Years ago, the Brattle lined up a night of Universal horror films. It was James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, followed by THE WOLF MAN. I was in monster-kid heaven settling down in my regular balcony seat. FRANKENSTEIN started, ended, and left the audience in quiet reflection. As DRACULA started I was beside myself as it has always held a place in my heart as one of my favorite films. My excitement dissolved into heartbreak as the audience started to laugh. They were not nervously laughing at Renfield’s possessed performance to break the tension, or at the teasing relationship between Mina and Lucy; they were laughing at the film itself. What would cause the audience to treat this early horror masterpiece like some silly B-movie? Was I so overwhelmed with nostalgia for the film that I failed to see it with modern eyes? Clearly an investigation was needed to find the reception disruption between me and everyone else in the theater that night.
One of the points of disconnect in the film between its intention and our current appreciation of the film is Bela Lugosi’s performance. If there ever was a man to portray Dracula it is Lugosi. From Romania, Lugosi had played Count Dracula on stage in New York for three years leading up to Tod Browning’s film adaptation. With Lugosi’s history in theater, his performance as Dracula in the film borders on melodramatic. He speaks slowly, and carefully. His exaggerated gestures are grand, and he really knows how to work that cape. All of these theatrics, however, are suitable within the context of his character. An undead, seductive, foreign nobility should be able to draw attention from an entire room with one glance and have some flare. Though the intense performance does come across as slightly stiff, I believe the issue here is Browning’s framing and lighting of Lugosi.
Often Count Dracula is shown with an intense gaze right into the camera. These lingering shots always have Lugosi’s eyes lit, while the rest of the frame is mostly dark. The only modern example I can think of which uses this technique is THE ADDAMS FAMILY movies. Morticia Addams always seems to wander directly into the perfect lighting scenario to seduce Gomez. This is done to be over the top and a bit silly but contemporary audiences bring that experience to the 1931 DRACULA. As a result, that effect now falls flat.
Even with conceding that Lugosi’s performance may be a bit much for our current audiences, I do think that thematically DRACULA is missing something that both FRANKENSTEIN and THE WOLF MAN have. Neither Larry in THE WOLF MAN nor the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN have agency in regards to their transformation into a monster. They are both tragic figures with good hearts. Larry does not want to turn into a werewolf. The fact that he cannot control his transformation into that creature at night, and he kills innocent people while in such a state, racks him with guilt. Similarly, the Monster that Dr. Frankenstein creates is just as much of a victim of circumstance as the little girl he mistakenly drowns. He does not want to harm anyone, but is unaware of his own strength and the ways of the world. As a viewer, your heart goes out to these monsters.
But Dracula is a different sort of monster all together. He is rich, suave, educated, and seeks out his victims. Though it may be possible to read Mina’s victimization by the Count as a tragic story, Mina herself does not seem to mind it that much. Her father and her betrothed Jonathan are pretty upset by it, but she takes no action to reclaim her life for herself.
Dracula does hint on a few occasions of the problems with being immortal. When he first meets Mina, they have this exchange:
Dracula: To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious!
Mina: Why, Count Dracula!
Dracula: There are far worse things awaiting man than death.
These laments from the Count come across more as threats than laments about his own situation. He is, after all, Count Dracula! He is the blood-sucking lord of the night, and does not need to be seen as a sympathetic character. Thought it works for both Larry and Frankenstein’s Monster, not all monsters need to be sad victims. Monsters can be terrifying hunters and still work within the context of a film.
I will concede that DRACULA has not aged as well as some of its contemporaries. However, it is still an amazing film. The sets are perfect examples of 1930s Hollywood grandeur, which has since been replaced by CGI and smaller budgets. See it for Lugosi’s performance, as well as Dwight Frye’s Renfield, both of which stand up against any current incarnations of possession. And yes, see it to get a chuckle out of the high drama that no longer seems at place in current horror films. But do not let the Count see you smiling, because he may just get the last laugh.