People who live in the trenches of horror movie consumption – that would be you, dear readers, as well as the entire writing staff of Blumhouse – likely have a working knowledge of the horror classics. We know which horror films are considered the best, which ones are well-regarded, and which films are significant to the varied tapestry of horror film history. Blumhouse’s own Rebekah McKendry, for instance, has been diligently cataloging all of the scariest films ever made on a decade-by-decade basis. As of this writing, she had written about the 1940s all the way through the 2010s.
As professors/lovers/fetishists for all films horror, we have all likely encountered that frustrating moment when a peer or a friend who has recently consumed a horror classic describes it as not frightening. This is something serious critics encounter a lot. In the mind of a critic, a certain film may be a largely indelible and massively important classic. Then, in an instant, all that passion can be toppled by a cynical teen – or even a hardened professional – who dismisses this classic as a big ol’ bore.
In my own personal experience, this phenomenon occurs most frequently with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, although in the horror world, it seems to be bound most tightly around two films: THE EXORCIST and Tod Browning’s 1931 classic DRACULA. I am here to elucidate on the latter. Modern audiences revisiting DRACULA have frequently found the film to be still, dull, unappealing, and, worst of all, not scary. Indeed, a grand critical reconsideration of DRACULA seems to be in the cultural works, and its status as a scary film is currently being collectively deconstructed by critics everywhere.
The time has come to seriously ask: Is DRACULA still scary?
There is, of course, no question as to its legacy. Tod Browning’s DRACULA is one of the most popular and significant horror movies of all time. It launched a series of monster films from Universal studios that have remained part of popular culture, and Bela Lugosi’s incomparable performance as the title vampire has become the stuff of legend. If it weren’t for Lugosi, we wouldn’t know how vampires behave, how they dress, how they speak. Every single cinematic Dracula to come after Lugosi (and there have been a lot) has been directly influenced by him. Almost every cinematic vampire is a reaction to him.
Dracula, as a character, has been lingering in the consciousness ever since Bram Stoker published his original novel in 1897 and was brought to the screen in at last one other notable iteration in the form of F.W. Murnau’s amazing 1922 classic NOSFERATU. But it wasn’t until 1931 that the character entrenched himself in the pop consciousness. Now, every Halloween, we see this version of Dracula on the screen in kids’ cartoons and at costume shops. The far reach of Dracula knows no bounds.
What’s more, Tod Browning has gone down as a significant presence in the world of horror largely for DRACULA alone. Well, DRACULA and his failed follow-up FREAKS. Thanks to the popularity of DRACULA, we have a password into understanding the work of a prolific director from the silent era and his twisted interests (I recommend the 1925 version of THE UNHOLY THREE).
A few notes on the production of DRACULA, which are well-known to horror buffs: Carl Laemmle, Jr., the famous movie mogul, took control of Universal from his father in the later 1920s. Laemmle was a big fan of horror and monster movies and felt that they had enormous financial potential. He saw that a stage version of Stoker’s famous novel was selling out on Broadway (the play was written by Hamilton Deane and re-written by John L. Balderston) and knew it would be a great property with which to “audition” a forthcoming series of horror movies for the studio. DRACULA was an even bigger hit than Laemmle could have imagined, and that series of horror movies was indeed made, leading to FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE WOLF MAN, and others you know about.
I mention this as a means of ingress into the 1931 DRACULA. Having been based on a play, and adapted faithfully, the 1931 film looks and feels incredibly stagey, a word that is typically used as a negative criticism. The camera doesn’t move a lot (they were heftier back in the day), and the performances are less of the subtly-toward-the-camera type and more play-to-the-back-of-the-room type. There is a lot of slow, ponderous line-reading, a lot of mugging, and a lot of silence. In a theater, where the actors’ voices would echo over a hushed crowd, these silences ring out and accentuate. On a screen – especially a TV screen at home – the pauses feel like dead air.
For modern audiences who were raised on quick pacing, fast edits, and more carefully composed, deliberately cinematic shooting techniques, this approach can almost seem backward. Why set up a film like a stage play when we’ve already had filmmakers like D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim breaking down new aesthetic barriers? Cinema has been born. We don’t need to regress back to theatrical techniques to tell a story. For most modern audiences, DRACULA is going to seem old-fashioned, stodgy, even boring.
And where is the music? The score of DRACULA is simply revised renditions of the central theme from Tchaikovsky’s SWAN LAKE and Wagner’s DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG. For the most part, most scenes play out in near silence. There is a version of DRACULA that comes with its own revised soundtrack composed by Philip Glass and released in 1998, and that seems to have taken care of a lot. Modern audiences seem to prefer the 1998 version.
Despite all of the usual complaints, however, I would argue that DRACULA is still scary. I have revisited the film recently, and I find that it still has the power to terrify, to undermine, and to astonish.
Here is the key to appreciating the true terror of DRACULA- understand that it was meant to be stagey. Tod Browning wasn’t simply employing out-of-date cinematic techniques, but making a deliberate aesthetic choice. DRACULA, as I see it, was meant to be theatrical and declarative. High melodrama was even higher back in the 1920s and 1930s, and emotions in films of the era tended toward the outright operatic. Presenting a ghoulish and Gothic character like Dracula was not well-suited to something naturalistic. Run-of-the-mill cinema melodrama would have have communicated the bizarre, otherworldly quality of the character or of the story. This was a film that needed to be told through gesture, through exaggeration, through a heightened version of reality.
Indeed, DRACULA was drawing on a very specific, over-the-top theatrical tradition to communicate its own horror and weirdness. If you haven’t read it yet, check out Graham Skipper’s essay on horror theater which includes a few words on the French phenomenon of grand guignol, the ultra-bloody theatrical underground theater from 1894. The grand guignol aesthetic was sensationalist, and regularly featured plays of staggeringly over-the-top exhibition. DRACULA, while not nearly as bloody or as trashy as some of the well-documented grand guignol performances, sought to blend the classical literative origins of the story with those traditions. DRACULA is a mellow, nightmarish version of a gore play, meant to appeal to a polite society that is terrified by the monstrous presence of Dracula in their midst.
The theatrical approach displays an otherworldly quality. There is a dreamlike tone to DRACULA that leaves a terrifying residue across one’s hindbrain. DRACULA is living nightmare, complete with oblique wording and frustratingly weird clues. Garlic? Shape-changing bats? We take these things for granted now, but at the time, they must have seemed incredibly odd.
We also need to acknowledge the alluring qualities of Bela Lugosi to fully appreciate how scary the character of Dracula can really be. Although Lugosi is not held up as a sex symbol by many modern audiences, it should be remembered that he represented a very palpable bourgeois sex fantasy of the 1920s and 1930s. Dracula is an alluring, rich foreigner. One with a mysterious past and an almost threatening level of sophistication. He is a count from Eastern Europe who stands, at any moment, to approach a very young American socialite and snatch her away with promises of an exotic marriage and a life of ease in a faraway land. He is undeniably sexual. He is a classic Bad Boy. He is a man who can provide for a young woman, but who might seem a little scary in his level of sexual openness. Think of Christian Grey, but actually interesting and complex and intelligent and not stupid or abusive.
So much time has passed on DRACULA that modern audiences now need to train themselves a little bit on how to watch it. Unlike some other cinema classics, DRACULA hasn’t necessarily aged well, and it takes a little bit of actual cinematic experience to appreciate it again. But just because the film is a product of its time and might require a small amount of study and open-mindedness, doesn’t mean that it’s not great cinema. DRACULA is still a gloriously dark living nightmare. It still possesses the immediate dramatic power to frighten, to grasp, to unsettle, to hypnotize.
Sit yourself down in a dark room. Turn down all the lights and distractions. Allow yourself to be DRACULA’s captive. You may find yourself unable to sleep well after all.