#58. Dracula (1931)

In 2004 I bought this Legacy Collection Dracula DVD and, as a thirteen-year-old who loved horror and wanted to at least be cultured if he couldn’t be cool, I thought I could distinguish myself by not only enjoying Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula (which I held in the same artistic esteem as War and Peace) but that I’d basically be the coolest teenager alive if I could actually be scared by it, too, that it would reflect some older and more refined sensibility if this quiet, ambling, campy Romanian actor could give me legitimate chills. It’s embarrassing to remember. I sat in front of the movie again and again, trying to be riveted, trying to be scared, and of course had no luck at all because, not only is the movie too dated to be taken seriously, it’s also pretty boring.

I never actually finished the movie as a teenager. I fell asleep or wandered away each time. Having finally made it to the (remarkably anticlimactic) ending this week, at 26, I’m comforted to see that my attention span seems to’ve broadened with time but — I’m wondering, too, if most of that newfound patience was cultivated slowly, over the past thirteen years, or has it mostly just been these past few months? Has the Thousand Movie Project made me more patient or attentive? Am I only paying attention because I’m looking for things to write about?

One of the things that’s definitely changed is that I’m not approaching any of these movies as sacred texts anymore. I’m willing to not like them.

A couple years ago when I was working as a high school substitute I read Crime and Punishment over the course of a few days and I kept rolling my eyes and sighing and putting the book down because Raskolnikov was super annoying, his alleged sickness or whatever, and but I was also getting frustrated with myself for being annoyed. I told myself that, if I wasn’t enjoying the book, it was my fault, and not Dostoevsky’s.

dracula poster 1
Dracula, along with Phantom of the Opera, has some of the greatest poster art ever printed.

I do still feel that way about Dostoevsky, and I’ll probably feel that way about a lotta classics I confront in years to come, but I’m torn over whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the bright side, this notion that a text is above me is a great motivation to read harder, and it’s probably a generally life-affirming and positive thing to be searching for qualities rather than dismissing the stuff that doesn’t just present those qualities on a platter.

As a teenager I definitely felt that way about Dracula (1931). Tried watching it again and again and chastised myself for not being, what, “smart” or “cultured” enough to follow it. Now, for some reason, I’m perfectly comfortable saying that this movie – any movie on the List – is boring and that I have no interest in working toward its strengths.

I’ll admit that my disdain for the movie felt kinda vindicated when I learned that it was meant to have a much bigger budget, and to be made as like a scene-for-scene adaptation of Stoker’s novel, before the stock market crashed in ’29 and relegated Universal to basically only having the funds to film the stage play.

And yes I realize it was extremely influential and no I’m not blind to the amazing performance by Bela Lugosi as Dracula, nor of Dwight Frye as Renfield, but the movie is really quiet and slow, the camera doesn’t move very much, and – much like Murnau’s Nosferatu, an unauthorized 1922 adaptation of the same novel – I appreciate what’s being done but I just don’t enjoy it.

There’s a moving meta-component in watching Dracula that has to do with seeing Bela Lugosi in his prime. I don’t know the details of his life but for the late drug abuse, the heavy drinking and the depression, and so to see him here in his career-defining role (a role in which he took such pride that, for a while afterward, he went about town in a cape and character-appropriate garb) is at once warming and sad. I’m imagining the frequency with which he probably watched it later in life. Or did he avoid it? Is it painful for aging actors to look back at their youth, so vividly captured?

dracula pic 1I’m sitting in Starbucks now, the one from which I post pretty much all of these essays. There’s a group of guys in their sixties who hang out here every morning, gabbing about sports and politics, and there’s a young woman in probably her thirties, very bubbly and pretty, who basically frolicks through the door each morning at 9ish and dips at the waist to kiss them all on the cheek and say hello. It’s sweet. The guys all seem to have an avuncular relationship to her. They comment on her hair and ask about her job and relatives. But there’s one guy, probably the oldest of the bunch, who’s jowly and walks with a slouch and his hairline’s way receded: this guy talks to her like an uncle, says hello and goodbye to her with an innocent peck on the cheek and clasp of her shoulder, but when she goes over to the bar to wait for her drink (she orders it through her phone) he watches her in a way that’s definitely a bit licentious — gazing at her when she isn’t looking — and maybe all he’s thinking about is fucking her but it looks like he’s thinking, too, about the fact that he has no chance at all. That it’d be embarrassing to even try to flirt. That even one compliment too much could totally disrupt their relationship whereas when he was her age, or maybe even a few years older, he could have at least made the effort. Invited her out. The way he looks at her, you get a vibe he’s thinking of way more than sex, and it’s sobering.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that this should strike such a chord with me while writing a piece about a blood-sucking thousand-year-old man.


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