Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Great Movies: "Dracula"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Tod Browning, 1931

This Dracula is the Bela Lugosi version, probably the most famous of all the various vampire movies, and it was the first one with sound. This is very early sound, though, with no music and with a constant fuzzy static that makes it sound like everything is happening about a block back from the beach. The acting is, by modern standards, a bit stiff, but when you consider that filmmakers were still discovering that acting for the talkies was going to be somewhat different than acting on the stage, it ain't half bad.

Apparently Dracula was considered just about the most terrifying movie ever, back when it was new. That can't really be taken seriously now, but it retains an entertaining mood of gothic gloom and madness. There are plenty of nice moments, as when the mysterious count leads the young victim dude up the stairs, and the victim dude has to clear thick cobwebs that Dracula has somehow just walked through without disturbing. The movie dwells more on its sets, which are great, than on its special effects, which are sometimes a bit weak. In real life, for instance, bats don't hover there flapping their wings twice a second. Just sayin'.

It's pretty obligatory to opine, as Ebert does in his review, that the vampire legend is so compelling because of the way it combines sexuality and violence. Well, OK, maybe in some settings, but not really here. Even reading between the lines, there just isn't much steamy eroticism in this Dracula, and for that matter the violence is pretty tame too. Indeed, the exact nature of what happens to you if you get bitten is pretty vague, beyond that it's not good.

Also, there's no ending.

Plot: Young victim dude, a realtor, unwittingly risks his neck by ignoring the local knowledge of Transylvanian peasant folk. Next thing you know, he has helped his client move back to England and is calling him "master," and also flinching at wolfsbane and the cross. Count Dracula, now revealed as a vampire(!), preys on the neighborhood girls until a scientist named Van Helsing, an expert in the fairly random lore of vampires (who, incidentally, seem to have an awful lot of secret weaknesses. They're like if Superman was vulnerable not only to Kryptonite but also to oak furniture, Formula 409, the folk music of Portugal, and pistachio ice cream) comes along and figures out what's what.

Visuals: A handsome nighttime atmosphere pervades the whole, so much so that it's often hard to tell whether a given scene takes place during the night or the day, which is important. The photography is capable but not astonishing.

Dialog: Much of the dialog feels a bit contrived, possibly because the script is adapted from a stage play. A scene where one character makes fun of another by repeating his words back in an exaggerated way stands out as an especially genuine moment.

Prognosis: It's not going to be life-changing, but you can make a cultural literacy case for watching it and it's really still pretty entertaining. Plus, vampires are big right now. Enjoyable as long as you don't take it too seriously.

1 comment:

Jack Gatlin said...

I always lose my cultural literacy cases...