Among the watershed moments in the history of horror cinema, there is certainly the union between the seventh art and Count Dracula, the fearsome prince of darkness born from the pen of Bram Stoker. A union only touched upon in 1922 by the seminal Nosferatu the Vampire from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, forced to change the name of the character and the places of setting as he lacked the rights, and for this reason he was defeated in court by the writer’s heirs and sentenced to destroy all copies of the film (fortunately a failed mission). The famous vampire finally arrives on the big screen in 1931, thanks to the producer Carl Laemmle Jr. (who regularly buys the rights to the novel) and to the formidable filmmaker Tod Browningwhich based on the Broadway show of the same name signs his memorable Draculakicking off Universal Pictures’ iconic monster cycle.
The refined, ghostly and icy Dracula of Tod Browning immediately became an inevitable touchstone for anyone who has subsequently approached this character, among which the Hammer Film Productions with Christopher Lee And Francis Ford Coppola with his Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, none of this would have been possible without an adequate interpreter, capable of restoring both the elegance of the vampire and his ghostly and sinister aura. To earn this honor and burden is the Magyar Beautiful Lugosifled his homeland following the failed Hungarian Soviet Republic and capable of living a memorable second life in Hollywood, before a melancholy decline also caused by addiction to morphine and methadone.
A sunset boulevard marked by his relationship with the bizarre B-movie director Ed Wood and by his posthumous participation in his ramshackle Plan 9 From Outer Spaceto whom we dedicated the previous appointment with our film column The hidden thread.
Dracula: the prince of darkness by Tod Browning in a milestone of horror cinema
In what will always remain his peak in the acting field, Bela Lugosi takes up the role he had already played in the theater of Count Dracula, who receives a visit from the London lawyer Renfield in his castle in Transylvania. The Earl is apparently intent on renting Carfax Abbey in London. Among several ambiguous and inexplicable events, the truth is not long in coming: Dracula is a ruthless vampire thirsty for human blood, who does not hesitate to hypnotize Renfield and make him his slave, driving him towards madness. With his involuntary support, the vampire makes his way to London, where he poses as an ordinary man while sowing death. Dracula also comes across Dr. Seward and his daughter Mina, to whom he is irresistibly attracted. Meanwhile, Professor Van Helsing is also on the Count’s trail, the only one to guess his true nature as a vampire.
Dracula by Tod Browning is conspicuously conditioned by its theatrical origin, which is reflected in static shots and in a measured direction, devoid of particular shots for effect. By limiting the sound accompaniment to a minimum (the only music is the famous piece from Swan Lake on the opening credits), the director focuses on the narrative tension, which he explores above all through the contrast between the elegance that distinguishes Dracula and the dusty gothic scenery, marked by cobwebs, mice, the ever-present bats and even more exotic armadillos. A suggestive shot in the first minutes shows us an imposing and desolate Dracula’s castle, which anticipates the Xanadu of Fourth power as a brilliant cinematic example of decadent magnificence.
The Count and Europe
In filigree, Dracula perfectly represents the Europe of the 30s from the point of view of the United States: a millenary culture of undeniable charm but in slow and inexorable decay, marked by nationalisms and other disturbing social implications. An allegory which also reflects on Lugosi himself, a brilliant foreign actor in a foreign land, tormented by ghosts of the past capable of leading him towards a premature end.
This social and political reading of Dracula however, it must not distract us from the glaring merits of Tod Browning, who grasps his protagonist’s ability to pierce the screen and relies on him without any kind of compromise. A choice repaid by a magnetic and chilling test, which stands on the apparent static nature of the story especially in the first part, more evocative and effective than the hasty epilogue. To make the importance of Bela Lugosi for the success of the project even more evident is the inevitable comparison with the Dracula by George Melford, shot in Spanish and Hungarian at the same time as Tod Browning’s, working at night on the same sets used during the day.
This version, present in the extra contents of the main home video editions of Draculafeatures a more fluid and sophisticated directing style, but is still significantly more clumsy and forgettable than its US counterpart, mainly due to the protagonist Carlos Villariaslight years away from the magnetism and ambiguous charm of Lugosi.
The legacy of the film
Despite the lack of commitment by Tod Browning himself, author of much more personal and complex works such as The stranger And Freaks and willing in this case to give ample powers to the director of photography Karl Freund (directed by The Mummy the next year), Dracula marked the collective imagination in such a way as to influence each following adaptation of the iconic vampire, invariably characterized by a dark charisma accompanied by a dandy look. Lugosi’s wild gaze (who never blinks), the sexual tension between Dracula and Mina and Browning’s ability to tell through images, transforming a simple and rudimentary scenographic element into a disturbing conflict between the vampire and the world surrounds it, are technical and thematic cues capable of influencing all genre cinema of the following decades.
At the same time, the wise use by the director of atmospheric elements such as fog, which continuously envelops the protagonists, and a gloomy and gloomy night, the natural habitat of a well-balanced occult and a frightening paranormal even in the craftsmanship of the technical packaging (Dracula’s transformations into a bat). Not to be underestimated is the absolutely pioneering use of marketing for the film. To stimulate the curiosity of the public, rumors of illnesses and fainting of the most impressionable spectators present in the room were in fact spread. A psychological trick that has strenuously resisted since 1931, since even today there is no shortage of cues given to the press and focused precisely on the shock caused to unsuspecting spectators by some of the most anticipated horror films of recent years.
Dracula: The Tod Browning Lesson
More than 90 years after its arrival in theaters, Dracula from Tod Browning remains a shining example of visceral and intelligent cinema, capable of deeply shaking the viewer’s soul without necessarily resorting to technologically advanced special effects, but instead playing with the imagination and the unconscious and with the use of evergreen narrative archetypes. There is no scriptwriter more skilled than the human mind, and Dracula he proves it to us without spilling even a drop of blood that the Count is fond of.
“For one who has never lived a single life, you are a very wise man, Van Helsing.”
The hidden thread was born with the intention of retracing the history of cinema in the freest and simplest way possible. Every week a different film of any genre, era and nationality, linked to the previous one by a detail. Themes, year of release, director, protagonist, setting: the only limit is the imagination, the beacon that guides us is the love of cinema. Films talk to each other, we listen to their dialogues.