The leaves are gathering in the yard, beckoning to me, and naturally my thoughts turn to classic horror movies. Universal Pictures has made a tidy sum over the years on a series of horror pictures featuring that demon of Abraham Stoker’s fevered brain: Dracula. They are a curious part of our cultural heritage, and due to the magic of avarice they are all available to watch as we speak. Most of these films stand up over this time, albeit to very varying degrees. Allow me to present my list of Dracula movies in order of watchability.
I hope you enjoy it and them.
Son of Dracula – The locations/sets are dark and broodingly spooky: it’s set on a plantation in New Orleans! The acting is good, even by Lon Chaney! and the story is pretty good. The title takes some rationalization and there’s the Alucard/Dracula distraction (he’s going under the name Count Alucard, I never figured out why), but these are trifles and don’t detract from the story. There’s an outstanding scene in which Dracula’s coffin rises from its hiding place at the bottom of a swamp, then issues forth a mist from which Dracula solidifies to hover above the casket. Then, standing tall, he floats across the surface of the lake to his waiting accomplice, Katherine, awaiting his dark charms on the shore. Kate, the daughter of the very recently, and quite coincidentally, deceased plantation owner, is soon to marry Alucard, and her ultimate plan is surprising for a movie of its time. Of course, a neighbor figures out the Dracula/Alucard thing and calls Hungary for expert help. A really enjoyable movie.
House of Dracula – Even with the weakest portrayal of Dracula of all the films (by John Carridine), this one has a lot to offer: Lon Chaney’s Wolf-man Larry Talbot; the Frankenstein monster, portrayed by the sturdy Glenn Strange; a good set with secret passages; and a real Mad Scientist! Dracula shows up at a sanitarium run by Dr. Edelman and explains his “condition.” The doctor runs some tests, you know, like you’d do in the same situation, and discovers some funny business in Dracula’s blood. He decides the best way to cure him is by a blood transfusion! From himself! While this is going on, the Frankenstein monster and his pal Larry show up to add to the fun. (Plus, there’s the most grotesque villager I’ve seen in a movie. He’s right up there with that creepy-looking kid in Shane!)
Dracula’s Daughter – Very noir-ish. This one begins exactly where Lugosi’s Dracula ended. Really, fade out-fade in to: Eddie Sloan’s Van Helsing still in Carfax when two bobbies pop in and catch him in flagrante delicto! They have questions. Van Helsing is arrested and Dracula’s body is taken to the police station for safekeeping (interesting that his body didn’t turn to dust like in so many other pictures.) Later a woman claiming to be Dracula’s daughter arrives to claim the body and subsequently burns it, hoping to end the curse on herself. Literally burns it up in the night: you’d think this would have cut off the sequel machine. Things don’t work out quite that way, alas. Very moody, with melodramatic acting (not tooo much) and, some have claimed, the first hint of lesbianism in a vampire picture.
Dracula (Spanish, 1931) – This was made simultaneously with the English version, on the same sets, with almost the same script. English filmed in the day; then the Spanish actors worked por la noche. There’s a big difference in the two versions and I think it relates to culture: This movie is more modern and, certainly, much less repressed than the English one. This is a real movie: something that we can watch and relate to today. The actors are, mostly, better than in the Lugosi film. The actor playing Dracula is full of gestures and stares but does not have the enigmatic presence of Bela Lugosi.
Dracula (1931) – “The One That Started It All!” Well, that’s what it should have said on the box. For a very long time I found it difficult to watch this movie. I couldn’t get past the gestural, (of-its-time, I suppose) theatrical acting style. Watching the accompanying documentary (I have the Universal Dracula set) I found the key to this movie, at least for me: it’s really a silent film. Thinking of it this way primed my brain to enjoy it in its environment. The lingering shots of Lugosi’s hypnotic eyes, his broad movements, even his vocal articulation are only at home in a silent movie. My disc has the option to play, instead of the monotonous Swan Lake original, a new score by Philip Glass. The Glass score (at least on my tv) is very forward and, while the dialogue isn’t drowned out, it can be ignored. This way Dracula can be viewed as a silent movie. Okay, it doesn’t have the intertitles, but the story isn’t hard to follow. Lugosi is magnetic, he fits beside Nazimova or Valentino, and he performs the role, he doesn’t simply act it. This really only works in the silent arena. And how can you not love the sets? Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, with the spider webs (complete with mega-spider), and catacombs — with live armadillos! No, they aren’t indigenous that area, but they look great there! Who can forget the fascinating, mysterious, unexplained women vampires who live in the darkness and attack Renfield before Dracula shoos them off. Karl Freund’s German Expressionism-tinted photography sets the mood perfectly. The only real drawback is the attempt at comedic relief, viz. Renfield in the sanitarium being harassed by an unsympathetic guard. Times have changed for the better. Dwight Frye was much, much better as Fritz in Frankenstein. Viewed as a silent, Dracula is very entertaining. It is definitely Lugosi’s best movie.
I hear you saying, “Hey! What about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein?” I know Lugosi played the Count in that one, but it really wasn’t Dracula, was it? Well? That’s what I thought. No, he wore the costume and cape, but it wasn’t Dracula. So while an enjoyable movie (maybe one with a bit too much Abbott and Costello) not really a Dracula movie. But, thanks for your input.
And, yes, technically there was another Universal featuring a character called Dracula (Carridine, again, sadly), I tend to dismiss the weak Dracula portion of that bifurcated picture and concentrate on the Karloff-Chaney-Strange part – the good part. I want to talk about that one in another post about the Super-8 movies I watched as a kid, in the long ago before the glaciers receded and letters like VHS and DVD formed in their wake.
Bonus points to anyone who can tell me where the Lugosi image at the top of the page came from. Hint: It’s not Dracula!