Darke Reviews | Dracula (1931)

Going back to the classics is fun. Watching how they were shot, how they were scripted and acted. Dracula is no exception to this. When I was a little girl my elementary school and the public library had books on some of the Universal Monsters. I devoured them with special attention to the Wolfman and Dracula, though unsurprisingly Dracula was the one that truly captured my attention then and forever. I tried to read the book around the same time, but as bright as I am told I was, the wording was too dense for me at the tender age of 7. I have long since fixed that and even managed to get my hands on the tome that is the Annotated version. So being able to review this movie, while not quite the best, it is definitive. All other Dracula and Vampire movies after owe something to this.

While not the first time the name graced the silver screen -I am not including the stage plays – , it was the first authorized time. Ok, there is also a little known Hungarian Film “Dracula’s Death” which has a character who thinks he is Dracula in it.  FW Murnau’s Nosferatu was the first film vampire, though this was unauthorized after a suit from Stokers widow and all copies were ordered destroyed. This can also be considered the first supernatural thriller, I will add the addendum, by American hands. Universal studios hit something special when they did it. Little known fact that a Spanish version of the film was shot simultaneously. Now you might be going “alright cool, they made a version in spain at the same time.” Yet, I return with “No! They filmed on the same set.” The american version shot on the stages during the day and the spanish version at night. The spanish version is sometimes considered technically superior and for the time a bit racier and sexier than its American counterpart.

The movie was directed by Tod Browning officially, though behind the scenes stories and comments made by cast and crew indicate there was either a total lack of direction or that Karl Freund, the cinematographer, stepped in. Browning was a go to director for studios having done dozens of films prior, including the Lon Chaney classic London After Midnight. His expertise was in silent film and outsiders. This explains much of the silence within the film and certain choices that were made. Freund for his part was just as important. Tracking shots , high camera dollies, and even the atmosphere within the movie are largely attributed to him. Horror movies in general owe so much to this, both good and bad.

Edna Mode does not approve.

Edna Mode does not approve.

 

Its hard to talk about a story and the writers since everyone knows it. Of course it is inspired by Bram Stokers novel from 1897. Stoker for his part had heard of the man Dracula and used him as a springboard with next to no research and never having been to Romania himself. This accounts for many of the descriptions of places and things within Transylvania not being remotely like how they’ve been filmed. His novel then was adapted for the stage, officially, by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston (Didn’t I mention him recently in the Mummy). Garret Fort has credit for a version of the play script. When it comes to the movie however, this one falls under the movie writer curse: 5 total writers, including the director. There are significant changes from the source material to this of course, no real change there from Hollywood, but the biggest and probably most impactful is the Lugosi look. Dracula was always described as off putting, yet here we have something and someone foreign and handsome.

 

 

Real vs Movie Borgo Pass

The Borgo Pass: Erosion the true terror of Dracula

Lugosi was not the first pick. He wasn’t even the second or third. The original choice was Lon Chaney who died, before production began, due to cancer. Called the Man of A Thousand Faces, his roles in Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame made him one an easy pick. I don’t know what he would have looked like in the make up, he was one of the rare actors who truly enjoyed the chair and the prosthetics. Lugosi however with his look, powerful and hypnotic eyes, and trade mark accent ended up with the role and the world has never been the same. Sadly the studio did not offer him a contract after the success of Dracula, as they did with Karloff on Frankenstein and he had trouble being seen outside of a certain genre after. Perhaps one of his greatest single work after shows the mans true talent for acting, The Black Cat, in which he starred  against Karloff himself.

The rest of the cast has Helen Chandler as the ever staring Mina, who was fantastic on stage but did not make much of an impact in movies. David Manners, who also appeared in the Mummy and Frankenstein as John Harker here. Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing. Seriously all this man plays is the Doctor who knows it all!  Dwight Frye though is the standout. His Renfield defined the role for almost a century to come. It was as problematic for him as it was for Lugosi in the work field after. He shows the widest range of acting in the film with his eyes, vocal pitch, laugh, and mannerisms are truly iconic.

Even the movie magic of the day was amazing. While obviously not a lot of it holds up today, some tricks like Dracula walking through a spider web really do. Today someone would use some half baked CG work and give us something laughable, this wasn’t. This was alien and new and creepy.

TL;DR?

I highly recommend any cinephiles to see this at least once in their life, if they have not already. If you are a fan of all things vampire like I am this is a must have in your collection.

If you want to see where it all began, absolutely watch this.

Modern movie goers will eye roll at the acting and some interesting flubs in the film, but it is a classic and worth watching – at least once

 

 

 

 

 

Darke Reviews | The Mummy (1932)

I promised I would spend time this year talking about the Universal Monsters. These are the originals. These are what all else since has been based on, inspired by, or outright copied from. Sure there were a handful of adaptations of some of these works before hand, but these were the ones that caught the public eye and the imagination of an generations. There have been a few false starts and failed reboots in the past twenty years or so of some of these original creature features and rumor has it that Universal is going to try again with these films. The recent remakes have had mixed success with fans, critics, and the box office. So for todays film, lets discuss archaeology a bit, shall we?

Some spoilers below.

Egypt had been awash in mystery and mysticism to the western world for decades when this film came out.  The celebrity status of the ancient culture had gone, well quite frankly, viral ten years prior when Howard Carter had discovered the intact Tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut). This launched (or relaunched I suppose) the modern era of Egyptology. It really comes as no surprise that after the success of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 that Universal would be seeking out another monster to fill their slate. They had to look no further than sensationalist newspapers tales of the Curse of the Pharaohs. I suppose the media blowing things out of proportion isn’t as new as we thought neh? With the ideas of curses on mummies and their tombs and an audience hungry for something to scare them magic was bound to happen.

The story was originally written, though uncredited, by Richard Schayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam. It was adapted to the screenplay by John Balderston, who also wrote the screenplay for Dracula and Frankenstein. Balderston, fascinatingly, was a foreign correspondent who covered Carters opening of the Tomb in 1922.  He also prior to this had written stageplays for both Dracula and Frankenstein. He also adapted the first version of the film Last of the Mohicans. If we thought Hollywood was a factory now, churning out writers and spitting them out, it looks to have been worse in the early days with people going uncredited, underpaid, and in some cases having no rights to their work and being forced to sue.

The film focuses on the recent discovery of an intact mummy, by the name of Imhotep,  found in unusual circumstances. The movie wastes no time before the title character resurrects himself through the greed of a young explorer. Imhotep plans his not so nefarious plot to resurrect his equally dead and mummified love Ankh-es-en-amon. Yes, that is right – this is a love story with the focus on a monster. He isn’t the rotting corpse image we often imagine, but rather a dry and only slightly emaciated individual who actually spends time amongst people and takes on the name Ardeth Bay, in his search for the reincarnation of his lost love. He finds her in a young british socialite named Helen Grosvenor and begins to use his powers to remove those who would stand in the way of his love; while our “heroes” try to save the young woman’s life. It’s fascinating to me how much I find myself siding with the so called monster as I watch this and want him to succeed. What is equally fascinating is that, for its time, it is no act of our protagonists but rather the female center of the film that wins the day.

I think part of the success of the film resides in the reserved yet deeply emotional performance of Boris Karloff. Karloff, a man so awesome all they used was his last name on the poster, was already forty-five when he took this role and had a huge career behind him. He had recently been thrust into the limelight as Frankenstein. The films made the man seem a towering giant against his cast mates, yet he was only 5’11. He had decades of acting experience before him in both stage and silent pictures before. It’s worth mentioning amidst this praise that the rest of the cast does well. The style of film at the time had movies shot as if they were stage plays rather than motion pictures. Blocking, dialogue, even a bit of hollow over acting come from that particular style. Along with Karloff, Edward Van Sloan was a regular in these original films, always playing the same character by type if not by name. In the Mummy he is the wizened Doctor Muller, who understands the powers of The Mummy, his goals, and the fact that “the old gods of egypt still have power here…”

Another special mention goes to director and cinematographer Karl Freund. Sadly uncredited in Dracula for his work, he was given the appropriate credit in the Mummy. His knowledge of the camera was probably some of the best in the world at the time having worked in film since 1914. He was also the cinematographer on the German classic Metropolis. His eye for the technology, light, and even color (its important in black and white…) gave the Mummy its much needed atmosphere.

TL;DR

The Mummy is a classic and if you truly appreciate old Hollywood needs to be part of your collection or at least watched. It will not satisfy modern movie goers a single iota, but if you want to see where we came from. If you want to see what inspired so much in the years to come. Take 73 minutes of your life and give it a watch.

The next review will cover it’s most modern remake and I will touch on all the things they took from this film.

 

If you do want a copy of this I would have to recommend getting it and all of its ilk here Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray]