The Road to Dracula. Dir. David J. Skal. Perf. Carla Laemmle, Bela Lugosi Jr.. DVD. Universal, 1999.
The Road to Dracula is a short documentary film on the creation of Dracula (1931). It describes the origins and creation of the film, its ensuing success, and its enduring cultural impact. It describes some of the aspects of Dracula (1931) that made it popular at the time, such as the appeal of Lugosi as the Count.
The Road to Dracula describes the evolution of the vampire from earlier folkloric and literary incarnations to the first Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which became the quintessential vampire novel, despite not being the first. It moves on to discuss Dracula’s first appearances in theater and film, most notably in Dracula’s Death (an unauthorized Hungarian film that was not an adaptation of Stoker’s novel but was Dracula’s first screen appearance), Nosferatu (1922, an unauthorized German adaptation of Stoker’s novel), the stage play Dracula (1924, an authorized adaptation of Stoker’s novel), and the film Dracula (1931, an authorized adaptation of Stoker’s novel based largely off the play).
The documentary discusses how Bela Lugosi’s incarnation of Dracula in the film Dracula became the definitive Dracula that has endured in popular culture to the present day. It also compares Lugosi’s Dracula to the other incarnations, both newer and older. For example, Lugosi’s suave Dracula contrasts greatly with Max Shreck’s hideously rat-like Count Orlok. Various personages speculate as to what aspects of the film Dracula contributed to its enormous success. Some mention that the use of sound impressed audiences, as Dracula was one of the first Universal horror films with sound. The film also benefited from Karl Freund’s (of The Last Laugh and Metropolis) camerawork. Others attribute Dracula’s success to the charisma of Lugosi’s Dracula, with his powerful stage presence and uniquely deliberate delivery. Still others emphasize the commingling of eroticism and vampirism in the film. Lugosi’s preying on young women is intentioned to incite both fear and arousal in the audience simultaneously. This aspect of the film differentiates it from earlier film Draculas and likely contributed to its success. Universal’s advertising campaign for Dracula that, while focusing on its horror elements, also exploited the film’s underlying sexual content, is thought to have been effective in promoting the film as well.
Aviva Briefel. "Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film. " Film Quarterly 58.3 (2005): 16-27. Alumni - Research Library. ProQuest. 1 Dec. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com/>
In Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film, Briefel discusses the role of masochism and menstruation in the audience’s identification with the film’s monster in classic horror films, such as Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). He analyzes the way different monsters appeal to the audience. He proposes a theory of the gendering of the pain felt by the monster and how it can elicit the audience’s identification with it or sympathy for it. He posits that the symbolically menstrual elements of Dracula would have drawn audiences to the film.
U. C. Knoepflmacher. "Editor’s Preface: Hybrid Forms and Cultural Anxiety." SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 48.4 (2008): 745-754.
In Hybrid Forms and Cultural Anxiety, Knoepflmacher discusses cultural anxieties towards mongrels, half-races, and other forms of hybrids. He analyzes the evolution of attitudes towards “hybrids” from before Darwinian science to the modern day, where the word “hybrid” usually has a positive connotation. He traces the reflections of these anxieties in literature and art in depictions of monstrous violations of the natural order, such as in Dr. Jekyll, Dracula, and other vampires. Knoepflmacher’s interpretation of aspects of Dracula as resonating with cultural anxieties reinforces Phillips’ theory of the film Dracula’s success through appealing to contemporary cultural anxieties.
Rickels, Laurence A. The Vampire Lectures. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
In Chapter 11 of The Vampire Lectures, Rickels offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of Browning’s Dracula (1931). He analyzes Lugosi’s on-screen presence and association with the theater and details what Rickels asserts is the representation of psychoanalysis in the film by Van Helsing. For example, in reference to Van Helsing’s staying behind at the end while John and Mina ascend the staircase in the final scene, Rickels compares Van Helsing to “the underworld of psychoanalysis” which must be left behind for Mina to be cured.
Rickels focuses on the repressed desire of women for the exotic outsider. In the film this is represented by Mina’s relationship with the Lugosi’s Count Dracula of Transylvania, with his unique foreign accent, suave manner, and commanding gaze. Rickels asserts that the essence of the film is about whatever it takes for a woman to prefer “someone more normal, like John,” as Mina tells Lucy she does in the film. This aspect of the film appealed to the repressed desires of female audiences.
Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
In Chapter 8 of A History of Narrative Film, Cook analyzes the effects of the introduction of the sound film into the American studio system. He asserts that the emergence of sound drastically changed the makeup of Western cinema. Cook discusses the development and popularity of the musical film genre that came about during this time as a result of sound film technology. He also discusses the added potential for realism enabled by the sound film, such as in the urban gangster films with their tough vernacular speech and distinctive “rat-a-tat-tat” of the Thompson submachinegun.
Cook maintains that the existing genre of the horror film was the most greatly enhanced by the addition of sound. He alleges that sound not only enabled eerie effects to make the films’ horror elements more effective, but it also allowed horror films to retain the depth of literary dialogue present in so many of their original sources. He attributes the success of Dracula (1931) to the boons offered by the sound film.
Freeland, Cynthia A. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
In Chapter 4 of The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror, Freeland offers a feminist interpretation of Stoker’s novel, Dracula, and three of its film incarnations, including Browning’s Dracula (1931). She focuses on the sexual transformation of Dracula and the changing nature of his evil through his incarnations in these works.
This section of the book is ordered chronologically and charters the evolution of Dracula through Stoker’s original novel Dracula (1897), Browning’s Dracula (1931), Badham’s Dracula (1979), and Coppola’s Dracula (1992). In the novel, as in Nosferatu, Dracula is unremittingly evil, symbolized by his ugly, disgusting appearance, hairy palms and nostrils, and bad breath. He is an abomination of nature, a thing that causes revulsion and disgust. Freeland asserts that, for this Dracula, “the threat of gender transgression lurks amid scenes of erotic abnormality and rape.” She compares this Dracula to Browning’s, noting Dracula’s transformation into a “sex icon with continental flair.” Perhaps this sort of Dracula was more appealing to contemporary audiences. The nature of this Dracula’s evil was primarily that of a sexual threat and male predator, not that of the intrinsically foul. Freeland goes on to analyze more recent films, in which Dracula is increasingly portrayed in a sympathetic light and with a greater depth of character.
Holte, James Craig, ed. The Fantastic Vampire: Studies in the Children of the Night : Selected Essays from the Eighteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
In Chapter 5, Ploeg discusses the evolution of Dracula in film, literature, and stage since Stoker’s novel. He specifically focuses on the extent to which Stoker’s Dracula is “Gothic.” He perceives the common labeling of Stoker’s Dracula as being Gothic as breeding misunderstanding as to the nature of Dracula. Ploeg asserts that Stoker’s Dracula is not a Gothic novel, but that increasingly recent incarnations of Dracula have become increasingly Gothic (or neo-Gothic). He cites Stoker’s nephew, who claims that “Dracula succeeds partly because it is not Gothic; to the Victorian it must have seemed darlingly modern.” Ploeg believes that Stoker’s Dracula has far more in “common with the developing genre of the crime story.”
Ploeg concedes that Dracula is full of Gothic conventions, but asserts that Stoker does not rely on the Gothic belief in the supernatural to structure the novel. The ultimate “debunking” of Dracula in the novel separates it from the film version. Ploeg argues that in the novel, Dracula is presented more as an accident of nature than as a supernatural entity. He cites Van Helsing’s explanation of Dracula as a unique phenomenon that arises “doubtless, [from] something magnetic or electric in some of these combinations of occult forces which work for physical life in strange way.” The film Dracula is purely supernatural. Unlike earlier films, such as The Cat and the Canary, Dracula (1931) offers no rational or logical explanation is for the horrors that occur. This lack of explanation was new to American audiences, and likely contributed to the success of the film. The palatability of the film’s more charismatic version of Dracula also played a part in this success. Ploeg recounts the embellishments to the vampire since the Stoker’s original vampire: “They fly by their own powers… they have incredible mental powers of control, telepathy, telekinesis… they are immortal… they battle with demons and alien gods… they are great seducers… they have culture, discernment, and style.” The latter two are introduced by Lugosi’s Dracula. Ploeg cites these as examples of the evolution of Dracula away from the scientific rationalization and mystery elements in Stoker’s novel and towards the realm of the Gothic supernatural.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. Maud Ellmann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
The preface details the history of the Bram Stoker’s original novel Dracula (1897). It also discusses numerous critical interpretations of Dracula.
To truly understand the film Dracula (1931), it is necessary to understand Bram Stoker’s original novel Dracula. The preface to this edition details Stoker’s early life and his works up to the creation of the novel, which it refers to as “one of the most successful pot-boilers ever written.” For example, the preface discusses Stoker’s relationship to Henry Irving, who is often credited as being Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula, and how it mirrors the relationship between Harker and Dracula. Other influences in Dracula are discussed as well, such as the legend of Vlad the Impaler, the novel Carmilla, and folkloric vampires. Dracula is compared to contemporary literature such as War of the Worlds, which was published at almost the same time and also describes the invasion of a superior foe that feeds on human blood.
The preface also discusses numerous critical interpretations of Dracula. Dracula is read as an allegory of empire, of monopoly capital, of female emancipation, and of closeted homosexuality. He represents society’s anxieties about invasion, class conflict, and sexual perversion. Dracula is interpreted as a figure for venereal disease, menstruation, the feudal aristocracy, and the proletariat. The preface discusses Stoker’s ironic publication of The Censorship of Fiction (1908), which was a tirade against the evils of sexually suggestive novels. The author suggests that considering “some of the perversely erotic passages in Dracula, [The Censorship of Fiction] may seem hypocritical, but it suggests that Stoker himself was unaware of the innuendoes of his book, as indeed were his first reviewers, who said nothing of the sexual component of the novel. Like [Lucy], virgin in life and whore in death, Stoker was prude and pornographer at once.” Such was not the case for the makers of the film Dracula, which was advertised as “the story of the strangest passion the world has ever known,” and in which the use of Dracula’s vampirism as a cover for sexual desire is fully intended.
Holte, James Craig. Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
In Chapter 2 of Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations, Holte discusses the early adaptations of Stoker’s Dracula, namely the film Nosferatu (1922), the Dracula stage play, and the film Dracula (1931), placing them in their historical contexts. Holte discusses Murnau’s Nosferatu and compares it to its source material. He details how Nosferatu greatly simplifies Stoker’s Dracula:
Major characters are deleted, other characters, most significantly that of the vampire, are made one-dimensional, and entire scenes, including Stoker's effective chase of the vampire by the fearless band of vampire hunters across Europe and the confrontation at Castle Dracula, are cut. In addition, the Van Helsing character, who is a major force in the novel and can be seen as Dracula's "good" double, is reduced to a brief appearance; he has been replaced by The Book of the Vampire. Similarly, the character of Lucy Westenra is gone, as are almost all references to technology, colonialism, and religion, which provided the rich backround in Stoker's novel. As a result, much of the complexity of Stoker's novel is lost.
Holte recognizes the stylistic elements of German Expressionism in Nosferatu that make it unique and notes that film criticism generally favors Nosferatu over Browning’s Dracula. Similarly, Holte compares Browning’s Dracula to the source material. While retaining more of the characters and plot elements of Stoker’s novel than Nosferatu, Browning’s Dracula also omits some characters, such as Quincy Morris and Arthur Holmwood. The adaptation also relies heavily on the stage play, especially in the latter half.
While Nosferatu and Dracula are both adaptations of Stoker’s Dracula, they offer diametrically opposing readings of the novel, both from the viewpoints of style and of substance. Holte notes the disparity between the German Expressionist style of the traditional Hollywood style of Browning’s Dracula. While he compares both films individually to their source material, he also compares them to one another. For example, Nosferatu entirely omits the sequence where Dracula’s vampirellas bear down on his visitor, whereas it includes a horrifying ship scene absent in Browning’s Dracula. Additionally, the films’ portrayals of Dracula differ greatly; Nosferatu’s is a hideously ugly plague-bearer while Browning’s is a suave figure in evening clothes. Holte notes that “Browning’s Dracula succeeds because of its emphasis on individual conflict and sexual attraction, two essential elements played down by Murnau in his adaptation of Dracula.”
Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.
In Chapter 1 of Projected Fears: Horror films and American Culture, Phillips discusses the cultural impact of Browning’s Dracula (1931).
Phillips briefly discusses the history of the creation of Browning’s Dracula. He moves on to note the numerous technical gaffes and otherwise glaring flaws in the film. For example, contemporary reviewers criticized the film’s fairly static second and third acts, the unintentionally jumpy, disconnected narrative, and the awkward mix of visuals and exposition. However, despite a poor forecast from Universal and generally unfavorable contemporary reviews, Browning’s Dracula was a huge commercial success.
For Phillips, this makes Dracula even more interesting. He inquires, “given the various problems of Dracula – poor effects, staginess, narrative inconsistencies, and so on – the film’s enormous popularity is a bit of a puzzle. Why would audiences flock to the film?”
Phillip argues that Dracula resonated with contemporary audiences’ racial anxieties towards European immigrants and with their fears of the balkanization of America. He reasons that the fantasy of Dracula also offered an escape from the harsh economic reality of the Great Depression. Dracula resonated with cultural anxieties about progressive, scientific approaches to life and the struggle between science and religion. Similarly, the film addressed audiences’ confusion over gender and sexual norms in an age directly following the 1920s’ moral experimentation and “flappers.”
Phillips also attributes part of the success of Dracula to its violation of the expectations that audiences brought to the film. Unlike previous horror films, which tended to explain away their macabre elements at the end, such as in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and London after Midnight (1927), Dracula offers no convenient explanation for its supernatural elements.