The Franchise Chronicles: Dracula (1931)

 By Ed O'Hare

Welcome back to The Franchise Chronicles, today we start our next series and it’s a big one: the classic Universal Monster movies. 31 of these bad boys were recently released in a blu-ray box set and I could not resist the chance to wade through what may be the oldest cinematic universe. Are you excited? I am way too excited… Okay I just chugged a glass of water. That calmed me down. Let’s do this. The first film up is Dracula (1931) directed by Tod Browning, which serves as a unique artifact of the transition period from silent films to talkies and lays the groundwork for the aesthetics we associate with horror movies to this day.

At first glance this film may be jarring for the modern movie-goer. It moves at a very slow and deliberate pace. Who’d a thunk a 75 minute long movie time could drag. Most of the scenes stand still in a wide shot and only cut to close-ups for important dialogue. It almost feels like the medium shot was yet to be discovered. These are the conventions of the time. Sound in film had only been around for four years. Browning seems to approach this subject like a silent film, which always put strong focus on the compositions of each frame. The production designers worked really hard on those gorgeous matte paintings and the beautiful layout of the castle. Browning wants to give us time to take them in. The actors think through every line and sometimes stand still at awkward moments more like they are posing for a photograph than acting.

This is also an adaptation of a stage play so much of it is framed like a proscenium (think of the way most multi-cam sitcoms are shot). Dracula is also completely void of a music score. This adds a little to the eeriness but I am willing to bet many theatres at the time still had their organists playing along with the movie. I watched it without the music but the blu-ray does offer an optional score and I bet that it probably helps those pacing issues I was talking about.

Alright, enough with the technical stuff. Let’s talk about what makes this story last. The plot is strange but simple. Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), a bloodsucking vampire, hypnotizes a real estate agent named Renfield (Dwight Frye) and takes a boat to London where he seduces two of his new neighbors. Big D kills Lucy (Frances Dade) and bites Mina (Helen Chandler), but before he can finish her off, Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) finishes the handsome paleface with a stake through the heart. I never really understood why the Count was going to London in the first place, but who cares because this movie looks so cool.

Lugosi’s look is iconic. The way his cape flows and envelopes him, you believe he could melt into a bat at any moment. He is also very handsome and his striking stare is entrancing. This movie has no carnage. All of his kills happen off screen but his menacing brood and smile make him just as imposing as modern slashers. It is easy to tell why every incarnation of Dracula since has aped Lugosi in some way. However, as good as he is, the performance that really stands out to me is Dwight Frye. His turn as Renfield is so insane and wild but also real. Any guy who can make a character determined to eat bugs and rats feel grounded certainly deserves recognition.

When you get down to it, Dracula is important because of the basic horror elements that it introduced into the mainstream. Much of these have been improved upon, but this is the film we remember because it got the ball rolling. In the next article, we will check out the Spanish language version of Dracula that was shot simultaneously with this film. Come join me to see how these versions hold up against each other.

Edward O’Hare, nickname TBD, has been poking around the deep caverns of pop culture for some years now. His hobbies include making Starfleet org charts and badgering people who haven’t seen the Adventures of Captain Marvel movie serial from 1941. He one day dreams of teaching Bill Simmons that superheroes and pro athletes are not all that different.

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