Dracula/Dracula Analogue Performed by: Bela Lugosi
Director: Tod Browning
Country: United States
Character Archetype: Horrific Propriety
I gave Nosferatu a lot of praise last time for its huge impact on pop culture and for the wealth of imagery that other things have borrowed from it, but if there’s anything in the Dracula canon that can give it a run for its money in that regard, it’s this film.
Tod Browning’s film is less of a concentrated vision than Nosferatu, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and there’s a lot of reasons for why. For one, it’s based less directly on Bram Stoker’s novel and more on a popular play written by Hamilton Deane and revised by John L. Balderston, which shuffles some of the timeline around, cuts out older characters and adds new ones. Some of these changes are pretty minor and inexplicable and didn’t survive the transition to the screen (such as switching Mina and Lucy’s names for no reason, or having Renfield survive), but other changes were significant enough (such as giving Renfield the same job as Harker, making him the first to go to Transylvania to meet the Count) that other versions have adopted them over material from the novel.
While its influence from the stage is fairly obvious, given the fairly minimal use of location changes and camera angles devoted more to “coverage” in dialogue scenes, there’s an even more pertinent influence coloring the production: Browning’s background in silent films. Browning has said that he was not terribly comfortable with sound films, but that tension between director and medium produces surprisingly effective results, particularly regarding Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance.
Much of the horror of Count Dracula’s character in Stoker’s novel comes from the revelation of his brutish, violent nature that lurks beneath a veneer of gentility and class. In the novel, this is exacerbated by Dracula’s numerous physical transformations, but due to the low-tech nature of the production (we never see Dracula transform onscreen, or into anything other than a bat), a lot has to lean on Lugosi’s acting for it to work. Lugosi was largely a theater and silent film actor by trade (Browning’s directing sensibilities compliment this), and you can tell by how exaggerated certain aspects of his performance are: his physical gestures are grand, his posture is clearly calculated, and his intonation is crisp. None of this is bad, though: it clearly conveys the idea of a monster putting on respectable manners as a disguise for his brutality. The pregnant pause in the “I never drink…wine” scene (an alteration of a scene from the book, where Dracula merely says he has eaten already) isn’t just clever punning, it represents a slip in the masquerade. Obviously, there is some of the same “horror of the foreign invader” that was so present in Nosferatu here with the casting of the Hungarian Lugosi as Dracula, but the real horror of Lugosi’s Dracula is that he performs poise and elegance so perfectly that he’s able to kill a young woman in a crowd without being detected. As Van Helsing notes at one point, “the strength of the vampire is in unbelievers.” In this case, the “unbelievers” are those who refuse to see evil among people that perform according to societal expectations, like Lucy becoming enthralled with Dracula upon his arrival because of his cultured airs, only to be bitten that night. He’s our greatest enemy because he’s able to act just like us.
This is also a much more sexual film than Nosferatu. Granted, much of the film’s sexuality is subtextual and the ways in which Dracula is usually sexualized aren’t present at all (specifically drinking blood as intercourse or playing up Dracula’s physical appearance), but it’s not exactly subtle about it, either. Aside from Dracula having much more physical proximity to his victims in this film (unlike the distanced, sexless, dominating bloodlust depicted in Nosferatu), making overtures towards rape as in the novel, there’s an added scene where a possessed Mina attempts to bite Harker but is stopped by Van Helsing and Dr. Seward. The framing of the scene, including a shot where Mina gazes longingly at Harker’s neck while he’s distracted, is overwhelmingly centered around the fear of a sexually forward, predatory woman, especially in light of the scene immediately following it. Mina tells Harker about the Count’s attack, and says “you mustn’t touch me or kiss me,” indicating that they can no longer have the relationship they had before.
Our sympathies are clearly meant to be with Mina here, as she regrets her actions and how the violence against her has begat more, similar violence, but the messaging and delivery is classic Gothic and therefore classically troubling in its attitudes towards women. Mina has been “corrupted” by this assault, and the “corruption” must be avenged by the virile Harker and the paternal Van Helsing, with Mina being reduced once again to mere set dressing. Really, most of the film has no care for the women in its story: the brides have no dialogue at all and only appear for under a minute of screen time, and Lucy’s death and subsequent resurrection as a child-eating seductress of the night is left hanging, completely unresolved. This is possibly the result of the film’s ruthless, breathless pacing and short length leaving some interesting material unexplored (it also results in something of an anti-climactic death for Dracula), but mostly it indicates a worldview where a woman’s place is nowhere at all; damned to be used as collateral if you’re virginal and damned to die if you’re charmed by false visages.