Dracula Revisited

Dracula (1931)

The film that started it all. And I don’t just mean Dracula movies, I mean the Universal Monsters franchise as a whole. True, Universal had earlier forays into the horror genre–mostly silent films–but this is where the classic era of monster movies really started.

It’s a difficult decision between him and Christopher Lee, but I really do think Bela Lugosi was my favorite Dracula. Those who are only casually familiar with these films might assume that to be an easy decision given that popular culture references to Dracula as a character almost always use Lugosi’s version, but actually Lugosi only appeared as the character here and in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Despite his limited opportunities to portray the character, it’s not difficult to see why Lugosi’s is considered the defining Dracula performance. There’s an air of quiet authority to him throughout the film, and a very tricky combination of aristocratic grace and barely-restrained predatory malice. And it’s something that Lon Chaney, Jr. (despite his success as Universal Monsters mainstay Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man) and John Carradine didn’t come close to duplicating.

I don’t expect this to be an uncontroversial opinion, but despite being the very first film of the series, I actually think it’s pretty easily the film from the Universal Monsters franchise that’s best withstood the test of time.

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard about it is that it’s too “talky.” I suspect this complaint largely owes itself to the fact that the film was adapted from a stage production, and I’m going to go in the complete opposite direction on this one. I absolutely think that’s why this film has held up so well over time. The driving force of the film is character drama and conversations that are full of subtext. Dracula’s predatory nature shines when contrasted with the wide-eyed innocence of Renfield in the film’s opening, and during his banter with Lucy at the theater. And most notably, there’s an electric sort of tension during his brief conversation with Van Helsing.

All of these conversations seem fairly understated on the surface-level, but all of them are made tense contests full of subtext by the rather clear objectives of all of the characters involved in them.

The only thing about this film that didn’t really work for me was the depiction of Renfield’s descent into madness. I honestly don’t think it added anything to the film in the first place. But if they really had to include it, I think they could’ve done this without literally having him rant and rave exposition at Dracula’s coffin on the cargo ship (at one point even directly stating that he knew the Count couldn’t hear him). But in this film, scenes like that were the exception, not the rule.

(A-Rank)

Drácula

It’s not difficult to call out the elements that stand out in this version. Pablo Alvarez Rubio’s Renfield blows Dwight Frye’s out of the water, is one of the first things I noticed. It’s probably the best depiction of the character ever, honestly. There’s quite a bit more restraint to the way he plays the early stages of Renfield’s descent into vampire hypnosis-addled thralldom, so that when he takes a shine to chewing the scenery later in the film it feels a lot more earned. For that matter, with the Spanish version clocking in at 20 minutes longer than the English version, it’s pretty consistent across the board that characters and scenes have more time to breathe. This is particularly noticeable when we compare the development of Eva’s character to Mina’s. Lucy and Lucia, on the other hand, are pretty much identically awesome in the two versions. But also identically shortchanged.

As for the most obvious elephant in the room, I’m really hesitant about judging this based on a single viewing, but I really can see saying that Carlos Villarías was a better Dracula than Bela Lugosi. I’m not saying I necessarily think he was, but the fact that I even think it’s a conversation worth having is not something I expected. I most certainly need to dedicate a rewatch of both versions to looking at this question very closely in the near future.

There are also just some strikingly beautiful shots in this one that I don’t remember seeing in Browning’s. During Dracula’s confrontation with Van Helsing, Seward, and Harker, there’s a long shot that just takes in the entire room and all four men from a really interesting angle that’s really terrific. A lot of the exterior nighttime shots also feel a lot crisper and more natural.

I think basically the only thing I unambiguously preferred about the English language version was Dracula’s confrontation with Van Helsing. It just really felt like it sizzled more, like there was so much boiling under the surface for both characters as they matched wits. It really felt like that was missing in their two conversations in this version. And it’s a big loss, because that was one of my favorite things about the English language version, but it really feels like the Spanish version does more than enough to make up for this.

(A-Rank)

Dracula’s Daughter

Countess Zaleska’s first words on the screen are, “Are you in charge here?” While she’s answered in the affirmative, it is pretty immediately and abundantly clear to the audience that she is in charge of whatever room she’s in.

So, I know I’m hardly the first person to advance this argument, but Countess Zaleska is totally a lesbian. And I just want to hug her and tell her it’s okay and help her accept herself instead of desperately flailing around trying to “fix” herself. But of course even a lesbian-coded character in the 1930s has to be a tragic figure that doesn’t want to be the way she is. And of course she can’t just fucking win.

This movie has some really interesting things to read into about the closet, but this movie is also in the closet. As such, on some level it can’t ever be anything but deeply troubling and unsatisfying, no matter how much I want it to be something else. I actually kind of wish I saw problematic movies this way more often. What happened here is essentially I latched on to the central character, disagreed with literally all of her choices, and just wanted to tell her, “Honey, no… no. It’s okay. Don’t do what you’re doing. Love yourself. Just be gay and drink blood. It’s fine.”

I spent probably way too much time grappling with what rating to give this, but that’s pretty normal for me, right? The two conflicting interests are clearly how much I love Countess Zaleska as the towering figure of awesomeness she is, versus how the movie actually treats her. Which is to say, you know, it treats her badly. Very, very badly. I think my final rating doesn’t reflect anything so much as the fact that I really, really prefer to like things rather than not like them? In this case, though, it’s really just a number. There’s no way for me to express any kind of sincere reaction to this film other than “Countess Zaleska is what I love about this movie, and I love her; here are the much more numerous things I hate about this movie, and I hate them.”

I just want to hug her and tell her it’s okay. And then I want her to gay marry the Bride of Frankenstein so they can live happily ever after conquering the world and all of us fear and love them as they reign over us in gothic splendor.

(A-Rank)

Son of Dracula

The most interesting thing about this film, by far, is Katherine’s preexisting interest in the occult. I know this was probably largely to make her a less sympathetic character and make the film’s punishment of her more palatable, but for me it has the opposite effect. It’s sort of a more fully realized, independent version of Lucy’s interest in Dracula in the original film. Of course, the film somewhat spoils this by making Katherine a temptress, attempting to seduce her betrothed Frank with the promise of immortality so he can pretend to go along with her plan and cry Man Tears of Manly Sacrifice when he betrays her by setting her tomb on fire.

This film also commits the unforgivable sin of introducing the trope of Dracula concealing his true identity by calling himself “Alucard” and mostly getting away with it. So, if that gives you any idea of what you’re in for… yeah.

Compared to the previous two entries to the series, this one relies a great deal more on melodrama and what basically amounts to palace politics. Except we’re not in a palace, we’re on a plantation. So plantation politics, I guess.

If the word “plantation” already made you slightly uncomfortable, boy are you ever in luck! Out of the films we’re going to be discussing today, this is the only one to feature any non-white characters. In the form of servants. African American servants. On a southern plantation.

It’s easy to get caught up in things like this because a lot of the extraneous details of this film are a hell of a lot more interesting than the film itself. Its script is weak, its pacing is soporific, and it features an awful performance by Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dracula. I know he found quite a bit of success elsewhere in the Universal Monsters canon (notably as the Wolf Man), but he feels horribly miscast here.

(D-Rank)

House of Frankenstein/House of Dracula

I group these two together because they’re the films most commonly associated with the “monster mash” era, and I have to say they’re also probably the most disappointing films in terms of what your expectation of them probably is versus what they actually are. Conceptually, just the titles (and the idea of a “monster mash”) sound like pretty unbridled fun, right? But in reality, both are pretty bland in terms of story and character, and oddly a little heavy in tone. It’s strange, they took perhaps the most indulgent concept of their entire run of monster movies and turned in two of the most restrained films? There’s nothing inherently bad about restraint, mind you–in fact, it’s more often used as a compliment than a criticism for most films–but it’s all about context. And it really just doesn’t seem like the right approach here.

Don’t get me wrong. These aren’t bad films, and they do deliver basically what a lot of the audience is probably looking for. And while the tone doesn’t quite feel appropriate for the promise of a big monster movie crossover, it’s not like it’s the most sedentary of the franchise. In terms of “fun” factor, these two are a pretty big step up from a lot of the other monster sequels, just maybe not quite as much of a step up as you would expect.

As for Count Dracula himself, he’s barely in House of Frankenstein and his part could quite easily be removed without affecting the rest of the film at all. In House of Dracula, as the title suggests, he’s a much more active part of the film. In this film, he’s actually trying to be “cured” of vampirism. In both cases, he doesn’t really interact with the other monsters at all, which is a pretty big shame and seems like a pretty big letdown given the overall concept of these films being a “monster mashup.”

More frustratingly, while Lon Chaney, Jr. was clearly the worst casting choice for Dracula in these early films, John Carradine was not much better. Chaney, Jr. was a worse choice only because he actively exuded warmth and a hint of vulnerability. It worked quite well for him as the Wolf Man (a role he reprises in these films), but it’s pretty much the opposite of what you want in a Dracula actor. Carradine was more inoffensively a bad fit because his portrayal was merely stiff and lacking personality. Either way, this leaves Lugosi as the only successful portrayal of the character in this series, and fortunately we finally get him back for the last entry.

(C-Rank)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Somehow this clearly ridiculous crossover ends up being a much better monster mash than the previous two more serious entries. I’m hardly the target audience here as I must admit I’ve never actually seen any of the famous comedy duo’s other work and there were a few aspects of their performance here that got somewhat tiresome for me. But having a bit of levity from our main non-monster characters definitely wasn’t the worst idea in the world.

But where a lot of people probably get a lot more out of Abbott and Costello than I do in this film, what really makes it work for me is how much more well-structured the monster story is here despite this being almost a parody. All three monsters (Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster) appear on screen together on numerous occasions, and more importantly for the first time all three are actually involved in the same plot instead of Dracula being off doing his own thing!

In what I honestly consider a bit of a master stroke, instead of the endless parade of scientists increasingly unrelated to the original Dr. Frankenstein, this time it’s Dracula who seeks to revive Frankenstein’s monster. The Wolf Man, meanwhile, continues to be the “good” monster, resulting in a simple but effective conflict in which all three iconic characters have vital roles. I know it might not sound like much, but keep in mind it took them three tries to figure out a way to actually involve Dracula in the other two’s story instead of the basic structure being “Frankenstein vs. Wolf Man, and Dracula is there too sort of I guess.”

On top of that, this film is the only time Bela Lugosi reprises his iconic role as the Count. Obviously given the film’s comedic tone he doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to shine in quite the same way as he did in Dracula, but it’s still nice to see him back in the cape.

(B-Rank)

Horror of Dracula

By far the biggest advantage enjoyed (and, unfortunately, often squandered outside of this first film) by this series is its casting. While Edward Van Sloan was fine as Van Helsing in the original Dracula (1931), he wasn’t precisely memorable. And Peter Cushing is just fantastic. In Cushing’s hands, the character’s intellectualism and strong will really shone through even as the quality of the scripts faded over the course of the series. And while I still have an ever so slight preference for Lugosi’s portrayal of the titular count, Christopher Lee absolutely owns the role here, and I have no doubt he would’ve continued to do so in the subsequent films had he been working with better material.

Another boon was this series’ distinctive atmosphere. I actually think it did a better job than Universal’s series at capturing the Victorian atmosphere of the novel. Going along with this, the series frequently used the religious sensibilities of the time to great effect in creating greater texture.

(B-Rank)

The Brides of Dracula

Though there is a noticeable dip in quality here, it isn’t nearly as bad as many of the later sequels. True, it drags at times, and it’s hard not to miss Dracula (he’s only the title character, after all). But the film is buoyed somewhat by Cushing’s continued presence as Van Helsing.

Actually, this film gives Van Helsing arguably his best moment of not only this series, but any Dracula film. Having been bitten and left to his fate by Baron Meinster, Van Helsing actually cauterises his own wound with red-hot metal and then pours holy water over it.

I mean, damn.

The moment is ruined somewhat when you realize two of the titular vampire brides watched the whole thing happen without interfering, but it’s still one of the only genuinely iconic scenes this central character has ever been given, and you have to appreciate it.

I do think the film would’ve been potentially more interesting if it had resembled the title more (i.e. revolved around a few strong, interesting female vampires or at least given the ones that did appear a few lines of dialogue?) rather than revolving around Baron Meinster (or, as he probably should be known, Dracula Lite). But then again, I did like that his imprisonment by his mother was somewhat an inversion of the Victorian “crazy woman in the attic” trope.

(C-Rank)

Dracula: Prince of Darkness

You’d really think the return of Dracula (and, consequently, Christopher Lee) would represent a sort of revival or at least upswing in quality for the series, and that’s where you would be very, very wrong.

While Dracula: Prince of Darkness isn’t quite as awful as a lot of the back end of this series, it is in a lot of ways a step down from Brides of Dracula and the series never really starts moving in the right direction again.

(D-Rank)

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave

Paul’s atheism and the nuanced conflicts it creates are pretty much the only interesting thing about this film. Until that tension was resolved by having him abruptly stop being an atheist in the last thirty seconds of the film.

Dracula himself isn’t really doing anything, he’s just sort of alive again. And that’s bad, because he’s Dracula. (That’s… really all the film gives us. Honest.) So a pretty boring film has one interesting thing going for it, and manages to tell us in the last few minutes that the entire film was actually about squandering that one thing.

(D-Rank)

Taste the Blood of Dracula

You know, this one actually isn’t too bad!

The final confrontation is a bit overwrought and silly in a bad way, but that’s really my only major complaint with this film. Other than that, it’s pretty much exactly what you would expect from a vampire movie. It’s maybe not quite what you would expect a Dracula movie as he doesn’t really get any chances to be charming and aristocratic (he rarely does in this series), but if you’re just looking for a garden variety vampire bloodbath you could do a lot worse.

(C-Rank)

Scars of Dracula/Dracula A.D. 1972/The Satanic Rites of Dracula/The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

This is when the series really, truly got weird, and I’m not giving each film a separate entry because they honestly don’t deserve it.

So, I have a great idea. Let’s take a series whose distinctive Victorian setting enhances its overall tone and themes and set it in modern times instead. Oh, but even though we’re going to the trouble of doing that, let’s spend most of our time in Gothic churches so it doesn’t make any difference what the setting is. Cool?

Honestly, I’m not sure what they were thinking here. Maybe they were just trying to save money on costumes? Setting a Dracula film in modern times sounds interesting in theory, but they didn’t really do anything with it (unless you count a few scenes at a party that didn’t really go anywhere), so you really have to wonder what the point was.

(D-Rank)

Dracula (1979)

I have to admit, they really chased this thing. You can tell the material (and audience) was really being taken seriously with a real budget, some genuinely interesting creative choices, and Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. I can’t say I necessarily cared for the more romantic tone they decided to go for here, but if you accept that as a given, it’s about as well-executed as the thing could be.

I’m not familiar with Frank Langella’s work, but he was an excellent choice in the title role here. He would’ve made a reasonably good Dracula in a more traditional version of the story, but in this specific one the strange combination of warmth and detachment he exuded was basically perfect. And setting this in Edwardian England rather than Elizabethan was a subtle touch that enhanced the romantic overtones.

Switching Mina and Lucy’s roles (with Mina dying first while Dracula pursues Lucy for his bride) was an especially deft stroke. Even in the original 1931 film I thought Lucy was the more interesting character as she was actually genuinely interested in the morbid and supernatural, and held her own in a conversation with the Count before being promptly killed off. Having her actually pursue Dracula in the 1979 version was a very nice touch that made her more of a character and less of a prop, replicating basically the only good thing from Son of Dracula. (And when Son of Dracula did it, it was born out of some truly gross ideology about how women need to be punished for stepping out of their lane, so… yeah.)

(B-Rank)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

The most immediately noticeable thing about this film is how stylistically intense it is. Everything from the costume design to the makeup to the composition of each shot just pushes all kinds of boundaries. There are a few moments that fall flat for me, but taken as a whole this film takes its subject and its audience seriously while simultaneously creating a visual spectacle.

(B-Rank)

Dracula: Dead and Loving It

I just can’t figure out what Brooks was going for here. It’s a parody without any real jokes. I didn’t laugh once during the entire film.

(D-Rank)

Dracula 2000

The marketing for this film relied heavily upon Wes Craven’s name despite his lack of direct involvement with the project. So it’s a little disorienting just how not “Wes Craveny” this movie feels. (And if you think I’m making too big of a deal about this, the film was literally marketed as Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000.)

If the entire idea was to set the Dracula story in a more modern context, it might’ve been kind of interesting to have Dracula on the screen more, and do anything other than just kind of be generically threatening. Really, this film basically treats all of its central characters not as people, but as vehicles for shocking revelations.

(D-Rank)

Van Helsing

Do I even have to do this? I mean, this thing has become almost synonymous with misguided attempts at franchise-building.

(D-Rank)

Hotel Transylvania

I’m not ashamed to say that this one really caught me by surprise. I mean, you’re giving me an animated comedy with a premise that’s practically overflowing with potential for 90 minutes-worth of gimmicky jokes and Adam Sandler is headlining it? I refuse to believe anyone wasn’t skeptical of this thing.

But where this could’ve easily become a formulaic exercise in repeating the same joke over and over, instead we get a heartfelt family film with great comedy elements that are basically an added bonus. A film that focuses on genuine, lifelike relationships between characters with relatable wants, needs, and pain. These characters make mistakes, hurt each other, forgive each other. And on top of it all we get an earnest, nuanced take on themes like hatred and prejudice.

(B-Rank)

Dracula Untold

It’s not just that Dracula Untold had some pretty deep, script-level, basically fatal story problems. (Though, it certainly had those.) It’s that I really can’t fathom what the point of this film was. As the title suggests, the overall idea of this film was to show us Dracula’s mysterious origins. If this sounds to you like someone decided to make a 90-minute movie out of the first two minutes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), you’re ahead of the game.

What I can’t figure out is why. I know Hollywood is sometimes obsessed with origin stories, but Dracula’s origin has never really been a vital part of his character or story. In Stoker’s original novel, it came out in a series of conversations that were way more interesting than anything in this film. In Universal’s classic films of the 1930s-40s and Hammer’s in the 60s/70s, I can’t recall it being mentioned once. The most notable example I can recall of actually seeing his origin was Coppola’s aforementioned erotic drama/horror Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and that very brief prologue was more than enough.

It would be nice if I could say, “Okay, this film wasn’t very good, but at least it sets up potentially more interesting films in the future,” but the payoff of this rather bland epic action film was to fast forward to the present day and show us just how bland Luke Evans has the potential to be as the fully realized Dracula.

I realize that Universal has had success completely reworking a series before thanks to their reimagining of The Mummy (the first two, anyway). But that was a completely different situation where the original mummy movies were, frankly, pretty boring and lackluster. By reinventing the series as a comedy/action yarn, Stephen Sommers took a potentially interesting but unrealized intellectual property and turned it into a living, breathing franchise with its own distinct character.

Dracula Untold accomplishes nearly the opposite, taking a character that has been successfully depicted on numerous occasions and who has very distinct reasons for his success with audiences and recasting him as a bland hero in an aggressively personality-free movie that ignores all of those distinctive strengths.

(D-Rank)


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