I am returning from what may well be my longest hiatus away from posting a blog since its inception and I feel as though a bit of explanation is necessary. First, I am getting further into the beast that is legitimate academic scholarship on film. Not that I do not love writing blog posts, but these are a labor of love that serve more as a space for me to toss around ideas about films I view for later reference, the fact that anybody reads the posts is added benefit, particularly when they leave wonderful and insightful commentary after doing so. Second, I have spent almost the entirety of last week at Orphans Midwest, an amazing conference of discussions on non-commerical films and their place in social and academic discourse. The entire event filled with prolific discussions by scholars, as well as an insane amount of rarefied screenings from Hollis Frampton outtakes to 40's era Studebaker was everything I could possibly want to spend time doing, but it was certainly daunting and very time consuming. As such, I have decided to return this month with a similar marathon as I had last October, one focusing entirely on the genre of horror films, both in their most obvious incarnations, as well as some of their more unusual executions. I really enjoyed this endeavor last year and managed to knock a ton of previously unseen films off of my list, as well as found myself being afforded with an opportunity to revisit some of my favorite works. This year it will be more heavy on things that I have never seen, especially some of the real classics, but I have made room for one film that I have been meaning to revisit since it was the subject of an "informative" documentary, both on the nature of film studies and individuals' relationships with art in general. Beginning with one of my rather large shame spots, I have decided to undertake Tod Browning's 1931 adaptation of Dracula, one of the major works in Universal Studios' long run of monster movies from the thirties, a work whose expressionist charm and chiaroscuro haunting imagery meld into a work that seems as scary, and, more importantly, timeless as its introduction over eighty years ago.
Dracula, this version at least, begins with Renfield (Dwight Frye) a solicitor organizing a visitation to through the townsfolk of Transylvania with the hopes of meeting Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) on an urgent business manner. Confused as to why the townsfolk are hesitant to help him in his endeavor, Renfield, nonetheless, accrues a driver to take him to Borgo Pass where he is to meet Dracula at midnight. A series of events, including a bat-led carriage lead Renfield into a state of paranoia, one fully affirmed when he finally meets Dracula in his castle, realizing that the count is very much a vampire, using his ability of fascination to drive the unsuspecting Renfield into madness and using him as a means to transport himself to England. Upon arrival in England, Dracula immediately takes it upon himself to find bodies with which to feed upon, including the young Mina (Helen Chandler) whom Dracula fascinates and then preys upon in her sleep, resulting in her death the following day, despite a series of unsuccessful blood transfusions. Renfield, now housed in an insane asylum, becomes the obsession of Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) who realizes taht after his talk of spiders and vampires, that he is clearly a victim of Count Dracula, thus leading to Van Helsing seeking out the vampire and ridding London of his violent endeavors. Van Helsing and Dracula eventually encounter one another, wherein Dracula explains that Mina is invariably attached to his influence, suggesting that she belongs to him now through a blood bond, one affirmed by her zombie like attachment to the count. Van Helsing, an expert in the folklore of vampires, manages to equip himself with the various paraphernalia necessary to counter Dracula's tricks and fascinations, particularly a crucifix which drives the vampire away instantaneously. After a run-in with the still maniacal Renfield, Van Helsing is able to trap Dracula inside his coffin during the daylight, affording him an opportunity to drive a stake through the vampires body, thus freeing Mina from her possession.
Dracula is a classic work in expressionist horror, working right on the cusp of the silent era German Expressionist work, wherein the lines between darkness/light, good/evil and sanity/insanity are thinly veiled, if not entirely non-existant. Think about basically the entirety of Dr. Caligari, wherein the narrative takes a turn, then another turn, only to be followed by another turn, just to have that all be a turn within in a turn. Suffice it to say, it makes Inception look like child's play. Dracula is not a convoluted plot in even the loosest of terms, indeed, it is about as straight forward as a film can be, indicative of Classic Hollywood filmmaking and much of the horror output dumped on viewers by Universal, the exception to this being any narratives involving the more complex character of Frankenstein, whose Universal film might receive in-depth focus later this month. The choice ot make the divides rather blatant in this film, afford it a degree of study on the nature of insanity, one that suggest that much of madness might well be rooted in a reality, even if it is the result o fa truly demonic/evil presence inducing such mania. Renfield, is certainly crazy for his preoccupation with spiders and vampires, but it is something that came after a traumatic event, not something that necessarily reflects a person being induced by inexplicable mental breakdown. Similarly, there are clear lines drawn between good and evil that are tied to more traditional norms, which seem almost seem absurd by contemporary standards. Take for example the rural townsfolk whose purity is tied to their proletariat nature, one that is in direct contrast to the bourgeois excess and evil of Count Dracula whose consumption of things around him, literally in the sense of bodies, make him both evil in a demonic sense, as well as in a non-capitalist context. Indeed, the only person of wealth who is deemed morally forthright is the doctor Van Helsing, but his goodness is tied to his profession one that affords him likability and lightness, in contrast to the darkness of Dracula, making the matted style of this film with its expressionist backdrops that much more clear in its divisions. Formulaic as they may seem by contemporary eyes, these are tropes that were then still establishing themselves, and Browning serves them up at their most pictorial.
Key Scene: The classic scene of the line of light on Dracula's eyes when he is in the act of fascinating Mina is a point of perfection in Gothic horror.
This film gets a bit long in its last act, stopping it from being a flawless film, but it is still an exceptional work, whose classic status is without question. Furthermore, it is available on Netflix so watching it is easy and worthwhile given its short runtime.