Director: Tod Browning (the poor man’s James Whale, but we’ll get to that)
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners*, Edward Van Sloane
Have I Seen it Before: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Did I Like It: I just said, “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”
Look, I love the classic Universal Monster movies. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is one of my all-time favorite movies. I could watch Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)** on a loop forever. I even kind of liked The Mummy (2017) because—for all of its faults—it was trying to recapture the original shared universe that these films initially inhabited.
However, not all of the Universal classics—even A-list ones made before they were relegated to the neglected b-side of the Laemmle production empire—are created equal. So, in that spirit, here’s a confession about this granddaddy of all vampire films.
It’s frightfully dull.
Like, it should be a controlled substance, because it’s chemically indistinct from an aggressive, possibly habit-forming sleeping pill. I’ve watched this movie probably a dozen times over the course of my life, and not once have I avoided feeling drowsy by the last half hour. It works like a charm, every time.
Even on this viewing, amped up with a little more caffeine than I perhaps should have consumed, by the time the lady in white starts offering some local children chocolate, I can feel my eyes starting to grow heavy. I persevered through sheer dint of will power, but it was a struggle.
Now “coma-inducing” doesn’t feel like high praise for a film, and on it’s face that is probably correct. On the cutting edge of talking pictures, cinema really hadn’t figured out how to do anything more advanced than a filmed performance of a stage play at this point. Indeed, the film is rather a slavish adaptation of the stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L Balderston, rather than the original novel by Bram Stoker. Every time I see a bat hanging by a string, or an awkwardly blocked scene, I can’t help but think of a stage production that could have used a little bit more time. Also, it should be mentioned, Tod Browning may not have been up to the task of adapting the film. The Spanish-language version of the film—produced using many of the same resources and at the same time as this film—is actually far more striking in its artistic flourishes. To imagine what James Whale could have done with this material. Oy.
But, also, it’s flaws can become kind of endearing. That it lulls me into such deep comfort, that my mind and body thinks its time to sleep may be a virtue. It’s probably not the virtue that the filmmakers would have hoped for, but to be the cinematic equivalent of a warm blanket is at least something.
And then, I can’t help but wonder if the film—and, by extension, Dracula himself—have managed to gain a thorough thrall on me… What have I done while I thought I was sleeping during this movie? Oh, Master… I’ve been loyal. Please don’t kill me!
* Has there ever been a more contract-player-leading-man name than David Manners? Honestly, if you had to guess which b-level milquetoast would eventually become the President of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone with Reagan; this guy would be my pick. Doesn’t matter if Manners is Canadian.
** The only other movie in which Lugosi played the role Count Dracula (and not some vaguely Dracula-ish figure). Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.