Has it been 80 years since Bela Lugosi's hypnotic voice set the mood for the classic horror film that ushered in a wave of vampirism? A genre that has exploded in popularity as the 21st Century goes back to the era of werewolves, goblins and the multitude of creatures that dwell in the shadows. Watching Dracula again - on YouTube of all places - the film proves again its immortality, amazing on the small screen as it was on the big, silver screens in the early part of the 20th Century.
The Bram Stoker novel, ‘Dracula’, was published in 1897. It inspired a 1922 silent film, ‘Nosferatu’ - with the fiendishly frightening image of actor Max Shreck, and nine years later - what most fans of the Lugosi classic are not aware of - two parallel 1931 movies, both named ‘Dracula’, both issued by Universal, both using the same props.
Before dubbing became popular; the film company cut two Dracula films on the same set. The English version with Lugosi during the day, the Spanish mirror image - so appropriately - at night. Carlos Villarias appeared as ‘The Count’ in Drácula, en espanol as ‘Conde Drácula’ (the actor calling himself Carlos Villar). Directed by George Melford and an un-credited Enrique Tovar Ávalos some film fans adore the other language version's texture and Mediterranean passion. The night crew, one of the actors explains on YouTube, would study the filmmaking from the work by the English crew generated in the day and improve upon it for the second go round. What might be an amazing feat in this era of computers would be to expand the Lugosi version (and likewise, the Villar picture) with scenes unavaialble in the respective "brother" films. A little of the stark Lugosi madness, a little of the camera angles and gliding close ups. Both Villar and Lugosi's characters could somehow converge... Perhaps for the 100th Anniversary boxed edition in 2031?
There are essays on the web about Stoker's motives for writing the classic vampire novel; that it was a metaphor for the problems his friend Oscar Wilde encountered because of the views against homosexuality in the nineteenth century. That does not escape the Lugosi film, though many don't want to even consider the sexual tension between Dracula and his lawyer, Renfield. Watch the Count near Renfield's bed saying "I hope you will find this comfortable", the spill of blood from Renfield's finger and the total lust the vampire has for his prey. It is balanced for the 1930's American public with the suave nocturnal creature vying for the affections of Jonathan Harker's fiance'. Dr. Van Helsing, played brilliantly by popular actor Edward Van Sloan (the original "Eddy Van" long before Eddy Van Halen came into vogue) - is the chess master taking on the more powerful foe with cunning and determination.
The 1931 film touches upon all the elements, and does so without mood music "enhancing" the atmosphere. The static cameras in the English version (the Spanish film's cameras moving with close-ups and other more refined shots) actually help keep the viewer focused on Lugosi's total mania. He does a lot with restraint, his voice, his timing, his mannerisms - and those fixated eyes. It's a stunning performance that should have been utilized to better effect in more vampire sequels - but hindsight's always 20/20.
The acting, the mood, the texture of the black and white film, the exquisite nature of the story as it unfolds - even on a very small screen - is a true textbook that, unfortunately, many modern filmmakers tend to ignore.
Edward Vam Sloan returned in 1936 for the Gloria Holden classic, ‘Dracula's Daughter’, but Bela was nowhere to be found in that outing. In 1935 Lugosi was reunited with Dracula director Tod Browning for ‘Mark Of The Vampire’, with Lugosi playing Count Mora. But the lack of Dracula sequels with Bela was a huge mistake on the part of Universal. In 1942 Lugosi played Ygor to Lon Chaney Jr.'s starring role as the Frankenstein’s monster in ‘Ghost of Frankenstein’. The choice of the son of Lon Chaney Sr. - said to have been scheduled to play Dracula for the 1931 film until his untimely death - was intriguing as Chaney Jr. got to play The Mummy and Dracula in reprise roles. – ‘Son Of Dracula’ in 1943 with Bela playing the Frankenstein monster that same year as Chaney played the werewolf in ‘Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman’. John Carradine, strangely, also got Lugosi's role playing Dracula in ‘House of Frankenstein ‘(1944) and ‘House of Dracula’ (1945).
Bela did get to reprise the role of Count Dracula for Universal again in 1948 as ‘Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein’ closed out the 17 years of Universal's classic black and whites with comedy seeming to come into vogue. For 1932's ‘White Zombie’ the billing said Bela "Dracula" Lugosi, but the failure to have a string of moody pictures that didn't fall into the sequel trap of the day - straying too far from where ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (and, perhaps, ‘Dracula's Daughter’) ventured, well, it was a terrible waste of resources.
Over eighty years Bela Lugosi's 1931 classic has found its way from movie theaters to television screens, VHS tape and DVD. What director Tod Browning and the actors probably never imagined were the computer screens that allow for viewers to see the film in a small square on YouTube, in eight parts. The acting, the mood, the texture of the black and white film, the exquisite nature of the story as it unfolds - even on a very small screen - is a true textbook that, unfortunately, many modern filmmakers tend to ignore.
Maria Marie Mulvey-Roberts said in the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, that "To destroy the vampire, suppress the menstruating woman and to look away from the Medusa, the embodiment of dangerous looking, are all responses to the masculine fear of the female." That certainly can't be true for ‘Bram Stoker's Dracula’, but it is nice to know that thoughts are provoked and a dazzling array of concepts stream out of one vision.
Vampirism - from Bram Stoker to the Twilight series, has people looking at the creatures of the night from every angle. It's impossible to destroy the vampire; it's a model that has morphed into a billion dollar industry. Perhaps J.K. Rowling can move on from Harry Potter and come up with a new series of novels, ones based on a solitary and dominant character that reaches deep into the mind and re-explores human nature, via the creatures of the night who subsist on blood. Just a thought.
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