As much as I’d like to say Nosferatu is the classic vampire flick it’s much more likely to be Dracula. If you ask the average movie watcher what the classic vampire actor is they are going to say Bela Lugosi. He defined what the vampire was, a thickly accented, suave upper class vampire masquerading as a man. I say was because until the last couple of decades he was the dominant portrayal of vampires in the media. So what makes his once dominant popularity worth revisiting? I don’t know, you tell me.
The story, for those still unfamiliar, is one of blood and madness, passion and horror. It’s also one of deception and illusion. You know, all the good vampire stuff that substitutes sex for violence. Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) moves into England and is able to pass off as a member of society, in part due to his suave looks and in part due to his supernatural ability to influence frail human mindss. It’s not long before he sets his sights on the young woman Mina (Helen Chandler). Those surrounding her know she is in some kind of distress no one is sure what to do until Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) arrives.
The story is all but familiar now, but watching it for the first time it’s surprising how fast the film moves. Dracula’s first victim is done for in the first ten minutes, a solicitor named Renfield (Dwight Frye) who sells Dracula his English home. Then it’s off to England to meet the girl and begin the preying. While it never gets dull in the sense that there are few scenes where something isn’t happening, the film just isn’t suspenseful. There’s no buildup or tension created. Things just happen as the film goes along. Furthermore, everyone is criminally underdeveloped, meaning that we don’t care about the fate of these characters in the least.
It also doesn’t help that the one character that has the most to lose is played by the worst actor. David Manners plays the fiancé of Mina who is as clearly distressed as he is a bad actor. It’s not that he lacks sincerity, it’s that he overcompensates. It has this quality of constant overreaction and forced confliction that makes the performance almost grating.
To compensate for it is the excellent performance by Bela Lugosi. Examining Bela Lugosi’s performance becomes frustrating given the fact that for better or worse it has now perpetuated a stereotype for over seventy years. What can be said is that his voice is unsettling and his gaze is more than a little creepy. It’s hard to not read the performance as deliberate campy given the decades of parody since but it’s still effective and entertaining.
But I wonder: was the film intended to be a serious horror flick or a b-movie? In today’s world with all our sophisticated views of vampires and technological leaps it’s easy to look down on Dracula as some trashy filmmaking. The effects most certainly are some of the poorest I’ve seen on film (but I’ve yet to see an Ed Wood movie so give me time) with obvious mock spiders and bats. Given how much the film uses them you’d think they would invest some time to make them look real.
Also, there’s the conclusion, which is so ridiculously preposterous and unexplained that it almost demands that the film be made as a joke. The sound quality is grating and while this is the early years of sound the crazy amount of fluctuations in voice levels and amount of static makes it smack of amateur sound design. Historical accounts tell us the production was nothing short of a disaster so it’s likely most of the film was intended to be good but that doesn’t stop the film from having some retrospective campiness.
The history of the production, while tempting to dive into, is irrelevant. What matters is the finish product. Dracula for all its cultural relevance and iconic moments fails to work as horror. Even the story fails to fulfill on that level. For movie buffs Bela Lugosi is worth experiencing but for people who want a decent vampire flick look to Nosferatu. It’s has a good ending, characters we care about and suspense, giving it the three things Dracula needed. Most importantly, it creates a feeling of dread and fear, a feeling I never felt through Dracula.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing