Film: Dracula (1931), Dracula (a.k.a. Horror of Dracula, 1958)
Format: DVD from Lockport Public Library through interlibrary loan (1931), DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan (1958), both on big ol’ television.
Some movies, despite being made over and over again, are still worth watching in their original screen version. Dracula, the 1931 variety, was not the first vampire film made, but it was one of the first, and one of the first talkies if not the first vampire talkies. It is regarded as a classic, and well it should be. The vast majority of vampire legends, myths, and ideas come from this source.
Before today, the last time I saw this movie was about as ideal a situation as one could imagine. A local theater managed to get an original print of the film from Universal and displayed it on the big screen as a midnight show. The big television is nice, of course, but little compares to seeing this film on a big screen as it was originally intended.
The story is one that virtually everyone knows. A count named Dracula (Bela Lugosi) from Transylvania is actually a vampire. Looking for new worlds to conquer, or at least a different flavor of A-positive, he arranges to move himself to London with the assistance of a man named Renfield (Dwight Frye). Dracula turns Renfield into a crazed servant, and moves into a ruined abbey in the heart of London.
Here he preys on the closest victims he can: Lucy (Frances Dade) and Mina Seward (Helen Chandler). Mina lives with her father, Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston), and is wooed by her suitor, John Harker (David Manners). Seward runs a sanitarium, which happens to abut the abbey possessed by Dracula. Consulting at the asylum is Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who is quickly convinced that the sudden rash of mysterious deaths in London is due to the presence of a vampire, and he suspects Dracula.
Dracula’s lusts are initially for Lucy, but they switch quickly to the lovely Mina, who Dracula would like to turn into his new bride. Her father, Van Helsing, and John especially do their best to protect her, but this is not easy considering that their opponent has been alive for centuries and has all of the power of the undead behind him.
It’s worth noting that the film is considerably different from Bram Stoker’s original book. The biggest switch comes right at the start—in the novel, it is John Harker who travels to Transylvania, not Renfield. Additionally, he, Mina, and Van Helsing pursue Dracula back to his home on the mainland and confront him in his own castle. Much of the reason for the changes is that this film is not an adaptation of the novel itself, but of the stage play based on the novel.
As such, very little happens in the film. What could have been shown in film easily isn’t, because the film is adapting the stage performance, and in fact the film does look considerably like a stage play. The marks on Mina’s neck, for instance, are never shown, although they certainly could have been. At one point, the John looks out the window at a wolf running across the lawn. We don’t see the wolf—we see only John looking at the wolf, as happened in the stage play. Similarly, very little is shown otherwise as well—Dracula certainly bites his victims, but we never see him get any closer than six inches or so from a victim’s neck.
Dracula has lost its ability to frighten an audience except for the very timid or the very young in this day of modern audiences used to seeing splayed bodies, sprays of blood, and viscera. While it no longer can frighten, it is still worth watching. Among other things, Dracula is the film that made a name for Bela Lugosi, and arguably is the film he never overcame for the rest of his life. The same could be true for the underrated Dwight Frye, who gives a masterful performance as Renfield. Frye went on to play the hunchbacked lab assistant in Frankenstein, and was thus typecast as a lunatic and weirdo for the rest of his acting life. Here, he switches from the edge of sanity to far beyond the pale, back and forth, chewing the scenery as if the film were created in the silent era.
What’s surprising to me is how quickly the film moves despite the fact that so little happens. It seems almost immediate that Mina and John are sitting on the terrace with Mina coquettishly making a play for John’s bared neck. If anything in the film approaches the scary, it is Mina’s eyes going wide at the sight of the man’s neck ripe for the biting.
Still great, even with the fact that the terrace is obviously an indoor stage and the wires are evident on the flapping bats.
In what might be called the original gritty reboot, the Hammer Films version of the Dracula story, most commonly known as Horror of Dracula places the great Christopher Lee in the role of the devious count. Like the 1931 version, this film plays fast and loose with the original Stoker story, but in very different ways. For instance, we get Harker (John Van Eyssen) traveling to Dracula’s castle and killing one of Dracula’s brides quite quickly.
However, as a significant change in Dracula lore, Harker’s fiancée is Lucy, not Mina. Unlike the book, Harker has traveled to the castle to destroy Dracula, and also succeeds in getting himself bitten rather quickly as well. Additionally, rather than meeting up in London and traveling together, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) simply shows up in the area with Dracula’s castle and arrives (one hopes) in time to save Harker. However, as Van Helsing arrives at the castle, we find Harker has been transformed into a creature of the night, and Van Helsing quickly dispatches him.
It’s an odd decision. Equally odd is the presence of a new hero, Arthur (Michael Gough), who is married to Mina and is the brother of Lucy. This may have been done for copyright reasons, not with Stoker’s novel which was likely in the public domain by this point, but with the original Universal film.
Hammer Films made their name mainly as a horror house in the 1950s and 1960s. There were a number of reasons for this. Part was in the securing of some respectable and marketable actors like Cushing, and eventually, Lee. Christopher Lee made a career for himself in vampire films starting with this film, and he became an international star because of the popularity of this movie. It’s odd to hear him speak, because his voice in this film is considerably different from the measured baritone with which he speaks these days.
Another key word in the Hammer lexicon was gore. While not all of the taboos were gone by 1958, enough of them were that director Terence Fisher showed quite a lot more here than in previous vampire films. Hammer was known for plenty of blood, and there’re a few spare gallons here. It becomes evident that this is a different style of vampire movie when we see Lee burst into a room, wild-eyed and with blood dripping down his chin. In short, unlike the Universal version, we can expect to see puncture wounds on the necks this time, as well as some actual biting.
Another point in Hammer Films is that the sets looked quite a bit more lavish than they really were. Hammer became known for this sort of signature style of filled sets that looked like a million despite costing a small fraction.
While Cushing is the one who propels the movie along as Van Helsing, it is Lee who is the real center of the film as Dracula. There is little exotic about Lee in the sense that Lugosi was exotic, but there is much more real appeal for the filmgoer watching the movie. Lee is perhaps the original sexy vampire, one who carries a natural magnetism beyond what a vampire is granted by the script. When he is on screen, it is nearly impossible to look anywhere else.
Which film is better? It’s hard to say. The two tell similar stories, but are so remarkably different throughout that it is much like comparing two works that are far less similar. Universal’s classic is not scary, but is incredibly influential, a place where horror filmmaking owes many debts. Hammer’s version of the tale is far more graphic and still has the possibility of giving many a viewer the creeps if not truly scaring them. It too had significant influence on the films that came after.
For a modern audience, Horror of Dracula is more easily received. As for me, I can’t pick one over the other.
It’s worth saying this, though—I for one was happy to see a couple of vampire movies that involved real vampires. Vampires are creatures of undeath that exist to destroy and feed on the living. That’s it. Seeing a vampire become romantically involved with a human is not unlike seeing a human become romantically involved with a hamburger. Vampires should be heartless and terrible, and while appealing because it helps them lure their victims, vampires want to eat. They don’t sparkle in the sunlight or suck their cheeks in and tilt their heads to look tragically sexy. The modern vampire has lost its ability to be frightening or even threatening, and that’s a damn shame. Vampires should be cool the way any movie monster is cool, and not romantic daydream fodder for pudgy pre-teen girls.
Why to watch Dracula: Despite its age, it is still powerful and wondrous.
Why not to watch: It’s no longer capable of scaring anyone older than 8.
Why to watch Horror of Dracula: A more graphic, interesting take on Stoker’s novel.
Why not to watch: Lee should be in it more.