Dracula (1931)

Look into my eyes…

(1931) Horror (Universal) Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Joan Standing, Charles Gerrard, Moon Carroll, Josephine Velez, Michael Visaroff, Cornelia Thaw, Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, Barbara Bozoky, Anna Bakacs, Tod Browning (voice), John George, Wyndham Standing, Bunny Beatty. Directed by Tod Browning

As the silent era drew to a close and talkies became the “in” thing, Dracula – based on a stage play and not directly on Bram Stoker’s novel, although the play certainly used it as a starting point – became for Universal, the beginning of the studio’s long tenure as the monster studio. Together with Frankenstein which appeared later the same year, it became part of the one-two punch that would land legendary movie monsters like the Mummy, the Invisible Man and the Wolf Man at the studio and terrify generations of moviegoers and kids watching creature feature TV shows.

Real estate agent Renfield (Frye) goes to Transylvania to meet up with a client to close a leasing of property in London. The superstitious villagers warn him not to go to the Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains, but he fails to heed their warnings and takes an unusual coach trip – a coach with no driver. Once at the castle, he meets Count Dracula (Lugosi) who turns out to be a man with a supernaturally intense gaze and a dislike of wine, which he never drinks. But the Count turns out to be more than a man – he is a vampire, the undead, as Renfield discovers too late – being driven mad and becoming the Count’s servant.

When the ship Renfield booked passage on returns to London, the horrible discovery is that the crew is all dead, there are a number of coffins aboard and only one survivor – Renfield, who is locked away in the asylum of Dr. Seward (Bunston). Seward’s daughter Mina (Chandler) is engaged to the handsome John Harker (Manners) and is close friends with Lucy Weston (Dade), a neighbor of the property the Count has leased. But the Count recognizes Lucy as a potential meal, and transforms her into a fellow vampire.

Fortunately, professional vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Van Sloan) arrives, in hot pursuit of the Count. He knows Dracula for what he is, and knows how to kill him. But can he and Harker possibly defeat a nearly immortal creature that has 500 years of experience in defeating foolish mortals like themselves?

This is a movie that is a classic in every sense of the word. The brooding, gothic sets; the wonderfully atmospheric cinematographer of Karl Freund, a German cinematographer who worked with F.W. Murnau on Metropolis and The Last Laugh and whom some credit with co-directing the movie, so important were his contributions. Browning chose to release the film without a score; music has since been added, but if you’ve ever seen a version without music, you’ve seen it as the director intended.

But what makes the movie is Lugosi. A Hungarian émigré, his English is heavily accented which would dog Lugosi throughout his career; however, the Eastern European lilt is perfect for the role as are Lugosi’s expressive eyes. Lugosi came from a theatrical background and often uses grand gestures in his performance here, a product of that background. That kind of thing was less noticeable back in the early sound era, when many stage actors were recruited for the talkies as silent actors often had voices that didn’t reproduce well (as with John Gilbert) or who gave stiff readings of their dialogue. The intensity of Lugosi’s performance here, though, is unquestioned and for nearly a century since the movie was released, is the performance most associated with the role, Christopher Lee and Frank Langella notwithstanding.

There are strong elements of melodrama in the screenplay, and Browning’s direction is often stiff and stagey, and for those reasons there are some who feel that the movie doesn’t hold up weel, but I disagree. Freund’s tracking shot as Renfield enters the castle is a breathtaking introduction to the Count, and the terrifying coach ride through the Carpathians is creepy even today. Not only is this a true Halloween classic and perhaps the ultimate Universal monster movie (credited with keeping the studio afloat through near-bankruptcy during the Depression), it is one of the most perfect adaptations of the Dracula legend ever. For all lovers of scary cinema, this is truly a must-see.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully atmospheric. A legendary performance by Lugosi. Classic in every sense of the word. Still spooky even by modern standards. Certain scenes still give me the heebie-jeebies.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might feel a bit quaint and dated for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is implied violence and sexuality, and some mild terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie began life as a Broadway play; Lugosi had originated the title role on the Great White Way and along with Van Sloan and Bunston, are the only actors to transition from the stage version to the screen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Peacock, Redbox, Spectrum, TCM, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; ;Metacritic: 71/100.

I, Vampire

             First of all, the movies are all bullshit. Especially those new ones. We don’t sparkle – ever – for one thing, and I don’t look anything like that boy. There’s nothing soulful about my kind; by definition, we’re soulless.

            We aren’t anything like Christopher Lee, either. And Stoker got everything all wrong, too. Flash all the crosses you want at us unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness. Now those guys scare us; they just don’t take freakin’ no for an answer. Holy water doesn’t faze us and garlic doesn’t bother us except for one guy I knew who was allergic in life to the stuff; made him break out something awful.

            I’m a vampire, by the way. I figure you’d have guessed that by now. I’ve been one for about 75 years now. By my reckoning, that means I’ve been in a foul mood for…oh, about 75 years. My name is Harvey – yes, I know, like the fucking rabbit. I get that all the damn time; it was never funny. If Jimmy Stewart were still alive, I’d tear him a new one. As a matter of fact I was going to back in 1961, but cooler heads prevailed.

            I was 51 when I was Changed. I lived in New Orleans at the time; it was 1935 and I was drunk (as usual), walking home from a bar near the Quarter when I decided to take a piss in an alley. I often wonder what would have happened if I had been able to hold it that night; instead, I was grabbed from behind and felt a sharp pain in my neck; then I felt sleepy. I passed out in that alley.

            When I woke up, I felt strange. I chalked it up to the alcohol and stumbled back home. It was almost dawn; thank God it had been Friday. I slept well into Saturday afternoon. When I woke up, I felt this terrible pain in my stomach. I was also not alone.

            He was sitting in a chair, watching me as I woke up. He was thin, almost to the point of emaciation. He was immaculately groomed, but he had a crooked grin on his face. I would learn later on that he was considered quite a joker by our race although I didn’t know it at the time. Of course, I didn’t even know I was a new member of a different race either.

            In any case, he said “You’re probably feeling some awful pain in the stomach. Don’t be alarmed, that will pass. You are also wondering who I am. My name is Edgar. I’m a vampire.” At that point, I figured he was a nut case and I tried to get out of bed and away from him – he might be dangerous. My legs were like rubber and they weren’t working right. I fell flat on my ass on the floor. He guffawed. “I wouldn’t try to walk right now, brother. You have been reborn; your body is adjusting to its new situation.” I looked up with him and my confusion must have been apparent. He laughed again. “I have Changed you; made you one of our kind. One of my brothers has been unmade recently, so I needed to replace him; you happened to be handy.”

            I tried to get up again, but my arms and legs weren’t working properly. He smiled and walked over to where I lay on the floor. He grabbed the front of my pajamas with one hand and lifted me onto the bed as if he were lifting a candlestick or a paperweight. “No sense in leaving you on the floor; it’ll be hours before you can walk. Now be a good man and just lie still, all right? It will make this less time-consuming.” I let out a big sigh. There seemed to be nothing for it.

            He smiled. “Good choice. Now, let me tell you what’s happening to you. You are not dead; you don’t have to die to become one of the Fallen. That’s what we call ourselves, the Fallen, as in fallen from grace, fallen from the eyes of God. It’s a bit of an ironic joke, considering most of us don’t believe in God. It’s hard to when you are a walking, talking violation of all His laws.”          

            He made a dismissive gesture. “But I digress. You are becoming a vampire. Think of it as an incurable disease, like leprosy or polio. And that Bela Lugosi movie is all wrong. I’m sure you’ll have a thousand questions, so let’s just get to basics.

            “That pain you’re feeling is hunger. You’ll get it from time to time, but not nearly as often as you might think. The only thing that will relieve it fully is human blood. The blood of cattle or other mammals will relieve it for a short time, but not like human blood.” I felt queasy; for the first time I was beginning to believe him. You see, when he mentioned human blood I felt a craving, like you might for ice cream or steak. I spoke to him for the first time, in a weak voice; “I don’t…I can’t…”

            He smiled again. “You don’t have to kill anybody. The human body contains more blood than you can drink. Think about it; do you drink gallons of water, milk, wine? No and neither do we. We just need a pint or two and we’re right as rain and for weeks. The most voracious of us feeds no more than once a month.”

            He went back to his chair and sat down. “And that hooey about changing into bats? Forget about it. We don’t turn into mist and we don’t turn into wolves. There is nothing all that supernatural about us. As for fangs, your incisors will change somewhat, grow sharper but you won’t grow full-fledged fangs. Not noticeably, anyway.

            “You will grow stronger, unnaturally so. You will also be faster and have more endurance. However this stuff about living forever – forget it. Nothing is eternal, especially not us. We are much longer-lived than our human cousins, but we do die eventually. We call it being unmade; our bodies simply disintegrate. Our kind leave no remains.”

            He was wearing a greatcoat and from one of his pockets he pulled out a bottle. “Here, drink this it’ll help with the stomach pain.” The truth was, it was really growing truly unbearable. I reached out and grabbed it, pulled out the stopper and drank it greedily. It was red and thick and warm; it tasted delicious. “That’s calves blood; there’s a butcher nearby who does me favors from time to time.”

            He looked at me. “Incidentally, daylight bothers us. It doesn’t kill us, but our skin becomes very sensitive as do our eyes. Go out in daylight only with sunglasses, and heavily cloaked; you will get very intense sunburns with even just limited exposure. They are very painful and take days to get better. You won’t burst into flames or anything, but you’ll feel as if you had.

            “Stakes through the heart do kill us, but then they’d kill anybody. We are decidedly hard to kill and we heal quickly, although we do feel pain. We can only be killed by piercing our heart, or cutting off our heads. That damned Stoker got that right at least.

            “We’re really quite harmless, for the most part, but people feel uncomfortable around us, even if they are unaware of our condition.” He got up and stretched. “That’s pretty much it for now. Oh, and we don’t age. You will always stay as you are now. You might change your hair and your clothes but you will always look as you do now. Sorry about that.”

            So was I. I was 51 then, and back in those days that was pretty old. I had kept most of my hair but it was mostly grey, and I had the pot belly of a man my age – and the wrinkles to prove it. I was certainly not the Adonis most movie vampires are.

            He left then, and true to his word the pain had dissipated. A few hours later I was able to walk short distances; a few hours after that it was as if nothing had happened. Fool that I was, I thought I had dreamed everything and went out into the daylight. It was if someone had poured acid all over me; I only managed to go a few feet before I was screaming in agony. I ran back inside and pulled all the shades. I was in horrible pain for days.

            It did get better, but shortly after that the stomach pains began again. I felt like I was going crazy; I was never hungry and rarely drank anything, water or stronger beverages. I slept very little; mostly, I read voraciously. I had always loved to read.

            Once the pains began, I wondered what I was going to do. Fortunately, my doorbell rang for the first time in days. It was the middle of the night, and it was Edgar. “May I come in?” he said politely. I gestured, and he followed me inside. “Have any more calves’ blood?” I said in a husky voice. He smiled and said “No, not this time. I’m going to take you out hunting so that you are able to feed yourself. Something I forgot to mention; because I changed you, we are bonded. I can sense when you’re hungry; you will also be able to sense certain things about me. You’ll know when I’m unmade, for example. When you Change someone, you will also be able to sense things about them. You will also be responsible to train them, as I am you. I am like a parent, a mama goose teaching my gosling to be a gosling. From time to time I will check in on you but we will never be friends; it is not in the nature of our kind to befriend one another.”

            He took me out that night, over to a place by the river where the lighting was poor. Mist was rising from the Mississippi that night; it was just like the movies. We watched a night watchman at a warehouse making his rounds. Edgar whispered to me “That’s our prey. Now, watch what I do.”

            He moved silently alongside the warehouse; the man had no idea he was there. He walked into a guard shack and sat down to drink a cup of coffee. The radio was playing. It was a warm night, and I suspect the man had more than coffee in that cup. Edgar motioned to me to follow. I was like a whisper behind him. I could feel my hunger growing, and I was almost salivating. I looked in the glass of the guardhouse and noticed my reflection (yes, we cast reflection in mirrors too); my eyes were red and there were noticeable fangs. I looked at Edgar and saw he was the same. The watchman looked up at the moment and saw me. Edgar cursed and ran in, faster than I could see. He was on the watchman in a heartbeat, biting his throat.

            The watchman slumped, his eyes growing glassy before they closed. He looked as if he had been drugged. Edgar remained there for a few moments and I heard a distinct slurping sound, then he released. He beckoned me over. “Only use your upper teeth. Don’t grab with the lower teeth; you’ll find you have fangs there as well, and the bite of those fangs will Change him. Just use your upper fangs; you’ll find it natural as eating. Once they are inside his neck, you’ll feel blood flowing into your mouth. Simply swallow until you feel your pain lessening. It shouldn’t take long, just a few moments. Once the pain is gone, disengage. Never take too much; you can kill, and killing draws attention to us.”

            He motioned to the unconscious watchman and I bent over him. The hunger pains were fierce indeed, and I sank my upper teeth into his neck, taking care to avoid biting him with my lower. In moments I felt his warm, sticky blood in my throat, and it was as creamy as a milkshake. I sucked as if at a mother’s breast, and within moments the pain began to fade and disappear completely. I took a few more sucks, but I noticed Edgar shaking his head and then he tapped me on the shoulder. “Enough,” was all he said. Somewhat reluctantly, I disengaged my fangs, the salty taste still in my mouth. I licked my lips; I felt utterly at peace with the world.

            I frowned. “He saw me, didn’t he?” Edgar nodded. “Only for a moment, though. He will wake up in an hour or two with a bit of a headache feeling as if he had the flu. He’ll finish his shift, go home and take the next day off. After that, he’ll be fine; his body will replenish the blood he just lost. As for the sight of you, he’ll chalk that up to the whiskey in his coffee. I’ve used this man as prey before for new Fallen; even if they’re clumsy enough to allow themselves to be seen, as you were, he’s always been prone to hallucinations. He’ll just believe he saw another one.”

             He walked me back to my small home. “It is important,” he said for once not grinning, “that the humans never see you feeding. The sight of it is terrifying to them. They believe our kind to be myths; when they find out differently, they get absolutely crazy. We are few and they are many; should they declare war on us, even though we are stronger and faster, their numbers would eventually wear us down. We would be annihilated as a race. You must learn to use your speed and be silent when you hunt. Exsanguinating your prey also calls attention to us. If you are discovered, we will not aid you. If anything, we may help the humans exerminate you.”  We had arrived at my door and he stopped for a moment and looked at me hard. “Keep to yourself. Make no human friends, at least not for long. In ten years, sell your home and move away; tell your neighbors only that you are retiring to the south of France, Florida or wherever you think they’ll believe. People who remain the same age for forty, fifty years also garner suspicion. There are those among the Fallen who are charged with keeping our existence secret from the humans. Do not attract their attention; they will destroy you utterly and without mercy.”

            We went our separate ways after that. I rarely saw him but from time to time he’d pop by, still grinning that crooked grin. We would have a meal together, talk about what we were doing. Edgar had been in his 30s when he was Changed, and had liked to paint. He still did, and some of his artwork was amazing – but then he’d had two centuries to practice.

            Money was never a problem for us. I had some savings, but I discovered shortly after Edgar left me a deposit had been made in my account; I was a millionaire. When I asked him about it later, he smiled and just said “We take care of our own.”

            As time went by I discovered a few things about the Fallen. Whatever our condition was, it also heightened our creative senses as well. We all became successful at whatever endeavor captured our fancy. Some were great financiers, others poets and painters. Myself, I became a novelist; I wrote several best-sellers under a pen name, many of which became movies. After thirty or forty years, I arranged for my alter ego to pass away and began writing more under a different pen name. I also had some luck at the stock market. The millions I made from my writing turned into tens and then hundreds of millions.

            I now live a life of luxury. I visit New Orleans from time to time, but I live in the South of France now. I have Changed several men and women; I discovered that each of the Fallen must Change their fair share, to keep the race alive. Of course, recruiting by normal means is impossible; there are rules, after all.

            For one thing, we cannot Change children or babies. Their systems can’t handle the shock. We don’t Change the young and foolish; their arrogance can compromise the secret of our existence. It is for that reason we authorized those books and those movies. Yes, their authors are Fallen too.

            It’s not a terrible life, but it is a life of solitude. We can’t make lifelong friends with humans; once they notice we don’t age, they either fear us or they want to be like us, but those who long for immortality tend to make poor vampires. For one thing, we are not immortal. One day, I will be unmade just as naturally as normal humans die. I was Changed because one other among us was unmade and when Edgar himself was Unmade back in 2003, I Changed a young woman to replace him. She, like me, became a writer of some repute.

            The truth about our kind is that we are just as human as you are in many ways; I feel a sense of responsibility to put down the truth about us. This manuscript I am sealing in a vault hidden to all but one whom I trust; one day, he will find it and publish it. Chances are, nobody will believe it.

            Your skepticism is our greatest protection. Indeed, vampires dwell among you, in greater numbers than you can imagine. We are no danger to you; we rarely kill humans unless we have to. It is in our best interest not to. Even though we are many, your numbers are vast compared to ours. If you chose to seek us out and hunt us down, we would be exterminated, and that would be sad; so many of the greatest people in history have actually been vampires.

            Oh and the sunlight thing? One of the Fallen figured out how to make a sunscreen that protects us. We can walk in daylight openly now, thanks to our chemist friend.

            Don’t worry though. If we come to you in the night, you won’t even notice that we’re there. We’ll just take a little sip and then be gone. You might feel like the flu is coming on the next morning but nothing more. We’re no more harmful to you than that breakfast cereal guy that’s supposed to be a vampire. Eat enough of that cereal and you’ll have far more problems than any vampire would ever cause you. Just a word of advice; if you think our way of life is attractive think again.

            I have spent 75 years as a middle aged overweight man. I have arthritis in my elbows and knees. I have a bad back and allergies to bumble bees and pollen.  I wake up every morning in pain, and the pain never abates; I am perpetually 51 years old with the aches and pains of a 51 year old man. I haven’t enjoyed the taste of food, other than what I drink to sustain myself, in all those years. I have read many books, surfed the internet and watched television. Most of the time I’m bored.

            They don’t tell you about that in the movies, nor in the books. They don’t tell you that you have few friendships and rarely talk to people. Oh, we can text and e-mail just like you can, but the inclination just isn’t there. I miss people, but when I talk to them, I find myself loathing them. You don’t have the same kinds of experience – you can’t possibly relate. As for the Fallen, we don’t associate with one another much. We are prone to feuds that can be spectacularly violent, so the less we interact with one another the better it is for our own kind. We’re like predators in the wild; we each stick to our own territory and we are not pack animals, association with wolves be damned.

            Damned is an understatement. It’s tedious and painful our existence, punctuated by occasional moments of creative satisfaction but are those moments worth the cost? I would give it all away to fall in love again; I was a widower when I died, my Mary having died in childbirth some 25 years before I Changed, and although I hadn’t found another woman to take her place, I had my share of female companions over the years and I miss that. Then again, the Fallen don’t love; we don’t have the capacity for it. We ache for it, we long for it but we cannot have it. Perhaps that is the greatest cruelty of all. Centuries of lovelessness; I’m sure you won’t find that in any young adult novel. Then again, reality is so much more painful than fiction.