Four movies into watching the classic Universal Monster movies with my son, and we’ve reached the legendary Bela Lugosi in Dracula. The 1931 Tod Browning version is one of the most iconic films of the Twentieth Century, and the image of Bela Lugosi in character is a defining image. Browning wasn’t Carl Laemmle’s first choice of director, and Browning wanted Lon Chaney (Sr., of course) for the vampire, not Lugosi. Chaney passed away a few years before production began, and the Great Depression forced Universal to work on a smaller budget than they had originally planned. Even still, the set design is remarkable, with long staircases, lots of webs, and, for some reason, armadillos. When Renfield (a very creepy Dwight Frye) arrives at Dracula’s castle, various creatures are seen skulking around, and O is a little confused at the presence of two armadillos in the Carpathian Mountains, but I suspect they caught them on the set while filming in California and simply left them in.
This is the most atmospheric of the four movies we’ve watched so far. The rhythms are very similar to what you’d find in a silent film, with many shots of Dracula advancing slowly and less nuanced acting than he’s accustomed to. Along with the deliberate pace, though, there is also more horrific concepts than the others. Dracula is indiscriminate in choosing targets, for example, killing the girl selling flowers for no other apparent reason than his hunger. And Lucy, once turned into a vampire, stalks children. We see her leaving a park where, moments before, we hear a young child crying, and later learn there have been other child victims. O doesn’t seem to be terribly bothered by this; it’s pretty clearly stated the children aren’t killed, and no kids are terrorized on screen.
Bela Lugosi is excellent as Dracula, and O really likes Frye as Renfield. He gets that Renfield is conflicted, wanting to serve his master but not wanting Mina to be killed, and I’m impressed a nine year old makes that connection. He likes the many cobwebs and wishes they had found a way to use real bats. Overall, he likes the movie, but so far The Mummy is still his favorite. He really likes the black and white movies, and likes the simple way they show Dracula having no reflection. He wants to know if this is the first Vampire movie, and I tell him about Murnau’s Nosferatu. He remembers seeing the Nosferatu figure in a Spongebob episode, and wants to know if we can watch Nosferatu sometime. I redirect by mentioning we can’t today, we have Halloween decorations to it up and we’re going to see Frankenweenie this evening. I have my doubts, as the movie’s very expressionistic, so I’ll re-watch it myself to it after he’s asleep. If he’s still interested and I think it isn’t too scary or confusing, we’ll watch that later this weekend.
I’m glad these have been a hit, and I think we’ll be investing in the Blu-Ray box set Universal just released. I know O will want to watch several of these over again, and I’m eager to watch Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein again myself. Next up, we’re going to watch The Phantom of the Opera. We’ll be watching the Claude Rains version for now, and might make it a double feature with the Lon Chaney, Sr. Version. after seeing Rains in The Wolf Man I’m really looking forward to seeing another of his movies.