With Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Herbert Bunston
Directed by Tod Browning
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

"That Scarlett Johansson is such a babe!"    The first twenty minutes or so of DRACULA are the creepiest of all the Universal monster movies.  The humongous castle set, with its gigantic cobwebs, layers of dust and menagerie of animals (including rats, exotic bugs and, for kicks, armadillos) must have taken up half the film's budget, but it was worth it.  Yet when Bela Lugosi walks down the stairs and says "I am... Dracula", the set suddenly seems too small to contain his evil.  It is in this section you'll find most of the lines associated with Lugosi's classic portrayal of Bram Stoker's vampire: "I bid you welcome", "I never drink... wine" and "Listen to them - the children of the night - what music they make!" have resonated through the ages thanks to Lugosi's unforgettable Hungarian accent and his ability to make everything he says sound menacing.  The eeriness continues through Dracula's boat trip to London, in which, in a fit of hunger, he kills everybody on board during a violent storm you just know he somehow caused himself.

     Unfortunately, once Dracula and his now mad lawyer Renfield (Dwight Frye, in one of the classic performances of the 1930s) get to London, the film becomes stage bound, slow and talky.  A little bit of Lugosi and Frye go a long way in keeping the film interesting, as do Tod Browning's slow moving dolly shots and Karl Freund's shadowy cinematography, but the film still shows its age.  Many of the talkies up through 1931 often featured stiff, hammy acting (see LITTLE CAESAR for a great example of this) and lugubrious pacing (ibid) and DRACULA, despite its status as a classic, is no exception.  If only this film had been made a year or two later.

     I am not a fan of people not originally associated with a film tinkering with it decades later.  (For example, the most part, I despise colorization).  I am also not a big fan of composer Philip Glass's repetitious minimalism.  Yet I find that the Philip Glass score for string quartet for the 1998 reissue of DRACULA makes for a better film.  Some may argue that the silences in DRACULA (the original film had very little music) is what makes it so creepy, but Glass's score fills in the gaps that used to seem unnecessarily slow, and underscores Lugosi's fine performance and Browning and Freund's camera work, actually enhancing them in a respectful way.  Unfortunately, no amount of music can cure the stiff acting of cast members such as Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing and Helen Chandler and David Manners as the young couple whose happiness is threatened by a blood-sucking dead guy and his insane henchman. 3½ - JB

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