Ladies and gentlemen, here we are — the final installment of our Creature Feature series. If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading about some of my (and hopefully your) favorite movie monsters.
And, in my opinion, I have saved the best for last. There are a few Universal monsters I haven’t touched upon, sure — the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Invisible Man — but when you talk about monster movies, and you talk about the big names, there can be only one at the top of the list.
I have loved Dracula for as long as I can remember. One of the first films I remember watching was Love at First Bite, a wonderful parody of sorts starring George Hamilton as the Prince of Darkness, banished from his Transylvanian castle by the Communists. At the time, I was way too young to realize it was supposed to be a comedy — I thought it was a serious horror movie (I was three, after all) — and loved every minute of it.
Dracula became my obsession. I was Dracula for Halloween when I was three (see pic, right), and again when I was seven, and again at 14, and again at 20. I took out the Crestwood Dracula book more times than anyone else at my local library. I took my Remco Mini Dracula with me wherever I went. And, naturally, I used to douse my pizza in garlic to ward away my old arch-enemy.
Like all of the other Universal monster movies, though, I didn’t actually see the original Dracula until I was seven years old. By then, I was already well-versed in the story, having read all that I could (though I was still, at that point, too young to tackle the original novel; I have since read it probably a dozen times or more) and having seen a few of the Hammer films. And once the Saturday Matinee Theater on WPHL-17 out of Philadelphia started playing the monster movies, it was still weeks before they got around to airing my most-anticipated feature.
Finally, the Saturday came. We weren’t going to be home that afternoon — Mom needed to shop for something or other — so we set the VCR. I pestered her and begged and pleaded the entire day to hurry up, Dracula was waiting. Finally we got home, I rewound the tape, and sat in front of the television with bated breath and rapt attention.
And almost cried.
The VCR, you see, fucked up the recording. It was nothing but weird squiggles, and snow. I looked at the tape inside, and it was mangled beyond recognition.
Mom, bless her, knew how much I was looking forward to it, so off to Jamesway we went (remember that place?), and, $19.95 and twenty minutes later, I once again sat in front of the TV, giddy as a schoolgirl.
And instantly fell in love with the movie.
So here we are. The end of the series, with my favorite monster movie of all time about to air for your pleasure. It’s been a fun ride for me this past month, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too.
Okay. Before I get too maudlin, for one last time… on with the show!
The classic. The standard. The model for nearly every film appearance of Dracula for the next six or seven decades. You hear “Dracula,” chances are you don’t think Christopher Lee, you don’t think Gary Oldman, and you sure as hell don’t think of that craptastic bastard from Van Helsing. You think one name and one name alone: Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi is Dracula, and Dracula is Lugosi, in the minds of the vast majority of the public at large. His portrayal of Dracula has become so ingrained in the public consciousness that any new interpretation — or parody — of the character is either instantly recognizable as Lugosi, or contains some of the subtler nuances he brought to the role. I don’t care if you’re watching Christopher Lee — whose wardrobe was a direct rip from this film — or Leslie Nielson, “Sesame Street”‘s Count Von Count or Count God-damned Chocula… in one form or another, they all owe their existence to Lugosi.
Hard to imagine, though, that he wasn’t director Tod Browning’s first choice for the role. That honor was originally going to go to Lon Chaney Sr., best known for his work in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), London After Midnight (1927) and, of course, The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Chaney died in 1930, however, so the studio heads had to find another actor to play the role.
So, naturally, they went with Ian Keith.
Exactly. Keith, known then as mostly a Broadway actor — and for his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, was the studio’s choice for the role. That was, of course, before the intense lobbying of the man who had become synonymous across the country for his portrayal of Dracula in the stage production — Bela Lugosi.
The stage production of Dracula, written by Hamilton Deane (a former contemporary and member of the same acting troupe as Bram Stoker), was the first adaptation of the novel authorized by the Stoker family, and debuted in England in 1924. In 1927 it crossed the Atlantic and, after a rewrite by John Balderston to make it more palatable to the American public, began its year-long run on Broadway with the then-previously-unknown Lugosi in the starring role. When the play ended its run, Lugosi continued the role for two more years on the road as the play traveled cross-country.
When Universal Studios bought the rights to the play, he was, in his mind, the only logical person for the role.
Originally, Dracula the film was intended to be a lavish production, faithfully following Stoker’s novel. However, with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, cutbacks had to be made, and so it is this play — not the novel — upon which the film is based.
There were, of course, several major changes made to the story in order to adapt it for the stage (and, subsequently, the silver screen). In addition to wildly compressing the plot and restricting — with the exception of the opening sequence — the locales to Whitby, England, several characters were either altered, combined, or excised altogether. Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra were combined for the play but not the film, though Lucy’s part is greatly diminished from the novel. Mina Murray in the film is called Mina Seward, making her the daughter of Dr. John Seward who, in the novel, was actually one of Lucy’s suitors. Jonathan Harker is reduced to Mina’s love interest only, and all of his early Transylvanian interactions with the count were given to Renfield, who only had an ancillary role in the novel. And the characters of Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris — the other two of Lucy’s suitors, and later members of the band of vampire hunters — were omitted altogether.
I am going to assume that most of you are familiar, by now, with the plot, in one form or another, so I won’t spend an inordinate amount of time on it.
A young British businessman, Renfield (Dwight Frye) has been dispatched to the Borgo Pass in Transylvania, there to meet up with the reclusive Count Dracula. Despite the protestations of the local mountain folk and warnings of vampires, Renfield continues on after sunset to meet up with his mysterious host.
After a fairly uneventful ride (save, of course, for the fact that his carriage has no driver and the horses are being urged on by a bat), Renfield arrives at his destination: an ancient, broken-down fortress — Castle Dracula.
Enter our charming host and star of the show, Count Dracula (Lugosi), who, after uttering a few classic lines which have earned high marks in the annals of filmdom, leads the intrepid Renfield into a rather warm, inviting section of his home. It is there that we learn the Count’s plans — he is leasing Carfax Abbey in Whitbey, England, to establish a new residence.
Later that night, as Renfield is getting ready to turn in, three mysterious women enter his bedchamber, as well as a large bad which renders him unconscious. The bat becomes Dracula, who beckons the women away with a gesture — Renfield is his.
Dracula had secured them passage on a freighter bound for England, which soon runs into a terrible storm. Deep in the bowels of the ship, Renfield — now stark raving mad — awakens his new master, who quickly sets upon the crew of the vessel.
Renfield is taken to the local sanitarium and placed under the care of Dr. John Seward (Herbert Bunston). Not long after, Seward, his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancee John Harker (David Manners) and their friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) meet their new neighbor and lessee to Carfax Abbey, the courtly and charming Dracula.
Lucy, quite naturally, is taken with the strange and romantic foreigner. More’s the pity for her. When a mysterious illness befalls her — she requires rapid, frequent blood transfusions, and two unaccountable pinpricks have appeared on her neck — Seward contacts his old colleague Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, reprising his role from the stage production). After an examination of Lucy and all the evidence, he makes his startling proclamation — they are dealing with a vampire.
Dracula is, in a word, perfect. All of the elements came together for this one, from writing and direction to set design and, most importantly, casting.
When talking of the cast of Dracula, though the entire cast is wonderful, there really are only three names with which to concern yourself.
First up we have Dwight Frye. A consummate character actor, Frye gives what was probably the performance of his career as Renfield. At first disarmingly naive, Frye’s Renfield quickly devolves into a madness which is at times comical, at times mesmerizing, often intimidating, and ultimately heartbreaking. This is no simple henchman, and no simple one-dimensional lunatic. This is a madman with depth, who is tempted and enthralled by his master, yet tortured by his own conscience at the same time.
Next, of course, is Edward Van Sloane, who is the Van Helsing. Unlike later incarnations (Anthony Hopkins springs to mind, as does Hugh Jackman in that horrible abomination of a film), this Van Helsing is refined, he is cultured, and he is compassionate. He knows his stuff and he knows what must be done, but he has sympathy for the pain being experienced by John, Mina and Jack. He has absolutely no fear of the ancient evil presented in the form of the Count. His defining moment comes when Dracula attempts to place him under his spell, but Van Helsing snaps out of it, and defiantly whips out a crucifix. Van Sloane’s demeanor during this scene is extraordinary — uncharacteristic for most actors of the time, you can clearly see the inner struggle on his face as he attempts to overcome Dracula’s mesmerism.
Lugosi gives us everything you could ever hope for in Count Dracula. He is disarming, he is stately, he is courtly, he is romantic, he is exotic, he is menacing, he is sadistic, he is unforgiving, and he is evil. Undoubtedly, Lugosi’s familiarity with the character after playing him on the stage for three years gave him a unique perspective on how to tackle the role for the silver screen. His speech timing is unpredictable, much in the way that Christopher Walken’s is now. There is no cadence, no beat to his dialogue; it is unpredictable, and that lack of predictability — coupled with his very authentic Carpathian accent — provide a level of strangeness that never would have been achieved by a domestic actor. His gestures and mannerisms, derived no doubt by the necessity for over-exaggerating movements on the stage, add an air of drama to the Count. And — perhaps weirdest, and most subconsciously effective of all — he never blinks during the entire film. Not once.
Regarding the role of Dracula, Lugosi once said, “Never has a role so influenced and dominated an actor’s role as has the role of Dracula. He has, at times, infused me with prosperity and, at other times, he has drained me of everything.” In being the role of a lifetime, it was both a blessing and a curse. And when you make such a breakout in Hollywood with a role like this, there is seldom any place to go but down.
Bela Lugosi had a number of successes afterwards — among them, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Mark of the Vampire (1935), and, of course, his entries in both the Frankenstein and The Wolf Man franchises — but none of them offered the challenge and prestige of this role, which he only reprised once, in 1948’s Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. That film proved to be Lugosi’s last hurrah; it was one shining moment in an otherwise gradual fade into obscurity. Late in life, the man who once received more fan mail than Clark Gable developed an opium addiction, and ended his career working under the auspices of the worst director of all time, Ed Wood. When he died, broke, Frank Sinatra quietly paid for his funeral, wherein, at the behest of his family, he was buried in one of the capes he wore during the filming of Dracula.
And yet Dracula lives on. If you have never seen this film, I implore you to purchase Dracula: The Legacy Collection, containing not only the film in its original version, but also a version containing a new score by contemporary minimalist composer Philip Glass. This collection also features the Spanish-language Dracula, shot simultaneously with the Lugosi version, as well as Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula and House of Dracula.
I also can’t endorse strongly enough Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection, released on Blu-Ray last year. It showcases Dracula (and Spanish Dracula, which has even better cinematography than the Lugosi version), Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera (the 1943 Claude Rains version), and Creature From The Black Lagoon (available in 3D if your player supports it). Each film has been meticulously restored in both sight and sound, and the end result is masterful. I don’t care how many times you’ve watched these films — if you’re seeing them on Blu-Ray, you really are seeing them for the first time.
And there you are, ladies and gentlemen. As Halloween season draws to a rapid close, so does our look into the vast and storied world of the Universal Monsters. When your head finally hits the pillow and the lights are turned out, and you think about all the ghouls, monsters and demons that lurk about, you may try to tell yourself that they are a simply a figment of your imagination; that lurks behind your flowing curtain is nothing more than a passing breeze. That’s okay. It’s only natural. When you’re trying to sleep tonight, just remember — there ARE such things!