Every child can do it. You put on that accent, maybe wrap a towel or a sheet around you if you’ve got one handy, and say something like, ‘I vant to suck your blood!’ Everyone will know exactly who and what you’re supposed to be.
Count Dracula. The King of the Vampires. The one everyone has been ripping off for so long, even the ripoffs have ripoffs. And while the original Stoker novel is a classic in its own right, this will be a review and discussion of the Dracula with whom we are all most familiar: Bela Lugosi’s portrayal in Tod Browning’s 1931 Universal film.
Even if you’ve never seen it, you know it. Those movies have cemented forever in our minds what these creatures look like, to the extent that every version afterwards has had to at least pay lip service to the Universal Monsters. Imagine Dracula without a foreign accent, without the cape, without the slicked back hair. Hard to do, right? Never mind that in the book, he looks nothing like this. Never mind that the Universal vampires never even had FANGS. Never mind that the accent was, in fact, Lugosi’s own – he was Hungarian. This is what Dracula looks and sounds like. We KNOW it.
The original movie is, even by the standards of the time, crude. It’s more like a stage play than anything, particularly after the story moves away from Transylvania. But the sets, the style, these things have become archetypes of their own. So let’s explore the strangely brief career of Dracula at Universal, and along the way, we’ll take a look at his kids, also. Now, I’m not gonna deal much with dates, cast details and so on, because that’s been covered a thousand times. I’m also not gonna discuss the Spanish language Dracula movie or the Phillip Glass score added in later. That’s all available, if you’re interested, all over the Internet.
The Dracula movie was based on the stage play, which had been a success on Broadway. Both Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan (who played Van Helsing) made the move to the silver screen for this adaptation. They and Dwight Frye (who was fantastic as Renfield) would be seen in various Universal monster movies from then on.
What’s odd, considering how closely he’s identified with the part, is that Lugosi only played Dracula in the movies TWICE: in the original film and in ‘Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein’, many years later – which we will cover at the end of this article. Sure, Bela played vampires in other films, but not the Count himself. Even in the sequels to Dracula (more on that later), he’s nowhere to be found.
The movie starts off great, in Transylvania, with wonderful scenery (or at least paintings of wonderful scenery) and colorful (well, in black and white), exotic natives mucking about the place. Renfield has been sent to Castle Dracula in order to finalize the Count’s purchase of Carfax Abbey in England. Despite the locals warning him exactly what the Count and his brides are all about, he shrugs it off because, ‘It’s a matter of business.’ Apparently, Renfield doesn’t let anything get in the way of making a buck, even if his new host sleeps in a coffin, can change into a wolf or a bat and sucks the blood of the living! By the time our intrepid Englishman has actually met the Count, he already has a pretty good idea that things are not exactly kosher at Castle Dracula. But he carries on admirably, ignoring anything odd he sees – such as EVERYTHING – and pretty much disregarding all common sense and self-preservation because, hey, business. Surprisingly, this does not work out well for the poor fellow. Didn’t see that coming.
Of course, the whole plot needn’t be dealt with here – this story is always the same. Dracula travels to England, has a bite now and then, riles up Professor Van Helsing and his pals and, of course, ends up down for the Count. The end.
And for many years, it was. After all, they’d killed him, right? They put a stake through his heart. So that’s that. Apparently, it took a long time before movie makers came to the conclusion that sequels don’t really have to make any sense!
But it turns out Drac had an appetite for more than just hemoglobin – which isn’t surprising, seeing as how he keeps a harem. So five years later, it was time to bring back Dracula!
Well, no. Not really. ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ was, however, a direct sequel to the first one, picking up literally moments after it ended. Van Helsing is found with a dead body that, the police cannot help but notice, has a big chunk of wood pounded into it (Dracula doesn’t conveniently disintegrate when he’s staked). Being the upright man of science that he is, the professor (Sloan again) happily admits that yes, he just killed this guy, but it’s okay, because the deceased was a 500 year old vampire. Surprisingly, the authorities are a bit suspicious of this line of reasoning. Then Dracula’s daughter shows up – because duh, that’s the name of the movie – and steals the Count’s body. Like you do. See, she doesn’t want to be a vampire. She is miserable – and yes, the whiny emo vampire meme just kickstarted! So she performs an exorcism on the remains, hoping to lift the curse. Well, that didn’t work. But she’s still trying very hard. Meanwhile, Van Helsing’s new buddies (no one else from the first movie shows up to help; bastards – Helsing only TOTALLY SAVED THEM) are trying to clear his name and deal with the sudden new problem of people being drained of blood, yadda, yadda, yadda. There are two things in this movie that deserve mention: the implied lesbian subtext is just very brave for a movie of the 1930′s, plus there’s this great scene back in Transylvania where the villagers are having some festival or other, dancing in the streets, just generally making merry. Then a light goes on in Dracula’s castle! And everyone panics and locks themselves away ASAP. So the vampire hunters track down Dracula’s Daughter, she gets killed, et cetera. The end. Not a bad movie, not even a bad sequel, but Universal knew that to really pack ‘em in the aisles, they needed to bring back Drac himself.
But they didn’t. In the 40′s, the monster movies had become very much B pictures, children’s entertainment, produced on lower budgets and done quickly. And for whatever reason, they pretty much all had Lon Chaney Junior in them. Like, ALL of them. So you have this beefy fellow who looks like a quarterback. How on earth is he gonna play the Count? Answer: he isn’t. So they cleverly compromised by making ‘Son of Dracula’ starring – wait for it – Lon Chaney, Junior. YES! This one takes place in Louisiana so they could use swamp sets and voodoo, because hey, that’s cool. This one also had actual special effects, for a change. Up to this point, when Dracula turned into a bat or something, it was either done off camera or just mentioned in the dialogue. Considering how terribly unconvincing the fake bats were, that’s not surprising. But by the 40′s, they had all kinds of cool tricks to play with. So the Son of Dracula (who calls himself ‘Alucard’ so no one will know who he is, because he’s a GENIUS) turns into smoke, turns into a bat, and just generally goes around showing off. And it’s a fun little movie, no doubt about that. The plot goes like this: blah, blah, people, blah, mysterious stranger shows up, blah, people dying, blah, vampire, blah, kill it, the end. This was the last truly great use of anything even resembling Dracula by the studio that wasn’t comedic, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
So by now, the ideas were running out. The Wolf Man had a sequel, Frankenstein had many, the Mummy, ditto, and these Dracsimiles (see what I did there?) were not cutting the mustard. So Universal had the brilliant idea of just throwing all the monsters together. Well, not the Mummy. But whatever.
‘House of Frankenstein’ and ‘House of Dracula’ were… well, they happened. John Carradine took over the role of Dracula, dunno why. So he played the part very differently from Lugosi – in fact, Carradine’s Dracula was much closer to the original novel in terms of appearance and performance. In terms of story, ha ha ha, no. Not at all. But hey, they made money.
So by NOW, the ideas were REALLY running out. There was really nowhere else to go with these characters. They’d been done to death, if you’ll pardon the pun. But Universal Studios never hesitated to squeeze every last red cent from anything, so they teamed up their failing monster franchise with their failing comedy duo franchise and made magic with both! Much like chocolate and peanut butter: two great tastes that taste great together!
‘Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ is just a warm, funny and affectionate homage to the 30′s monsters. You’ve got Bela Lugosi back as Dracula! And he’s great! You’ve got Lon Chaney Junior, because that’s the rules! You’ve got Bud and Lou, being hilarious! You’ve got the end of an era.
Because this was indeed the end. Universal had gone on to a different kind of movie, and so had the public. Now was the time for radiation spawned mutants and invaders from space and a violent half-man, half-fish.
But everyone knows you can’t keep Dracula down. He will come back, one way or another. In the late 50′s, the Hammer franchise revived the classic monsters, in color and with all the blood and heaving bosoms the old movies couldn’t show. They kept it up for over a decade. Plus, Universal did ‘The Munsters’. Yes, they did.
Since the 1930′s, Dracula has appeared in literally hundreds of movies, comic books, TV shows, radio programs, stage plays, toys, books, magazines, hallelujah, world without end. And every one of those interpretations owes a debt to Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi.
Give it a watch, sometime. It’s still worth the effort. Heck, track down the ones with his offspring, too – they’re both pretty good. And then, if you can take it, check out the A&C movie. It’s a great send-off to these characters. RIP, Bela. You did good.