Year of Monsters: Dracula

Dracula is one of the rare Universal classics I’ve actually seen before; it was many years ago, though, and at the time, I found the film rather boring. Watching it again, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, while the story is undeniably chaotic, I enjoyed Dracula quite a bit. There are multiple reasons for that, but the most strikingly obvious one is the fantastic score.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I’ve seen that movie, and there IS no score . . . well, you’re right. Until the late 1990’s, at least.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

Year: 1931
Director: Tod Browning
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: Classic Horror & Sci-Fi (on Roku)
Spoilers: Yep

So, the music. The reason it’s particularly noticeable–other than the fact that it’s quite pretty–is that it’s basically nonstop. Which isn’t a complaint; overall, the score is dramatic, engaging, and easily one of my favorite things about the whole movie. Even from the first few minutes, I was hooked–and yet it seemed incredibly strange that neither Mekaela nor I remembered the music being this prevalent.

Cut to a few hours later: I’m reading Dracula trivia online, as you do, and discover that Dracula didn’t have a score. Which I’m like, “Uh, far be it from me to question the veracity of IMDb trivia, but this seems hilariously wrong?” But then I read that, several decades after the film’s initial release, Philip Glass composed a score for the movie, which was then performed by the Kronos Quartet. Now, I’m all about some Philip Glass–okay, fine, I know two songs: “Helen’s Theme” from Candyman, and “Metamorphosis: One” in Person of Interest. But I desperately adore them both, and since my brain hadn’t quite kickstarted yet, my initial thought was “Ooh, I wonder if I can find that score online somewhere” before eventually realizing, “Oh, you asshole. You already listened to it.”

The thing is, music can wildly change how you perceive a film, and I just don’t think I’d like Dracula nearly as much without this score. It is, at the very least, incredibly weird to compare the two versions. For instance, watch this scene with music, particularly when Dracula tries to compel Van Helsing to come closer, and when Van Helsing successfully wards Dracula away with a cross.

Now watch that scene again as it was originally presented:

The thing about Dracula is that, even for an early film, this is an incredibly stagey movie. Certainly some of that comes from director Tod Browning, who was considerably more prolific in silent films than he ever was in talkies. It can also be attributed to the fact that Dracula was based on the stage play (which is based on the novel), rather than the novel directly. This is presumably why Lucy doesn’t have any suitors, or why one character who normally is a suitor, Dr. Seward, weirdly becomes Mina’s father instead.

Still, I think a lot of this energy specifically comes from Bela Lugosi himself, who actually portrayed Dracula in that stage play and continuously moves throughout scenes with these huge, exaggerated, often ridiculously slow gestures. Honestly, I kinda love his performance, especially in the beginning, when Dracula–in his big goth castle–might be at his very most theatrical. It’s artificial, sure, but not without a sense of purpose or style, and I think the Philip Glass score pulls the whole thing together. Dracula just doesn’t quite feel like any of the other Universal movies we’ve watched so far. And sure, you can take away the score and lose some of the artifice–but I don’t think that actually improves anything.

That isn’t to say, though, that improvements can’t be made to the film overall.

Lucy, for instance, is a big problem. I’m at a loss to understand why they even included her if they were just gonna drop her like this. (The answer, probably, is production problems. It’s not clear how much of this movie Tod Browning actually directed himself, and how much his cinematographer, Karl Freund, directed. And it certainly seems like multiple scenes of the script were thrown out before filming.) Like, cutting the suitors is one thing, but Lucy’s death is offscreen and barely even mentioned, and we only get one scene with her as a vampire. More importantly, there’s absolutely no resolution to her story. No one kills her. There’s no twist where she escapes. The last we see of Lucy, she’s attacking some kid, and then . . . that’s it. It’s like the movie entirely forgets about her.

It’s not just Lucy, either. Take Dracula’s brides, who I rather adore in this movie, since they look like creepy awesome ghost brides, rather than the usual super sexed-up, male-gaze-personified brides . . . but they’re also here for, like, a minute before they disappear, never to be mentioned again. I mean, it’s a great minute (look at this lovely shot of them approaching an unconscious Renfield in their fabulous dresses), but come now. This is ridiculous. There’s another great scene, too, with Renfield creepily crawling over to an unconscious maid, seemingly about to eat her . . . but then we cut away, never to return. I’m reasonably sure that maid is alive later, so presumably somebody saved her, but who? When? Why wouldn’t you show that?

Then, of course, David Manners is here to play his very favorite type of gentlemen:

That’s right. In the case of Jonathan Harker, we absolutely need to throw the whole man away. Harker is, once again, the utterly useless love interest who seems to serve no other purpose than annoying the shit out of me. He has several moments of obliviousness or ineptitude, but the one that stands out most is when he assures Mina that she’s all better now, cause, you know, he’s here. Like, get a fucking clue, loser, Mina’s very much not a-okay. It’s terribly disappointing that Van Helsing and Dr. Seward prevent her from eating him. Will no Universal movie step up and kill a David Manners character? It would do wonders for my emotional wellbeing, I’m sure.

So, yes, Dracula is far from a flawless film. Its chaotic, uneven. It somehow loses momentum halfway through, despite being a very short movie that’s dropping whole character arcs left and right. Still, it’s also pretty fun, with a solid first act, some lovely cinematography, and one of my favorite Universal monsters thus far.

Some random notes:

1. It’s interesting to watch Dwight Frye play a normal guy, even if that novelty only lasts for about ten minutes before Renfield goes mad and starts waxing poetic about Mina, his Master, and the joy of eating bugs. Frye apparently had trouble with typecasting after Dracula, which certainly tracks, considering his roles in Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Then again, from what I can tell, Universal’s whole motto was typecasting. David Manners always played the Utterly Useless Love Interest. Richard Carlson (not in Dracula) got the slightly more useful Scientist/Hero Love Interest. Edward Van Sloan was the mentor/scientist with the necessary knowledge to defeat the monster, while Bela Lugosi was, of course, most often the monster. Meanwhile, when it comes to the women? Well, to my knowledge, the only actress who appeared in more than one of the eight films I’ve watched so far is Una O’Connor, playing the ever-shrieking comic relief. And  . . . yeah, that tracks pretty well for Hollywood, too.

2. Take a drink every time Renfield escapes his room at the sanitarium. Everyone who works here deserves to lose their job.

3. Mina is, to no one’s surprise, not particularly interesting. Lucy, meanwhile, is mildly interesting, in that she’s kinda goth when we first meet her. Not in dress or makeup, unfortunately, but she’s into Dracula’s broody aesthetic and seems to enjoy reciting morbid poetry. Mina, by contrast, wants someone normal and boring like Jonathan “Absolute Garbage” Harker and gently mocks Lucy for being such a romantic.

4. Dracula was actually shot twice: during the day in English and then at night in Spanish, using the same sets and the same script, more or less, but with a different cast and director. I first learned about this from my friend Rob, and I intended to watch the Spanish version prior to writing this review; alas, I’m having difficulty finding it anywhere online to stream. I did, however, just rewatch Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, and wow. That’s . . . that’s a movie, all right. I confess it’s not a favorite, though I will say that certain parts (like the entire prologue) made me giggle like mad, and also, the costumes are fantastic. Like, I want to cosplay Vampire Lucy immediately. (I’m also obsessed with this song, which I actually downloaded months ago in one of my horror soundtrack binges. All vampire movies should have great music and fashion. I have spoken.)

5. Finally, this quote:

“Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make.”

Yeah, that is a pretty fantastic line. You got that right, everyone.

The Current Ranking

1. The Black Cat
2. Creature from the Black Lagoon
3. The Bride of Frankenstein
4. Dracula
5. The Mummy
6. The Invisible Man
7. Frankenstein
8. It Came From Outer Space

2 thoughts on “Year of Monsters: Dracula

  1. Watching this movie just taught me that Dracula Dead and Loving It was a direct spoof of it, not a general spoof like I always thought. Finally, learned where Renfield’s weird laugh came from.

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