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January 01, 2009

DRACULA — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Dracula PosterLadies fainted when Bela Lugosi slowly rose from his coffin as the undead king of all vampires in the famous 1927 Broadway stage production of "Dracula." Co-playwright/screenwriter Hamilton Deane constructed his sinewy script from Bram Stoker's celebrated novel. The Depression era picture introduced horror to the era of sound film with a Gothic atmosphere that is still copied today. The play’s successful two-year national run (featuring Lugosi) preceded Tod Browning's brilliant 1931 film version. Naturally, Browning’s pre-code movie had an equally chilling effect on movie audiences even if not all critics at the time were convinced of the film’s many charms.

The film’s secret weapon is Bela Lugosi, whose thick Hungarian accent harbored such a sense of mortal dread and diabolical intent that you can’t help but hang on his every word. The vampire role typecast the 49-year-old Lugosi, who went on to enjoy success in films in which he played opposite Boris Karloff, whose own career took flight thanks to roles in Universal Studios horror pictures such as “Frankenstein.”  

Dwight Frye's eerie performance as Renfield, the hapless British accountant who dares set foot inside Dracula's foreboding castle, sets a ghoulish tone of insanity that the charismatic vampire instills in men.  

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”The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield.” Lugosi’s Dracula waxes poetic his signature Hungarian accent. For his well-established part, Bela Lugosi is positively bloodcurdling as he stalks every scene in his dapper tuxedo and intimidating cape.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880, Tod Browning’s checkered career ran from working in circus sideshows and carnivals (as both barker and performer), before working as an actor in dozens of silent features before turning to directing 1917 with “Jim Bludso.” As filmmaker, Browning enjoyed a notable string of hit movies with his frequent collaborator Lon Chaney, whose life was cut short in 1930 by lung cancer exacerbated by a throat infection caused by breathing in artificial snow on the set of “The Unholy Three” (1930). Sadly, Browning’s career took a nosedive after “Freaks,” his misunderstood love letter to the circus, proved too controversial for the arbiters of taste at the time. 

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"Dracula" is more than a milestone of cinematic horror; it represents a marriage of nightmare and reality that establishes an American Gothic sensibility for other dramatic sub genres that followed. Stark, formal, and deeply sensual, "Dracula's" atmosphere and intention is rooted in a fear of unfamiliar lust from which there can be no escape. There’s sufficient reason to believe that “Dracula” is a parable about sexually transmitted diseases. To watch Tod Browning’s "Dracula" is to be bitten by the vampire's infectious attack.   

Not Rated. 75 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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