Vampires just won’t stay dead. The lore of bloodsuckers prove irresistible meat for filmmakers to sink their teeth into, but the juiciest specimen has always been Bram Stoker’s landmark – Dracula. The tale of Dracula has become so ubiquitously known that it has become like Alice In Wonderland; fascinating for interpretation rather than narrative surprises. This 1931 adaption produced by Universal, was helmed by the macabre master Tod Browning and led by a legend in his own right, Bela Lugosi.
The soon to be icon was already donning the black silk cape in the 1927 broadway adaption of Dracula when Universal purchased the rights. The plan was for Browning to unveil Lon Chaney, the ‘Man With A Thousand Faces’, as the sinister being in a sprawling epic. Two calamities forbade this vision: the first was the Wall Street Crash, the second was Chaney’s tragic death. Lugosi, who campaigned tirelessly for the eponymous role, was reunited with his undead alter-ego, evidently enamoured despite 261 performances.
Joined by Seward and Sloan reprising as Van Helsing and Bunston respectively, the cast and crew seemed set for smooth sailing into success. However, Chaney’s death gravely affected the meticulous horror director who destabilised into bouts of alcoholism and wild outbursts, often demolishing unsatisfactory pages of the script. The burden of completing the film fell onto the shoulders of cinematographer Karl Freund, and hardly a more suitable candidate could be found.
Freund’s resume includes some of cinema’s finest pictures, from All Quiet On The Western Front to Metropolis, but most relevant was a collaboration with F. W. Murnau, the image driven genius and genesis of the vampire movie with Nosferatu. Freund adapted his skill set from Murnau to Dracula and established a visually dynamic atmosphere, prevailing over budgetary and sound restraints. For instance, Dracula’s Transylvanian castle may not be a gigantic set, but low key lighting casting shadows through gargantuan spider webs is atmospheric as any epic.
The crowning achievement is capturing Lugosi in an otherworldly aura, amplifying his magnetism. In an early scene, Dracula awakes from a crypt swarming with insects, the camera drifts towards Lugosi, unsure whether we are moving toward him, or he moves to us. Freund’s stroke of genius was to compound Lugosi’s natural stare by shining pencil lights at his eyes, creating an entirely unbroken (he does not blink once) hypnotism, still transversing the screen today.
Lugosi is a synonym for Dracula. His effect upon every facet of the horror icon is immeasurable. Rather than a hideous monster we fear from the outset as Max Shreck envisioned, Lugosi is charming and exotic. Aside from his otherworldly weapons is a magnetism verging on sexually charged. Women are drawn to him before realising all too late of their doom. In one intriguing instance, Dracula stalks towards the unconscious Harker and proceeds to drain him. This scene was insisted by producers to be removed for its homosexual connotation, but luckily survives.
Lugosi was so impactful, even his very speaking manner altered the vampire image. Legend has it that Lugosi struggled to learn English and so memorised his dialogue phonetically, though this seems unlikely. However, his Hungarian accent punctuates the dialogue with unusual emphasis and pauses. A classic line which passed into popular culture is ‘I never drink… wine’. Is this pause accidental or a delicious game Dracula engages in for his own amusement? It is impossible to tell, but it harks to an ancient and far off place where these monsters exist.
One burning question is, is Dracula as terrifying now as it was in its premier? The honest answer is simply no. from the slick back hair, piecing stare and long silk cape are as indispensable to Halloween outfit tributes bolts to Frankenstein or bandages to The Mummy. This image would carry Lugosi through endless roles as a bloodsucker and spread through infamous modern takes.
However, Lugosi’s image was so ubiquitous that any parody targeting vampires inadvertently, or purposefully, mocked Lugosi. That isn’t to say it has not survived admirably, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman are indebted for the foundation of their roles, but it has shaped lesser undead from My Little Vampire to Sesame Street. The Beetleborg club house is a graveyard of the once terrifying Universal Monsters.
Dracula may not be terrifying, it falls short of horrific violence without a single bite mark or bloodied fang, nor is it deeply psychologically affecting. But to understand root of one of the world’s most beloved evils, it is unmissable. Lugosi, who called his role a blessing and a curse, died in 1956, allegedly buried in his beloved black silk cape. He may be mortal, but his performance is not.
‘Listen to them, the children of the night, what music they make!’