Cast: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Frances Dade, Herbert Bunston
The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!
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Taking a moment to slink away from the 1950 sci-fi B-films, Dracula is a classic within the post-talkies era of film, when studios just finally managed to grasp a proper hold of working sound into their films without the awkwardness of leaning over plants and vases that hid microphones. While I have not seen Nosferatu, I do wonder how the silent and audible ones would compare. Perhaps that is an essay for another day.
I haven't read Bram Stoker's original novel since high-school, but I do remember it being a lot more detailed, pseudo-sexual, and violent than the variations of the vampire-forms of entertainment today. The novel's direction, told via journals, interviews, and so-on, was much more streamlined and heteronormative than, say, Ann Rice's Interview with a Vampire; more thrilling than the shock-scare tactical films like Daybreakers and Forty Days of Night, and certainly lacked the pretty-boy appeal of Twilight and Supernatural. It's incredible to see how much has changed over the years concerning one of the most iconic horror characters in history. The low-key, tense, careful plodding work defined by Dracula himself has been re-tooled, re-told, re-done, re-worked, and re-defined in so many permutations that the modern concept of the vampire has lost any and all meaning.
Dracula, at least Stoker's vision, needed a huge budget and a King Kong-like passionate attention to detail. But as production began in 1929, the stock market crashed, which forced drastic cuts. Because of which, the studio opted to adapt Hamiliton Deane's stage play instead. Oddly enough, a good amount of the budget went to the building of Dracula's castle and Carfax Abbey, which showcased the studio's willingness to at least make the film look visually authentic - which shows, with creepy hallways and claustrophobic rooms, despite being wide and well spaced. Budget cuts were made with the amount of scenes shot -only three main locations - and cuts in the actors' pay. Bela Lugosi, the actor who played the now-iconic and oft-copied Dracula, took a drastic pay cut himself, strongly desiring to portray his stage-persona for the film. His portrayal pays off in spades, playing both the cool, in-control gentleman and the evil, creepy monster with the hypnotic stare (he never blinks once in the entire film!).
One of the most compelling elements of Dracula is the sound - or lack of it. Other than the introduction theme, there is little to no music. No dramatic swells or creepy melodies to drive the scenes; the quiet, hardly-audible footsteps of Legosi and the vampire wives provide enough eeriness to carry the scenes without a bombastic score. I truly wonder what it was like watching this film in a dark, quiet theater, nothing but the ambient noise and the constant breathing of one's neighbors around them - these were the days before cell phones.
The weakest element is John Harker (David Manners). I don't necessarily blame the actor, although his naturalistic leading-man looks overcompensate for his actually abilities; the problem is, either in the play or the film adaptation, his actions and reactions are wholly unbelievable. While a certain amount of skepticism is perfectly fine, the refusal to acknowledge what's explicitly in front of him (especially after Hesling shows him Dracula's lack of a reflection) only serves to frustrate the audience and pad the story. I'm pretty sure that Harker, in the novel, was much more active and forthcoming in his actions against Dracula. Here, he protests and yells for Mina, does nothing, and somehow still gets her in the end (and, by the by, the ending was almost-insultingly anti-climatic; I can't imagine the stage-play ending with such a fizzle).
But, flaws aside, Dracula served as the definitive portrayal of the evil creature from Transylvania, inspiring numerous copycats and imitators for years to come. With an impressive set, well-defined atmosphere and tone, and a compelling lead in Legosi, Dracula certainly manages to maintain the test of time.