And so we begin at a beginning.
Not the beginning. Dracula wasn’t the first horror movie made by Universal, nor the first vampire movie based on Bram Stoker’s novel. It was adapted from a play, which was based on the book, which was the crystallization of folk tales and lurid history.
And yet it is still a beginning. The first of the Universal horror movies with spoken dialogue, and the first made under the leadership of Carl Laemmle, Jr., rather than that of his father. The first authorized adaptation of Dracula for film. The first of the iconic monster performances that would define an archetype.
Renfield, an Englishman with little regard for the warnings of the townsfolk in Ye Olde Eastern European Village, travels to Castle Dracula to help Count Dracula finish taking ownership of and moving to Carfax Abbey in Britain. In return for his help, he is transformed into a manic slave who will spend the rest of the movie hungering for bugs and rats, staring wild-eyed at everyone he meets, and occasionally trying to resist Dracula’s commands for brief episodes before ultimately succumbing to his master’s will.
In London, Dracula takes in dinner and a show. Dinner comes in the form of a young woman selling flowers, and the show is a symphony performance that puts Dracula into conversation with his new neighbor. Dr. Seward runs a sanitarium (where Renfield has conveniently been confined) next to Carfax Abbey. Also in Seward’s box at the symphony are his daughter, Mina, her fiancee John Harker, and their friend Lucy Weston, who is quite taken with the exotic count.
Dracula preys on Lucy, who dies of symptoms that perplex the British medical establishment while the Count moves on to Mina. Thankfully, the more open-minded Van Helsing shows up and accurately diagnoses the problem as caused by vampires. When he and Harker note that Dracula doesn’t have a reflection in mirrors, Van Helsing confirms that the count is the vampire in question. Attempts to keep Mina safe fail, and she ends up falling victim to Dracula.
When Van Helsing and Harker head to Carfax Abbey just before dawn in a final effort to save Mina, they are quickly discovered. Dracula kills Renfield before fleeing deeper into the abbey with Mina. He is just able to make it to his box of native soil to sleep before the sun rises, which leaves him vulnerable to Van Helsing’s stake. Once Dracula is dead, Mina appears released from his thrall, and she and Harker walk up the long stairs leading out of the abbey.
Predation and Vulnerability
Watching Dracula in our current climate, I found myself drawing comparisons to the ongoing series of revelations about sexual harassment and abuse across contemporary U.S. society.
Dracula himself appears incapable of having a one-on-one conversation with another person without trying to control their mind, feed on them, or both. Even when it’s not necessary – for example, his hypnosis of a ticket-taker at the symphony to tell Seward he has a call just to give Dracula a pretext for introducing himself – he winds up wielding his power over others.
Along the way, Dracula ends up making many others complicit in his predation. Renfield is the most prominent of these, but many other bit and supporting characters are turned into tools of Dracula’s larger designs.
And yet, Dracula is in many ways a pathetic and insecure creature. When Renfield arrives at Castle Dracula, there is no sign of any staff. Dracula is the one driving the coach to pick up Renfield, and is most likely the one to take Renfield’s luggage to his room and prepare Renfield’s meal. (These last two may have been accomplished by Dracula’s “wives,” but in any case, there’s no evidence of any servants.)
Wolfbane, crosses, and mirrors are among Dracula’s weaknesses, and he tends to recoil from them with a pronounced lack of chill. His suave affect is easily disrupted, although he’s also quick to put his composed front back up. Ultimately, he’s not clever or powerful enough to save himself. Van Helsing knows how to take advantage of this predator’s weaknesses, and does so after besting Dracula in a one-on-one contest of wills.
The use and abuse of power, in part to cover for insecurity, all while putting up a socially acceptable – at times, even enticing – front…the parallels to the Harvey Weinsteins of the world strike me as pretty clear.
One of the features of storytelling in genres like horror, fantasy, or science fiction, of course, is the versatility of the metaphors. Dracula is not just a parallel to sexual predators; he’s a parallel to predators of all types. For example, an audience member in 1931 and the years that followed might easily have drawn parallels to a different sort of predator on the world stage. Hitler, after all, was a man who used his power and the charisma he cultivated to prey on others, and was also a man of deep insecurities.
The Monster as Villain
While many of the coming months’ monsters will balance destructive acts with sympathy-inspiring vulnerabilities, Dracula is the unambiguous villain of his own movie. He preys on others literally and figuratively, violates consent left and right, and appears motivated by nothing more than a desire for more power. What led him to decide it was time to abandon Transylvania for Britain is left unsaid. When he arrives, however, he appears to have an elaborate plan already laid out. If he had managed to overcome Van Helsing, who knows how far his evil could have spread? (Those interested in this question who haven’t already done so might be interested in reading Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, which explores this scenario.)
I don’t know if this will play out, but something I’ll be keeping an eye on in the coming films is the degree to which a monster’s unambiguous villainy is connected with their status in society. Dracula, while a foreigner in Britain, is still an aristocrat. His social status is quite high, and his monstrousness is never tempered with anything that would leave us sympathetic to him. We’ll see how social status and sympathetic elements of character development relate in future films.
It’s fascinating watching movies made shortly after sound became an option. The performances are very different from those in silent films, and it’s interesting to see the influences of live theater interact with the cinematic techniques established during the silent era.
This movie also comes before the Hays Code was an aggressively-deployed tool of censorship in cinematic storytelling and technique. I’ll be interested in seeing what, if anything, is different about the movies from later in the Code’s existence.
Trying to watch Bela Lugosi’s performance with fresh eyes, discarding the decades of copycats, parodies, and counter-performances, is challenging, but makes for an enhanced viewing experience.
Just a quick reminder that the time between the source material and the movie is shorter than I, at least, first realized. The book came out in 1897 and the movie in 1931, which is about the same length of time as if there was a movie of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman coming out this February.
This was a great movie to use as a beginning. I may post other thoughts as they come along between now and next Wednesday; goodness knows there’s plenty more to say.