Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (Universal 1931)

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DRACULA is the film that ushered in The Golden Age of Horror. Sure, there were silent films with elements of the macabre, especially those starring Lon Chaney Sr, and the German expressionist films of Ufa Studios. But this tale of a bloodthirsty vampire on the loose in London struck a collective nerve among filmgoers for two reasons. First was it talked…sound films were barely out of their diapers, and the chilling voice of star Bela Lugosi mesmerized the masses. Second, the country was in the midst of The Great  Depression, and audiences were hungry for escapist fare to take their minds off their troubles. DRACULA took them to another world, a world populated by undead creatures of the night, fiends who were ultimately stopped by the forces of good.

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No need to rehash the plot of DRACULA…if you don’t know the story by now, you’re reading the wrong blog! Instead, I’ll take a look at what works in the film and what doesn’t. Though the movie has lost much of its power in the 84 years since its release, the performance of Bela Lugosi certainly hasn’t. The Hungarian actor originated the role on Broadway, and perfected it to the point where he’s still imitated today. While not as ferocious as Christopher Lee’s interpretation of the Vampire King, Lugosi is in full command here. His slow manner of speaking and impeccable wardrobe make Bela the suavest of ghouls, while those burning eyes let the audience know this isn’t someone to mess with. And those long, splayed fingers reaching to clutch his victim’s throats became a Lugosi trademark, often imitated but never duplicated.

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Tod Browning’s direction is somewhat static, saved by the marvelous camerawork of the great Karl Freund. The eerie sets of Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey are filled with shadows, cobwebs in every corner, and a variety of vermin. Dwight Frye adds to the atmosphere as Renfield, driven to madness by the Count’s power. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing isn’t as athletic as Peter Cushing, but is convicing as the occult expert (as he was in The Mummy). But David Manners and Helen Chandler as the young lovers just don’t cut it for me. Their blandness drags the scenes they’re in down, their acting stiff and wooden. The film is slow paced as it is, and the pair doesn’t help matters. Manners, in his jodhpurs, is particularly annoying, while Chandler just isn’t appealing. Sorry, but I’d rather have Frances Dade (who plays Lucy, one of Drac’s victims).

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Historically important, DRACULA today pales compared to other horror pics of the era. But it was the first, and without it we wouldn’t have those other movies to savor. I usually watch DRACULA every year around Halloween, just to see Bela Lugosi in his most famous (and arguably greatest) role. And despite some of its faults, you should, too. DRACULA has been remade and reworked hundreds of times, but let’s be honest…nobody plays the Count better than Bela. Nobody.

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