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Dracula (1931)

“Children of the night.  What music they make!” exclaims Count Dracula to Renfield.

There have been many film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula over the last century.  The most famous of the early adaptations is F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation, the 1922 silent classic Nosferatu featuring Max Schreck as Count Orlok.  Just as famous is Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Dracula, which was based on the 1924 stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston (which itself was based on Stoker’s novel).  Along with James Whale’s Frankenstein that same year, the film helped usher in the era of Universal Horror at Universal Studios.  Bela Lugosi, who portrayed the famous vampire in the play, lobbied hard to recreate the role for the film version (he was finally given the role partly due to his accepting a very small salary).  Interestingly, a Spanish language version was shot at the same time as the English language version (the English language was shot during the day and the Spanish language version was shot at night on the same sets).  The Spanish language version is reputed to be the better of the two, but the cast and crew of that version had the advantage of seeing the English language dailies and tried to one-up them.  Regardless, the Lugosi version is still the more popular version and is still a good movie.

For many people, including myself, Lugosi is the definitive Dracula (although for me Christopher Lee comes in at a very close second).  His pacing was deliberately slow, creating a character who was virtually a corpse and immortalized such lines as “I bid you…welcome!”, “I never drink…wine,” and “Children of the night.  What music they make!”  Browning’s use of close-ups on Lugosi (the icy looks of silence) remain as chilling today as they were more than 80 years ago.  Lugosi is so mesmerizing in the role that it’s hard to picture Lon Chaney (Browning and producer Carl Laemmle Jr.’s first choice) or anyone else from the time in the role.  Browning was a solid silent film director, and he used as many silent film techniques as he could while transitioning to sound (this partially accounts for Lugosi’s performance).  Another element of the film I enjoy is the music (or lack thereof).  There was no score when the film first came out (save for an excerpt from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake during the opening credits).  In 1998, Philip Glass was commissioned to write a score for the film performed by the Kronos Quartet.  It’s a wonderful score that works so well in the film that it’s difficult to choose which version of the film is more effective: scored or unscored (personally, I can’t decide).

Of all the Dracula-related films ever made this should be the one that everyone is familiar with.  I’ve enjoyed Christopher Lee’s Dracula for Hammer’s Dracula film series.  I’ve enjoyed Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in the 1922 version of Nosferatu as well as Klaus Kinski’s Count Orlok in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake (interestingly, that same year brought John Badham’s Dracula with Frank Langella in the title role).  I’ve enjoyed Gary Oldman’s more romantic but still very menacing Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s gory 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  I even enjoyed Richard Roxburgh’s Dracula in Stephen Sommers’ 2004 film Van Helsing (a performance that was clearly an homage to Lugosi’s Dracula).  I also found Leslie Nielson’s Dracula quite hilarious in Mel Brooks’ 1995 spoof Dracula: Dead and Loving It.  However, it is Bela Lugosi’s Dracula that stands above the rest; it is a role that has defined his career (for better and for worse).

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8 responses to “Dracula (1931)

  1. I have a copy of the Glass score. I love it. Good review, Louis! Well thought out and a very fun read. I may give the Spanish version a watch this Halloween but Browning’s version will never leave my Netflix queue. By the way, I love Coppola’s film very much. That score by the Polish composer, W. Kilar is amazing. Thanks for the post!

  2. Excellent run through! Lugosi’s Dracula was the first classic Universal horror movie I experienced and I was hooked. As for the Glass score, it is a great score, but I since I have seen the film so many times without it, I find it distracting. Who knows, maybe it will grow on me. Also, if you get a chance to check out the latest Kino release of Nosferatu, the transfer is absolutely amazing. It looks like it was shot last week. Great post!

  3. Nice job. Recently re-watching the Lugosi classic myself—sans score. The last two times it was with the Phillip Glass music—you’re right, I can’t decide either. Haven’t watched the Spanish version in a while. Perhaps, next week. Maybe a little “Frankenstein” or “The Wolf Man” too! ML

  4. Nice write up. I actually think the better film is the Spanish version in every way apart from Lugosi. The Spanish chap is my more camp and doesn’t have the same presence. The Spanish one is probably technically better though.

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