Monday, October 31, 2011

“Dracula” and “Drácula”

Less than a decade after “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” Universal studios obtained the legal rights to “Dracula” from Stoker’s widow, and filmed what is quite possibly the most famous vampire film ever. Directed by Tod Browning, it is based not on the novel, but on a popular play version of the story by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The play had done well in England and both on and off Broadway in the United States. As a result of the requirements of the theater, the number of characters is reduced, and the Transylvania sections of the book are absent from the play.

The Browning version of “Dracula” has been criticized for its lack of vision in using film techniques. In spite of the work of gifted cinematographer Karl Freund who had filmed “Metropolis” and would go on to direct Universal's “The Mummy,” it comes across as merely a filmed play, with few of the embellishments that the medium of film would allow. Some go so far as to credit any good portions of the film to Freund and not Browning. (The Spanish version, filmed concurrent with the English has a more creative approach to the subject.)

The film recovers the Transylvania opening, but does not return there for the climax. However, instead of sending Jonathan, Browning has Renfield make the trip. In the novel, Renfield is a minor character with important ties to Dracula that are never explained. He is a lunatic patient of Dr. Seward’s who is controlled by Dracula and allows him access to the house where the group is lodging. In the film, Browning manages to explain the tie between the lunatic and the Count, by sending Renfield to the castle. Dracula's need for a middleman is unjustified, however, for the in the movie the Count is a man of society and freely gains entrance to it on his own.

Renfield in the film experiences the same challenges to his modernist worldview as did Jonathan in the book. Though Renfield has a much more “modern” worldview and suffers a higher level of duress. In the climax of the trip sequence, he is attacked by Dracula and becomes his slave. This film brings out the critique of modernism found in the book; but it questions the postmodern (or pre-modern) view of the world as being crazy. Renfield is the only truly insane character, but the very act of believing in vampires is perhaps crazy as the comments of an orderly in the film indicate. Talking to a nurse he quips, “They’re all crazy except you and me, and sometimes I have my doubts about you.”

The scene of Dracula's attack on Renfield in the castle is interesting and important to the rest of the Vampire Myth in the later films of the century. This is not due to some form of homoeroticism read into the film by some critics but to the very lack of sexual overtones. As we have already seen sexual commentary was an important aspect of the vampire myth in literature—including Dracula. The close censorship of the film industry in the first half of the century limited this aspect of the myth in film until later. Film makers will refer back to this scene, and the lack of sexual enticement or even animation on the part of the brides of Dracula, as something that was lacking. Films will swing to the other end of the sexual issue pendulum in years to come.

The enticing nature of evil is evidenced in the character of Lucy, who upon meeting Dracula is drawn to him and his demeanor. She is seduced, not by any physical attraction, but by his thoughts and his outlook on life. In many ways this is a more striking interpretation of the way evil entices. It is not simply some animal response that will become characteristic in years to come. It is an intellectual temptation. We see her character drawn to his "dark" outlook, and drawn to it for the very reason that it seems "bad" or "evil."

The other theme from the novel that is most conspicuous in the film, due to its absence, is the idea of community. In Browning’s Dracula, Van Helsing defeats Dracula alone. Seward (here Mina’s father), and Jonathan are helpless in that they fail to completely believe. Jonathan does try to help in the end, but it is Van Helsing alone who destroys Dracula. There is no battle with evil, it is merely found in its helpless state and destroyed. In the end, Dracula is powerless to the singular knowledge of Van Helsing. Van Helsing has no need of a group of believers. They are never initiated into the fold. Mina's ties to Dracula are not taken advantage of. The evil is ultimately week and easily to disposed.

Unlike Nosferatu, when Dracula is destroyed the evil is defeated without any questions left in the mind of the viewer. The end of the film parallels Stoker’s novel in showing Jonathan and Mina reunited. The world is right. There is a clear picture of the battle between good vs. evil, and evil loses.

As stated before, the Spanish version of Dracula has received greater critical acclaim over the years. For some time it was not available, raising the suspicion that critic's memories had blocked out any negatives. Now that it is available to be seen, however, the superiority is evident. Not only are the direction and screenplay superior. The themes are treated in a compelling way, closer to the novel. The idea of a community is still absent, but the evil is portrayed as more enticing and at the same time more threatening and dangerous. This is not due to the acting of Carlos Villarios; in the role of the Count Lugosi is far superior. However, the attacks are filmed less timidly, and the script is not cut to please the censors of the day, who held the English version back. The tempting side of evil is more readily seen in the scenes between the Jonathan and Mina characters.

(For more on the themes in Vampire fiction, see here.  For the later 1992 interpretation of the story, see here.)

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