Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: 'Tod Browning’s Dracula'

I can’t for the life of me find the source, but I believe I read at some point that there’s a scene in Dracula in which the camera remains completely static for six excruciating minutes. It’s the scene in which Mina talks with Van Helsing and Harker on an outdoor lounge about 48 minutes into the film. Every time I re-watch Dracula, which I do at least once a year, I watch the DVD counter during this scene, and every time it falls well short of six minutes. Where do these rumors get started?

This was probably an exaggeration of a more well-traveled accusation that has director Tod Browning allowing his camera to remain still for three minutes in this scene, which is something that has been repeated by no less a Dracula scholar than David Skal. This is untrue too. A dolly-in occurs only seconds into the scene, and a dolly-out ends it. Based on the way dollies frame the scene, it actually seems pretty well planned out and not the lazy blunder a lot of film historians want you to believe it is.

The same can be said of the entire film. While only a fool would argue that the very first sound horror film featuring one of the all-time iconic performances in any genre is not historically important, a lot of critics still argue that Dracula is a slow, talky, music and camera movement-devoid, overacted, underacted, dated bit of piffle that front-loads its only worthwhile scenes in the first two reels. Such criticisms always irk me, because Dracula is my favorite film from Universal’s golden age of monster movies that wasn’t directed by James Whale. I don’t find it slow. I think its “talky” script is swollen with quotable lines. I think Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye give two of the great horror performances, and I love how the relative lack of music contributes to its atmosphere of quiet, eerie dread.

The bad rep Dracula has developed throughout the years also really irks film historian Gary D. Rhodes. He backs up his belief the film has been unfairly and ignorantly maligned with a mountain of evidence in his new book Tod Browning’s Dracula. Rhodes knows you can’t get too scientific about opinions; if someone doesn’t like a movie, they don’t like it. But he proves that a lot of the reasons critics give for disliking Dracula are simply wrong. Rhodes compares the film to twenty other specimens released around the same time and concludes that its use of camera movement, music, and dialogue are not unusual for its day. This holds true when held against George Melford’s Spanish-language version of Dracula, which historians regularly rate as superior for its more active camera. This is an easy conclusion to repeat, but far more tedious to check. Well, Rhodes did the tedious work, counting the number of camera movements in both films, and guess what… Tod Browning’s Dracula has the more active camerawork and in a far tighter timeframe.

And speaking of Browning, Rhodes is making another point with the title of his book. The author refutes the rumors that Browning barely directed the film, that cinematographer Karl Freund did all the directorial work. He also challenges the often-repeated notion that the film is a faithful adaptation of the Balderston-Dean play and the gossip that Universal never wanted Lugosi for its star.

The misinformation surrounding this film is staggering, and it has sadly played a major role in lessening its standing as a great film. I really hope that will start to change with the publishing of Tod Browning’s Dracula. This is a superior piece of cinematic detective work and a great example of what one can accomplish when one simply does his or her homework. I’m not sure if it will make any of Dracula’s multitudinous haters reevaluate the movie for the better, but I sure hope they’ll at least stop using lies to rake it over the coals. Rhodes’s book is apparently the first installment of Tomahawk Press’ new series about classic horror films. I can’t wait for the next one, and I hope it is written with the same care, attention, and sense of purpose as Rhodes put into his book.
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