There are many iterations and adaptations and uses of the character Dracula. I don’t know if there is one as famous and iconic as Universal’s 1931 original starring Bela Lugosi. This was a project that was in development for a few years near the end of the 1920s silent. With the big success of “Nosferatu” in 1922 (which was more or less based off of Bram Stoker’s novel) and the stage play (which also starred Bela Lugosi), Universal was very keen on bringing this story to the silver screen. Originally Universal’s owner Carl Lemme and director Tod Browning wanted established horror star Lon Chaney of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame” fame. Tragically though Chaney passed away in 1930, only making one talkie picture. That left Universal without a star and turned to the actor that at first they passed on, Bela Lugosi. This would single Universal’s big start with their horror monsters that would only continue with “Frankenstein”. “Dracula” may not still able to boast the same scares as it did when it once did, but it’s atmospheric tone, memorable performances and excellent cinematography makes this still one of the era’s best monster movies.
After a real estate agent travels to Transylvanian, he becomes a victim of Count Dracula. Forced to serve him, the two men travel to England where Dracula becomes quick to feast on the fresh new blood. He begins to target a women named Mina, but in his way is Professor Van Helsing.
Giving this film its unique look and tone is from the combine efforts of veteran director Tod Browning and also cinematographer Karl Freund. The picture is dark, gloomy and beautiful at the same time. The misty streets of London look equally grim, almost as if it was ripped out of your nightmares of Jack the Ripper. The atmospherics is a large reason why the movie was creepy and adding it the lack of music in the production (as most audiences were a tune at that time to always having music with their movies because of the silent pictures) gave “Dracula” an added eeriness. Perhaps a bit more music would have benefited this movie but at the time of its release it was effective at building up tension for that reason.
One of the most iconic moments is the introduction of Dracula himself. Renfield enters this grand castle that almost looks like it’s been abandon with large amounts of spider webs and grand stone walls. Renfield glances over to immense stair case and see a cloaked figure, carrying a lighted candle, walking gracefully down the steps when then he speaks those iconic words, “I am Dracula”. Serving as audiences first exposure to Bela Lugosi as the vampire himself. Lugosi is sometimes gleefully over the top but at the same time can be carefully reserved. With Lugosi’s elegant way of speaking, it made Dracula immortal and both personified evil but also style.
This is a film of an terrific ensemble cast, which is overshadowed by Lugosi’s immortal performance, but there are two other performers that deserve just as much praise. The first is Dwight Frye’s nearly show stealing performance as Renfield. Starting off as the naive real estate agent, Frye is quiet and reserved, hungry for success. But after succumbing to Dracula’s influence, Renfield becomes mad and crazy and Frye represents those attributes to a tee. Frye commands the screen even when standing next to Lugosi himself.
The third performer is Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing. Sloan would be consider the leading protagonist (if you can consider Dracula the antagonist), the hero, the man who will stand against Dracula. as even Dracula points out himself, “Your will is strong”. Sloan graces the screen and convinces us without a doubt that this is one of the smartest men around. He is confident as he is brave, Sloan finishes off “Dracula’s” almost three actor attack.
The story is simplistic and well told, In 75 minutes the movie never drags or falters. If there had to be some critiques to this, it would the movie sort of just ends. After Helsing kills Dracula the movie just fades to credits. There is no sort of conclusion or wrap up, just ends, leaving the viewing aching for more. Also the female actors aren’t as strong as the rest and David Manners can’t compare to Lugosi, Sloan and Fye as well.
Throughout the many years and different Dracula pictures, this has stood the test of time. The special effects have aged and its abrupt ending does show, but what hasn’t is the well told story, terrific performances and atmospheric tone hadn’t. This is a benchmark from which all proceeding “Dracula” pictures will be compared to and strive for.