Dracula: Bela Lugosi
Is it possible for a film to be simultaneously iconic and bad? Not “iconic for being bad” but plain old iconic — establishing the rules for cinematic Draculas to respond to or rebel against for the next century. In the first act of Dracula, Browning (and cinematographer Karl Freund) and Bela Lugosi combine their talents to present a Dracula inextricably tied to the past, to the Gothic, to aristocracy and queasy seduction, to brutality, to unnatural sex and inverted Christianity. All of these things (except mayyyybe the seduction) come straight out of Stoker, but Lugosi dials down the novel’s animalism and plays up the mesmerism (following the path of the stage play he’d performed the lead in for years) and scriptwriter Garrett Fort introduces the — iconic — line “I never drink … wine.” Even after decades of camp and detournement, Lugosi’s authentically Transylvanian accent still sells that line along with Stoker’s classic “children of the night” and the play’s “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime …” dis of Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). The play provided the evening clothes and opera cape, but it was Lugosi’s decision on stage and in film to code Dracula as a mentalist or magician, and to play him as a “Valentino gone slightly rancid” in Dracula scholar David Skal’s memorable phrase. Even Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman bow to Lugosi’s performance in their own, and Frank Langella purely updated Lugosi’s seducer to the 1970s.
The lesser parts have also felt the Browning chill: Dwight Frye’s unhinged Renfield has almost completely erased the novel’s genteel madman; David Manners’ (or rather the script’s and director’s) bland Harker has likewise nearly expunged the novel’s heroic lover. And here’s where we must take notice of the second half of the question, because Dracula is a bad movie despite its legendarily perfect first act. Browning wrested control from Freund but didn’t care enough to use it: shots become static and stagy, the actors are lost or falling back on instinct, whole plot lines ignored (Lucy isn’t staked in the film) or stepped on (Dracula is staked off screen). Why the movie drops dead 20 minutes in remains an open question: was Browning drunk, a silent director out of his element, pining for his dead muse Lon Chaney Sr. (who would have played Dracula had he not died of cancer in 1930), or sabotaged by a junky script based on the stage play and by Universal’s Depression-era penny pinching? The end result is a film as incompatible with itself as its famous armadillos are with Dracula’s castle, a film trapped between terrifying life and stultifying death.
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Surrounded by armadillos (and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order mesmerizing hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!