"The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield."

This line is delivered by Count Dracula after welcoming the visiting solicitor, Renfield, into his mountaintop castle. He watches the Count pass through a large cobweb without breaking it, and Renfield balks when he spots a massive spider climbing the wall, looking for a dark place to hide. He's come to negotiate the Count's rental of Carfax Abbey in England, despite being warned away by every local he's come into contact with in Dracula's native Transylvania.

Wait a second. Renfield? Isn't this supposed to be Jonathan Harker's role in the Dracula story? It's a significant change to the original 1897 Dracula by Bram Stoker, and I think it's one of two changes that truly benefit the film -- the other being the attractiveness of Bela Lugosi as Dracula himself, as opposed to the long-haired, pointy-eared, mustached creep outlined in Stoker's novel.
If Lon Chaney had been able to play Dracula, as intended, we may have gotten more of a monster than a man. Chaney's terminal cancer kept him from playing the role, and may have affected director Tod Browning's enthusiasm for the project. Actor David Manners, who plays Harker in the film, told historian David Skal that cinematographer Karl Freund did most of the heavy lifting behind the camera. It's completely possible that if Browning was more involved and Chaney was able to take in the role without illness, that the vampire genre as we know it might have been completely different.

As it is, our first talking screen vampire is downright sexy. Lugosi turns on a bizarre, sour-faced leer when he has the bloodlust, and an equally effective wide-eyed stare (which Freund points out with selective lighting), but watch him at the opera house in one of his earliest scenes in England. Lugosi is gracious, gracefully polite as the Count, with an air of the exotic, brought on by his thick Hungarian accent. He's strange, but not weird -- sinister, yet inviting. It's a case of lightning-in-a-bottle casting and there's no way of telling if anyone else as Dracula would've become the model for every single Dracula that followed. I would imagine not, as no one would've been able to replicate the dangerous, foreign allure that Lugosi specifically brings to this role.

As for Renfield replacing Harker in the film's opening, simply consider the difference in range between the actors Dwight Frye and David Manners. Frye, an adept character actor with a Broadway background, is able to sell some of the darkly humorous scenes in Borgo Pass at the start of the film, without slipping into farce. During the sea voyage to England, Renfield goes insane, presumably at the sight of Dracula murdering the crew of the ship. Placing Harker in this role changes the story significantly, due to his connection with Mina, who Dracula pursues in England. By putting Renfield in the opening you get to establish the danger of Dracula right away, and then moving the monster to a place where no one suspects him of anything creates a level of suspense unmatched in 1931.

And what of the scene where Dracula stops his vampire brides from feeding on Renfield? Dracula's blood-drinking method is decidedly intimate, his mouth placed against the nape of the victim's neck. The homoeroticism of one man feeding on another in such an up-close and personal way may affect the film in a couple of unexpected ways. For one, it means Dracula feeds on men -- even strong, virile men like Renfield. Women have always been portrayed as the victims in film, even more so in the early days of the medium, but if Renfield can be attacked, then every man is fair game to Dracula's evil. Men have as much reason to fear him as women do. One has to wonder how much of Dracula's success is due to his equal-opportunity blood-sucking.

Does Dracula's bisexual approach to selecting victims make him more attractive to female viewers, even subconsciously? It's an interesting question, and I may not have the answer. Consider this -- if Dracula selected women exclusively as his victims, would he be viewed as a creepy sexual predator instead of a debonair (albeit evil) man of the world? Is Dracula the ultimate bad boy?

categories Horror