Nine years after Nosferatu, in 1931, the talkies had arrived and the first official version of Bram Stoker's Dracula appeared - though it still was not directly based on the novel. Rather, it was adapted from the stage play by Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort. Director Tod Browning wanted his frequent leading man Lon Chaney to play the lead role, but Chaney grew fatally ill, so the role went to Bela Lugosi, who had played it on stage. Browning did the best he could with the stagy material - and the still-clunky sound recording equipment of 1931 - and, with the help of cinematographer Karl Freund, he turned in a moodily effective film that became a massive hit for Universal.
In Dracula, it's Renfield (Dwight Frye) who journeys to Transylvania to meet the Count, which makes more sense, since he's the one that ends up in the asylum. The Count enters London society and meets Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), his daughter Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade), and Mina's fiancée John Harker (David Manners). Edward Van Sloan memorably plays Van Helsing, who deduces that the Count is really a vampire and kills him by driving a wooden stake through his heart.
That 1931 film comes with many footnotes, and in 2004, Universal released an excellent 2-DVD set featuring five key films in the "Dracula" cycle. First is George Melford's Spanish version, shot on the same sets at night, after Browning's daytime crew had wrapped. Many Dracula fans prefer the Spanish version to the English version, and it does flow quite a bit better, though it is longer, and it lacks Bela Lugosi's remarkable screen presence.
Even without Lugosi or Browning, Universal clung their cash cow and cranked out several Dracula sequels. The third film on the "Dracula" DVD set, Dracula's Daughter (1936), was a unique idea and a not-bad film. Picking up right where the 1931 film leaves off, Van Helsing is arrested at the scene of the "crime" and the new lady vampire (Gloria Holden) longs to be cured of her vampirism. Like Schreck and Lugosi, Holden has a creepy screen presence all her own and even manages to repeat Lugosi's signature line ("I never drink... wine") without embarrassment.
Universal had the good fortune to hire German expatriate Robert Siodmak to helm Son of Dracula (1943) - his younger brother Curt was already employed there writing various monster movies. Siodmak would go on to become a master of film noir in the 1940s, and he brings a sense of his shadowy darkness to this vampire sequel. Lon Chaney Jr. - who had recently become a star as The Wolf Man - took over the lead role.
From there, the sequels grew more and more ridiculous. The mystery and horror elements slowly evaporated while the monsters began appearing as pale shadows of their former selves. Dracula himself begins experimenting with ways to revive the Frankenstein monster to aid in his evil plans. Next came House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), teaming up the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), the Wolf Man (Chaney) and Dracula (John Carradine). "Son of Dracula" and "House of Dracula" are the fourth and fifth films on Universal's 2 disc DVD set.
Though playing Dracula made Lugosi a star, and he rarely strayed from the horror genre for the rest of his career, he ironically only played a vampire twice more: in Columbia's The Return of the Vampire (1944), a fascinating effort combining horror with a WWII setting, and in Universal's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), near the end of that studio's successful monster era. Universal had offered Lugosi the lead role in Frankenstein, and he turned it down, opting for a freelance career. He wound up struggling for the rest of his career, mostly stuck in low-paying B-Movies.
Director Tod Browning would take on the vampire genre twice more. His lost film London After Midnight (1927) reportedly has something to do with vampires (a "reconstruction" of that film is available on Warner Home Video's Lon Chaney Collection), and he remade it at MGM during the sound era with Mark of the Vampire (1935). In the latter, Lugosi leads a terrific cast (Lionel Barrymore, Jean Hersholt, Elizabeth Allan and Lionel Atwill) through a fairly routine plot similar to Dracula, though Browning had improved quite a bit from the stagy directing on his original, elevating the new film with a sharper look and unique set pieces. This 60-minute film is infamous for its trick ending that seems to annoy many vampire fans.
Just after Browning's seminal 1931 film came another landmark, Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932). It's still one of the two or three greatest vampire films ever made, a deliriously off-kilter production of spongy, spine-tingling dream images.
The film's star, Julian West, is really Baron Nicholas De Gunzberg, a film enthusiast who helped finance the production. He plays Allan Gray (sometimes "David Gray," depending on the print), a man who checks into a hotel where spooky things start happening to him. A dead man (Maurice Schutz) enters his room, reads a book on vampirism, and sees shadows move independent of their owners. There's also a memorably frightening sequence depicting the journey of a coffin to its final resting place, from the point of view of its occupant (looking out a small window in the lid). Allan/David eventually realizes that this is all the work of a member of the undead and must try to rescue himself and the dead man's two daughters (Rena Mandel and Sybille Schmitz). It's not just that Dreyer's special effects are superb; it's also his dreamy presentation, with its slightly dislocated space and time and springy sense of reality, that contribute to the overall, powerful effect. Vampyr was shot in four separate languages (French, English, German, and Danish) and the surviving film was probably cobbled together from fragments of these different versions.
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