Tod Browning’s Dracula is often unfairly compared to Murnau’s unauthorized Nosferatu, and it is an unfair comparison because the two are very different films, which merely happen to share the same literary inspiration. (Neither are mere adaptations. The only film to fairly compare to Murnau’s would be Herzog’s remake with Kinski and, indeed, it compares very favorably). The vampire of Murnau and Schreck is an accursed, repulsive animal, the carrier of a dreaded plague and the beast fights fiercely to sustain it’s life, like a rodent in it’s death throes. The Dracula of Browning and Lugosi is an outsider, a mesmerizing and intensely austere intruder, who comes to nourish on the aristocratic London Society, who he, paradoxically, yearns to to join (fittingly, for a genuine outsider, it is to no avail of course; he makes rather pronounced overtures and goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his ambition there).
Dwight Frye’s pre-bitten Renfield is nearly as strange an outcast as he is after his transformation, albeit in a far different light. Renfield is a bizarre, urban effeminate in an old meat, potatoes and superstition land. The villagers are outcasts too, but among them, Renfield is the doomed jester, misguidedly blinded by his foolhardy feeling of superiority over them and stubbornly oblivious to the peasants’ warnings.
The introduction to the inhabitants of Castle Dracula is among the most discussed in the annuls of Universal Horror and, to many viewers,it is also most perplexing. This is quintessential Browning. The static silence is punctuated with genuine dread, surreal humor, and the unnerving whimpers of a opossum. Karl Freund’s camera pans over a decidedly unreal set. The vampire brides slowly emerge as a bee scampers out of it’s little coffin. An opossum seems to be ducking for cover in it’s dilapidated coffin and it’s cries are the only living sounds we hear as we are introduced to Lugosi’s Count staring directly at the camera.
Renfield’s journey to Castle Dracula perfectly captures the sensory view of a crepuscular world. Indeed, no other Universal horror film would convey it as vividly and attempts to do so in later films proved pale imitations.
Renfield’s arrival to the castle, and state of confusion, is juxtaposed against the awkward but pertinacious emergence of Dracula. Lugosi’s emergence seems to partake of a genuine struggle and this echoes the delivery of his greeting which follows. This emergence sharply contrasts with the startling and confused appearance of armadillos scurrying in the ruins below, which also heightens Renfield’s confused state.
Critics have unfavorably compared this scene to Melford’s much more fluid shot of Villar’s Count appearance atop the stairwell in Dracula (The Spanish Version). This can be dismissed as sloppy, revisionist criticism. Browning is a master at those elongated pauses where little seems to be happening. With careful, focused attention, this proves to be deceptive, but admittedly is a struggle for viewers corn fed on television bred aesthetics. Comparing the two is akin to comparing an artist as opposed to a mere craftsman. Melford’s scene is surface dramatics and cannot illicit anything remotely comparable to the surreal queasiness Browning evokes here. Additionally, Melford’s entrance climaxes with a jerky and unintentionally comic Villar greeting his visitor. With Melford, the effect is ruined, never recovers,and only worsens. With Browning, the unreal dread has just begun.
The vampire’s lethargic descent, set against the massive sets, resembles the pronounced, surreal fire and ice quality of an El Greco. Dracula’s torpid greeting to Renfield is an unnatural extension of his body movements, and is exactly how we might expect such a greeting to be delivered after a hibernating state.
The absurd myth that Lugosi learned his lines phonetically probably sprang from his verbal introduction here. We sense, not that Dracula is struggling to speak English, but that he is struggling to speak at all here. Lugosi had been in the states for five years and had been playing the part of Dracula on Broadway for three, so in 1931 his English was already as good as it would ever be. His English in Browning’s previous “The Thirteenth Chair”, while still not expert, was actually “better” than it was in Dracula. Lugosi himself discussed how intensely Browning directed his acting in the film, stating that the direction was very different than the way he had played the part on Broadway. Thus, the abnormal delivery was quite intentional on the director’s part and the actor never repeated the stylized performance, even when he played the role again some 17 years later in Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein.
Browning, understandably, was an actor’s director. He had acted himself in some 50 films early in his cinematic career. While it’s true that he never found a real replacement for his beloved Lon Chaney, he did have a rewarding collaborative partnership with both Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore, even if he did not find those as satisfying. (He reportedly worked well with Lugosi, but only used him once more, in Mark of the Vampire. Browning’s relationship with Barrymore, by most accounts, proved to be combative but he did work twice more with Lionel in Mark and The Devil Doll , and, to be fair, the teaming of Chaney and Browning would not be equaled again until Herzog and Kinski).
Browning makes much use of body language with Lugosi, Van Sloan and Chandler. With Lugosi and Van Sloan he focuses intense concentration on the eyes and hands. When Dracula leers at the seated Renfield, Browning and Freund utilized a pinpoint spotlight in Lugosi’s eyes to enhance the hypnotic effect. It’s quite unreal and, just as equally effective, later there will be a symbolic connection to Van Sloan’s hyper-pronounced glasses.
The emergence of Dracula’s three brides, in an attempt to feast on the drugged Renfield, will also have a symbolic connection. Renfield will soon be transformed, but it will not be by the three women. Dracula stops them just in time to take over the feasting himself, and one wonders whether Renfield symbolizes the first of Dracula’s three replacement brides (Dracula tells Renfield earlier that he is only taking three boxes and one assumes, at first, that his brides will be traveling with him, yet they never re-appear and so this seems to be a set-up for their replacements. Had Renfield been as fiercely loyal a disciple as he professed he was going to be, he may have been converted to full fledged vampire and joined his master).
Renfield paves the way for Dracula’s entrance into society, a bit like the Baptist proclaiming that good news is coming. Like any disciple, Renfield is, by turns, both overly zealous in his proselytizing and frequently faltering in his loyalty and one feels it is the characterization of Renfield that Browning identifies with and enjoys the most.
Before merging with London society, Dracula must feed, and it is an innocent and waif-like flower girl that becomes his first victim. (The girl being of obvious lower class, he does not transform her, but merely kills her. London’s elitist status quo system quickly rubs off on him). Dracula is both elegant and sinister here.
Dracula enters the opera house to strains of Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony and then, very quickly, the conclusion of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger’ prelude. It is the only music in the context of the film. Browning’s extensive use of silence proved to be an artistically sound decision. That point was especially made when Universal tacked on Philip Glass’ execrable score for the film’s anniversary release.
We are now introduced to Helen Chandler’s complex and vastly underrated Mina. Again, Browning is expert in drawing forth a nuanced and interesting performance from an actor. The role of Mina is one of the most pointed criticisms in the Browning film, deemed unworthy and pale next to Lupita Tovar’s role of Eva in Melford’s version. Indeed, Tovar gives the only decent performance in the Melford film, but compared to Chandler, Tovar is obvious (yes, she’s more overtly sexual) and also more amateurish. Chandler acts with her body, her eyes, and facial gestures. The way Chandler touches herself, as she frequently does in the film, so delicately brushing her collar bone, as if to cover her vulnerably exposed flesh, conveys a sort of girlish outrage at Lucy’s expressed attraction to the dark toned utterances of their foreign visitor. Chandler’s is a beautifully and subtly nuanced performance which improves as her character evolves. The character of Mina evolves more than any other throughout the film. Mina’s bedroom scene with Lucy, further enhances this. As Mina listens to Lucy’s fascination with the Count, she again touches herself, folds her hands, looks intensely at Lucy with a young woman’s superficial naïveté and genuine concern. She runs her fingers over the wooden arm of the chair, a state of occupied wandering, as if it is a diversion from the true extent of her friend’s dark sexual attraction to Dracula. “Give me someone a little more normal,” Chandler says, acutely capturing her character’s Victorian stuffiness and adolescence. Chandler finally relents to Lucy’s crush. She gets up, still half mocking Lucy, covers her exposed flesh again, indicating her virginal state,and beautifully kicks up her knee in departure, like a sixteen year old girl.
Chandler’s years of acting experience are in full flower here. She had been very active in theater for well over ten years, had acted with both Barrymores in productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen, had gotten good reviews for the film Outward Bound and was already deep in the throes of the alcoholism that would eventually take her. She was hardly endowed with the innocence she portrayed in Mina, but undoubtedly tapped into the memory of it (and later, innocence lost) to give Mina resonance.
Lucy’s death scene is well filmed and shows Browning at the peak of his powers. A lamp with three female figures rests next to her (the figures echoing Dracula’s three vampire brides). Behind the lamp is an ominous clock. She drifts to sleep ever so slowly. Dracula first appears as a silent bat hovering before Lucy’s open window, then a moment later he is in human form, a few feet away from her as she sleeps. He methodically bends his arm, as if he is re-shaping from bat to human before he approaches her, moving as if almost under water. When he is inches away from her, the scene dissolves into a medical theater of sorts. Doctors are hovering over Lucy’s corpse as students watch from above. The students seem as lifeless as Lucy and not only do we have the feeling of undead, but a dream-like feeling of something unreal permeates the scene, as if sprouted from Baudelaire’s Poe.
We are now introduced to Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing. From the outset, he is a parallel figure to Dracula and, at times, seems just as sinister. His hand movements, when he touches Renfield’s hand for instance, recall Dracula’s distinct hand gestures. The exaggerated glasses, as stated above, have as much meaning as the pinpoint spotlight in Dracula’s hypnotic eyes. Both Dracula and Van Helsing can see well beyond the confines of their surroundings. They are the only two who actually see, the others are, metaphorically, like lost sheep attempting to see through a glass darkly.
Dracula and Van Helsing are metaphorically Christ and Anti-Christ although the distinction between the two is intentionally blurred. The comparison is apt, as this is the most religious of Universal’s horror films.
The much maligned second half of the film shifts perspective, but still does not resemble a real world at all and casts an aquatic spell over the receptive viewer.
Another very well filmed scene is the vignette of Renfield in his cell as his master silently pays call outside. The scene cross cuts between the tense, nerve-frayed, overtly emotional, pleading Renfield and the ice cold vampire; fire and ice again. Renfield bows his head, devastated, in a half prayer for the intended victim, Mina, which goes unanswered. This flows into Mina sleeping in her bed. Again Dracula appears as a bat hovering before a window. Then, Browning’s sharp trademark intercut. Dracula is suddenly in the room. He is in human form, but his arm is lifted, almost as if he is unfolding. Lucy’s three figure lamp is now mysteriously placed in Mina’s room. There is no explanation for this, save for symbolic foreboding. Another sharp intercut; a close-up of Lugosi, who looks young and even handsome here. A long shot of Draculas’ full, slowly approaching figure cross cuts with a repeated image of the sleeping Mina, then another sharp intercut to an intense close-up of Lugosi, whose face is now twisted into a hideous expression.
The following night reveals a Mina recounting her bad dream to fiancee Harker. Van Helsing overhears this, approaches her, puts on his glasses to examine her, lifts the scarf from her neck, to which she responds with an almost sensual gasp. This is Mina on the verge of transforming into a more ethereal and more interesting character who understandably begins to find her fiancee increasingly dull. Mina’s facial expressions range from introverted guilt, shame, half-masked pride, and finally, a thinly masked yearning for Dracula after he makes his appearance to the group. Van Helsing interrupts the foreplay between Mina and Dracula, and Mina reverts back, albeit briefly, to a more fragile, wounded state. But Mina’s is a wildly mercurial state and again she shifts, this time chastising the doctor after advises that she go to her room.
Dracula feigns concern over Mina’s bad dreams, while Mina twirls her fingers through her scarf. She rises her from the couch, kicks up her knee and closes her eyes in a state of ecstasy as Dracula recommends she do as the doctor advises. This is when the Puritan Van Helsing makes his discovery of Dracula in the mirror. The reactions to the smashing of the mirror are priceless. Herbert Bunston’s expression of uncomfortable awkwardness during Dracula’s explanation plays well with Manners’ display of disgust and Van Sloan’s gleeful pride.
Another highly effective bit of acting is in the scene in which Renfield describes his master, parting a red mist. This is Dwight Frye’s best scene in the film and he plays it with all the sincerity of an obsessed apostle. Renfield’s narration here resembles an epitaph for a biblical saint and his miracles.
The showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula, both believing themselves to be the protagonist, is made the more surreal by Dracula’s hissed departure, fleeing the cross, yet unaccompanied by any dramatic music attempting to tell us this is a dramatic scene.
The rest of the film pretty much belongs to Chandler and one of the most unsettling images in that last quarter is the close-up of Chandler, almost fully vampiric, as she leans into Harker. Her wonderfully expressive eyes now express only deadness, a bit like a doll’s eyes.
Dracula descending down the stairs of Carfax Abbey to kill Renfield takes us back to Dracula descending down the stairs to greet Renfield near the film’s opening, and there remains but one act of penance to pay, this being from the film’s blasphemer, Count Dracula. When Van Helsing stakes him off screen, Chandler’s body twists, thrusting in agonized reaction, her firsts clench and her breasts heave as she loses her master and, we empathize because we will see nothing of the like again. Comparatively, recent pickings from the crop seem typical shallow fare. Browning’s Dracula is the real thing.