond the opening – a common fault of many Dracula adaptations, but a particular fault of his.

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