Friday, October 12, 2012

#40: Dracula

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye
Dir: Tod Browning (1931)

Happy Halloween! Ah-ah-ah! To celebrate the season I am examining the classic Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, a man whose cupid's bow could put Clara Bow's to shame, also known for being scary, also known for drinking milk at society functions (seriously). I'll be up front with you, I'm knocking this Halloween stuff out but quick. Movies like this often defy my particular brand of analysis (high-waisted pants? song and dance numbers? Hays-era dirty jokes? none of those? REALLY??) and I feel the critiquing of anything pre-1935 is better left to Film Students. **TBH, I could sort of throw in the towel on the whole blog with that kind of reasoning, but I don't. I feel highly qualified to discuss the hotness of men relative to the height of their pants; yes, there will be an illustrated post on that hotness spectrum coming at some point. Someday. Be patient.**

BUT. To the task at hand.

I should confess before we begin that it was in fact kind of thrilling to watch Dracula and realize that this guy was not doing a parody of himself, he was the real deal. The original talking Count Dracula! Apparently back in the day moviegoers could be scared quite effectively by slow-talking, slow-moving villains who smiled primly in their closeups. For a modern-day viewer, there are quite a few things to adjust to with this brand of horror. "Not being scared" may be high on that list.

We open with a beautiful painted backdrop of the mountains of Transylvania. I will be including lots of screencaps in this post in lieu of any meaningful commentary or plot summary because I'm lazy. Look how pretty this painted backdrop is! Here:
They know not that they near their doom.
The man destined to become Dracula's main minion, Renfield, is in that carriage. He has no idea what's coming. Let's lol at his misfortune!

Future minion has some scary ~*realtor business*~ at Castle Dracula and all the people in town are like "ARE YOU STUPID OR WHAT" but he insists on going, so they give him a cross and some advice like "Don't get eaten" and he goes off to meet his special carriage that will take him to the castle doors. The guy driving his carriage looks like this and is obviously Dracula the vampire.
Apparently before they had fancy special-effects red contacts for vampires you just had to open your eyes really wide.
Renfield gets dropped off at Castle Dracula where the first thing to strike fear into his heart is the presence of rats and the howling of wolves, and the second thing is, you guessed it: ARMADILLOS.
Enduring symbols of death, weeble-wobbling on their tiny feet as your heart constricts in fear!
Then Dracula comes out to (re-)introduce himself and Renfield is all, "Hey Dracs, LOVE the cape. I bet you're definitely not a vampire." Although you feel kinda bad for this guy because he is obviously just sitting there like "GOTTA DANCE!" while Dracula thinks "I'm nomming on you tonight."
Also: How are you supposed to tell vampires apart from regular folks in this movie when everyone wears the same white pancake makeup?

 Here are some stairs. Aren't you glad I take pictures of everything?
Cool shot of gross spidery stairs.
Anyway, so Renfield and Dracula get down to business with Dracula being all, "Here's your bed (*pat pat*) here's your creepy secret door, and here's your dinner. I thought you might be hungry, so I made you some candles."
Renfield apparently is some sort of realtor hooking Dracula up with a property in England. I'm definitely glossing over plot points here because nothing is important and, much like the rest of this film, this scene is mostly made up of Renfield alternating fearful looks with inexplicable cheer and chumminess toward Dracula. Everybody does this. I guess the idea is that they know he's evil but he has some hold on them anyway? It's gotta be the peepers.
These eyes say "SAFETY" and "ROMANCE."
My favorite part of this scene is when Renfield hands Dracula the papers and he just holds onto them for a second like he's confused. I'm thinking, "Ooh! Ooh! This means something! Vampires can't do signatures? Vampires can’t read leases? Is something about this supposed to be giving him away as a vampire??" But no, it's just a nice long pause. Everything's fine.
"It's half in English, half in... squiggly."
Then Renfield takes the lease back and cuts himself on a paperclip. I'm only including this because of the useful Twilight comparison. Real OG Vampire Dracula just moonwalks over very smoothly to check it out, but nothing crazy happens. Bella Swan would be totally safe around this guy! Nobody even got thrown at a piano, and nobody was listening to Sea Wolf when it happened! Verdict: Cullens are reactionary pussies.
Dude has a janky manicure, though.
We end things with a nice nightcap, of which Dracula conspicuously does not partake. It's not awkward though, because Renfield is back to being an idiot - right before he passes out, anyway, because the drink is obviously drugged and HAS THIS GUY EVER HEARD OF NOSFERATU BEFORE??
"No thank you. I am a teetotaller, much like my role model, Benjamin Fangklin."
Renfield gets konked out, Dracula noms on some blood, and now he has a new minion. I'll be honest, the subtleties of the victim/minion arrangement were lost on me in this movie. Renfield sort of goes crazy and starts eating bugs, and Dracula can speak to him telepathically and make him do stuff. But nobody else seems to do that. It's very inconsistent. Here's a picture of Renfield being crazy to speed things up a little bit:
Seriously, what newly minted vampire eats bugs? Just imagine how much better the Twilight saga would have been if Edward Cullen gave Bella a Timon and Pumba-style initiation into the undead underworld; "tastes like chicken"; musical montage; etc. Sweeeeeeeeet.

Anyway. The whole point of Renfield was to get Dracula some property in England, so off they go on a boat, which I guess was totally normal at the time. En route to England, Dracula obviously has to eat everybody on the boat and since Renfield is the only one spared and is and now totally batshit, he gets taken to a sanatorium when they reach land. Dracula just hands him over to simplify things. Yes, you can apparently glide blithely off a boat filled with dead people and nobody will question you, as long as you're Dracula. (Male privilege much?!?) So now Dracula is a free agent in England and after doing the totally predictable touristy thing of eating a poor little flower girl (who honestly only has herself to blame because he descended so damn slowly she probably could have just sidestepped slightly and he'd have overbalanced) he goes to chat up the owner of the sanatorium Renfield's been installed in, and hits on his daughters. Apparently the property our charismatic count has just bought is adjacent to the sanatorium, which is why this introduction takes place, but I really don't know a good reason why any of this is happening. I do know that there's a point in here for the gentlemen, however: When making someone’s acquaintance for the first time, make sure to mention how much you long for true death. Don't wait for the topic to arise naturally, just go for it. Girls will admire this winning combination of gutsiness and sensitivity and find the whole thing totally hot. You won't find truth bombs like this in Cosmo! Anyway, up to date, here's Dracula and the dude who owns the sanatorium and the dude's two hot daughters, and some other guy.
Also a brief interlude, since I'm clearly distractable at this point, to check out the hottentot second from left.
John is one girl's boyfriend (brunette on the left) so naturally he'll be the one running around all consternated and brave when she gets minionized by Dracula and is in mortal peril. But that's coming later. No it's not, I'm fast-forwarding.

So Dracula kills the blonde girl outright but he just nibbles on the brunette and minionizes her (definitely how it works). Then he shows up at their house again later and is like "Hello, my darling," and she is obviously enchanted by him and everyone in the room becomes very uncomfortable. Professor Van Helsing from the sanatorium is there (known vampire-hunter, blah blah blah) and does a cool little mirror trick to see if Dracula is a vampire. I am leaving out leaps and bounds of the plot but you shouldn't mind because what did you expect. Basically "strange things have been happening" and "that Renfield wacko keeps eating live spiders" and "Count Dracula seems suspicious no wait we love him WE LOVE HIM!" and Van Helsing is on the case! Look at this sweet mirror shot:
Ahhhh best use of a mirrored cigar box ever!
(Professor Van Helsing:)
Hugh Jackman is old in this movie!
But as time passes, minionized girlfriend is getting dangerous! She makes this face at John one day when they're on the ~veranda~ and while I don't blame her for staring, because, hello, JOHN, she is technically being kinda scary and maybe Dracula is telling her to eat him through telepathic mindfluffery? At this point I assume Dracula has, like, customizable minion-creating options because this lady has not eaten a single grub. But she has DANGER EYES. Van Helsing notices and waves some wolfsbane at her and she freaks out and he's like "Hunch: confirmed." (List of things vampires hate: leases, wolfsbane, moving above 2.5mph.)
Okay back to the storymabob, because at this very moment Renfield is being instructed telepathically by Dracula to secure the brunette seen above for even more nefarious ends. The privilege of a daddy vampire is apparently to telepathically control his minions and make them go eat all the people. Isn't that lazy! Also, isn't Dracula hungry? Again, I'm not exactly sure how this even works, so bear with me here. Renfield, thanks to Dracula's brainpower, is being told to go get brunette lady for some nighttime nomming down in the ground. He gets very sad about this and there's a scene of him at the window begging Dracula not to make him do it.
Anyway, Dracula winds up doing his own dirty work at the last minute like a douchebag and kidnaps girlfriend and the whole household freaks out and a maid faints and Renfield who could have kept his hands clean goes crazy and eats his very first human person!
Very cool shot. Also this maid just did an awesome fake faint.
Bad news bears. So now Van Helsing is like, "LISTEN UP EVERYBODY, DUDE IS DEFINITELY A VAMPIRE," and John is all concerned and on the case -- pause for a moment to look at another picture of John --
stud muufasdsduefghghghhffin.
and they run off to Dracula's place, and there is some chasing up and down stairs and the whole thing ends very quickly. I'll slap on some more screenshots.

Renfield, overcome with guilt after his cheat day meal of Somebody's Maid, has led John and Van Helsing to the bowels of Dracula's dwelling. Confronting Dracula on the stairs, he is once more overpowered by Dracula/Bela Lugosi's improbable personal charisma and begs forgiveness for his betrayal. The betrayal lasted all of sixty seconds but apparently requires a screaming speech to atone for. This is the setup and it's very pretty:
Dracula, moving very slowly, kills Renfield anyway. There are probably sixty quality seconds of Renfield begging for mercy that could have been spent running away. Anyway.
Death by angry hug!
As John and Van Helsing burst into the dungeon, daylight is just creeping in through the cracks. Right! Daylight! A real vampire thing this movie cares about! Dracula runs off with now-uncharacteristic speed and hustles himself and girlfriend into some very, very un-hidden coffins. They are straight-up right on top of the ground. This lack of foresight proves to be Dracula's mortal flaw. After about thirty seconds of toodling around the castle, Van Helsing finds them, because, well, DUH, and he merrily whacks Dracula with a stake and all's well that suddenly ends well.
Dracula probably thinks that if he closes his eyes no-one can see him?
Girlfriend is freed from the evil minion bond when Dracula dies, and her eyes go un-crazy and she gets to reunite with John like so. Lucky bitch.
And then that's the end!

Welp. Not sure what to say about this movie other than that it was very stylistically pretty and hopelessly un-scary, so I'll decline to give it a star rating. But I will recommend that you watch it for the experience of seeing such an original movie villain doing his thing... if only to enhance your appreciation for contemporary horror. Or enhance your disgust for the Twilight franchise (real vampires are slow and wear waistcoats!). Or obliterate any respect you had for filmgoing audiences of a century ago. Any of those things could happen.

As always, you're welcome for more of my timeless brand of screencapping and blather. See you next time!