Saturday, 6 July 2013

Dracula (1931)

I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.

Believe it or not, there was a time when cinema wasn’t replete with Vampire films.  Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, but in a time when movie studios didn't instantly jump on any novel idea, it wasn't until 1922 that the story was adapted for the silent film Nosferatu.  Then in 1931 director Tod Browning adapted the stage production featuring Belá Lugosi as Dracula and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing for Universal's Dracula.  It sounds like it should be a classic. Unfortunately it’s far too clunky to be anywhere near it.

The opening couple of scenes are spooky enough, and I can live with the obvious matte painting (it is 1931 after all); however, any pretence of atmosphere goes out of the window as soon as the rubber bat makes an appearance “driving” the carriage!  I kid you not.  The bat makes many appearances, but that’s not all; there’s plastic spider of unknown scale, and some armadillos.  Yup, you heard me.  Honestly, I don’t know; perhaps they’re meant to be giant rats?  Or maybe Dracula has pet armadillos in his castle.

I think Belá Lugosi is trying to be enigmatic, but most of the time he’s daft.  He manages to be creepy weird when he is bending over someone to bite them (no teeth or blood though), and he does something sinister with his hands (think Saruman’s claw hand as he tries to use the palantir), but when he speaks with his stilted Hungarian accent he doesn’t sound enigmatic at all.  He’s more Manuel from Fawlty Towers: “I speak Eeenglish, I learn it from a book” than iconic vampire!

Most of the acting is high school amateur dramatics, and some of the direction is too.  Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing is probably the best thing, and he certainly rescues most scenes he’s in from tedium.  That’s not much of a compliment though, as everyone else is so bad; the worst thing is the Cockney Music Hall orderly at the mental asylum saying “Your maaad aint cha!”; it’s a wonder he doesn’t slap his thighs at the same time.  Probably the best part of the film were the sets, in particular inside castle Dracula and a magnificent staircase in Carfax Abbey.

I started watching with high hopes, sure I was about to see a masterful understated and sinister performance from Belá Lugosi.  I was sorely disappointed, and I look forward to seeing the 1958 Christopher Lee version.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.