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TOD BROWNING’S ‘DRACULA’ (1931): CHALLENGING THE REVISIONISTS April 2, 2009

Posted by 366weirdmovies in Guest Reviews.
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Guest review by Alfred Eaker

Tod Browning’s Dracula is often unfairly compared to Murnau’s unauthorized Nosferatu, and it is an unfair comparison because the two are very different films, which merely happen to share the same literary inspiration.  (Neither are mere adaptations.  The only film to fairly compare to Murnau’s would be Herzog’s remake with Kinski and, indeed, it compares very favorably).  The vampire of Murnau and Schreck is an accursed, repulsive animal, the carrier of a dreaded plague and the beast fights fiercely to sustain it’s life, like a rodent in it’s death throes.  The Dracula of Browning and Lugosi is an outsider, a mesmerizing and intensely austere intruder, who comes to nourish on the aristocratic London Society, who he, paradoxically, yearns to to join (fittingly, for a genuine outsider, it is to no avail of course; he makes rather pronounced overtures and goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his ambition there).

Dwight Frye’s pre-bitten Renfield is nearly as strange an outcast as he is after his transformation, albeit in a far dracula1different light. Renfield is a bizarre, urban effeminate in an old meat, potatoes and superstition land. The villagers are outcasts too, but among them, Renfield is the doomed jester, misguidedly blinded by his foolhardy feeling of superiority over them and stubbornly oblivious to the peasants’ warnings.

The introduction to the inhabitants of Castle Dracula is among the most discussed in the annuls of Universal Horror and, to many viewers,it is also most perplexing. This is quintessential Browning. The static silence is punctuated with genuine dread, surreal humor, and the unnerving whimpers of a opossum. Karl Freund’s camera pans over a decidedly unreal set. The vampire brides slowly emerge as a bee scampers out of it’s little coffin. An opossum seems to be ducking for cover in it’s dilapidated coffin and it’s cries are the only living sounds we hear as we are introduced to Lugosi’s Count staring directly at the camera.

Renfield’s journey to Castle Dracula perfectly captures the sensory view of a crepuscular world. Indeed, no other Universal horror film would convey it as vividly and attempts to do so in later films proved pale imitations.

Renfield’s arrival to the castle, and state of confusion, is juxtaposed against the awkward but pertinacious emergence of Dracula. Lugosi’s emergence seems to partake of a genuine struggle and this echoes the delivery of his greeting which follows. This emergence sharply contrasts with the startling and confused appearance of armadillos scurrying in the ruins below, which also heightens Renfield’s confused state.

Critics have unfavorably compared this scene to Melford’s much more fluid shot of Villar’s Count appearance atop the stairwell in Dracula (The Spanish Version). This can be dismissed as sloppy, revisionist criticism. Browning is a master at those elongated pauses where little seems to be happening. With careful, focused attention, this proves to be deceptive, but admittedly is a struggle for viewers corn fed on television bred aesthetics. Comparing the two is akin to comparing an artist as opposed to a mere craftsman. Melford’s scene is surface dramatics and cannot illicit anything remotely comparable to the surreal queasiness Browning evokes here. Additionally, Melford’s entrance climaxes with a jerky and unintentionally comic Villar greeting his visitor. With Melford, the effect is ruined, never recovers,and only worsens. With Browning, the unreal dread has just begun.

The vampire’s lethargic descent, set against the massive sets, resembles the

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