Why Dracula & Frankenstein’s Monster Aren’t Scary

One of my biggest pet peeves is the ongoing misuse of the word “classic”.  We can agree that opinion and taste are extraordinarily subjective.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the saying goes.  But to describe older forms of entertainment as “classic” simply because they’re not modern works is lazy, dishonest and annoying.  In order for anything to be considered a classic it has to be truly great, something that stands the test of time.  No exceptions.
The original Dracula and Frankenstein movies don’t even come close to meeting this important standard.  And yet, there are those who stubbornly and insistently hail them as classic examples of old school horror.  (Do some Google searches and you’ll see what I mean.)  While there’s no question regarding their technical influences on future filmmakers, there is considerable doubt they were ever truly terrifying to audiences who first saw them in theatres, let alone the DVD audiences of today.  The idea that watching these films increased your risk of fainting or throwing up is laughable, to say the least.  They won’t even increase your heart rate.
All I kept thinking about while screening Dracula, the first authorized albeit condensed cinematic version of Bram Stoker’s novel, was how slow everybody talked, including the title character.  Bela Lugosi, who famously played the caped vampire in that 1931 film, was too in love with the idea of taking dramatic pauses, a technique John Wayne also used throughout his long career.  When the real estate agent, Renfield, asks him in an early scene if he wants to sample what Dracula generously offered him, The Transylvanian Count replies, “I never drink…wine.”  Even with that thick Hungarian accent of his, he can’t sell the line properly.
And then, there are the close-ups.  Dracula has the ability to control minds by simply staring into your eyes.  Whenever this happens, the camera goes tight on his face and his eyes are highlighted.  This is done far too often to ever generate any unsettling feelings, with one exception.  That would be the first time we meet the old vampire who initially pretends to be Renfield’s chauffeur as he makes his way to the fantastically decrepit castle.  It’s the only time he ever successfully creeps you out because you don’t expect his presence in that scene. 
As the movie progresses, the more you see him the more you get used to him and inevitably, you’re not at all frightened.  It also doesn’t help that in one scene when he’s about to take a bite out of a nubile victim, he squints while in the middle of an uncomfortable facial expression.  Too many takes in front of too bright a light, perhaps?  Or was it something more serious, I wonder?
And what about those silly hand movements?  It’s like he’s channelling Killer Kowalski or something.  He doesn’t look like he wants to control your very being, he looks like he wants to put the claw on you.  And really, that’s more irritating than anything else.
In The Spanish Version, also released in 1931, Carlos Villarios takes over the role and never have I laughed so much at a would-be villainous performance.  Bulging your eyes in scene after scene arouses ridicule, never terror.  He makes Lugosi look like Michael Myers by comparison.
Despite his towering size, Frankenstein’s Monster is just as unscary.  Lame groaning along with Tarzan-speak and awkward walking aren’t ingredients for a recipe of terror.  The famously overrated make-up doesn’t help matters, either.  It’s too cool looking.  And again, we see him too much.  Maybe if his identity was kept secret until the very last shot of the first film or, even better, we never see him at all.  Wouldn’t that have achieved the desired result or would it have just delayed inevitable disappointment?
Also, why are the fight scenes in Frankenstein and the equally overpraised Bride Of Frankenstein so awkwardly and clumsily executed?  There’s no intensity, no sense of menace or suspense.  It’s like pro wrestling without the conviction.  Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to have the monster throw that dummy from the top of the windmill.  Lessens the impact of the terror, methinks.  And when you replace Boris Karloff, who played the monster in the first three movies of this franchise (Son Of Frankenstein was the other), with Lon Chaney Jr., a second-generation character actor who can best be described as an ugly Clark Gable with very noticeable facial characteristics, and have him say absolutely nothing or even grunt and growl in the fourth film, The Ghost Of Frankenstein, don’t expect anybody to accept the change.  And when you re-cast the role again and again for more sequels in the hopes that no one will notice the difference and audiences will still be frightened, even the most naive and foolish will think you mad.
In the end, these movies suffered badly from overhyped ad campaigns which promised eager Depression-era audiences nothing but genuine terror.  When you oversell what you can’t deliver to moviegoers, who had more fears in their troubled, day-to-day lives than was ever represented in old-fashioned horror films, is it any wonder why these pictures have aged so badly?
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, August 27, 2007
11:37 p.m. 
Published in: on August 27, 2007 at 11:38 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. you’re bang on about that classic stuff. not very scary. maybe when it first came out, but back then the technology was new. i can appreciate it, but it doesn’t scare me. i feel the same about hitchcock too. i never found any of the movies frightening, but if i lived in the time they were released, i’m sure his new form of storytellng would have been infinitely more chilling than what was available at the time.

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