Halloween Countdown: DRACULA

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As I write these, a friend of mine posed a challenge: to review a film I don’t like. Here, I face a choice. “Bad horror films” is a hole with no bottom. Most of the ones I’ve stumbled into by circumstance have already been forgotten—remember 2008’s The Strangers, with Liv Tyler? anyone?—and there’s no point resurrecting one of the many formula hack-jobs just to bury it again. So instead I picked a legitimate classic that I legitimately think is a bad movie: the famous 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

This has little to do with age. There are movies just as old—and older—that retain mystery and fear. But Dracula commits one of the worst sins of movies: most of it is shockingly un-cinematic. A lot of this has to do with its origin: for legal reasons, the original novel couldn’t be licensed, so the studio licensed a later Dracula stage play instead, one tethered to some of the worst conventions of early 20th century theater. The director, the talented Tod Browning, reportedly didn’t have his heart in it, leaving his DP to take over for much of the shoot. So, despite some strong, atmospheric art direction near the beginning, the result is largely a lot of silly characters standing around saying silly things. Vampyr, from 1932, showed the dark lyricism that could be found if such material were treated with high-minded artistic ambition. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Island of Lost Souls (also 1932) showed the subversive, transgressive thrills possible when pulp material lets its id get out.

By comparison, Dracula is a lifeless pageant. But it was a huge success at the time, then segued into classic status borne on nostalgia, even though it’s a poor representative of what filmmakers in the early 1930s could do. (This, in itself, is a pernicious trend of how our canons are formed and remembered). So by all means see it, check it off your list, hum along to its clever and legally expedient appropriation of “Swan Lake”, and enjoy the iconic moments it has to offer. But don’t walk out thinking “boy, we’ve come a long way.” Even when Dracula was new, we already had.

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

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