Friday, October 16, 2009

HORROR EPICS: Dracula (1931)

Remember when Francis Ford Coppola directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992? I sure do, and I didn’t like it one bit. Mostly style, little substance. But it’s safe to say that Francis Ford’s rendition won’t be remembered the same way that the original Dracula is. Why? Because for as much of a great actor as Gary Oldman is, his performance as the Count doesn’t hold a candle to that of the late, great Bela Lugosi. Forget about your comedic impressions of Lugosi’s accent. Chances are your stupid impression is based on somebody’s comical interpretation anyway. Instead, sink your teeth (heh) into a shining example of how an actor can become the role they play to the point where they own it. Bela Lugosi certainly accomplishes that goal in Dracula, in which he still manages to be menacing even as we approach the film’s eightieth anniversary. The critics who point out his slow, theatrical performance completely miss the point. I don’t know what makes these people think that a centuries-old nobleman from the Carpathian Mountains would ever adapt to the 20th century. But they seem to think that this is what Dracula should have done, which doesn’t make much sense to me. The character’s appeal lies in the fact that he hasn’t changed with the times much, if at all. In that, he is unique in the face of bland Brits like John Harker. After all, there’s a reason why Harker’s fiancée Mina and friend Lucy are still talking about the Count (and not John) hours after being introduced to him. This isn’t to say that Dracula doesn’t have its flaws, but consider the context. Dracula was the first talking horror movie, and it’s clear that most of the actors are having trouble with the transition from the silent films that they were used to. The same thing goes for director Tod Browning, who had directed silent films for more than fifteen years before taking on Dracula. Although he’d directed “talkies” prior to Dracula, he wouldn’t really figure them out until he directed Iron Man later that year, and then Freaks in 1932. The ending is abrupt and anticlimactic as well. But if today’s generation takes nothing else away from Dracula, let it be Bela Lugosi’s career-defining (and ultimately career-ruining) performance. Oh, and don’t forget Dwight Frye as the doomed Renfield, a character that has been imitated in film nearly as much as the Count himself. Dracula is a film that you should see at least once, if you consider yourself a fan of horror movies at all. Perhaps I’ll check out the Spanish version (which is said to be far better) next year.

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