How Tod Browning’s Dracula changed horror cinema forever

Dracula is one of the most prevalent of popular culture’s monsters. Iterations of Bram Stoker’s fiend pop up as a cultural rite of passage for each subsequent generation. Yet it is easy to forget that Stoker’s literary creation went through several overhauls before it became a multimedia sensation.

In spite of its reputation for rubbery bats and drawn-out dialogue, Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula was a pivotal moment in this regard. It put the Count firmly on the cultural map and defined Gothic clichés for years to come. Alongside James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, Browning’s film heralded the arrival of horror cinema as we know it, kick-starting the Universal Monsters film series and moving the genre on from its silent origins. Horror today arguably owes its rebirth in the sound age to the freedoms of the pre-Code era, and Dracula is distinctly entwined in its excesses.

With its story retold so often, it feels unnecessary to detail Dracula’s narrative other than to say it follows a vampire journeying from his native Transylvania to London to perpetuate his diseased, supernatural cult. Browning’s version is, however, heavily trimmed from Stoker’s original, being adapted from stage plays. The vast tome of Stoker’s epistolary novel had already been through two heavy edits for the theatre. First condensed by the British playwright by Hamilton Deane in 1924, it was further americanised by John L Balderstone for its later run on Broadway. Dracula was already pulling audiences before sound cinema even existed.

Dracula featured on screen twice in the silent era. His first appearance was in a missing Hungarian film by Károly Lajthay called Dracula’s Death though it was not until FW Murnau’s unauthorised Nosferatu where Stoker’s monster, albeit named Count Orlok (Max Schreck), was given the full treatment. Murnau infamously ran into trouble with Stoker’s estate, resulting in the film’s subsequent disappearance for many years. It perhaps explains why it took almost a decade to see the Count back on screen.

It feels appropriate that Dracula’s screen origins reside in silent cinema. A director clearly uncomfortable in the new world of sound cinema, Browning fills his film with long, stark silences; still in the habit of relying on title cards and live music. On first viewing, it can seem stifled by such silences and is understandably a project often used for re-scoring (most famously by Philip Glass). Even Browning’s cameraman Karl Freund is often attributed with Dracula’s more accomplished sequences, with anecdotal stories of him taking the reins of the chaotic project when the director variously disappeared.

It is unfair to assume the film to be bland, however, a reputation it has somewhat garnered in comparison to Whale’s films of the era. The design alone, along with Freund’s handful of moody tracking shots, is worth the price of admission. In the film’s first half, the sets are staggering. Camera’s glide through caverns filled with coffins and almost all of the hallmarks of Gothic cinema are ticked off. If its weaknesses come from anyway, it is the adherence to the theatricality of the stage play. Yet even this staginess achieves an unusual effect. Its falsity renders it strangely folkloric.

Though Stoker’s character was a decrepit, animalistic creature, Hungarian émigré Bela Lugosi cemented the vision of Dracula as the vaudeville stage villain. Considering the vampire today will likely bring to mind Lugosi’s gentlemanly interpretation, from his cape to his accent. Lugosi initially learned lines phonetically after arriving in America. He was chosen for the role on Broadway in 1927 and fought hard to play the vampire on screen. The characterisation was so effective that Lugosi became one of the most typecast actors in Hollywood history, labelling the success as both a blessing and a curse.

Lugosi is another of the film’s most startling elements, his ripe performance one of the few that truly works. His overemphasised delivery is alien yet believable. At times he feels like a creature-turned-gentleman, his veneer of respectability thinly drawn. The actor could not escape the success of his character in the end, even finally buried with one of his capes. This was organised by his son rather than actually being his dying wish, however. The vampire would always be with him.

As was increasingly the case for the newly emerging sound film industry, a Spanish language version was shot simultaneously for the burgeoning Latin American market. Filming at night after Browning’s crew had finished, George Melford’s team would watch the rushes and improve upon what they saw. The result is a film often considered in higher regard than Browning’s. Melford’s interpretation of Dracula and Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio) meeting is still astonishing today, with its Citizen Kane-esque camera floating up several flights of steps. But the Spanish version lacks Lugosi, casting Carlos Villarías as the Count. Lugosi is still the real deal.

Ultimately it was Browning’s Dracula that was the first of horror’s one-two punch, cementing the arrival of both sound horror and button-pushing pre-Code cinema. It is still surprising to find praise increasingly faint for the film. Its visuals feel closer to German Expressionism, thanks mostly to Freund, the looming sets reminiscent of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. The reveal of Renfield (Dwight Frye), mad-eyed and smiling in the bellows of the ship filled with corpses may be one of the eeriest images horror ever produced. The film still has a supernatural power.

Dracula is a heady cocktail of Gothic miscellanea. Even with its stranger choices and flaws – armadillos as creepy castle monsters, Dracula’s wives tripping over each other, its incredibly abrupt ending – the blueprint for horror is there; sultry, full-blooded and captivating. Alongside Whale, Browning proved to reluctant studio bosses that horror was good business as well as good cinema. It is difficult to consider the genre today without it, rubbery bats and all.

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