Vulcan’s Peak

Movie review: Dracula (1931)

November 6, 2009 2:41 pm

dracula1931posterWe don’t get trick-or-treaters here at the apartment, so we had another quiet Halloween at Casa de Pug. I wanted to do something in the spirit of the evening but I don’t generally care for thrillers or horror movies, so what we wound up renting was the 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

Pop culture is such a weird beast. It’s hard to begin to list the places where I might have heard or seen bits of this film. (A print in a catalog? A clip in a PBS documentary?) But somehow Dracula says “Children of the night — what music they make,” and you know it’s a famous line, an iconic delivery. The vampire seductresses come in through the mist in their trailing white gowns and shot is inescapably familiar. I was surprised by how many tiny moments like that the film held.

On the other hand, other things caught me entirely by surprise, despite knowing the book fairly well. Who would guess that Harker and Renfield could be conflated like that? (Anyone, obviously, who’s seen the movie in the seventy-plus years since it was made, yes.) That amused me quite a bit, as it’s a thoroughly pragmatic move. No need for Harker’s long captivity, escape, and illness, and the audience is already clued in to what’s going on with Renfield. On the other hand, it leaves movie-Harker a flimsy, two-dimensional character who has nothing to do but pick fights with Dr. Seward as they try to protect Mina — here, Seward’s daughter, as the Hollywood broom sweeps away subplots and minor characters.

Mina’s transformation from book to movie is even more sweeping. A character Van Helsing praises as the paragon of womanhood becomes a petulant girl who can’t be reasoned with. That was easily my least favorite aspect of the movie, and I’m tempted to tag it as a very early-Hollywood sort of move, but I don’t begin to have the data to support that. I know that the complete lack of incidental music is typical of the period, though. Interesting how that changes the pace of a film! Without it, scenes with little dialogue seem rather slower.

It doesn’t seem fair to make fun of special effects from the ’30s, but I have to admit that we did chuckle at their giant bat flapping on the end of its string. It made me think of the Count’s bats on Sesame Street. One bat! Two bats! Three bats, ah-ah-ah-ah! On the other hand, I love what you can do with mist and shadow on black and white film — so evocative, so pleasantly creepy. Where scenes between the human characters often tended toward high camp, the vampires were fabulous. Vamps belong in a world of black and white, I think.

3 Responses to “Movie review: Dracula (1931)”

Tae wrote a comment on November 6, 2009

I have yet to have seen this version of Dracula. Actually I haven’t seen many Dracula movies and the ones I remember (Leslie Nelson’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”) weren’t exactly on the same level. Vampires have been such a romantic cliche for our lifetime that it turned me off. And the other one I recall is the bloated one from the 90’s that had Keanu Reeves as Harker. Reeves always stands out so badly in period pieces. The only time he wasn’t really offensive to me was in Much Ado About Nothing (and that simply might’ve been the crackling chemistry between Branagh and Thompson that I didn’t really care about anyone else).

As to the 30’s movie conventions, the annoying aspects of Mina’s character was probably something of a staple during the time frame. Just like, as much fun as those old sci-fi movies are, the female characters in them range from annoying to insulting too often.

Odette wrote a comment on November 6, 2009

Ooh, Much Ado. Much love for Branagh and Thompson in Much Ado. And besides their awesomeness, I think it also helps that the character Keanu plays is supposed to be a little bit ridiculous and sort of on a different wave than everyone else. Most of the characters think they’re in a romantic comedy and he thinks he’s in a revenge tragedy.

You know what else this Dracula made me think of? Singing in the Rain, for no other reason than that the one was made only a few years after the other is set. So that’s my mental image of early Hollywood.

Still, it was nifty to see the performance of the “original” film Drac. Renfield and Van Helsing are also well worth watching, and the other characters can generally be ignored.

Odette wrote a comment on November 10, 2009

The first shirt here seems appropriate for this post. :D

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