Saturday, May 29, 2010

Saturday, November 8, 1969: Dracula (1931)

What It's About: Renfield, a young attorney from London, arrives at a small Carpathian village. His fellow travelers are staying in the village overnight but he insists on continuing on to the castle of a local nobleman, Count Dracula.

The natives turn pale at the very mention of the name, and beg him not to go. But Renfield is there on business, and insists on completing his journey.

After an unnerving trip to the castle, Renfield finally meets the count, who signs documents to complete his purchase of Carfax Abbey in England. It is to England, Dracula says, that he will go the very next morning.

Later, a ship drifts into an English harbor, all aboard her dead -- save for Renfield, who is now a stark, raving lunatic.

Several boxes from the ship are delivered to Carfax Abbey.

From one of these boxes emerges Count Dracula, who insinuates himself into London society, befriending Dr. Seward, owner of the Seward Asylum where Renfield is confined. The asylum is, we learn, next door to Carfax Abbey. Dracula meets Dr. Seward's daughter, Mina; her fiancee Jonathan Harker, and their friend Lucy.

Meanwhile, a string of bizarre murders has caught the interest of Dr. Van Helsing, an unorthodox scientist and student of the occult. Two small puncture wounds, he finds, were on the necks of each victim, including young Lucy.

When Mina relates a dream of a man coming into her bedroom and biting her neck, Seward is surprised to see that Mina has been hiding two small puncture wounds herself. But Van Helsing is not surprised. He insists that a vampire is attempting to make Mina its slave by visiting her over a series of subsequent nights.

Mina can only be protected, he says, by locking her in her room, and sealing the windows with wolfbane and crucifixes, which vampires find repellent.

Meanwhile, Count Dracula pays a visit to the Seward home, and Van Helsing quickly realizes that Dracula himself is the vampire they seek. A battle of wits ensues, with Van Helsing battling Count Dracula for Mina's very soul.

Comments: Every time I see Tod Browning's Dracula, I try my best to get into the mindset of the moviegoer of 1931.

Most of the time I just can't do it. To my modern eyes the acting seems too stiff and hammy, the camera work too stagebound, the pacing too glacial, the vampire tropes too shopworn.

And yet....there are moments in Dracula that dazzle even the most jaded viewer. The early scenes in the village, where the fearful, superstitious folk live in perpetual terror of the sinister Count; the cavernous, moonlit ruins of Castle Dracula's main hall; Lugosi's creepy over-pronunciation, which seems to mock the very language his victims use; Dr. Van Helsing's calm insistence on supernatural causes in a country where only rational explanations are valued.

And for movie audiences of 1931, it was normal to have anything horrific or supernatural on-screen explained away in the final reel as a conjurer's trick, or an illusion, or a bad dream. Liz Kingsley, in her brillant analysis of Dracula, cites this "explained away" convention of horror films as one of the elements that made Dracula stand out at the time of its release,one that helped to make it the towering success it was. Even today, nearly eight decades after its release, this is still the definitive film version of Bram Stoker's novel.

In fact, every horror film that came after owed something to Dracula. Carl Laemmle had expressed some trepidation about making such tasteless entertainment, but its financial success couldn't be argued with. Soon cheap and profitable horror franchises would be a staple of Universal's output. Horror, Incorporated would lean heavily on these Universal flicks at the beginning, so we'll be seeing lots more in the coming weeks.


kochillt said...

The station programmers certainly picked the right film to begin with! Every utterance from Lugosi accentuates how unique his accent truly was, even for a Hungarian actor (does anyone remember the accent of Paul Lukas?) It was in September 1965, its third year, that Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER debuted the Universal classics, but Minnesota was blessed right off the bat! I'm jealous (of course, in Sept '65, I had yet to celebrate my first birthday!)

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