The Evolution of Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Today kids we’re going to take a look at the first “talkie” vampire movie, Dracula (1931), and 1992’s offering “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. I chose these two, because they used the same story, each with their own flavor, though the parts and characters are similar.
I’m going to start with Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. I have probably seen this movie 20 times. As a boy, I remember watching this on Son of Svenghoulie. If you grew up in the Chicagoland area, he was a staple on Saturday nights. You would see classics like Dracula, to Ed Wood specials, mostly from the ‘30’s to the early ‘60’s.
To me, when I think of Dracula, I think of Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of him. Back then, you didn’t have a huge special effects budget. The lighting was still in in its infancy. This was a decade or less away from the silent film era, so actors were still prone to overact and overemphasize.
And then there was Bela Lugosi. Due to a thick accent, Bela never spoke much in the beginning. He was hidden in silent film, for obvious reasons. So his quiet presence made him a bit unsettling. Compared to all the other actors around him who were overacting by today’s standards, it made it seem even moreso. Then, there was his eyes. Intense, when the cameras focused on them, they almost glowed. I have seen more than a few movies with him, and when he’s playing a human, the director always seems to have one shot where they zoom in on them. And you felt that they were looking into your soul, and drained just a little bit of life out of you.
Dwight Frye played the manic Renfield. Though an important role, I don’t really feel the classic role was fleshed out in the classic version. Mr. Frye sets the standard as Dracula’s lackey though. Weird, manic, eating insects waiting for “the master” to come and eventually change him over, the overacting of the era really came into play, and really added to the character.
Helen Chandler, silent film star, plays the future wife of Harker, and the object of the counts affections, who he believes to be his wife reincarnated. She was okay in the role, but this is a case where the overacting DID take away from the character.
David Manners was Jonathon Harker. He was okay in the role, but nothing memorable. When he was on screen with the others, you really got the feeling they were all vying for attention. Luckily, in the scenes with Lugosi, this played well, because it made his low key style really come across. When with the others, I feel he got lost sometimes.
And last but not least, Edward Van Sloan played Van Helsing. I feel the role lacked in the original, because they didn’t really go into the back story much. They explained who he was, but it really felt rushed. I do like that the low tech helped with this role. You had a stake, it had a heart. Every story needs a hero to fight the bad guy.
The nice thing about this story, is the lines are somewhat blurred. In this version, it is more the classic, where Dracula is the bad guy, and Van Helsing is there to remove the “problem”. But you don’t always feel that Dracula is the bad guy.
My only real issues are Dracula’s castle. They try to set the mood with lighting, but for a castle centuries old, it’s pretty clean. And when Van Helsing is hunting at the end, it seemed a bit keystone coppish. You would think that someone who has been hunting his prey for that long, would be a bit organized.
Other than those little things, I feel that this story sets the pace. It has been redone many, many times, but the original is the original. It has done a nice job, much like the novel, of taking history, Unlike today’s movies, there is very little meat on the bone, you get the basic story, and it’s done in a tidy 75 minutes. It explains why in later years, it was paired with Frankenstein as a double feature. The two movies shown together is only 7 minutes longer than Bram Stokers Dracula.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a grown up version of the original Dracula. It comes in at a meaty 128 minutes. This is done by fleshing out how Dracula came about. They tied in the history of Vlad Tepes, who Dracula was based on, as well as mixing in some of the legends. And with an actor of Gary Oldman’s caliber playing him, you can’t help but let him shine
Gary Oldman actually seemed like he was holding back, which created a tension about his character. When the character of Jonathan Harker, played by Keanu Reeves, shows up, you get the feeling that Dracula is teetering on the brink of madness by being alone for so long, with no chance of death. I felt he was tired. I don’t feel her regrets his decision, but that he’s tired of being alone, he’s tired of his creations, tired of being in his castle all the time, and buying locations in London was at first a pastime for him. Renfield, his original contact, eventually slid into madness, seeing who Dracula was, seeing his inability to die, and was driven to madness, missing the down side to immortality.
You really got the feeling of despair, his loneliness, his longing for the wife that was no more. I am not sure why, but there is a scene where Dracula cries, and the effects were cool, but the sobs are really the thing I remember most about the movie.
Some say Reeves is a bit of a stiff actor, and in this role, it serves him well. Jonathan Harker is a numbers guy, who wants to move up in his company, and wants to do things by the book. Yes he has a beautiful woman who is soon to be his bride (Winona Ryder as Mina Murray (RAWR)), but he is a man focused on the end goal. Then he travels to Transylvania, and his life is changed forever.
Winona Ryder plays Mina great. Meeting the “man”, getting to know him, vulnerable at first, not knowing Dracula has realized she is the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabeth. You almost feel her despair, in love with Harker, but knowing Dracula makes her feel alive.
Anthony Hopkins narrates, and also plays the role of Van Helsing. Easily the best Van Helsing, he gives off an air of confidence, and really holds the scenes together, controlling the pace, so when they hunt Dracula in the end, it is action filled, but not as out of control as the original.
And a special mention to Tom Waits. Camera angles, character, and a high motor makes his portrayal of Renfield very memorable. He is frantic, edgy, on the wrong side of insane in his portrayal. You feel he’s over the edge, but also a bit sad that the thing he wants the most is probably also the worst thing that can happen to him.
As a whole, this movie benefits from modern technology. They try to create the atmosphere with color, lens filters, costumes, and CGI. Though I enjoy the movie, I feel they missed the boat somewhat. I think that the acting is better, because the style has changed by now, but somehow, the movie left me wanting something else. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what.
On a whole, I loved both movies for different reasons. I love the simplicity, the straight story, the atmosphere, and how acting against the norm by Bela Lugosi makes him so memorable. His iconic eyes, the tuxedo, the measured moves….he is Dracula to me. I like the feel of the supporting cast, how you know they were working actors, acted often, so their performances were flawless.
I loved the updated version because it was fleshed out. Almost double the length, they didn’t waste the extra time, it never felt like it was added to be added. To me, the best part of a good story is when it’s added, and the parts are added well.
hat being said, it came across as too glossy. It didn’t have the dark, somewhat gritty feel of the older one. As much as I like Oldman, I think his superior acting ability took away from the character a bit. Gary Oldman was the star, not Dracula. And I loved his portrayal of him. Is it possible he was too good?
If you have the time, I definitely suggest checking them both out. The nice part of the original, is it lasts a little longer than an hour long TV show, with no commercials. It’s a fast way to spend a few hours, and get the whole story at punk rock speed.
If you have a little more time, jump into Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is a beautiful film, that tells the story in a much slower pace, and you see some beautiful women topless in it.
Or if you want to kill two hours and see the original, couple it with the original Frankenstein, and step back in time.
J. Roach of My Worst Holiday.