As we’re heading up to Halloween, this week might be a good time to visit three Universal films that give us the Big Three monsters: Dracula the vampire, the Frankenstein monster, and the werewolf. What Warner Bros. was to gangster movies and musicals were to MGM, monster movies were to Universal.
Two films from 1931, “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” kept the studio afloat in the worst years of the Depression. In an era of escapist films, not everyone was escaping to screwball comedies set in wealthy mansions. Some were heading for the hills, those fog-bound Transylvanian Mountains, and the monsters that became matinee idols.
What strikes one immediately is the very slow pace of “Dracula,” which actually was deliberate. It adds to the creepiness of the film and allows lead actor Bela Lugosi to enunciate carefully his heavily-accented English. With his Brylcreemed black hair, his dapper evening clothes and his polished manners, Mr. Lugosi gives us a vampire whose charm will make us swoon as much as his lethal bite. Another standout in the film is David Frye, who plays Renfield, the property agent who secures the Count’s lease on a new residence in England, and who is promptly bitten by Dracula to become his crazed vampire-in-training servant. His horrifically creepy “I’m going to get you” laugh is one of the scariest parts of the film.
David Manners, a handsome and likable leading man of the day has a relatively thankless supporting role as a normal average good guy who tries to comfort the damsel in distress, though the real hero is Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, vampire slayer.
We begin the film with Gypsies warning Renfield not to proceed on his journey to Dracula’s castle. Our first meeting with Dracula is when he impersonates his own coachman, and meets Renfield on a rugged mountain pass, waiting for him. His catatonic stare seems to glow in the dark, with the help of pin spots from the lighting man. The sets are dark, rugged and evocative, and show how effortlessly a painted backdrop can blend in with a manufactured foreground in black and white photography. This is not so easily accomplished in color films, with the results of fake backdrops looking nothing but fake.
There are bats and rats and bugs all over Dracula’s castle, a couple of critters that look like armadillos. Central casting must have sent them over. Mr. Lugosi’s immortal first line is, “I am Dracula,” and “I bid you welcome.” We hear the sound of howling wolves, and the soundtrack is especially effective in this film, with the heavy grinding sound of rolling wagon wheels. Mr. Lugosi has a rich, beautiful speaking voice, meant for sound film. His Dracula is courtly and well-mannered.
Just why Dracula wants to head off to England is not made clear, but the sea voyage where all the crew arrives in port dead with only the now mad Renfield on board is terrific. Dracula slumbers in his coffin below, and the authorities grab the laughing Renfield and chuck him in an insane asylum, where some of the staff with overdone cockney accents provides a bit of comedy relief.
Dracula strolls the foggy streets of London and bites a Cockney flower girl on the neck. If he had done that to Eliza Doolittle, “My Fair Lady” might have been an entirely different show.
An interesting note is that when Dracula does bite people, turning them into vampires, starting with Renfield and then proceeding on to several others, it is always done under a chaste fade-to-black shot. Renfield pricking his finger accidentally early in the film is the only blood we will see. There is a difference between telling a creepy story to your audience and just plain grossing them out, and that fine line has been lost.
When London suddenly discovers a rash of people turning into vampires, Professor Van Helsing gives us the line that is intended to make the story believable, “The superstition of yesterday can become the scientific reality of today.” We have seen this happen too many times to ignore the possibility that young Mina, who unlike Dracula’s other victims, still retains her polished finishing school diction and exemplary personal hygiene, could become a vampire herself any minute now unless somebody saves her.
It’s clearly not going to be the well-intentioned Mr. Manners, and this is one of the few times when an elderly man is the hero of the day over the younger handsome fellow. Professor Van Helsing warns, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.”
There are no real elaborate special effects in this film; it is all told with a suggestion of atmosphere. A little fog goes a long way. There is a clever scene where Van Helsing determines the charming Count is a vampire when Mr. Mannners lifts the lid of a cigarette case on a table, in which there is a mirror in the lid, and Van Helsing, and we ourselves, see that Dracula casts no reflection, and that Mina appears to be talking to herself.
The cellar of the English abbey where Van Helsing, Mr. Manners, and Dracula have a final showdown looks exactly like the cellar of Dracula’s castle back in Transylvania. When Van Helsing drives the stake into the sleeping Dracula’s heart, the camera shifts to a shot of Manners comforting Mina, no longer a vampire when the spell is broken. We heard Dracula’s groans and the sound of the pounding of the stake, which is probably more effective than watching it. In this film, as in the other films we’ll look at this week, the horror is really more suggestive than graphic. What we imagine is sometimes more creepy than what we see.