When discussing Tod Browning’s Dracula these days, it seems almost a cliché in many circles, often lumped in—as it often is in the popular consciousness—with the later Universal monster movies that tend to ratchet up the cheese factor. However, returning to the original source proves illuminating, from the arresting portrayal of the titular character by Bela Lugosi to the especially creepy introduction and conclusion to the film.
It’s that introduction in Dracula’s castle and the conclusion in his English lair that are so striking in the film, particularly due to Browning’s use of space. In the early scenes that take place at Dracula’s castle, as Renfield makes his visit, everything in the castle is grand, dominating the singular and diminutive real estate agent. The arches stretch up high toward the towering ceiling; the massive staircase curves up and out of sight; spider webs cover walkways taller and wider than a grown man; the fireplace in Dracula’s dining room is from the same family as the massive hearth Welles employed near the end of Citizen Kane ten years later; and even the table where Renfield sits, including the dishes and silverware, seems too large for him.
All of this communicates a sense of dread and powerlessness, not only because of the imposing grandeur of the place, but also because of its isolated location, two qualities it shares in common with Dracula’s English manor. Old and overgrown, the manor is difficult to access, at one point even looking like it is partially underground, or at least built into a hillside; the door that Van Helsing and Harker eventually enter through is difficult to breach; once inside the lair, and impressive staircase hugs the cylindrical wall; and as they pursue Dracula into the cellar, they discover what appears to be a catacomb-like series of rooms, a never-ending series of chambers that stretch out for what seems like forever into the blackness beyond.
These scenes, early and late, contrast significantly with the middle section of the film, most of which takes place on Dracula’s boat or in Dr. Seward’s house/mental hospital. Each of these locations seems small and confined by comparison to the other locations, and as such, much of the mystery in the film drains away in favor of clearer explanations, more plot information, and an ultimate understanding of vampires that comforts rather than terrifies. However, this works well in the scheme of Browning’s film. When we eventually arrive at Dracula’s English lair near the end of the film, Browning continues what he had begun early in the film—cloaking his villain in a mysterious space, one where he sits larger than life, where everything is dark and treacherous and unpredictable. The effect of the space in these final scenes therefore leaves a much more terrifying impression.
So when Van Helsing finishes off the vampire at the film’s end, it’s hardly surprising that it occurs off screen. What better choice could Browning make? What some have criticized as a limp ending actually seems a brilliant choice. Rather than show his villain limited and defeated in this place of mystery and darkness—traditionally a place of strength for the vampire—he prevents the viewer from having the full catharsis of seeing the vampire killed. This in turn leaves everything somewhat unsettled, which is appropriate for such a dark and unpredictable setting. Through his use of space, Browning is able to end the film with more of a question than a full resolution.
The unique use of space in Browning’s film creates an equally unique structure to the film, where the real catharsis and victory comes with the action still in Dr. Seward’s house. For it is there that Van Helsing is portrayed as master of all things vampire; there where the doctor has a tight hold on his patient and daughter, Mina; and there where Dracula seems least able to affect his victim. The brilliance of the film then comes that it uses its final act to attain some narrative resolution, while at the same time remaining unwilling to resolve all the mystery and tension that surround a compelling creation such as Dracula.