So, here’s a confession that will surprise nobody who knows me: I rarely like the hero in a story.
Ever since I was a child, I vastly preferred villains in books, movies, and television. And I don’t mean anti-heroes who you’re supposed to like or squishy villains who feel bad about themselves. No, the badder, the better.
Compared to the hero, good villains–by which I mean really bad villains–almost always have more memorable lines and better clothes. They always seem to be enjoying themselves way more than the hero ever does and usually have a great sense of humor (okay, a dark sense of humor but still a sense of humor) and usually are smarter or at least seem to display more ambition and basic organizational skills than the hero.
This love for villains started early. When I was 5 or 6, my favorite television show was Skeleton Warriors. I watched it faithfully every Saturday morning to see the adventures of Skeletor and, well, his skeleton warriors. I was so disheartened to never find anyone who knew what I was talking about anytime I talked to someone my age about cartoons.
It was only years later when I was in my mid-20s that I realized I had been watching He-Man and had somehow convinced myself that the show was actually about the bad guy. I still think rather fondly about Skeletor and his pet Panthor, but for the life of me, I cannot remember a single thing about He-Man himself. I don’t think I noticed him as a child, either. He wasn’t on my radar because he had nothing on Skeletor!
I have changed little as an adult in that regard. And since it is Halloween, I thought I’d pay tribute to some of my favorite vampiric villains in cinema.
When I was in grad school, I took a class on classic gothic novels and their adaptations. We basically spent the whole semester reading classic 19th century British horror and then watching and reading several adaptations of it. The class was an interesting one and is why I started the blog’s monthly “From Page to Screen” feature.
I remember, though, when we finally got around to Dracula. That was the week I was most looking forward to because I’ve been a big Dracula fan since I was teenager, but I was disappointed when most of my classmates immediately identified Gary Oldman’s version of the Count as their favorite incarnation of Dracula. I like Oldman as an actor, but I find his Dracula underwhelming, to put it kindly. I don’t like when modern adaptations try to soften the character. I can’t really think of a Dracula depiction in the past 25 years that doesn’t try to make him a tragic figure or a romantic hero. That bores me, and I blame Oldman’s Dracula for being the catalyst of a lot of that.
For me, Bela Lugosi–the original Dracula–will always be my favorite Dracula. Yes, he’s suave and charming, but there is also something deeply unsettling and creepy about him from the beginning, a detail from the book that a lot of adaptations seem to miss because they’re so focused on making sure he is elegant and emo.
Is the 1931 movie Lugosi starred in flawless? Far from it!
It is cheesy. The film is obviously an early talkie. (At times, it feels like a cyborg silent movie that happens to have speaking). Some of the special effects are terrible (my favorite is the very fake bat). Some of the special effects are just bizarre (armadillos and possums in the Transylvanian castle, anyone?). Some of the acting is overly mannered (I think only 3 people in the cast are any good. More on that in a minute). The one stunt that exists in the movie is awesomely bad (Renfield’s slow motion tumble down the stairs. I could watch that on an endless loop). The ending is severely anticlimatic. (I blame budget cuts).
But is it still a masterpiece? I think so (albeit an odd, imperfect one).
The actors who acquit themselves the best in this movie are Lugosi, Dwight Frye as the unfortunate Renfield, and Edward Van Sloan as stolid Professor Van Helsing. Those 3 are what make the movie worth watching, and any scene that is some combination of Dracula and Renfield, Dracula and Van Helsing, or Van Helsing and Renfield is excellent. (Likewise, any scene that doesn’t feature one of those 3 is . . . not great.)
My absolute favorite scenes are in the beginning with Dracula and Renfield, when Renfield is just an eager but creeped out real estate agent who is desperately trying to pretend like this castle with cobwebs and armadillos is normal and Dracula is a polite, hospitable, but super unsettling host.
The urban legend about Lugosi’s role is that he couldn’t speak English when this movie was made and learned his lines phonetically, which explains his odd intonation and awkward pausing. I don’t buy this. If you watch other Lugosi movies or interviews from the time, he always has his trademark heavy Hungarian accent, but his speech is never as strange sounding as it is in this movie. In fact, his English is pretty good, all things considered. I think what he’s doing in Dracula is clearly intentional and–contrary to what people who knock Lugosi for being an actor with limited range claim–effective.
I mean, let’s face it, Dracula is an undead creature who sucks blood to stay alive. He’s not living a normal existence. He doesn’t exactly have a lot of company. If you were locked in your castle in remote Transylvania for centuries and only got to prey on the local peasants and never had real houseguests, wouldn’t you be a little awkward when you finally got some English-speaking dinner to munch on and you had to talk to him in English but also be polite and make small talk with him because you’re a count and that’s what you were raised to do?
It’s like if your cheeseburger or Oreos or whatever it is you’re planning on eating today kept wanting to talk to you about luggage and labels instead of letting you have your dinner in peace. You’d probably be cutting looks like this at your meal too.
I rest my case.
Joking aside, I think the oddness helps sell Dracula as something otherworldly. The effect today may not be scary, but I think it is creepy. Long before Dracula lunges at Renfield and his paper cut, there is something off about him but not enough for you to wonder why in the world anyone would stay in that castle a minute longer with him.
The filmmakers’ decision to not use music since they were afraid audiences would be distracted by it lends the movie a silence that is also haunting and adds to this effect. You can watch it with the option of a soundtrack composed by Philip Glass. I like the soundtrack on its own, but I think it makes the movie less effective than the stark silence of the original.
Beyond all that, this is the only movie where I actually feel sorry for Renfield. After he finally succumbs to Dracula, he is delightfully bonkers, but he’s pitiful. His performance may seem a little theatrical, but it’s effective and even poignant. The rest of the cast are either mediocre or just bland. (That’s particularly egregious with Van Helsing’s cohorts Dr. Seward and Jonathan Harker. Honestly, the only thing I remember about either one of them any time I watch it is that Seward at least gets the weirdly quotable “Now, now, Renfield!” line.)
So, yes, I concede that this movie hasn’t always aged well, but it’s still fun. It’s Halloween! Celebrate with the original Dracula, wonky special effects and all.
Follow the link below to the next page for another vampire movie suggestions.