1931. Directed by Tod Browning.
A love story steeped in esoteric secrets, Dracula is the flagship of the Universal Monster films. An awkward marriage of the silent era and “talkies”, layered set designs and hypnotic cinematography combine to build an arcane illusion around Bela Legosi’s dark caricature at the center of the story.
Dracula is a well-known story tinged with Gothic horror. From Russell Gausman’s menacing sets to Karl Freund’s legendary cinematography, Dracula is filled with an acrimonious air that chokes every scene. The first act, which focuses on Renfield’s mental corruption, features lonely wide shots of a crumbling manse, a prison of the Count’s design, simulating an memorable experience of dread, beginning with a superstition laced presentation that slowly subverts expectations. The fatal flaw is in Legosi’s often ridiculous delivery, audibly overstating the obvious for perceived effect while his classically trained body language is more than adequate, delivering some of the most iconic scenes in the history of the genre. A looming eye of psychic control and an intense standoff between the hunters and the vampire display a uniquely American take on the German Expressionist legends that Dracula builds upon. This however, creates a source of frustration as the nuances of Stoker’s text are glossed over in an effort to give the ludicrous central performance maximum screen time.
The beauty of Garrett Fort’s script is in how it captures the romantic flourishes of the novel, both in the pursuit of Mina and in the harriers’ delicate dance with Dracula. The mirror sequence is a masterful example of classical blocking and almost serves as the centerpiece, until Legosi’s bravado derails the mood. There is virtually no perfect film. Flaws can be found in anything, however Dracula suffers because the flaws of its essential performance almost outpace the artistic design, with the Spanish version (made simultaneously on the same lot at night) easily eclipsing the American cut because the crew shot after the Americans, allowing them to analyze the choices made and improve upon them. Atmosphere is everything in Dracula and this is where the film manages to break free of its campy constraints. Shadows enshroud ominous carriages while cautious villages dispense Crosses and well wishes before the darkness falls, transporting the viewer to a time when faith and folklore were weapons of the righteous.
Available now for digital rental, Dracula is a flawed endeavor that is ultimately liberated by an exquisite display of world building that not only ameliorates the damage of Legosi’s near fatal performance, but essentially sets the bar for American horror films with respect to ambiance. Yet another essential entry into Universal’s sinister catalog, Dracula is a nostalgic shocker filled with technical wonders.