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.
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.
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.