Arguably the most important movie to spring from Bram Stoker’s "Dracula" is the 1931 Tod Browning film, the connective tissue between earlier stage productions written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, with Universal’s cinematic (frequently operatic) sensibilities. There are few scenes in the movie that aren’t overtly about sex — particularly oral sex — beginning with the moment poor Renfield sucks at a wound on his own finger. By the end of the picture, Dracula has put his mouth on half the movie’s cast members, pun intended, and his behavior suggests he has no sexual preference.
Contrary to popular belief, though, it takes more than sex to hold people’s attention, especially during the many decades since Dracula was first released. If it was just some creaky old film about outdated sexual mores, who would care? But there’s something else going on in the film that continues to speak to audiences, even if we have to listen a little harder these days to hear the message. Dracula is more than just a movie about sexual confusion. It’s a movie about fear of the future.
Dracula is a warning for us not to abandon superstition without first putting it to the rigors of the scientific method. It’s a concept that gives the film an unusual perspective, to say the least. Dracula’s nemesis in the film, Abraham Van Helsing, has the unpleasant task of informing the cast that adherence to logic and reason have left them open to attack from a mythical being. This is Van Helsing’s traditional role in just about every variation of the Dracula story: He’s always the learned academic who has as much faith in superstition as science. In one scene, Van Helsing paraphrases Charles Baudelaire while advising that the vampire’s greatest weapon is convincing the world he doesn’t exist. You won’t find many scientists, then or now, with the balls to say something like that out loud.
Probably the real reasons we’re still talking about this film is because of the performances delivered by Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye. Lugosi’s screen presence, especially in Dracula , can’t be overstated. He’s amazing in the film, and brings theatricality to the role that immediately puts him at odds with the younger, mostly American cast. I can’t really call what he does in Dracula “acting” — his performance is raw charisma — but I can’t think of another actor of his time who could have pulled off this role. If you think it’s easy, watch George Melford’s Spanish-language version of Dracula released by Universal the same year. It manages to do just about everything better than the Tod Browning film except in the casting of its leading man, and it’s a fatal flaw.
I love this movie beyond reasons of mere nostalgia. I've written quite a bit about this movie over the years but decided to create a visual thesis to explore my understanding of the film. It's 11" x 17" on glossy paper.
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