Sunday, October 18, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: Dracula (1931)

The Story: And now, submitted for your pleasure and Hallowe'en pre-functioning, this cautionary tale of getting into the real estate trade.

Poor, poor Renfield. Not only did he take the place of Jonathan Harker in the transition from Bram Stoker's novel to the 1931 movie version of Dracula, but he was also played by Dwight Frye, whose over-the-top capering would inform many a hunched lab assistant in the years to follow (If he had a nickel for every time he said "Master..."). The changing of Renfield to the man Count Dracula has over for dinner simplifies the story somewhat, but also severs the tragic ties that Stoker's story eventually leads to in the fate of Mina Harker.

In the film Ed WoodTim Burton partially chronicles the friendship between the hapless titular director and the fading film star Bela Lugosi. Here is the man in his prime, in fact, his pinnacle. Bela Lugosi never had greater fame than as the vampire Count, playing him to ecstatic reviews on Broadway and then on film—a few times, in fact, where he bolstered ever-weakening scripts, breathing life into them quite counter to his role as a blood-sucker.

And it's not a theatrical performance, as the impressionists have made it.* The secret to Lugosi's Dracula is a preternatural stillness—the creepiness instilled by one who stares at you for too long. A stalking look that bides its time. That stillness is used all too rarely in horror films, but you can still find it on occasion. In fact, I'd bet the Oscar Anthony Hopkins won for his Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is partially owed to Bela Lugosi.

Stillness is also part of Tod Browning's directing scheme: there are...a lot...of awkward...pauses, emphasizing Renfield's unease, and very few of Browning's shots move—this was, after all, one of the early sound movies and the cameras were bulky and inflexible—but when they do move...cover your throat. Here, he trucks the camera towards Dracula when he sees the blood seeping from Renfield's finger, in a sort of cinematic blood-rush?

Mention must also be made of a lighting technique that is employed in Dracula's close-up's—the strip of light that emphasizes the eyes (for certain shots Lugosi wore painful reflecting contact lenses). There is a more technical term, I'm sure, but a director of acquaintance always referred to it as "Kirk lighting," as it was employed often to show William Shatner's Captain Kirk on the original "Star Trek" in moments of distress/sorrow.

The Set-Up: Renfield (Dwight Frye) has arrived at the Transylvanian castle of the Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). The Count has written in interest of leasing Carfax Abbey in a fresher clime. And Mr. Renfield has endured quite a bit for his client in transit. The last carriage ride was particularly upsetting. But now he has entered the Count's castle and is dwarfed by the immensity of the foyer, which is in some disrepair...and seems to be infested with...armadillos. Now, his host descends the vast stair-way gated by huge spider-webs to show him his room and see to his needs.

A meal has been prepared.



Renfield enters the Count's castle, he's dwarfed by the ancient entry-way and looks around warily, his attention distracted by bats hovering by a window and strange creatures that seem to appear from the crevices of the walls. He doesn't even notice his guest walking quietly down the stairs.

DRACULA: I am...Dracula.
RENFIELD: It's really good to see you. I don't know what happened to the driver and my luggage and...well...with all this, I thought I was in the wrong place.
Dracula: I bid you welcome.
Dracula pivots and heads upstairs.
Offstage: Wolf call
DRACULA: Listen to them...children of the night. What music they make!
The Count turns and ascends the stairs, seeming to pass through vast collections of spider-webs the criss-cross the landing.Renfield follows Dracula, breaking a path through the spiderwebs.
DRACULA: A spider spinning his web for the unwary fly.
DRACULA: The the life, Mr. Renfield.
RENFIELD: Why, yes.
Enter Dracula and Renfield
DRACULA: I'm sure you will find this part of my castle more inviting.
RENFIELD: Oh, rather! It's quite different from outside. Oh, and the fire! It's so cheerful.
DRACULA: I didn't know but that you might be hungry.
RENFIELD: Thank you. That's very kind of you.
RENFIELD: But I'm a bit worried about my luggage. You see, all your papers were in...
DRACULA: I took the liberty of having your luggage brought up. Allow me.
RENFIELD: Oh, yes. Thanks.
The Count takes Renfield's coat and bags to an aft-chamber, the doors seeming to open on their open, and shortly he returns.
DRACULA: I trust you have kept your coming here...a secret?
RENFIELD: I've followed your instructions implicitly.
DRACULA: Excellent, Mr. Renfield, excellent. And now, if you're not too fatiqued...
DRACULA: ...I would like to discuss the lease on Carfax Abbey.
RENFIELD: Oh, yes. Everything is in order, awaiting your signature.
RENFIELD: is the lease. I hope I've brought enough labels for your luggage.
DRACULA: I am taking with me only three...boxes.
RENFIELD: Very well.
DRACULA: I have chartered a ship to take us to England. We will be leaving...tomorrow...evening.
RENFIELD: Everything will be ready.
DRACULA: (pointing to bed) I hope you will find this comfortable.
RENFIELD: Thanks. It looks very inviting.
Renfield cuts his finger on a paperclip.
DRACULA stealthily approaches Renfield
Renfield's crucifix falls over the cut finger.

DRACULA turns quickly away, as if stricken, shielding himself with his cape.
RENFIELD: Oh, it's nothing serious.
RENFIELD: Just a small cut from that paperclip.
RENFIELD: It's just a scratch.
DRACULA: (pouring a glass of wine) very old wine.
DRACULA: I hope you will like it.
RENFIELD: Aren't you drinking?
DRACULA: I never
RENFIELD (drinks): ...It's delicious.
DRACULA: And now, I'll leave you.
RENFIELD: Well, good night.
DRACULA: Good night, Mr. Renfield.
Dracula lingers at the door, watching his guest.
Dracula exits. Renfield is left to survey his surroundings, and is overcome with a wave of sleepiness.


Words by Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston, Garrett Fort, and Dudley Murphy, Louis Bromfield, Tod Browning, Max Cohen and Louis Stevens

Pictures by Karl Freund and Tod Browning

Dracula is available on DVD from Univeral Home Video.

* My favorite is "The Count" from "Sesame Street." He even gets the dramatic "wine" pause right: "I am the Count! I love to count...things."

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