In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.
Horror films have been with us since the beginning of cinema, but the era of Gods and Monsters truly began on February 12, 1931 with the premiere of Dracula. Though met at the time with mixed reviews, looking back, it was a seismic shift for horror filmmaking. Before Dracula, particularly in the United States and Great Britain, it was customary that the supernatural be explained away before closing titles appeared. Films like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Cat and the Canary (1927), and The Man Who Laughs (1928) all qualified as horror but contain no supernatural or fantastical elements. The Phantom is frightening to behold, but a mere mortal. Count Dracula was something very different, and the film he inhabited, in many ways, a brand-new genre. Not only was he a supernatural character but one that imitated humanity. Dracula stands alone among the classic monsters as a creature of seduction rather than repulsion. We are drawn to his charm, his intelligence, and…those eyes.
The story of Dracula from novel to first official screen adaptation was a long and complicated one, filled with shady dealings, more than a little copyright infringement, and dominated by a persistent widow. The film is, of course, based on the novel by Bram Stoker, but bears only passing resemblance to it. Florence Stoker shepherded the rights to her husband’s novel after his death and relied upon its income for her livelihood. The most notorious chapter in the filmic journey of Dracula is the unauthorized German version of the novel, Nosferatu (1922). Though names and situations had been changed, F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece was clearly drawn from Stoker’s novel and Florence won a lawsuit against the production company that produced it. All prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Luckily, a few copies of the film survived and made it to the United States in the late 1920’s. Rights for it were eventually worked out, however tenuously, but the experience cast a shadow over future dealings with Stoker’s undead creation for many years.
From the very beginning, Bram Stoker had written the novel with the hopes of it being produced as a stage play. His employer Henry Irving, upon whom many elements of the Count Dracula character were based, was not interested in the property, and thought that such distasteful subject matter was beneath the nobility of the stage. Long after Stoker’s death, Florence authorized a stage version by Hamilton Deane for the London stage. Deane reworked the novel from a vast epic into a small piece that could be played out in a single room. A major character change in his version would redefine Dracula for more than a generation. Deane transformed the Count from the repulsive demon with hairy palms and bad breath of Stoker’s novel (though not quite the rat creature of Nosferatu) into a caped and tuxedoed gentleman who could comfortably be found at the opera and in high society drawing rooms.
The play was a hit, though the critics found it to be a poorly executed, lurid piece. Deane’s version essentially underwent a complete rewrite from John L. Balderston for its move to Broadway, which opened in October of 1927. The film as we know it much more closely resembles this stage adaptation than either Stoker’s original novel or Deane’s version of the play. The plumb role of Count Dracula was offered to the star of the London production, Raymond Huntley, but, as is so often the case, he held out for more money than the producer was willing to pay. The part went, instead, to a Hungarian expatriate named Bela Lugosi. Though Huntly played the Count with an air of nobility, Lugosi took it a step further, making him suave, charming, and even sexy. The show was a smash in New York. Lugosi continued to play the role in the Los Angeles and San Francisco productions, also to resounding success. It wasn’t long before an official Hollywood production became inevitable.
Thought details are hazy, Universal apparently considered making a film adaptation of Dracula as early as 1915 but rejected it for other projects. After the Nosferatu debacle, most film studios wanted to be nowhere near the property. Any film that involved a vampire went to great pains to avoid suffering a similar fate, including the now legendary lost film London After Midnight (1927) starring Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning. But with the success of Balderston’s version of the stage play, interest was rekindled. When studio head Carl Laemmle turned over control of Universal to his son, however, he was appalled by the junior Laemmle’s push to make a horror film, even one as potentially lucrative as Dracula. “I don’t believe in horror pictures,” he later said, “it’s morbid. None of our officers are for it. People don’t want that sort of thing. Only Junior wanted it.” Despite his father’s objections, with Carl Laemmle, Jr. in charge, horror was in at Universal, and would become the defining genre of the studio for well over a decade, saving it from complete ruin on multiple occasions during the direst years of the Great Depression. Universal’s first task after acquiring the property was to secure its star.
To call Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the Count iconic is a vast understatement. It is utterly monumental and surely one of the greatest in horror history. But Lugosi was far from the first choice for the role. It is often considered common knowledge that the role first went to the great Lon Chaney. In fact, it was another giant of silent horror, Conrad Veidt, who had played the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Gwynplaine, the man with the permanent smile in The Man Who Laughs (1928) who was first attached to the role. However, anxious about his heavy German accent in Hollywood talkies, Veidt dropped out of the project and returned to Europe as sound pictures gained in popularity.
Universal’s second choice was screen legend Lon Chaney, a regular collaborator of the attached director, Tod Browning. The few stills that remain of Chaney’s vampiric role in London After Midnight give a glimpse of the possibilities the “Man of a Thousand Faces” might have explored for the make-up and performance of his version of Dracula. Unfortunately, the possibility of Chaney in the role ended when he died of throat cancer in 1930. Other actors considered before Lugosi include John Wray, Ian Keith, William Courtenay and even Paul Muni, though he was a rather unlikely choice. Eventually, through extensive lobbying, Lugosi won the role, though that same lobbying also signaled that he was willing to work cheap. In the end, he was paid a comparable pittance for his legendary performance. Also returning to the film from the stage production were Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing and Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward.
Apart from Lugosi, the truly standout performance in the film is Dwight Frye as Renfield. When erudite and respectable in the opening scenes, he is engaging, but after he has become a slave to his master he is utterly spellbinding. It is a fearless performance, the kind that could be compared to the most daring turns by actors like Willem Dafoe and Nicolas Cage today. His squeezed laughter, wild eyes, and manic grin bring the greatest life to the second half of the picture. Any time the film begins to sag, Renfield enters and electrifies the scene once again. Frye truly steals every moment he appears as the raving, blood obsessed, madman.
The film itself is far from perfect, including a few glaring plot holes—evidence of its low budget, rushed production, and apparently disinterested director, but its greatness cannot be denied. Ironically, some of Dracula’s most criticized elements have, with time, become some of its greatest strengths, as if contemporary filmmaking caught up with it after 90 years. There is a surprisingly modern feel to the look of the film with its static camera work, which has become a much more commonly used technique in recent years. The film is shot largely in wide masters and two shots with few close-ups. This may have been due to the fact that Tod Browning had become fairly disengaged from filmmaking in general following the death of Chaney. Though he would return to his old self a year later with Freaks, several actors have said that Browning did not give them much guidance at all. Lugosi defended him in later interviews, citing pressures and interference from a nervous studio.
Rumors sometimes crop up that cinematographer Karl Freund actually directed most, or even all, of Dracula. Though he undoubtedly had a great deal of input into the finished product, the camera choices in particular are decidedly un-Freundlike. Though early talkies often shot with locked camera placements due to single microphone recording and noisy cameras, by the early 30’s this was becoming less the norm. Freund, well known for the “unchained camera” techniques he developed with F. W. Murnau for The Last Laugh (1924), surely would have brought more kinetic energy to the camera work had he been calling the shots. Perhaps something akin to a more refined version of the roving shots found in the Spanish Version of Dracula, which was shot at night on the same sets as the English version. Instead, the camera is almost always stationary except for key moments, giving them particular emphasis and power. For example, the camera pushes in on Dracula’s voracious expression when Renfield cuts his finger, pulls out on the introduction of Van Helsing, and tracks in on the mirror in the lid of the cigarette case in which Dracula casts no reflection.
Dracula’s greatest strengths are in its moments of silence. The hands reaching out from the inside of coffins in the dungeons of Castle Dracula. The three brides surrounding Renfield as Dracula enters and motions them away. Dracula sneaking up on Lucy as she lies in her bed. Mina hypnotically walking across the mist-enshrouded lawn to Dracula, who enfolds her in his cape. Again, the silences have been a magnate for criticism over the decades, but they provide some of the greatest mood and atmosphere in the film. Several attempts have been made to combat the silent nature of the film, most notably the musical score by Philip Glass and his Kronos Quartet written for the 1999 VHS and DVD release of the film. When Dracula was restored once again for Blu-ray release, the newly remastered sound elements revealed that Browning was much more adept with sound than long thought. Subtle effects that had been buried under audio hiss for decades were finally revealed, bringing new life to the film and some level of posthumous vindication to Browning.
Lugosi, however, is far and away Dracula’s greatest asset and the biggest reason it is still revered today. His performance remains utterly mesmerizing and cemented the image of the vampire for decades to come. Even into the late 1970’s, vampires were caped figures with slicked back hair and evening clothes, ideally with some kind of exotic accent. Lugosi’s hypnotic mannerisms, piercing eyes, and idiosyncratic line deliveries (tomor-row…eeve-ningk) make his portrayal of the Count the most indelible of all time. He only officially played Dracula once more on film in the 1948 monster mash comedy Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein but reprised the role for many years on stage. He also played a very similar character for Tod Browning, once again, in Mark of the Vampire (1935), a film that curiously adheres to the pre-Dracula tradition of explaining away the supernatural. Mark was also a remake of Browning’s own London After Midnight, bringing a small piece of Dracula casting history full circle. Though his star faded in life, Bela Lugosi is now considered one of the greatest of all horror icons, and with good reason.
Over the years, the Count has been staked, dissolved to dust, frozen, blown up, and eventually mocked and ridiculed on film time and again, but the legacy of Dracula lives on. After the 1931 version, Dracula became the most filmed fictional character in history, with the possible exception of Sherlock Holmes. Over the past year, two new versions of the tale have been announced. One, a more traditional retelling of the novel from Karyn Kusama for Blumhouse, and the other a futuristic, sci-fi western reimagining from Chloé Zhao. History has proven there is plenty of room for interpretation of the character and story. There will no doubt be multitudes of compelling versions ahead.
The 1931 film, and many other versions of Dracula, place an unspeakable evil under a veneer of civility. The greatest danger is that we can be so easily seduced by an alluring glance, a charming face, or captivating words. All we need to do is look through history to see that this goes far beyond any work of fiction. This seduction is all around us. In the original release of the film, there was a monologue, lifted straight from the stage play, delivered by Professor Van Helsing, that has since been lost. As the audience rose to leave, he came on screen saying:
“Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen! Just a word before you go…When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains and you dread to see a face appear at the window—why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all…there are such things.”
As has been the case since the beginning, horror hides its truest meanings under compelling stories and memorable characters, but it is almost always saying something more than meets the eye. Beneath its crumbling castles filled with spiders and cobwebs, the cloaked figure in the fog, and the bats flying overhead, there is the reality of true darkness. As Dracula, and a million other horror tales to come would tell us, there is indeed evil in the world and concerns worthy of our fear. Maybe not vampires and fly-eating madmen, but yes, in fact, there are such things.