by William Max Miller
Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula
receives more than its share of brickbats from critics who contend that Browning
botched two thirds of the film. After giving almost unanimous praise to the
Transylvanian sequences which open the film, they sharpen their fangs and start
gnawing away at the scenes set in England. The critics disparage the stationary
camera work in this part of Dracula, and their descriptions bristle with
negative adjectives like "stage bound," "static," and "dull." But could all these genre pundits be missing something?
True, Browning definitely slows the pace significantly when his camera migrates from adventurous Transylvania to the stuffy sitting rooms and boudoirs of Dr. Seward's English estate-by-the-asylum. But even here one can find a subtle symbolism, for ominous fleur de mal sprout unobtrusively amidst all the stagy decor. While Lucy and Mina talk about the mysterious Dracula, the shadow of a bat hovers portentously over the table lamp behind them, as though awaiting the Count's nocturnal arrival. The kitsch ceramic lamp by Lucy's bedside is decorated with the figures of three dancing women, a reminder of Dracula's three brides and also a forewarning that Lucy is about to join them among the Undead. Later, the same lamp mysteriously appears in Mina's bedroom, boding a similar fate for her. The England sequences of Dracula are far from being devoid of visual symbolism. Viewers simply have to look more closely for it in this part of the film than they did during the Gothic extravaganza of the Transylvanian scenes.
But the real key to understanding the stylistic differences between the first and final two thirds of Browning' Dracula can be found by paying closer attention to the figure of Dr. Van Helsing. Browning's presentation of this character, so skillfully portrayed by Edward Van Sloan, is more complex than today's viewer usually imagines. This elderly doctor is typically viewed as the embodiment of absolute Goodness and Light in opposition to Dracula's absolute evil, yet there are certain scenes in the film that cast doubt on this easy black-and-white interpretation.
Watch as Van Helsing examines the body of Lucy in the surgical theater. He looms above her corpse with the same calculated, cold purposefulness which earlier animated Dracula as he bent over the fallen body of Renfield back in his castle. Just like Dracula, Van Helsing wishes to extract something from Lucy. Dracula has drained her of blood, and now it's Van Helsing's turn to drain her of information, the lifeblood of the scientist. The other doctors and medical students who watch from their encircling seats look down like hungry vultures while they watch the older professor (their "master") conduct his grim post mortem ritual. They remain so motionlessly intent on the activities of Van Helsing that it's hard to tell if these "students" are actors or figures painted on a backdrop, and their rigid downward-peering forms lend a disturbing Kafkaesque flavor to the scene.
Later in the film, we see Van Helsing approach Mina in a most intriguing manner after she informs him of her strange feelings of weakness and describes the unpleasant "dream" she'd had the night before. As he nears her, Van Helsing's movements take on an intrusiveness that is unmistakably threatening. Holding his hands in a peculiar fashion, very similar to the stylized hand-movements of Lugosi's Dracula, he seems to wait for a moment of vulnerability and suddenly pounces on the resisting girl's throat! This scene plays like an inverted deja vu reenactment of Dracula's own nocturnal attack on Mina, and hints at an interpretation of medical scientists like Van Helsing that is anything but favorable.
Van Helsing's glasses provide another subtle clue that his character is not as simple as we might first assume. Strangely thick and goggle-like, the lenses of these weird glasses call attention to Van Helsing's eyes just as blatantly as the pin-hole lighting that is used to emphasize the power of Dracula's hypnotic gaze. The symbolism of the eye, especially of the evil eye, figures prominently in Browning's Dracula. The peasants in Transylvania make signs that are traditionally used against the evil eye. Mina's eyes widen when she relays her dream of glowing eyes in the night. Dracula's eyes light up like balefires and stare intently when he gives hypnotic commands to Renfield. And the power of Van Helsing's eyes are also unnaturally magnified by his thick glasses. Like Dracula's, his eyes are more powerful than those of normal humans. His gaze penetrates as deeply as the vampire's into hidden things, for he is the only one capable of discerning the presence of the Undead in the happenings at Seward's sanitarium. But unlike Dracula, whose vision is supernaturally empowered, Van Helsing's perspective is magnified by science and the technology of the lens. Dracula's view is that of the occult seer, whereas Van Helsing's is that of the microscope.
And here we find the very contrast which viewers see between the Transylvanian opening of Dracula and the other parts of the film. When we are in Dracula's world, the camera adopts the king vampire's point of view, and encompasses sweeping moonlit vistas and vast cobwebbed spaces. It glides effortlessly down the Borgo Pass and through the shadowy corridors of Dracula's castle, taking bat-like passes at the actors. But when we enter England, we find ourselves in a world where the powers of Van Helsing hold sway, and the camera takes on his methodical point of view. It surveys each sequence from a patient, often stationary perspective, and invites us to examine scenes in a linear progression like slides under a microscope.
Perhaps the recent release of the DVD version of Browning's Dracula will reawaken a new interest in the film and enable audiences to appreciate it as a coherent whole. Far from giving audiences just one third of a good film, Dracula presents an interesting cinematic example of shifting perspectives. Its stage-like quality functions as part of the message being conveyed, and helps contrast the supernaturalism of Dracula with the orderly, logical world view of Van Helsing. The Van Helsing sequences differ from the Transylvanian scenes because Van Helsing resided in a different domain and exercised a kind of power which differed from that of Count Dracula's. And Browning presents the conflict between these characters in ambiguous terms, confronting us with the disturbing reality that Van Helsing's powers, which derive from the science we all run to for protection against superstition, have a dark side that can become every bit as menacing as those of the vampire.
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