There are so many classic movies and characters who I only know as references. Even if I don’t know where those references come from, there are clichéd lines of dialogue, mannerisms and ways of speaking that weren’t always a cliché. Because they had to start somewhere, as a character or movie that, for whatever reason, took hold of the zeitgeist at that moment, and you can still see the effects today. One of those is Bela Lugosi as the title character in Dracula.
If you’ve seen The Count on Sesame Street, you’ve seen Bela Lugosi’s take on Dracula. If you’ve seen any black and white spoof of the character, you’ve seen Bela Lugosi’s take on Dracula. Because Bela Lugosi’s take on Dracula is the quintessential, ‘I vant to suck your blooood’ take on Dracula that has been the basis of pretty much every version of the character in the more than seventy years since.
A solicitor named Renfield (Dwight Frye) arrives bright eyed and oblivious in Transylvania to help the local Count move. Despite the obvious scared reactions of every local every time he mentions the Count’s name, Renfield goes to the castle anyway and his soon attacked by the resident Count, Dracula that is (Bela Lugosi). Now nuttier than squirrel shit, Renfield accompanies Dracula to London by ship. When the ship arrives, Dracula is gone, the entire crew is dead and Renfield, the only survivor, is taken to a sanitarium where he ends up under the care of Dr Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan).
The thing I noticed most about Dracula is its pace. Or, more precisely, it’s complete lack of pace. I don’t mind a movie taking it’s time, but this one is absolutely ridiculous in places. It’s almost as if the film makers were told it had to reach 85 minutes or else they wouldn’t get paid. Then when they started to shoot, they realised they only had half an hour worth of script. But instead of writing more scenes, dialogue or action, they just told all the actors to move slower, pause longer and draw out every reaction.
Another thing that really stood out, and probably didn’t help the feeling of dragging on, was the complete lack of musical score. I don’t know if the technology didn’t exist to include music in 1931, if no one had thought to do it yet, or if it was a conscious choice by directors Tod Browning and Karl Freund not to include any, but the long moments of inaction are only highlighted even more by the complete lack of music.
I’ll tell you one thing this movie really got right though, rubber bats bouncing up and down on fishing line. There’s a heap of them, and each looks a little more ridiculous than the last. They really are a sight to behold.
But even with the slow pacing, the hokey effects and the deafening silences, I still did kind of enjoy Dracula. And I think that pretty much all comes down to Lugosi’s performance. There’s something kind of cool about seeing the beginnings of such an influential and enduring character. Even in another seventy years, I assume this vampire cliché will still be more iconic and recognisable than anything from Buffy, Twilight or True Blood.