“Dracula” was a very successful Broadway play, starring Bela Lugosi, before it was ever a movie. But when Carl Laemmle Jr. bought the rights for Universal, he intended to cast Lon Chaney in the title part. Chaney, known as “The Man With A Thousand Faces,” was a certified horror hero and bankable star. But Chaney died of cancer just before filming was to begin, and director Tod Browning was left looking for another Dracula. Browning had no interest in Lugosi, perhaps because of his thick Hungarian accent. But Lugosi desperately wanted the chance and lobbied hard at Universal, until Browning had no choice but to cast him. And history was made.
Despite a plethora of remakes over the years, Lugosi’s Dracula is still the only Dracula. Lugosi created one of the most memorable characters in the long history of the movies, forever etched upon our collective consciousness. I don’t think many people in this century have actually seen “Dracula,” but everyone knows the character. Everyone can emulate his accent. Most of us have dressed up as Lugosi’s Dracula for Halloween. Heck, there’s even a Sesame Street character based on him. (Now that’s ubiquity.)
And he did it with minimal makeup or props, relying primarily on his accent and his eyes. It’s fascinating to imagine what kind of Dracula Lon Cheney might’ve invented if he’d had the chance; for certain, the Man of a Thousand Faces would’ve been heavily made up, and the vampire would’ve been far more grotesque to look at. The genius of Lugosi’s Dracula is that he carries his deformity inside of him; for all appearances, he is a good-looking, if slightly odd, aristocrat.
But Bela Lugosi is not the only actor to turn in a memorable, oft-imitated performance in “Dracula.” Dwight Frye plays Renfield, a weak-minded, insect-eating servant of the Count, and steals every scene he’s in. Surely here begins the countless minions of evil men, from Frankenstein’s Igor to Sauron’s Gollum. (If Andy Serkis didn’t study Dwight Frye’s performance here when preparing to play Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, I’ll be snookered.) His laugh is deeply creepy, he moves all hunkered down like a hurt animal, and his eyes dart wildly from face to face. He is almost more nightmarish than his master.
Unfortunately, Frye and Lugosi are the only great parts of this supposedly great movie. In the documentary “The Road to Dracula,” David Manners admits that he never actually saw director Tod Browning on the set, and took most of his instructions from cinematographer Karl Freund. Indeed, the movie plays like it’s being directed by a cinematographer. The opening act is wonderfully spooky, with the cobwebby castle, misty mountain passes, and ghoulish women. But once Count Dracula has been sufficiently introduced, the film has no idea what it ought to do with its villain. The second and third acts of the movie unfold predictably, unimaginatively, and with all the creative energy and tension of a wet dish towel.
The action moves to London. In a terribly composed scene (Lugosi stands a step below and behind Harker as he speaks with him, making him look awfully short) Count Dracula meets a whole set of uninteresting characters, including Jonathan and Mina Harker, and a girl named Lucy. Lucy finds the count intriguing and different, but before she can pursue him any further, he flies into her room and eats her. Then we meet Professor Van Helsing, Dracula’s nemesis, who is a thudding bore. Van Helsing learns that Dracula is a vampire, and deduces that he is after Mina next. So the dull professor sequesters her in a bedroom and surrounds her with a plant called wolfsbane. And waits. Really, if Dracula had half a brain in his head and would’ve just decided that there are plenty of other pretty young necks to bite, ones not herbally protected, I think Van Helsing and the Harkers would still be waiting in that big, stuffy house, because they don’t appear to have any other plan for stopping the vampire.
David Manners, who played Harker, and Helen Chandler, who was Mina, clearly did not think they were making a great and memorable film. Manners remembers the difficulty they had not ruining their lines by laughing. It must be hard to take your work seriously when you never lay eyes on the director of the film. Nonetheless, “Dracula” is and always will be remembered for one thing: Bela Lugosi’s performance. Those eyes, that accent, that hair, the cape….etched on our memories forever.
And to think he almost didn’t get the part.
Is it great because it’s important? Yes, important because of Lugosi’s performance, and to a lesser degree, Frye’s as well.
Is it great because it’s a good movie? Oh hell no. Those two performances are all that make this trainwreck of a movie watchable at all.