In an earlier post, I criticized the highly regarded Vampyr (1932) because it had failed to utilize sound effectively. I characterized Dracula (1931) as a partial success in this regard and had praised Frankenstein (1931) for demonstrating for the first time just how powerful effective use of sound could be in a horror film.
I recently viewed Dracula with the modern Philip Glass score; I found it annoying and distracting. At times it actually overwhelmed the few scenes where director Tod Browning had effectively used sound effects. It was especially apparent in the initial appearance of Dracula and his brides rising from their coffins in the cellar of his castle.
After that scene and the next, where Renfield arrives at the castle and meets the count, Browning abandons sound as a tool. Once Dracula arrives in London, Browning leans far too heavily on the original stage play, and the remainder of the movie is driven mostly by dialog. As a result, the movie loses steam and drags to the tame end, where Dracula is dispatched offscreen with groan.
But there was one other sound effect that was sucessful in Dracula: Lugosi’s voice. For me, the high point of the movie comes early on, when Lugosi, after welcoming Renfield, stops half way up the cobwebbed, crumbling stairs of his castle as a wolf howls outside. He smiles sardonically and says:
“Listen to them. Children of the Night. What music they make!”
How many movies have become instant classics based on the delivery of a memorable line? I think this was the moment when Dracula became not only a hit but a cultural touchstone.
Lugosi’s performance saved Dracula. Without it, all the faults of the movie would have been magnified and the end result would have mostly tedious. And try picturing Dracula a silent film, even with Lugosi. It could have happened, if Universal had only chosen to produce it a few years earlier. It may have retained some of the power of his performance, but it would have been lacking that one magical ingredient that even people who have never seen the film can imitate. That familiar Hungarian growl…