Take a Drink: for sunsets and sunrises
Take a Drink: for crosses
Take a Drink: for wide-eyed stares
Take a Drink: for rubber animals
Do a Shot: for wakeup time
Do a Shot: for mirrors
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Just a week ago, I was in Transylvania. Like literal Castle Bran, Carpathian Mountains, birthplace of Vlad the Impaler Transylvania. So, you know my wife and I had our first post-return movie picked out.
Nosferatu may be the old, creepy patriarch of vampire film, but perhaps even more so, Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula is the gold standard, and gold standard, thy name is Bela Lugosi. Dracula tells Bram Stoker’s now perhaps overfamiliar tale of the Prince of Darkness, his English vacation, and the bland as (cotton) balls Jonathan Harker.
The Browning/Lugosi double team is what makes this film an unassailable classic. Browning and his production designers and customers create a beautifully dark, gothic world, now synonymous with Dracula but in 1931, while not unprecedented, probably stunning. He particularly makes great use of wide compositions, and his employment of sound, music, and the lack thereof (there’s practically no score, which just accentuates the atmosphere and horror). He also makes the excellent choice to start the film En Transylvania Res, and we get to witness the beginning of Renfield and Dracula’s touching romance instead of the typical offensively whitebread Harker/Hutter storyline.
Harker is always a big fucking dork.
What instantly transforms this film into a classic, though, is Bela Lugosi. Having only witnessed the million cheesy imitations of his Dracula, I was floored by his performance here. Using his natural Hungarian accent and an unnatural verbal cadence, he creates a suave, uncanny predator. It’s not just the broad, oft-copied strokes, though, that show Lugosi’s genius, it’s the small things. In one scene Van Helsing surprises him with a mirror, and in the course of less than a minute he transitions from savage animalistic panic to inhuman fury, then quickly but smoothly back into his façade of calm, composed decorum, all basically communicated by facial expression alone. It reveals the true terror of his vampire even more so than his array of brooding, calculating stares, a masterclass of a scene.
Ah, and one last shout-out to Dwight Frye’s Renfield, whose pitiful, snarling thrall is the very portrait of sniveling insanity.
He’s kind of cute, I want one!
The ending is a bit of an anticlimactic damp squib, but when you can only take down a monster when it’s asleep, it kind of has to be. Worse, though, is how this film that derives almost all of its horror from its impossibly ominous atmosphere shoots itself in the foot with a few cheesy choices.
Yep, I’m talking about the plastic bats on strings.
Bela Lugosi is the OG Dracula, even if Nosferatu wins the creepiest motherfucker award. This is instantly my favorite adaptation of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece, and a stone-cold one in its own right.