Monsters & Memories #3: Dracula (1931) – Part 1 by Ed Davis

“Listed to them, children of the night…What music they make!”

Grab those crucifixes, Groovy Ghoulies! The main vampire, himself Count Dracula is nearby! The great Universal Monsters cycle started with 1931’s Tod Browning film. It was adapted from the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker and a stage play from Hamilton Dean and John L. Balderston.

Dracula PosterBritish real estate man Renfield has journeyed deep into the Carpathian Mountains to find Count Dracula. He is to bring him to London’s Carfax Abbey where the Count plans to…I’m not sure. Go on a rampage, I guess. Really, how many villages can you raid in Transylvania anyway? They’re all scared and take precautions. Dracula takes Renfield under his control and they head to England on the schooner Vesta. This was no three hour tour but the crew is found dead and Renfield delivering his crazy, maniacal laugh. Soon, The Count meets Mina Seward and her Fiance, John Harker. Mina’s neck looks tasty to the count, and he prepares her to become his bride. Enter Dr. Van Helsing, and the battle of the wills are on!

I really enjoyed this movie, more so than I have in the past. Maybe, because I am watching it around other movies from that time. I always thought it was somewhat light on the action and had a big problem with the end for a long time. But, this viewing I got the more subtleness of the horror, and appreciated it for the time it was released in. I don’t think there’s anything I can add that has already been said about Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula. He played him in the stage adaption and I remember reading, he was learning English as he went. The slow, deliberate pacing of his wording owes to him trying to really get the English right. His eyes are powerful, and he might have one of the best stares in Hollywood, of any time! There are just so many good quotes that he delivers, as well. One of my favorites. It sums up the sadness of Count Dracula’s existence, “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious!” I always thought of The Count enjoying being this crazy bloodBela sucking creature. That line makes me thing different. There’s a scene towards the beginning when The Count’s coffin opens, and his hand clutches for the air. His fingers are contorted just so. It just seemed so creepy. He commands your attention in every scene he is in. He owns this role.

The rest of the cast I hit and miss on. I’m sure I’ll get some flack for this. Edward Van Sloan just doesn’t do much for me as Dr. Van Helsing. I get that they need an older seasoned person for the wise Obi-Wan like character. I’m just more of a Peter Cushing Van Helsing fan. There is a really good scene with Van Sloan trying to break himself from Dracula’s thrall. I did enjoy that. We’ll see more of Von Sloan in some other Universal offerings. Helen Chandler was great as Mina Seward, and her eyes seemed to come alive as she fell under Dracula’s spell. Almost as if she could see the blood, pounding in the neck of John Harker. David Manners took on the role of Harker, and I’m unsure about how he really feels about Nina. When she is under Dracula’s spell, and she’s trying to seduce her fiancee to do some….ummm..necking, he doesn’t seem very comfortable with her coming towards him.

The set pieces are some of the best built: Big, gothic, and full of atmosphere. Bela would revisit some of these sets later when they were recycled to be used in “White Zombie”.

There is some action, but a lot of the fear is cerebral and happens off screen. I don’t think the Valentine’s Day crowd on opening night would be ready for Dracula sinking his teeth into a victim. Many audience members fainted at what was on the screen. My biggest problem was the lack of a fight scene at the end. We get a Dracula already among the dead again in his coffin, paralyzed to do anything, and here comes Dr. Van Helsing with a stake. Kind of anti-climatic and it happens off-screen! Other then that, I highly enjoyed this film and it really brought back memories of staying up late with the lights off, waiting for this or Frankenstein – sometimes back to back to unfold on my little black and white TV I had in my bedroom.

Remco DraculaAround this same time that I was discovering this classic, toy company Remco was producing 9 inch Universal Monsters action figures. Pictured here is the Dracula one. They came out around 1980, and I remember getting all of them at Caldor’s. They were a lot of fun to have. And I can’t tell how many times Dracula teamed up with Darth Vader to capture Princess Leia to make his bride. More on these figures down the road!

Well, Groovies, It’s getting dark and I have to replace the wolfsbane in the windows. You never can be too careful. More Dracula to come! Conde Dracula to be precise! He’s Bela’s Spanish counterpart and we’ll be looking at his movie next time. Same script, same sets but filmed and produced for the overseas Spanish audience! Looking forward to more of your questions, comments, and suggestions at Till then, watch your neck…and the skies!

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