Browning's Dracula is regarded as the first Hollywood film to feature an actual supernatural menace, one that isn't proven a fraud at the end of the picture. I'm not sure that that's true; there has to have been some movies with real ghosts during the silent era. But I can see why it seemed that way in 1931, when debunking movies like The Cat and the Canary and Browning's own pseudo-vampire story London After Midnight were fresh in memories. Because he'd made London (in which Lon Chaney is a detective who dresses as a vampire to catch a human villain), Browning seemed determined in Dracula to leave no doubt in viewers' minds. He shows us Dracula and his brides rolling out of their coffins to anticipate Renfield's arrival at the castle, which made me ask Wendigo why Browning wasted the opportunity to create suspense by making us figure things out as Renfield does. The point, Wendigo said, was to do without suspense, to put it in your face that Dracula is an undead, unnatural being, and that there were new rules in the horror genre.
Lugosi's undead sexiness is, most significantly, a synthesis of the folkloric vampire and the pop-culture vampire, two very different things that had been competing for attention for decades before the Hamilton Deane-John R. Balderston play and the Universal adaptation began to merge them. In the very year when Bram Stoker published the novel Dracula, Rudyard Kipling published "The Vampire," which was inspired by Philip Burne-Jones's painting of the same name. Poem and painting described a man drained of life force by a predatory female who was not a bloodsucker but a kind of moral succubus.
a 1914 movie, made Theda Bara one of Hollywood's first true stars. Bara's star persona was the "vampire." The subsequent diminutive, "vamp," which survives today, doesn't convey the malignancy imagined by Kipling and subsequent writers.
It all sounds good on paper, but it was up to Browning, the recognized master of cinematic grotesques, to sell it. His direction of Dracula has a bad reputation, mainly because he mostly stuck with the play's centralization of action at the Seward house. Critics give him credit for an atmospheric first half hour, while Renfield travels to Castle Dracula, but act as if the camera simply froze once the vampire reached London. Browning has suffered even more since George Melford's Spanish-language version returned to mass circulation, but Wendigo and I agree that the English-language version gets a bad rap. Looking at the main action with reviewers' eyes, we noticed how frequently Browning moves the camera in the dreaded drawing room, how often he dollies in and out for emphasis, and how often he stages the action to let actors walk toward the camera or retreat from the camera for maximum dramatic effect. Also, Browning doesn't need as many fancy directoral tricks to hold your attention as Melford does, because Browning has Lugosi. Any sensible director of Dracula would film Lugosi the way Fred Astaire preferred to be filmed, because Bela acts with his whole body and needs to be seen occupying the same space as his fellow actors in order for his timing to work. Browning doesn't need to impose an auteurial signature here; the story itself is enough to mark this as a typical Browning film for his fans.
Browning enjoys a definitive cast of supporting players.
Van Helsing tells us that he will turn the superstitions of the past into the scientific truths of today by revealing a vampire's existence. This assertion helps us understand why some other characters in the movie annoy people so much. Probably the most hated person in the picture is Martin, the sanitarium keeper and "loony" catcher. Martin's only response to any outburst from Renfield, no matter how revealing it might be, is to reiterate that he's a loony. He grows convinced by the end of the film that everyone but himself is loony. In simplest terms Martin is comedy relief on the Shakespearean model of an ignorant smart-aleck, but for Dracula's purposes he represents the far extreme of unwillingness to believe the increasingly obvious. Wendigo adds that comedy-relief characters and scenes serve a necessary release-valve function, breaking up the tension of the plot so that the next shock will be a fresh jolt. Next most obtuse is poor Jonathan Harker, who scoffs and sneers at Van Helsing's notions until Mina's teeth are practically in his throat. David Manners' very name may have destined him to play bland heroes, but he can't be blamed for a thankless role that reduces the hero of the novel to a clueless observer of events. We want him to figure it out, but we might just take him for a stubborn skeptic if we didn't have Martin around to show us that Harker's viewpoint is just plain stupid.
Wendigo suggests, however, that Harker's ignorance may be a necessary component of his innocence. He notes that, even after Harker realizes the truth, he never becomes such a vampire hunter that he has blood on his hands. Wendigo's impressed by the final symbolism of Harker escorting Mina up the great staircase out of the Carfax crypt, as if he were guiding her out of the underworld into which the fallen angel (Dracula) had driven her. Harker has to retain a sort of innocence in order to fulfill this function, but viewers might be excused for finding him a little too innocent to be respectable.
The Browning Dracula remains one of Wendigo's top ten vampire films. It holds up well after eighty years, and Wendigo sees fresh details and nuances every time he watches it. Because it's a consciously trailblazing film, it retains a certain transgressive quality no matter how tame the action may seem compared to so many later vampire films. Wendigo has never read the play, so he can't be certain how much Browning really contributed, but the director was probably the right man for the moment. When I asked him what Dracula has that so many later films lack, he told me that it might be the simplistic answer, but "Bela Lugosi" is the correct one. He has "it," as might have been said of a contemporary "vamp," and it sticks with us today. No matter how many have followed him in the role, Dracula still speaks to the collective consciousness in Lugosi's voice. Wendigo will not say that this is the best vampire film ever, but it'll always be in the running. For my part, when asked by Wendigo, I won't claim it's the best either, but I will say it still sets a standard for the genre. The others are all variations on Dracula's theme.
Here's the familiar Realart re-release trailer, uploaded to YouTube by RoboJapan.