Life Lessons with Tod Browning's DRACULA

Over the coming months I’ll be repopulating this site with film reviews I’ve written over the years. Back when I had a horror movie review site I kept a column titled “Brraaaiiiinnnnnssssss”, in which I’d write short essays and/or make lists inspired by horror films. Here’s one I wrote on 13 January, 2013, in response to Tod Browning’s Dracula.

For this month’s instalment of Brraaaiiiinnnnnssssss I decided to write an essay on Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), but after trying to find something intelligent to write about it (that hadn’t already been written about, that is), I came up short. Or more specifically, I couldn’t stop thinking about the life lessons I learned from the film. So, instead of writing an essay this month, I’m sharing “10 Life Lessons I Learned from Dracula”.

Lesson 1: Never assume

Not only does it make an “ass” out of “u” and “me,” assuming can also cause a lot of unneeded stress. If someone says something that confuses or hurts you, don’t assume that they’ve done this on purpose; ask them for clarification. As this clip suggests, you may have to ask a few times. Pay attention to the part from 0:30 to 1:50 in particular to see this lesson illustrated in the film – though you might as well watch the entire clip since Lesson 2 addresses what happens after 1:50.

Lesson 2: Don’t ignore the ignoramus (They’re often smarter than you think)

It’s natural and sometimes even necessary to ignore stupid people, but it’s also dangerous if this becomes second nature. This lesson also ties back into the first one, in that we mustn’t assume that just because someone seems stupid, they have nothing to offer the world. Even stupid people have good ideas sometimes, and I like to think that even the dullest stars in the sky are able to shine in some special way.

The case at hand: before visiting Castle Dracula, Renfield arrives in a small village where a man strongly advises him against carrying on to the castle – at least not during the night. Renfield, a modern man who does not believe in such things as vampires or ghosts, laughs off the warnings and carries on along the eerie, winding, mountain roads to the count’s abode, only to become Dracula’s henchman.

I mean, if Renfield hadn’t written off that man’s advice as “just superstition,” he wouldn’t be stuck over at Dr. Seward’s fighting Martin the male nurse for a juicy spider and complaining about the lack of satisfaction one gets from eating flies.

Lesson 3: Don’t let good looks, money and/or charm blind you

Implicit in Lesson 2 is the idea that appearances can be deceiving; that lesson continues in this one. Despite his good looks, money and charm, Dracula is kind of a jerk. Not only does he kill innocent men and women, and covet another man’s wife, but on a more general level, Dracula just likes to fuck with people, as you’ll see in the following clip. Start at around 1:00, and look at his eyes at 1:24. He’s totally enjoying Renfield’s struggle.

Lesson 4: Enjoy the small things

If you watch Lesson 3’s entire clip you’ll see the evidence for this lesson: after a harrowing wolf howl breaks the fuzzy silence of Castle Dracula as the count leads Renfield upstairs to his room, Dracula smiles and says, “Children of the night – what music they make!” It’s easy to become annoyed with the birds who wake you up every morning with their cheery chirping or, for instance, that talented neighbour who can’t stop practising his musical instruments at odd hours of the day (or night), but you have the option to change the way you receive these things and try to enjoy them instead of letting them annoy you.

On a level that’s more specific to Dracula, this can also include appreciating the creepy things. Foggy day? Go for a walk! Power outage? Light some candles, get a flashlight and tell some ghost stories. In short, find the beauty and/or fun in life. It’s usually there even in the ugliest moments.

Lesson 5: Avoid mirrors

I think we’ve all seen enough horror movies to have developed at least a small fear of mirrors. Even if it’s just your own reflection that you see when you look in the mirror, there are ample opportunities for scares: it might just be that you have some food in your teeth or an unsightly “bat in the cave”, but what if it’s worse? What if you look in the mirror and you don’t see you at all? Of course, this is a problem experienced by vampires around the world (which always makes me wonder how they often manage to maintain such impeccable appearances).

In the following clip Dracula goes from being calm to animalistic in a matter of microseconds upon being confronted with a mirror. (See 2:19 to 2:42 in particular for the relevant part of the clip.)

Okay, I know I went a little overboard with my writeup for this lesson. I’m not saying don’t ever look in the mirror; I’m just warning you not to put too much stake (eh?) into what you see. Seriously though, when you don’t like what you see in the mirror, don’t freak out. Find out why you don’t like it, and work on your reaction. Chances are what you’re seeing isn’t as bad as you think it is. 

Lesson 6: Speak slowly

If you watched the entire clip for Lesson 5 you may have noticed how slowly both Van Helsing and Dracula speak. Sure, it could be due to their accents, but it also seems that their lengthy elocution is related to their importance. Don’t their words sound more important and intimidating than those of the other characters?

As an example, check out the bit from 1:20 to 1:25 in Lesson 5’s clip: when Mina’s father tells her to go to bed, she ignores him, but when Dracula reiterates her father’s command, Mina says “very well” and quickly heads to bed. I know, I know … it’s Dracula, after all, but I think there’s still something to be said about the way in which he gives the command (beyond his powers of persuasion).

Lesson 7: Perfect the poke

If you’re like me – and millions of other kids who grew up watching Star Wars – you’ve probably tried to use The Force (as exemplified in the following clip starting at 3:20) to bend people to your will.

Before there was Obi-Wan, there was Dracula.

Whether it’s the casual sway of Ben Kenobi or the crooked claw of the count, practise your hand gestures to make yourself more convincing when you speak. This could be useful in public speaking or even in less formal situations, though I would advise against doing it while on a date – or while playing with a cat, for that matter (you will get clawed).

Perfect the poke.

Perfect the poke.

Lesson 8: Solidify your stare

From the very beginning of the film we are forced to recognize the importance of eyes. Almost immediately after Dracula emerges from his coffin, his eyes are lit up (literally, with what appears to be two flashlights) and staring into the very depths of our souls. His success with the ladies suggests that Dracula owes much of his charm to his glorious gaze.

The glorious gaze.

The glorious gaze.

Mina gives the gaze a try.

Mina gives the gaze a try.

Too far, Renfield.

Too far, Renfield.

When perfecting your own gaze you must be careful not to go too far. The goal is to look slightly animalistic, as if you are a cat concentrating on its prey. Your mouth is closed, you are calm, collected and extremely focused, and ready to pounce at any moment. Regard how Mina adopts Dracula’s stare once his blood runs through her and she begins to crave the blood of her beloved Jonathan.

The key is to balance your humanity with your animalistic impulses so that people still want to approach you. You want them to think that you hunger for them sexually, not literally. What you don’t want to do is look like Renfield, pictured above right.

Unlike Dracula and Mina, Renfield is simply too insane to hold that aforementioned balance in check. He is more animal than human, his gaze devolving into a deranged leer that immediately warns those around him not to get too close.

Like a panicked possum, Renfield stands wide-eyed and slightly hunched, with his mouth slightly open as if he is prepared to bite anyone who comes too close. I’d advise you to practise in the mirror but then I’d be contradicting Lesson 5. Maybe an exception could be that you can look in the mirror once per day in order to perfect your stare?

Lesson 9: Everyone is crazy

This one kind of contradicts Lesson 2 (don’t ignore the ignoramus), but it’s applicable to everyone. After Van Helsing advises him not to waste bullets on a large bat haunting the hospital grounds, Martin, arguably the coolest character next to Dracula himself, decides that everyone except for him and (maybe) his coworker are crazy (0:20 to 0:39 is the relevant part in the following clip).

I’m not sure how much I need to elaborate on this one. Chances are you’re crazy too, but at least your own brand of crazy is familiar. Take comfort in that; if you can’t, at least try to take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone (because everyone is crazy, not just you).

Lesson 10: Think outside the box (Literally)

Avoid becoming trapped in undesirable situations. Foresight is key here. I don’t know what on earth Dracula was thinking when he strolled up to Van Helsing and told him that Mina would be his; my guess is he wasn’t. When Dracula, quite predictably, kidnaps Mina, Van Helsing knows exactly where to go. This is because Dracula has told everyone where he lives, not to mention they actually see him walk into the area in his home where he keeps his coffin. (For someone who has lived so many lifetimes, you’d think Dracula would be more aware of the limited security afforded by regular door locks.)

Think outside the box.

Think outside the box.

All Van Helsing has to do is wait for Dracula’s bedtime, go to his home, open his coffin and drive a stake through his heart, and it’s game over. This is exactly what happens at the end of the film; it could have been avoided had Dracula formulated a Plan B. Yes, the vampire needs to sleep in his home earth, but why not store a little extra in the backyard or at another location, just in case a bunch of angry townsfolk find out what you’ve been up to and decide to take revenge?

Every time I see the ending of this film I want to slap Dracula upside the head and scold him for not being a better planner. But then again, the character of Dracula, throughout his many incarnations, has always been a little self-destructive, so maybe I shouldn’t take his lack of planning as stupidity – and that brings us right back around to lessons 1 and 2.

Special Extra Non-film but Film-related Lesson: Get a Snazzy Name!

This is an extra piece of advice based on the director of the film, not the film itself, so I haven’t included it in the 10 lessons.

What’s in a name? Well a hell of a lot, actually.

If you’re going to be a cool horror movie director, get a cool name. Tod Browning, who was born as Charles Albert Browning in 1880, changed his first name based on the German word for “death.” Okay, the name change was probably due to a more general fascination with the macabre than specifically to his directorial dreams. I expect it might also have been related to his live burial act at carnivals, which according to Wikipedia earned him the name “The Living Corpse.” All the same, it seems to have served him well, and in any case it’s a cool story.

Director Tod “The Living Corpse” Browning

Director Tod “The Living Corpse” Browning