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.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nosferatu
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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Crutch

Frankenstein (1931)


One of the most iconic images in horror movie history.

(1931) Horror (UniversalColin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris, Francis Ford, Michael Mark, Mae Bruce, Jack Curtis, Paul Panzer, William Dyer, Cecil Reynolds, Cecilia Parker, Ellinor Vanderveer, Soledad Jiménez, Mary Gordon, Carmencita Johnson, Pauline Moore, Arletta Duncan. Directed by James Whale

Perhaps the most iconic horror film of all time is James Whale’s 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the latter of whom is listed in the credit as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” – ah, misogyny). It is in many ways the perfect storm of Gothic imagery, gruesome subtexts, pathos, terror and a truly mind-blowing performance by Boris Karloff as the monster.

Most everyone knows the story, or at least bits of it; medical student Henry Frankenstein (Clive) who was renamed from Victor in the book and most subsequent films, is obsessed with the big questions of life; why does one child turn out to be the pillar of the community, the other a criminal? Where does life begin? Can a man bring life to the lifeless?

To discover the latter, he and his faithful servant Fritz (Frye) – renamed Igor in most subsequent productions – dig up bodies for their parts to create a perfect being. Utilizing a violent thunderstorm, lightning strikes buffet his creation until, as Frankenstein notably exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

However, Frankenstein eventually has cause to regret his experiment as he loses control of the monster which goes on a murderous rampage, not always out of malice (in a particularly famous scene he inadvertently drowns a little girl while throwing flowers into a lake).

Many of the tropes that have characterized horror films in the 88 years since this movie was made originated or was refined here; the angry mob with torches and pitchforks, the sweet maiden menaced by an ugly monster, the imposing castle, the thunderstorm, the grunting of the inarticulate monster and so much more.

Karloff’s sad eyes and stiff gait made the monster so memorable that it was called thenceforth Frankenstein, even though the monster is never given a name in the film. Karloff, to that point a journeyman actor who generally played the heavy in B movies, would go on to a lucrative and acclaimed career as one of the greatest horror specialists of all time. Frankenstein is so iconic that many identify the genre with this movie; often the scowling visage as the monster is used to represent the genre.

While the scares are tame by modern standards, I think the film holds up extraordinarily well even today. This is how horror films were done before excessive gore was used as a crutch by many filmmakers in the genre; Whale knew just about how much to leave to the imagination and our imaginations are often more gruesome than reality. I think that these days, it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit but if you haven’t seen it – or haven’t seen it in a while – you owe it to yourself to watch it once again or for the first time.

REASONS TO SEE: A classic in every sense of the word. Karloff’s performance is a career maker. Still pretty scary even now. Still the best adaptation of the iconic Mary Shelley tale. The standard by which other horror movies are judged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Quite tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scary images and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster isn’t seen until 30 minutes into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bride of Frankenstein
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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