Tag Archives: 2007

A review of “Dracula” (1931)

So I finally saw the entirety of “Dracula” (1931) last night, after being alive on this planet for nearly half a century.  The iconic image of Bela Lugosi was something I’d grown up with in the 1980’s … most boys back then hadn’t actually seen the  original Universal Pictures movie from 50 years’ prior (and of course we hadn’t read Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel), but everyone knew who Dracula was.  The character still saturated popular culture via everything from toys to comic books to cartoons to breakfast cereals to countless emulations in contemporary movies.  You weren’t a boy in the 1980’s if you didn’t dress proudly as Dracula at least once for Halloween.

But … despite it being such a cultural touchstone, this 1931 film might have been overhyped.  That’s just my humble opinion, and I do realize it might get me in trouble with horror fans — or even just film buffs in general.  I personally found Lugosi’s performance underwhelming.  Look — I understand that he looked and sounded the part, especially with his height of  6’1, and his unique and intimidating stare.  But he was a pretty staid and even low-energy actor, at least here, I think.  For me, he was quickly overshadowed by the wide-eyed Dwight Frye, in his supporting role as the manic, psychopathic Renfield.  Frye was an expressive physical actor, and he looked and sounded absolutely nuts.  That man could be genuinely scary, if this story was presented in a  more natural fashion.

Which brings me to my overall concern about the movie — it has a slow pace and a stationary feel to it that are unfortunately derived from its immediate source material — the film was adapted from a 1924 stage play adaptation of Stoker’s book.  The book, in contrast, was actually an epic journey, with imperiled characters with lots of agency who reacted quite energetically against its title antagonist.

The difference here is most painfully obvious with a clipped, seemingly bowdlerized anti-climax, where Dracula is killed offscreen.  When he’s finally (SPOILER WARNING) staked through the heart, we don’t see it.  Instead, we’re treated to a clumsy reaction shot by David Manners, in his milquetoast turn as Jonathan Harker.  It’s awkwardly staged.  It even feels as though the scene could have been added in post-production, after Van Helsing’s dispatch of the monster was deemed too much for audiences.  (Van Helsing himself is played with admirable gravitas by Edward Van Sloan.)  It’s weird that so little thought appears to have gone into this denouement, given the detail that seems to have gone into things like the movie’s great sets.

If you want to see a truly impressive antique Dracula movie, I’d recommend the unauthorized (but far superior) adaptation of the famous book — F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu: ein Symphonie des Grauens” (1922).  Even that historic film can be divisive, though.  People like me find it delightfully creepy, while others describe it as flat-out boring.

Oh, well.  I still enjoyed “Dracula.”  It’s moody and lavish to look at, even in black and white.  You can tell that the filmmakers took it seriously — it’s nicely atmospheric, when it isn’t being pulled down by ham-handed comic relief or (sigh) terrible bat puppetry.  (They should have known even in 1931 to omit the effect altogether).  Sloan’s performance kind of redeems it as a serious horror film, and Frye really shines.  (Among other things, he’d go on to become an even more infamous horror henchman later that same year.  He was none other than Fritz, the doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, in Universal’s “Frankenstein.”)

“Dracula” can be a lot of fun.  It will help you enjoy it if you watch it after dark, if your hopes aren’t too high for being scared, and if you’re curious about what Depression-era audiences might have found frightening.  You might really find it interesting if you’re a serious fan of the genre.  What I’d suggest is a double-feature, with this movie followed by a no-holds-barred modern vampire movie like “30 Days of Night” (2007) for a point of comparison.  That could be an interesting vibe for the night.


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Throwback Thursday: Invasion(s) of the Body Snatchers!!!

Below are the trailers for all four major film iterations of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”  Though these movies enjoy varying degrees of fame, they all remain close to my heart.  There is just something about Jack Finney’s original paranoia-inducing story idea that’s timeless and frightening.  (Finney’s 1955 novel served as the basis for the first film, directed by Don Siegel, a year later.)  And I always thought that the identity-stealing, alien body snatchers were an elegant monster concept too, because they can be rendered effectively on film with little or no special effects.

The first trailer is for the original 1956 classic, which still holds up surprisingly well.  (If you haven’t seen it, then you might discover that it’s got more urgency and less camp than you’d expect from a typical 1950’s alien invasion flick.)  The second trailer is for the genuinely frightening 1978 remake, which is, quite simply, one of the top science-fiction/horror films of all time.

I was introduced to both of these movies by my “movie uncle,” Uncle John.  I remember thinking the original was far better than I’d expected for an “old black-and-white.”  (I’d had a an adolescent’s predictable skepticism about old movies.)  And the dour 1978 masterpiece got under my skin and stayed there forever.

The 1993 installment, simply titled “Body Snatchers,” is probably the least well known —  I’ve never heard it mentioned outside of horror fan circles.  I myself had never heard of it until I stumbled across it in a video store more than a decade following its release.  It had a very limited theatrical release, and it sometimes feels like the most generic of the “Body Snatchers” movies — like maybe a made-for-television movie or an especially good entry for the first revival of “The Twilight Zone” (1985-1989).

I love it.  You could tell it was a labor of love for its screenwriters and its director, Abel Ferrara … it was obvious that they truly “got” Finney’s concept, and that they set out to deliver just what genre fans wanted.  This “Body Snatchers” was freaky, fast-paced and unsettling, and I still feel it deserves a broader following.

The fourth trailer is for the most maligned and recent adaptation of Finney’s novel, 2007’s “The Invasion.”  (My god, was this really made 13 years ago?  Tempus fugit.)  People really dislike this movie, despite a cast led by Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.  It was generally panned by both critics and audiences, and I sorta understand why.  It’s got its share of flaws — most notably a hasty happy ending that feels tacked on by the studio.  I don’t quite love it, but I really like it quite a lot — it’s stylish and ambitious and has a lot of creepy moments.  And if you think Nicole Kidman is easy on the eyes, as I do, you’ll see that she looks like a million bucks here.

If you really enjoy these films and are hungry for more, there are two other alien invasion movies that seem to channel the same muse as Finney’s.  The first is 1994’s “The Puppet Masters” by Stuart Orme.  (It should not be confused with its soundalike contemporary, the “Puppet Master” (singular) horror franchise, which depicts demonic dolls.)  “The Puppet Masters” is campy, but still very cool, and it adapts the eponymous 1951 novel by Robert A. Heinlein.

The second recommendation I’d offer is 1998’s “The Faculty.” It’s an even campier horror-comedy aimed more at mainstream audiences, but it’s still a lot if fun.