(1931) Horror (Universal) Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Joan Standing, Charles Gerrard, Moon Carroll, Josephine Velez, Michael Visaroff, Cornelia Thaw, Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, Barbara Bozoky, Anna Bakacs, Tod Browning (voice), John George, Wyndham Standing, Bunny Beatty. Directed by Tod Browning
As the silent era drew to a close and talkies became the “in” thing, Dracula – based on a stage play and not directly on Bram Stoker’s novel, although the play certainly used it as a starting point – became for Universal, the beginning of the studio’s long tenure as the monster studio. Together with Frankenstein which appeared later the same year, it became part of the one-two punch that would land legendary movie monsters like the Mummy, the Invisible Man and the Wolf Man at the studio and terrify generations of moviegoers and kids watching creature feature TV shows.
Real estate agent Renfield (Frye) goes to Transylvania to meet up with a client to close a leasing of property in London. The superstitious villagers warn him not to go to the Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains, but he fails to heed their warnings and takes an unusual coach trip – a coach with no driver. Once at the castle, he meets Count Dracula (Lugosi) who turns out to be a man with a supernaturally intense gaze and a dislike of wine, which he never drinks. But the Count turns out to be more than a man – he is a vampire, the undead, as Renfield discovers too late – being driven mad and becoming the Count’s servant.
When the ship Renfield booked passage on returns to London, the horrible discovery is that the crew is all dead, there are a number of coffins aboard and only one survivor – Renfield, who is locked away in the asylum of Dr. Seward (Bunston). Seward’s daughter Mina (Chandler) is engaged to the handsome John Harker (Manners) and is close friends with Lucy Weston (Dade), a neighbor of the property the Count has leased. But the Count recognizes Lucy as a potential meal, and transforms her into a fellow vampire.
Fortunately, professional vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Van Sloan) arrives, in hot pursuit of the Count. He knows Dracula for what he is, and knows how to kill him. But can he and Harker possibly defeat a nearly immortal creature that has 500 years of experience in defeating foolish mortals like themselves?
This is a movie that is a classic in every sense of the word. The brooding, gothic sets; the wonderfully atmospheric cinematographer of Karl Freund, a German cinematographer who worked with F.W. Murnau on Metropolis and The Last Laugh and whom some credit with co-directing the movie, so important were his contributions. Browning chose to release the film without a score; music has since been added, but if you’ve ever seen a version without music, you’ve seen it as the director intended.
But what makes the movie is Lugosi. A Hungarian émigré, his English is heavily accented which would dog Lugosi throughout his career; however, the Eastern European lilt is perfect for the role as are Lugosi’s expressive eyes. Lugosi came from a theatrical background and often uses grand gestures in his performance here, a product of that background. That kind of thing was less noticeable back in the early sound era, when many stage actors were recruited for the talkies as silent actors often had voices that didn’t reproduce well (as with John Gilbert) or who gave stiff readings of their dialogue. The intensity of Lugosi’s performance here, though, is unquestioned and for nearly a century since the movie was released, is the performance most associated with the role, Christopher Lee and Frank Langella notwithstanding.
There are strong elements of melodrama in the screenplay, and Browning’s direction is often stiff and stagey, and for those reasons there are some who feel that the movie doesn’t hold up weel, but I disagree. Freund’s tracking shot as Renfield enters the castle is a breathtaking introduction to the Count, and the terrifying coach ride through the Carpathians is creepy even today. Not only is this a true Halloween classic and perhaps the ultimate Universal monster movie (credited with keeping the studio afloat through near-bankruptcy during the Depression), it is one of the most perfect adaptations of the Dracula legend ever. For all lovers of scary cinema, this is truly a must-see.
REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully atmospheric. A legendary performance by Lugosi. Classic in every sense of the word. Still spooky even by modern standards. Certain scenes still give me the heebie-jeebies.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might feel a bit quaint and dated for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is implied violence and sexuality, and some mild terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie began life as a Broadway play; Lugosi had originated the title role on the Great White Way and along with Van Sloan and Bunston, are the only actors to transition from the stage version to the screen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Peacock, Redbox, Spectrum, TCM, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; ;Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nosferatu
FINAL RATING: 10/10