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Dracula (1931);
The Black Cat (1934)

Dracula (1931)
May 5, 2012 - 7:30 pm
Carla Laemmle.

New print!

Dracula (1931)

Directed by Tod Browning

Billed as a Gothic romance, the overnight success that met “the story of the strangest passion the world has ever known” helped launch a series of iconic horror films at Universal, giving the studio not only a steady financial boost at the dawn of the sound era but also a new identity, one it would be associated with for decades to come.

Based on Bram Stoker’s novel and a wildly successful stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, Tod Browning’s realization bears the influence of both. While the film’s compositions have been characterized as betraying the source material’s theatrical origins (perhaps attributable to the new encumbrances of sound equipment), Karl Freund’s moody and atmospheric photography, particularly in the gloomy interiors of Dracula’s decaying castle, adeptly displays the cinematic influence of German Expressionism and Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). One of the earliest sound horror films, Dracula eschewed a musical score for the most part, the better to accentuate every creak, footstep, and wolf howl against an ominous silence.

The piercing gaze and deliberate delivery of Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor who had played the Count in the American stage version, lent an eerie presence to the role and became the standard by which the many future incarnations of Dracula would be judged. Ironically, though Lugosi would come to be associated with the hypnotic bloodsucker for the rest of his life—he was even buried wearing Dracula’s cape—he was Browning’s last choice for the role. The director preferred Lon Chaney Sr. who died of throat cancer before production could begin. When other prospects proved unavailable or unsuitable, Lugosi was offered the role for a pittance, later reprising it in such films as Mark of the Vampire (1935), Return of the Vampire (1944), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Asked in a 1952 interview if Dracula ever ends for him, Lugosi replied, “No, no; Dracula never ends. I don’t know whether I should call it a fortune or a curse, but it never ends.” A milestone for the genre and for Universal, Dracula and Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the sinister, otherworldly Count resonate to this day.

—Nina Rao

Universal Pictures. Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr. Based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Screenwriter: Garrett Fort. Cinematographer: Karl Freund. Editor: Milton Carruth. Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan.

35mm, b/w, 75 min.

The Black Cat (1934)

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

Like a monster from the id, director Edgar G. Ulmer’s morbid jewel—Universal’s top-grossing release of 1934—is a catalog of public fascinations in the 1930s: Edgar Allan Poe (whose story “suggested” the film); megastars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (in their first of six Universal collaborations); modernist architecture; postwar trauma; psychiatry, pathology and the occult (personified in the tabloids by Aleister Crowley).

The story is simple: American honeymooners find themselves trapped in the Hungarian mansion of a sinister war profiteer (Karloff) who stole the wife and child of a vengeful psychiatrist (Lugosi) who’s terrorized by cats, the movie’s recurring symbol of evil. But the film’s plot is secondary to its astonishing visual design and increasingly shocking vortex of necrophilia, sadism, and torture. Born in Austria and a veteran designer of Max Reinhardt’s theater and German cinema, Ulmer came to Hollywood to assist F.W. Murnau on Sunrise (1928). His expressionist heritage (and facility with low budgets) fit Universal’s horror cycle like a glove: The Black Cat revels in Bauhaus-inspired decor with a hardedged geometry that reflects the jagged psychology of its characters. Karloff, as Hjalmar Poelzig (an homage to German architect Hans Poelzig, whom Ulmer assisted on 1920’s The Golem), appropriates his mansion’s angularity with his rigid movements, a hatchet hairstyle and v-necked robes. “If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum,” the film’s hapless protagonist quips, “he’d be the man for it.”

David Manners and Julie Bishop, ostensibly starring in the film’s main roles, play naïve romantics who, rather than resolve narrative conflict, merely try to survive it; the real drama revolves around the studio’s dueling stars. Lugosi’s own performance as the spiritually wounded Werdegast benefitted from lastminute reshoots that emphasized his protective relationship with the American couple. Less a villain than a tragic hero, Werdegast delivers a portentious speech that continually connects the story’s horrors to World War I—another personal note from the film’s auteur, whose own father fought and perished in the trenches.

—Doug Cummings

Universal Pictures. Producer: Carl Laemmle. Based on the short story by Edgar Allen Poe. Screenwriter: Peter Ruric. Cinematographer: John J. Mescall. Editor: Ray Curtiss. Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Egon Brecher.

35mm, b/w, 70 min.