Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)
Despite the many reincarnations of Count Dracula in film, from Francis Ford Coppola's more baroque and literal Dracula to Wes Craven's more liberal approach, it is the official first, not taking the fact that Murnau's Noseferatu (1922) was the first unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker's vampire novel, that still haunts the collective consciousness of the public. Tod Browning's Dracula was the start of a craze. It was a box office hit and resulted in Universal Studios to commission James Whale into filming Frankenstein (1931), hoping to get the exact, if not better, box office results of their first monster movie. It is a success because it sort of played with the audience's xenophobic tendencies, pushing them away from their comfort zones and replacing these zones with characters with heavily accentuated Eastern European butchering of the English language and locales that imply a sense of mystery coupled with the grave understanding that danger is near.
Browning's film starts in absolute majesty and mystery. A carriage is shown travelling down a mountain pass. Browning then shows a conversation inside the carriage. A man warns his fellow passengers to be wary of the night as it is the night that Nosferatu and her brides are stalking for victims. The resulting scenes create a heavier atmosphere of impending terror. The village where the carriage stops are inhabited by men and women whose faces clearly outline an unspeakable fear. When English real estate agent Renfield (Dwight Frye) insists that he be driven to the mountain pass as another carriage is waiting for him there at midnight, the villagers pleads that he stay the night. Upon speaking that it is Count Dracula's carriage that is awaiting him, the villagers withdraw in obvious fear and just offer him a crucifix to protect him.
The film reaches its peak when Renfield finally arrives in Count Dracula's castle. The castle is magnificent. Despite its appearance of decay, it still shows impressions of a former opulence. Huge pillars adorn the vast hallway and its centerpiece is a wide stairway, although sadly adorned by cobwebs gives off a stature of awe. Dracula (Bela Lugosi) welcomes Renfield. His distinct accent breaks the long minutes of silence. Dracula, using Renfield as his pawn, finally makes his way to London and lures a doctor's beautiful daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), only to be stopped by Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Mina's sweetheart John (David Manners).
I mentioned that the film reaches its peak in Count Dracula's castle, which is a scene that is scarcely fifteen minutes from the beginning. When the film reaches the part where Dracula reaches London, the gothic magnificence of the early scenes is transformed into a rather bland affair. Bogged down by a sudden change in atmosphere, the film struggles to imitate the dormant horror depicted in the early scenes. Most of the scenes are executed theatrically. Moreover, the romantic interludes between Mina and John are simply meandering. John comes off as a whiny, bratty, and insignificant sidekick to the curious, more reasonable, and rational Professor Van Helsing. The explanation scenes right in the middle of the film stunts the film's capacity for horror, despite the fact that Dracula does make quick appearances to pump up these scenes of revelation. It is only when another gigantic setpiece is introduced, the abbey where Dracula takes his day breaks, that the film again touches the level of horror it introduced us with. The huge staircase where a murder would take place, the underground graveyard, the wooden doors, are not as memorable as Count Dracula's castle but are enough to give an end to this classic horror feature.
Tod Browning's direction here feels impeded especially when compared to his work in Freaks (1932). The film shines when the scenes are blanketed with silence which allows the audience to marvel at Browning's visual treats. This is after all Browning's first sound film, and it shows him struggling with the new medium. However, there's a certain mastery in the visuals: Count Dracula's castle, the vampires waking up with only their fingers appearing from the open lids of their coffins, the foggy mountain pass, the three brides of the count slowly walking towards an unconscious Renfield, the hypnotizing eyes of the famous count. They are all wonderfully staged and marvelously photographed by cinematographer Karl Freund. The film derives its horror from these nightmarish images rather than from the sloppy storytelling. The dialogues are insignificant save for a few insightful conversations such as the count's brief conversation with Mina's friend Lucy (Frances Dade) about the notion that there are some things much worse than death.
The film then truly belongs to Bela Lugosi, who donned the vampire's affluent clothes and gave this version of Dracula near-immortal status. Lugosi's stylish depictions of the famous vampire are clear and effective, delivering a sense of dread to his openly foreign character. Even Lugosi's faults, his linguistic deficiency, has added to the charm that will forever inhabit the character. Lugosi's acting style is a mixture of both the overemphasized body movements of the silent era and the more audible, more repressed facial expressions of the sound era. Despite the several attempts to poke humor into Lugosi's portrayal in several future films, upon viewing of Browning's film, Lugosi still terrifies, signifying that despite the film having aged, it is still pertinent.