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Fangs for nothing
by Asa Butcher
Issue 13
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Universal Studios, 1931
Over the last few issues of Ovi, I have been reviewing some of Universal's monster classics and it has been a pleasant experience. I take into account the fact that these movies are over sixty years old and the audiences expected something different compared to today's cinemagoers, but after watching Dracula I realised that finally one of them had bored me rigid.

Perhaps my initial reaction to the film was too harsh, so I decided to wait a day before writing this and see if my feelings changed. After 'sleeping on it', I began to remember some of the positive and comedic moments from the film, even though the feeling of disappointment remained.

75 years is a substantial age for a movie; the lame special effects, such as the bats flapping about on wire and the armadillos running around a castle in Transylvania, are forgivable, but the performances by a couple of the main actors is not. Here I'll write something that will upset many people: Bela Lugosi was terrible as Dracula.

Yeah, I know that Lugosi is the definitive Dracula, he is synonymous with the character and his performance is the benchmark, but that doesn't make him good. He was as wooden as a coffin, his lines were delivered with splinters and his mesmerising stare just wasn't scary. Once again, this has nothing to do with the period because some of the other actors are great, plus Grand Hotel was released the following year and features some of the best performances of that era.

Lugosi had come straight from portraying Dracula on stage and naturally brought his melodramatic persona with him. We can forgive him the poor delivery of his dialogue since he had learnt his lines phonetically, but he was one of those unfortunate actors caught between the stage and the change from silent movies to talkies. Strangely, I also felt some pity for Lugosi, after learning about his future heroin addiction from Ed Wood and the sad fact that he was typecast from this movie on.

Dracula does have its positive moments, such as the atmospheric sets, imposing scenery and mysterious cinematography, plus three of the other actors are fantastic. The first is Edward Van Sloan playing Prof. Abraham Van Helsing, who strongly resembles Max von Sydow and is believable as the strong-willed scientist. The next is Dwight Frye who plays the multifaceted Renfield, who is bitten by Dracula and become an insect-eating madman; his insanity scenes are far more chilling than anything Lugosi has to offer.

My favourite character has to be Martin played by Charles K. Gerrard. The character is one of the warden/orderlies at the sanatorium, but he has some of the funniest moments and lines in the film. At one point, he is walking in the grounds of the sanatorium with a shotgun randomly shooting at bats and later exclaims: "Strike me down dead, doctor! He's got me goin'! Now he's gone and twisted them bars as if they was cheese!!" Classic stuff.

Watching the first of three universal Dracula films was an experience, especially seeing all the iconography now closely associated with vampires, although it was strange not to see any fangs or bite marks throughout the whole film. Over the opening credits, it was obvious where the inspiration for the future Batman logo was found and I have discovered that the music from Act 2 of Swan Lake is quite irritating.

I would be amiss if my review failed to mock the highly irritating character of John Harker, who is the fiancé of Mina - a girl who speaks like this: "And just as I was commencing to get drowsy…" The pair are well suited and provide the comic climax to the film as they ascend the sweeping staircase to safety…forgetting that only moments earlier the door at the top is securely locked.

I understand now why David Manners, the man who played John Harker, never watched Dracula despite living for 67 years after the film was released.
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