Dracula is the King of Monsters. He is obviously royalty. He has all the trappings. His castle, his formal evening attire, even his diction and good manners. He is called Count Dracula in the Universal film but his legend descends from a real prince. Vlad III (the Impaler) was ruler of Wallachia in present day Romania. He was called Dracul (Dragon) for his defense of Christians against the Turks but his cruelty against just about anyone he came in contact with was legendary. The legend of the vampire (nosferatu) is central European in origin and goes back very far into the imagination of primitive people huddling in the dimly lit hovels and fearing the long winter nights for all the real and imagined terrors that lurked right at their doorsteps.
Bram Stoker took this legacy and created a gothic novel that followed the conventions of his time and populated it with upper class British characters right down to the damsel in distress and the square jawed leading man ready to save her from a fate literally worse than death. It cried out for a stage adaption and of course it got it. And then some. Several productions were launched and in 1927 a company opened the play in the United States. And interestingly enough three of the lead male parts reprised their roles in the Universal film, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Edward van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing and Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward.
Let’s now look at the film. What are its chief characteristics? It’s an early talkie. The sound is not perfect. Whether an artifact of the age of the prints used or of the original production there is considerable background noise. The sets for the most part are the studio versions of city streets and upper class drawing rooms. The sets used for the village and castle in Transylvania are unconvincing but highly evocative. My one pet peeve with Castle Dracula is that while showing all the creatures crawling around in the cellar we are given a good look at some armadillos. These are New World creatures and what they would be doing in central Europe is very hard to imagine. The set for Carfax Abbey is equally entertaining and in fact is probably built on the set for Castle Dracula used earlier.
With respect to the actors, they are exaggeratedly and understandably stagey. After all, most of them were stage actors. They exaggerate their words and gestures to such an extent that sometimes it appears to a modern audience as parody. This is probably the result of both the stage and silent film legacy of most of the cast. Probably the most entertaining performance is given by the Cockney Orderly who watches over the madman Renfield. He is an exaggerated lower-class everyman who adds comic relief and a really terrible accent to the film.
And finally the special effects. At one point, Renfield looks out the window of the stage coach he is travelling in to Castle Dracula and sees a bat flying above the horses. It is hard to minimize how laughably pathetic it looks to anyone used to the magic that CGI can perform today. I think the strings are actually visible, but maybe it was just my scornful imagination. There is at least one more bat flyby in the film and it doesn’t improve over the first. ‘Nuff said.
Okay, now I’ve run down everything about the film. It sounds like a hot steaming mess.
Well, it is and it isn’t. All that I’ve said is true. But it still remains an entertaining experience. It is a time capsule of what our great grandparents looked on as theater. The British basis of what was considered civilized and urbane is on display. And you can see the tension between reason and science on the one hand and the instinctual and irrational forces at work in the universe. And it’s interesting to note how young women are the weak point in the rational structure being undermined by the powers of darkness. Really the story isn’t that different from our own morality tales about the dissolution of the world of light into the abyss. It’s only different in that it has a happy ending. Today the forces of darkness would win and we would cheer them because of how cool they dress. And the characters get to mouth some very entertaining lines. In one exchange between the main protagonists Dracula declares in his best Transylvanian English, “You are wise for one who has not lived even one lifetime, Van Helsing.” For me that’s worth the price of admittance right there.