All Vamped Out: Some Thoughts on the 1931 Version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

DraculaThe local cinema was showing a Turner Classic Movie Dracula double feature: Tod Browning’s 1931, black and white version of Dracula, and the 1931 Spanish version of Dracula.  Of course there was no question; I was going to attend the event.  I’ll be honest:  I brought my trusty notepad with me, and I tried to scribble some comments in the pitch black theater while I was watching Bella Lugosi prey on the necks of fair young maidens.  Now I love a good black and white movie, if done well.  The 1963 version of The Haunting is one of my favorite horror movies, and I’ve been dying to see The Innocents.  But I’m hesitant to say that I’m a huge Dracula fan.  Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy seeing Bella Lugosi arch his eyebrows – but something about the film seemed incomplete.  The script was catchy, with quotable lines, but Browning’s film lacked the character development I find central to a truly well-made film.

My first reaction when I saw the film – because honestly, I’m not well-versed in old movies – was to compare it to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari filmed in 1920, which I watched recently because it receives acclaim as a classic horror movie.  I hate to call the sets in Dr. Caligari “contrived,” because The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a glimpse of Hollywood in its earliest inception.  But the scenery often looks like an awkwardly drawn cartoon, and I was surprised how much more advanced set design had become by 1931.  Elements of the setting in Dracula – both the English and Spanish version, which were filmed on the same set – are often intricate, including a realistic looking flooded ship-deck that requires what would seem like advanced special effects for 1931.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jonathan Harker travels to Dracula’s castle and turns into a sequestered slave.  The bug-eating, raving madman who appears periodically as a delusional person talking to his “master” is Renfield, who visited Dracula before Harker, but we don’t learn much about him.  In Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula, Renfield’s character lacks similar depth – we know nothing of his personal life before he entered the castle – but we witness his arrival at Dracula’s castle and his interactions with the count.  He is endearingly naïve as he smiles and thanks the count for his graciousness.  Dracula listens to the wolves howl and, classically, tells Renfield, “Children of the night.  What sweet music they make.”  In Coppola’s film, Dracula delivers this line to Harker, not Renfield.  Dracula also asserts – to Renfield in the 1931 film and to Harker in the 1992 film – “I don’t drink…wine.”  Stumbling upon these classic lines in an earlier version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – lines that I’d enjoyed so much in Coppola’s film – was a favorite moment of this cinematic experience.

The facial expressions in this film are noteworthy.  Lugosi’s maniacal eyes are worth mentioning, and the camera often pauses on an intent visage.  Though we know little about Renfield’s back story, he is easily the creepiest focal point of the tale.  Renfield goes insane in Dracula’s castle, and he ambles through the rest of the movie as a babbling wild-man with eyes simultaneously knowing and delirious.  When he’s discovered on the shipwrecked ship on which Dracula travelled to London, a police officer remarks “Why he’s mad.  Look at his eyes.  The man’s gone crazy.”  Still, Renfield’s position in the film is stock.  He’s the token raving lunatic who disrupts scenes to make the film more unsettling.

Equally underdeveloped are Lucy and Mina’s characters.  In Coppola’s 1992 Dracula, Lucy and Mina’s friendship is carefully constructed.  Lucy is a seductive, playful temptress who likes to be the center of attention and woos men.  Mina is her shy friend who is engaged to Harker and waits for his return from Dracula’s castle.  In the 1931 Dracula, Lucy and Mina are simply two women who deliver scant lines.  Lucy is particularly underdeveloped, and while we do see Mina try to fight off Dracula’s power, we know little about her, except that she is the wife of John Harker, and Dracula preys upon her.  She does little to protect herself.  Rather, hosts of men crowd around her, telling her how she should behave.  She possesses no distinct traits that give her personality; she is without flare.  And Harker is equally flat as a stubborn fiancée who insists that Mina is fine when she’s not and seems more interested in what he can gain from their relationship than in Mina’s well-being.  Certainly, he doesn’t possess the suave nobility of Coppola’s 1992 Jonathan Harker.  I never thought I’d be in a position to yearn for Keanu Reeves so deeply.  In the Spanish version of the film, Juan Harker, the Spanish John Harker, is slightly more etched out but similarly unlikeable.

Perhaps the most redeeming character in the film is the quirky, free thinking scientist Van Helsing, who assures his skeptical friends that “the superstitions of yesterday can become the scientific realities of today.”  Van Helsing is dogged in his attempt to kill Dracula and save Mina, and he heroically constructs a system to keep her safe and a plan to wipe out Dracula.  While Dracula has a convenient and undeniable penchant for mind control, he cannot control Van Helsing.  When the two men face off, and Dracula tries to exert his control over Van Helsing, he gives up and admits “Your will is strong, Van Helsing.”  This may be the film’s keenest bit of characterization.  Van Helsing, in terms of open-mindedness and strength of character, lingers above the lower echelons of ordinary men and women who Dracula can control.

I certainly do not regret seeing this movie.  Anyone striving to be something of a horror connoisseur should give the classics their due.  The film came out on Valentine’s day in 1931, according to Turner Classic Movies, and was deemed a non-traditional romance story.  I have to disagree.  The twisted love triangle between Mina, John, and Dracula in Coppola’s 1992 version makes for a bad romance, but there was little in Browning’s Dracula that would situate the film comfortably in the position of a “love story.”  Still, comparing and contrasting the film to Coppola’s film, and putting the Spanish and English versions side by side, made for a rich viewing experience.  Now I feel more immersed in a classic, and I’m ready to put the Bram Stoker’s book, Dracula, on my to-read list.

All Vamped Out: Some Thoughts on the 1931 Version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

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