Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. It’s still the week Dracula Untold is slated to be released and I figured it may as well be necessary to look at the original monster flick this movie is attached to reboot and see just how high the bar is for Dracula Untold to have to clear it. My low expectations for Dracula Untold aside, it’s barely knee-high…
Wow, was my title a bit too blunt? Did it really frighten you more than anything that happened in Dracula (which isn’t saying much)? Do you expect to just spout out “It insists itself” as my excuse as most of you are perplexed at my attitude?
Let me help you ease into this, then. When I was a child, I was obsessed with the Universal Monsters. I really liked seeing their design and was excited to see anyone of them. I know for a fact that was only because of how classic their status is than any real recognition of standard in the film. Van Helsing eventually hyped this up to 11 and since that led to me finally purchasing Dracula at the first chance I get, there’s another reason to hate on Dracula irregardless of its content.
But I swear my dislike for Dracula is for its content and, while it at least kept me up to finish the extremely short movie (at 75 minutes) the first time I watched it, it got boring and boring and slower and slower to me with each viewing. But again, I was just a high schooler, I couldn’t put my finger on what made me more square than any of the other kids who were not exactly watching Dracula but instead living into The Grudge and The Ring with the new wave of J-horror that was still surging strongly in young American audiences.
Move on to me going to college, I’m finally learning tricks of the trade realizing, holy crap, by 30s standards, Dracula is a really amateur production. Disturbing from one of the heads of Universal studio at the realm, with one of the greatest cinematographers in film history, Karl Freund (’cause y’know German expressionism is never a joke), and a veteran master of direction Tod Browning. But here we are with a very very watered down sense of storytelling people better than this? And it probably would suggest that the movie was made as a quick buck, but it really ain’t.
Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the head of Universal Studios at the time Carl Laemmle Sr., got a greenlight to produce an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s book, but they really found that they weren’t going to be able to capture the epic quality of the book’s inherent battle og good vs. evil because of the Great Depression greatly depressing them out of making a huge picture.
Luckily they found a solution in the form of a stage production of Dracula that was scripted by Hamilton Deane. They simply adapted the book’s story through the stageplay and began using limited sets, save for opening with a prologue that takes place in Transylvania that the stage production neglected to adapt from the book. The fact that the stageplay did not have this moment in the book actually is the first sign that I would have gotten that this script they were translating instead of the book was inadequate for filmmaking. Or really telling any story at all.
Remember when I called Nosferatu the second most diluted watered-down telling of Dracula in history? Say hello to number one! And at least Murnau was just trying to avoid being sued.
You see, Dracula as a story is supposed to be a sweeping grand spanning the globe as Dracula proves to be an immortal evil now terrorizing London requiring a team of individuals to actively pursue him and defeat him. Underneath that epic quality is meant to be a critique on sexuality in conservative London and particularly an honestly pretty misogynist but still interesting filter on the sexual awakening of women in an era where men like Stoker and others insist that it would bring out evil and invite harm to the woman.
Deane’s script did away with all that and just wanted to get from plot point to plot point in the most shortest way possible. And it is not even a quarter as effective. The Transylvania prologue inserted in by screenwriter Garrett Fort actually starts off pretty promising, with moments of exposition that I can’t imagine being translated beyond boring dialogue in the one-set stage production. Then, after some dread setting in by locals of Transylvania, our initial surrogate into the story Renfield (Dwight Frye) meets with Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to discuss the purchase of land – taking place in the single great set of the film a giant staircase of gossamer cobwebs that seems to disappear into interior fog – and the story really begins…
You don’t need me to talk about Lugosi. You know how Lugosi is. He is the only damn reason this movie is near as influential as it is, his Dracula bringing about such suaveness, such alluring exoticism in his manner and restraint, that even if he’s not your favorite Dracula, Lugosi is the one that you will always remember first. He did to that role what Sean Connery did to James Bond. Lugosi was brought in from the stage production (one of two actors to have been brought into the film from production, the other being Edward Van Sloan as Abraham Van Helsing) and that wasn’t a bad thought. I mean, sure, it would probably be considered camp today, but it’s still miles ahead of most of the other actors who either have absolutely no emotive performance in them and prove to sink the movie lower to just being a boring little film.
Anyway, the movie eventually gets to London and two major things happen to the movie: One, the movie begins to just descend into static scenes where nothing actually happens on-screen to progress the plot and everybody who is not Van Sloan, Frye or Lugosi would just drone out lines while the three actors themselves would have to devour the scenery until they were engorged to the point of bursting to avoid the movie making people fall asleep. Every once in a while, there’d be something resembling the sort of fights I’d expect a retirement home to stage for its residents, like Dracula just slapping a mirror down or Van Sloan holding up a cross and Dracula bailing. But really nothing worth a damn happens on account of the other actors and moments even feel unnecessary by losing their purpose – Lucy is just the first kill (and if I can recall Dracula’s only kill) while there’s comic relief in the form of a maid and a mental hospital guard that… well, the less said about them the better. The less said about any actors who aren’t Lugosi, Van Sloan, or Frye, the better. None of them are worth mentioning.
The movie’s shooting style in the generic English manor that only is next to a mental hospital because the dialogue mentions it and that stands in for London rather than any really iconic imagery that would show London’s character is actually just making the terribly acted second half a lot worse. It is uninvolving and static and it feels like I am watching it on a tv screen because there is nothing to bring me into this artificial world. It’s just too empty, too useless. It is the most uninspired work Browning has ever done and we know it’s because Browning was too busy getting hammered, mourning the death of his close friend Lon Chaney, Sr. The poor workmanship of these scenes gets me to thinking that Karl Freund, who we know had to direct some scenes, was in charge entirely of the fantastic Transylvania opening. Also there’s how pretty badly edited the film is (I swear they use the same shots of Van Sloan and Lugosi nodding twice each), and like I said, these scenes are so empty, you could probably mix and match an order, though it’d be better of if you just deleted every frame and started over. This doesn’t cut it, guys.
The other thing that happens is that Frye proves to be a better actor than Lugosi, being a wide-eyed creep who affects my goosebumps significantly more than Lugosi playing off being the Most Interesting Man in the 1930s. Because honestly the only thing threatening about Lugosi is what he says with his Hungarian air, but Frye’s giggles alone in his madness becomes the real shivers-maker. Due to the terrible editing, there’s some moments where we could do without him, but hey, anything to keep my mind off of how lazy the film feels.
Somehow, someway, the movie sees fit to get to the conclusion of the film where Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, and Mina see fit to go ahead and jump Dracula where he sleeps. The movie goes through its final cinematic crimes, particularly refusing to show us the staking we were all waiting for and making these characters look like they’re passing by the same underground arch over and over and over and making expert Van Helsing look lost, before the movie finally figures out that its finished, with myself sitting down thinking “I feel cheated out of 75 minutes. I could have done taxes or laundry or something. Fuck!”
Anyway, I don’t know why they thought this would pass as a movie. It wouldn’t even pass as a stageplay. It’s droll, it’s boring and when it feels like the silent film Nosferatu says more than your SOUND film Dracula, you need to feel like you’ve done something wrong. It’s lucky it actually has the horror legacy you got out of Lugosi’s coattails and being alongside better classics like Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man, because this movie doesn’t deserve it. (which really doesn’t help Lugosi anyway – Lugosi’s career was famously barren past Dracula, with one return to the role and occasional bit parts, save for the end of his life where he was used in Ed Wood’s pictures… yeah, you know which ones.) Your movie is bad and you should feel bad.
Ok, I’m drained now.