In 1931, Universal Studios released the movie, Dracula. It is based on Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. Stars included Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, and Helen Chandler.
I first saw this black and white movie as a kid. I can still hear that famous line as Lugosi greeted his unsuspecting guest, “I am….Drac-u-la.” The music leading into the film sets the stage. You know it’s going to be tense from the get go. There’s even a campy bat logo behind the director’s and stars’ names in the opening scenes.
The protagonist character, Renfield, is dispatched to Castle Dracula on business. When he arrives at the village at the foot of the mountain, he’s warned not to go up there.
Vampires live there, he’s told. And the villager goes on to give a quick rundown of why he should avoid the place like a bad case of athlete’s foot fungus.
Count Dracula of Castle Dracula:
- Dracula has many wives.
- They shapeshift into many forms: wolves and bats.
- They all crawl out of their coffins at night to feast on live human blood.
- The sun is setting – bad, bad, bad. Lock your doors.
But Renfield will not listen. He’s given a cross to wear by a village woman. And the carriage crosses over the rugged trails to the mournful wails of the villagers. If you look closely, just after the flimsy gates to the village are shut, the carriage rolls left up a hill where a lone cross is silhouetted against a gray sky.
Lighting sets the tone for this movie. The hills are rugged and forbidding. The carriage arrives at a castle set high up on a barren mountain peak. And then, the camera moves to a dimly lighted vaulted interior shot – a crypt full of heavy square columns, a vast space where multiple plain coffins are scattered across the floor. Behind a coffin in the foreground, smoke rises from the ground.
Hold onto your seats – as the camera zooms in, the lid of a coffin slowly opens and a ghoulish hand emerges. The camera pans away to creepy images of spider webs and a big furry rat that honestly looks as big as a furry possum. (Maybe it is. Who knows?)
Pan over to a lid that opens just enough to reveal a lady’s hand and pallid face. The hand is groping about the edge of the coffin. And then we see a huge insect emerge from a hole in the wood. A female corpse sits up in her coffin, a montage of the possum/rat inside a coffin with bones, and then Dracula.
Lugosi is wearing a black cape and very little makeup. Pin lighting focuses on one arched eyebrow. He stares dead into the camera, black hair slicked back and gazing into the lens with hypnotic eyes. His wives appear as spectral ghouls walking among the heavily draped webbed columns toward the audience.
Lugosi is then sitting, disguised in a hat and scarf, on the carriage that takes the unsuspecting Renfield to the castle. (The driver from the village will only go so far. So, Renfield must board a second carriage.) To the left on the hill by Dracula’s carriage, is an orthodox cross (a cross with two bars) silhouetted like a street sign. The lower bar points right – as in right this way to the castle of doom.
By the way, the villager carriage driver reacts like I would in this scary situation. He pitches his passenger’s luggage onto the ground and makes tracks home. Renfield is lost in his confusion for a second. But one menacing look from his driver, Dracula-in-disguise, and he picks up the bag off the ground. (A count cannot be expected to act like a servant and carry luggage, can he?)
Renfield asks the driver if this is the coach to the castle.
The camera closes in on Lugosi’s eyes – black pupils surrounded by milky white. Creepy and Svengali-like. The driver is mute, but his facial expression say it all.
Look out, Renfield. It’s gonna be a bumpy night!
Renfield peeks out of the carriage window and his eye pop. A bat (strangely rubber looking on a string?) is flying in front of the horses pulling the carriage.
The carriage pulls up to the castle door. Of course, there’s no longer a driver. Renfield is alone. With a creak, the front door opens. Renfield enters the den of evil. He is a minute figure inside the dark, cavernous room. A trio of those rubber-looking bat creatures fly outside the arched windows. And down the staircase comes Dracula, holding a lit candle.
Strangely, armadillos venture out from under an upholstered chair. I guess Depression Era audiences would be frightened by this strange looking animal.
The viewer is now roughly ten minutes into the film.
All this seems campy today. But back in 1931, I’ll bet this had movie goers cold with fear. It was the Depression. They were living in horrible times, but there’s nothing like a ‘talkie’ horror movie to give the viewer some good old escapist entertainment.
For a little over an hour, and for the price of a ticket, you could lose yourself in a dark theater and have the dickens scared out of you, too.
1922 saw the first film version of the vampire, the silent movie, Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror. That time, the vampire was portrayed as a grotesque monster, with extra-long crooked fingers and an elongated face. This time, Dracula was more regal. Lugosi was supposed to be a count, after all.
Symbolism and lighting were effectively used to get the ‘evil’ message across to the audience. It may seem silly and over-the-top today, but to a Depression Era audience, it must have been delightfully horrifying entertainment.
A note about the movie’s star, Bela Lugosi, whose real name was Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó. Lugosi played the role of Dracula so successfully that he was typecast as a horror villain. He had a heavy accent which limited the roles he was offered. He had been injured in the military. Opiates were used to treat his chronic pain. 1
The end of his life was marked by alcoholism and morphine addiction. 2