Saturday, October 30, 2010

Film Review: Dracula (1931)

I just want to start this by saying that there's never been a really good film adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, but this one is probably the most famous. Like the version of Frankenstein that would be released two years later, this production is set in the '30s instead of the Nineteenth Century, but that point is only a minor consideration compared to other inaccuracies that appear in movie. Dracula pretty much made the career of Bella Lugosi, but how does this formerly iconic film hold up today?

To start off, let me tell you about the title sequence. Do you know what music they used for the opening credits? The theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Being a fan of ballet and particularly of that renowned Russian composer, I was appalled that such a beautiful piece should be used as mood music for a horror movie. Classical music appreciators the world over associate that piece of music with beautiful dancing and tragic lost love. Not vampires. It just doesn't fit. I'm sorry.

On to the plot. It's very loosely based on the novel in that it follows the plot on these specific points: there is a vampire named Count Dracula from Transylvania who relocates to England in order to prey on its much larger population, Lucy gets turned into a vampire by Dracula, Mina almost gets turned into a vampire, and Dr. Seward has a sanitarium. Seriously, just about everything else is just plain wrong, and the characters retained are cardboard cut-outs.

Actually one interesting thing to note about this production is that you never actually see Dracula's fangs or Dracula biting anyone. Of course all his victims have the telltale bite marks on their necks, but just like in the book, the actual vampiric act is elusive. It's still a very creepy movie, just as the source material demands, but it's certainly not terrifying the way that modern horror pictures are.

That brings me to Bella Lugosi's performance as Dracula. I know the iconic status of this movie, but I was frankly unimpressed with his performance. And this isn't just my disapproval of the adaptation coloring my view on his performance. I thought Lon Cheney was truly frightening as the Phantom of the Opera even though that film completely destroyed the ending. Honestly, though, I just don't think Lugosi's Dracula is menacing enough. With Dracula you need an actor who can convey a sense of unbridled power and cunning.  He needs to show no fear to his adversaries, and convey the impression that he's three steps ahead of them and could crush them at a moment's notice. Lugosi's Dracula is aristocratic and threatening, but you never get the sense that our heroes' chances of besting him are slim to none, and without that, there can be no deep suspense or terror,.

So if you're a fan of vampire flicks or horror in general, you probably will still enjoy this movie, but because I compare it to the book and because I was not impressed by Lugosi's performance as the title monster, I cannot embrace this movie the way I way I wanted to,

I give this film 6 out of ten, but that's mostly for the source material and the cultural significance of the film. It's certainly not horrible, but it doesn't live up to the book upon which it's based.

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