The concept of terror on the silver screen has been a touchy one from the start. What exactly is too scary? How much is too much? Is it even healthy to make and release such films? All of these questions were being asked as the cinema grew in popularity around the globe. In the United States, horror was a touchy subject and considered taboo. Carl Laemmle, Sr., the boss of Universal Studios, forbade such films, considering them something the public would never want to watch.
Expression- auf Deutsch
But that wasn’t the case in Germany. The industry in Deutschland was filled with war-weary veterans who had seen the worst of humanity on the front lines; civilians who had endured supply shortages and attempted revolutions at home; and, of course, everyone was smarting from Germany’s devastating loss. Whatever appeared on screen, they thought, could never compare with World War I.
And so, filled with images of real-life terror, these filmmakers created a genre to express their anger, fear, and confusion. What came to be known as German Expressionism was born. In the age of the silent cinema, when visuals had to overcome the lack of dialogue, this genre stood out for its use of shadows, inventive angles, tracking shots, and outlandish sets. Realism isn’t the point. Driving home the feelings of the characters and scenes is what counts. Following the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), wherein a hypnotist uses a sleepwalker to commit murders, the German public proved both ready and hungry for scary movies.
Producer Albin Grau had been interested in directing a vampire movie since meeting a Serbian peasant during his wartime service who claimed that his father was a vampire. (Though I wasn’t able to find more specific details on this, it’s likely the corpse of the man’s father had not decayed quickly enough and was staked as a precaution.) Grau set up Prana Films, a studio for creating supernatural-based movies. He hired screenwriter Henrik Galeen and director F.W. Murnau to create a film based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula - despite not bothering to secure the film rights from Stoker’s widow. The film was shot throughout the latter half of 1921 in German towns of Wismar and Lübeck, with Slovakia standing in for the vampire’s homeland.
In a clever nod to folklore, the town’s doctors attributer the rise in deaths to plague brought by rats from the ship. This is interesting because vampires are historically connected with the plagues.
At the end, Hutter’s wife Ellen (the Mina Harker figure) learns that a vampire can be distracted by feeding on a beautiful woman. Ellen sacrifices herself, distracting Orlok long enough for sunlight to appear and destroy him. This scene serves as an important addition to vampire lore. In folklore and the book, vampires are only weakened by sunlight. This movie invented the idea of sunlight killing a vampire. (As was the scene of Hutter/Harker cutting his finger and the Count rushing over to lap up the blood.)
Let’s face it. The character that makes this movie work is Max Shreck’s Count Orlok. He definitely isn’t the handsome stranger of later movies. Given a repulsive, folklore-style appearance, Orlok’s face is rat-like and resembles a corpse (which, after all, is what a vampire is). His expression, alternating between zombie-like and wrathful, is deeply unsettling, even today. He is what nightmares are made of.
Murnau adds to the performance with several incomparable shots of Shreck’s shadow on the walls, all straight out of the German Expressionist style. Scenes of the vampire’s shadow bending over Hutter and walking up the steps to Ellen’s room have become icons of the horror genre - not just for their sinister shape, but because they force the audience to imagine the vampire’s actions themselves. And before I forget to mention it, ‘Shreck’ means ‘terror’ in German. Now that’s just good casting.
Nosferatu got high praise when it was first released in 1922 in Germany. But remember that copyright issue I mentioned? Well, Florence Stoker, widow of Bram, found out about the movie and sued. Mrs. Stoker eventually won her case in the German court system because simply changing names wasn’t enough to get around the copyright. Prana Films was forced to declare bankruptcy and, worst of all, the judges ordered all copies of Nosferatu to be destroyed.
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When I was a kid, I remember thumbing through TV Guide to the back where the week’s movies were listed. I noticed that Frankenstein got four stars, but Dracula only got three. I wondered why that was. Well, here are some reasons.
By the early 1930’s, several seismic shifts were taking place in Hollywood. The most obvious was the transition from silent films to talkies. The second was the influence of German Expressionism. Filmmakers and actors were fleeing Germany for America as the power of the Nazis grew, and they brought their techniques with them. The German style had already weaved its way into gangster films, singlehandedly creating the film noir genre and launching the careers of Edward G. Robinson, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart, just to name a few. Finally, the public’s tastes were changing. Perhaps the land of e pluribus unum was finally ready for films made to scare. Well, that’s what Carl Laemmle, Jr. thought, at least.
The younger Laemmle was eager to get into the horror genre by turning Dracula into a major film. His father Carl Sr., the boss of Universal Studios, was not. He’d permitted grand productions based around deformed characters such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925), all played by his top actor Lon Chaney, (with the former produced by boy wonder Irving Thalberg before his departure for MGM), but he had his doubts about supernatural horror. Up to that point, all American movies featuring otherworldly characters had always used a safety net revealing the character to have been a disguised human, after all. (Call it the ‘Scooby Doo’ ending.) However, after seeing the continued success of the 1924 stage version of Dracula crafted by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston on Broadway, the elder Laemmle relented and gave his son the green light.
If you watch the documentary that comes with Universal’s 2004 box set for Dracula, you’ll be told that the shortcomings of the film were due to the Great Depression. Oh, excuses. To be fair, that was a part of the problem. But it was far from the only one. Tragedy struck a few months before filming, when Chaney came down with cancer and died. Without a star and the Depression already cutting into the budget, Universal was forced to look for a cheap replacement. The then-unknown Bela Lugosi was chosen.
But problems continued. With the death of his close friend and unable to order the elaborate sets that had been planned, director Browning lost interest in the project. He casually filmed scenes in sequence. He was also uncomfortable with the film being a talkie. Unlike other silent era veterans who embraced sound – like Thalberg and Walt Disney - Browning said he thought a film only needed sound 20% of the time, leaving 80% silent, to still be successful. Things came to a head when studio bosses reviewed the footage and were intensely displeased. Cinematographer Karl Freund, a German Expressionist expert who had worked on such silent films as the sci-fi classic Metropolis (1927), practically took over.
After months of worry and re-shoots, the film finally premiered on- of all days- Valentine’s Day, 1931. (It was advertised as “the strangest love story of all.”) The film is far from what it could have been. The London scenes, supervised mostly by Browning, are largelyly master shots that look like a parent filming their kid’s school play. Little wonder why Universal’s top brass weren’t thrilled.
On the other hand, Freund’s work is superb. Freud shot the scenes in Transylvania, particularly Castle Dracula. The shots and shadows definitely create the impression of a home not meant for the living. (It almost makes you forget about the armadillos prancing around.) Freund also was responsible for the legendary shots of Lugosi in the dark and looking into the camera, with his eyes illuminated. It has been suggested that Freund did the editing, with Browning almost kicked off the project by then. (Freund’s contributions were so immense that David Manners, who played Jonathan Harker, famously quipped, “I don’t remember Tod Browning on set. I remember being directed by Karl Freund.”)
Despite this being a Pre-Code film, the scenes of Dracula attacking his victims are very Victorian and chaste. You see none of the raciness of Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, released that same year.
Ultimately, it’s the individual performances that make this picture memorable. Aside from the usual cropping of subplots and minor characters from the book, the biggest change between this film and the written version is having R.M. Renfield travel to Transylvania, (instead of Harker), and become the Count’s personal slave. Dwight Frye made the role his own, with an amazingly insane look of madness on his face and a laugh that sounds both hilarious and sinister at the same time. Likewise, Edward Van Sloan provided the early model for Professor Abraham Van Helsing. It’s a fairly straightforward performance: the wise, determined elder who never flinches. (He even reprised the role in Dracula’s Daughter). However, his interactions with Bela Lugosi, holding the vampire back with a cross have become classic clashes between good and evil. And speaking of…
Here is the man who has come to represent the Count in all his glory. He actually doesn’t look like the Count in Stoker’s novel. In print, Dracula is described as an old man with a white mustache and rather grotesque features. Lugosi made him into a dapper, dashing, handsome man who didn’t need hypnosis to get the attention of the ladies…and then their necks.
Lugosi was definitely fortunate to land the role. Despite playing the role on Broadway and lobbying for it, he wasn’t even considered before Chaney’s death. He even remained on the short list after the fact. It was only while the play was touring Los Angeles that he met with Universal executives, was tested, and got the part.
performance is his accent. His is considered the definitive voice despite learning his lines phonetically (Lugosi refused to learn English for years). But is it accurate? Lugosi was Hungarian and most people in the Borgo Pass area in 1897 spoke either Romanian or German, according to the guides of the time. (The languages are all from different language trees.) But it may be a moot point. In the book, Harker says Dracula speaks “excellent English, but with a strange intonation.” That leaves room for interpretation. And almost every time someone imitates Dracula today, they imitate Lugosi.
Ultimately, the movie was a financial success. It launched what we now call the Universal Monster Universe. It is rightfully a classic. However, aside from the great performances, it still leaves viewers wanting. With the right team and funds, it could have been so much more. Now I know why it only got three stars.
Abraham Stoker was born in Clontarf, just north of Dublin, Ireland, in 1847. There’s little in his schooling or professional life that would lead anyone to guess that he would write one of the greatest vampire novels of all time. He graduated from Trinity College with a degree in mathematics before starting work as a civil servant. His side job as a theater critic eventually led to a meeting with actor Sir Henry Irving (the first man awarded a knighthood for accomplishments in the arts). Irving was impressed and offered Stoker the job of acting (later, business) manager of the Lyceum theater, which Irving owned. The troupe traveled extensively. This included trips to the States, where Stoker visited the White House with his boss and met Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.