Unnecessary Movie Review: Dracula (1931)

In which I watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.

Why’d I Buy It?

I got a $100 gift card for Christmas 2014, and the Universal Classic Monsters box set went on mondo sale. Thirty movies, usually $199, now only $79! YES! (I should not be allowed to use money.)

Why’d I Never Watch Dracula?

I was 14 or 15 when I was channel-surfing late one night and stumbled into the last 20 minutes of it. Nerd that I was, I got excited. Dracula! The original! And I ended up astonished by it.

Specifically, by how deadly boring it was.

Okay, so, why’d I watch it NOW?

Always read the book first. That’s my rule, because you know movies ruin the book! (Jeepers, what a cranky-old-man opinion.) Anyway I committed to not watching it until I read the book. Which I started in sixth grade (1903) and finished two Saturdays ago.

Interlude: Unnecessary Book Report: Dracula (1897)

I read only the first third in sixth grade. This is the Jonathan Harker third, since made famous by Keanu Reeves. Harker goes to Castle Dracula on business and becomes a prisoner, is driven steadily crazy, and three sexy undead women attempt to seduce/attack him—it’s a tour de force. I highly recommend the first third of Dracula. (I reread it in November.)

Then Drac sails to England, where the book spends forever on Lucy Westenra. She’s sick! Now she’s better! Sick again. A little better! Uh-oh, worse. (Dracula is behind it.) It is explicitly about how being too sexy (which Lucy is) is the path to soulless, dead-eyed ruin. Stoker writes it racy, not like a scold, but it drags on for 12,000 pages. I am sure sick-better-sick was a horrific reality everyone knew in 1897 (health care in the era calls to mind Henry Ford’s famous quote about how if he’d asked people what medical improvements they wanted, they would have answered “Faster leeches”), but come on.

The Renfield parts are great, though. He eats bugs! If Stoker had burned the Dracula manuscript except the Renfield scenes, people would still read it to the end of time.

In the last third of the book, a team of action heroes led by Van Helsing tracks down the count. It takes too many pains to be convincing, e.g., there is a two-page discussion of how they will trick a locksmith into helping them open a door. Still, the good guys are a regular Fox Force Five, and even wife Mina Harker refuses to be sidelined like some kind of ornament. (The book does operate within certain eyeroll confines, e.g., the dudes are all blown away when Mina memorizes a train schedule—“She has the mind of a man!”—but Stoker gives her the mind, so… good job, book?)

To sum up the book, the pacing can get very pre-iPad, but it’s packed with castles, lunatics, wanton ladies, and chase scenes. Plus glorious fountains of blood and exotic countrysides, all atop a nice sexy xenophobia (there’s a few lines that make xenophobia an explicit theme, i.e., like, the modern world is subjecting us Westerners to immigrants who will defile our women with foreign sex. And our women will secretly crave it. Which will lead to their eternal damnation. We must save them!). As horror stories go, I can’t think of one that is more of a gold mine of cinematic images and themes, so this book was destined to be a movie. I mean there’s a reason Bela Lugosi is famous for playing a vampire and not for playing a mezzotint or a whistle.

Oh man, that is a sick burn of M.R. James. This review is going really well.

For Pete’s Sake, Can We Get Back to the Movie?

Yeah. Is it any good? Does it deserve its “classic” status?

This certainly answers your question if the answer is “We are in for an almost insanely uneven ride.”

Let’s give a shout-out to the director (Tod Browning) for knowing what look he wanted. But when the actors show up, it gets dicey. Take Renfield. We meet him first, and I was really feeling the lack of a Rosetta Stone. What did people make of this guy in 1931? At first I took his acting for the kind of melodrama that resulted from talkies being only four years old. Then I thought things were going off the rails because the character is supposed to be English, maybe in the 1890s (not really clear), but the actor is maybe American and it’s 1931? What a hash. Then I thought, huh, he seems kind of… I dunno… gay? So maybe the actor is gay and we’re looking at old-timey unawareness of such things? Who knows.

Finally, though, I decided maybe the actor is playing Renfield gay. Which would make sense. Because Renfield is the only dude Drac sucks on.

If gay on purpose, that would be startling. That would signal this movie is not going to flinch away from the actual themes of the book, and it is actually going to follow them to their sensible conclusions and even kick them up a notch. But I had no way to be sure it was on purpose. Or did I?

So this movie gives us its own Rosetta Stone. When does that ever happen?

Still, all the smart and subtle parts land amidst plenty that’s clunky, or very thin. No one spends one second upset that Lucy died? And the camera fades out instead of showing us actual biting (so it does flinch). In fact, there’s one truly puzzling fadeout when Renfield attacks a maid. Probably he kills her, but no one ever says, “Hey, we found a dead maid, should we call the police?” so maybe he didn’t. Get it together, movie.

More generally, there’s too much melodrama in the acting—that shit doesn’t age well. There’s never tension, and most of the characters barely exist. The idea of a soundtrack hadn’t occurred to anyone, so there’s long silent stretches that play like screen death. There’s 200 static shots that feel a decade long and scenes that go on forever, and not in a masterful Tarantino way. There’s three or four images of the count just standing there that are supposed to be unnerving? You will remain nerved. This is a 77-minute movie that wears like two hours.

But if you can choke down the dusty, spazzy parts, there are amazing moments. A room shot voyeuristically through a sheer curtain while Drac lurks outside the window. Mina’s father covering his eyes in horror and crying “No, Mina, no!” when she tries to bite (aka get sexy with) Harker (it is framed like she’s going down on him). And virtually every time someone fires up the fog machine is fantastic.

Closing Argument

I expected to be underwhelmed. But my preconception of this Dracula was based on 100 parodies of it. So let me tell you, when you go to the source? Bela Lugosi, man, he nails it. His stare and body language are not human. He is commanding, suave, weird, dead, poetic—and he weaves it all into a coherent character. When he says his big famous line, “Listen to them! Children of the night! What music they make”—he is utterly believable. The movie usually feels less clunky when he’s on screen, not because it is, but because he exerts a kind of gravity on it that makes the slowness feel purposeful. If anything, Lugosi is underrated.

Gavel Bang! Rank it!

Oh boy. Rank sorta comes down to how often I’ll rewatch the DVD. I can see myself letting this one play in the background while doing other stuff, but actually rewatching? I’m gonna put this big art-direction ur-movie about sexuality leading to death at 184, right after the art-direction festivus Flash Gordon (1980) and ahead of the sexuality-leads-to-death movie Play Misty For Me. I award it Four boxes of dirt, which it will love and no one else will miss. I’m looking forward to the next five Dracula movies, which no doubt bury the franchise.

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About hotspur

hotspur is the videogum name of Luke Rooney, who usually makes the Kessel Run in 17 or 18 parsecs because, like, what is the rush? We will get to Kessel when we get to Kessel, just sit down and enjoy the run for chrissakes.
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9 Responses to Unnecessary Movie Review: Dracula (1931)

  1. flanny says:

    It will surprise literally no one to know that part of the thing that originally got me into loving history so much is that I love those shorty pants. I FEEL YOU, MINA.

  2. Sota says:

    The set design is so great! Seriously that curved stairway! AMAZING.

  3. collin0truckasaurus says:

    Bela Lugosi is a legend for a reason!!!

  4. collin0truckasaurus says:

    I’m trying to think of other movies where there’s a leading character who is sexy and creepy and totally commands the screen – I know there are some out there, I’ll keep trying to think of them. Any ideas?

  5. martinmegz says:

    Keanu Reeves is perfect casting for a vampire because he never ages. I love the concept of pre-iPad pacing. Regarding the book vs. movie debate, I will say that reading the Martian before seeing the movie made the movie boring for me.

    • Kate says:

      Yes! And I was one of those annoying people who kept saying “that’s not how it happened in the book.”

  6. old man fatima says:

    Is Love at First Bite in your DVD set? Because I have it and I will legit send it to you, fb me your address. I had it on VHS as a youth, and I bought it on DVD as an adult because it’s perfect. The communist govt in Romania confiscates Dracula’s castle to use it as an Olympic gymnast training ground so he and Renfield have to relocate. He decides to go to New York because he has fallen in love with a magazine model who works there, and whose psychiatrist is a Van Helsing, and the rest is perfect 70s subtle comedy genius. George Hamilton plays Dracula.

    • hotspur says:

      Oh gosh. I remember this being very enjoyable when I was like 13! It was one of those movies HBO played every day for a month.

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