Director: Tod Browning, Karl Freund
Studios: Universal Pictures
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan
Tagline: The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!
MPAA Rating: Unrated/ Approved/ PG
Genre: horror, terror, thriller, monster, vampire, classic, Universal Horror, black and white
Scare score: D-
Plot overview: After purchasing property in London, the bizarre yet charming vampire Count Dracula (Lugosi) begins to target the young and beautiful socialite Mina (Chandler).
We're starting off June with an all time classic, one of the true forefathers of the horror genre: Dracula. For it is this film, along with its 1931 companion Frankenstein, that truly founded American cinema's love for monster movies. Although quite similar in plot and filming to its predecessor, the technically illegal Nosferatu, it is this 1931 film version of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel that has truly defined the character of Count Dracula to modern audiences, with Legosi's portrayal the crowning jewel of vampire depictions to date.
If you've read the Horror Blog before, you'll know my feelings for Universal Horror movies: unabashed love and admiration. If I could go back in time, I would love to witness these early days of Hollywood's golden era. But alas, here I am 90 years later, and the best I can do is blog about it. With that out on the table, you'll also know that Horror Buff is well aware that Universal Horror, while bringing us important and wonderful plots, costumes, and characters, is no longer reputable for the actual scare factors, which, compared to our contemporary horror movies, could be described as inexistent. That being said, if you're looking for scary movies that will make you jump in your seat, Dracula, like its friends The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Mummy, among others, are not the movies to turn to.
If you are familiar with Bram Stoker's novel, or with other film versions of Dracula, you will perhaps recognize a rehash of characters and plots taken from the original work and rearranged into movie format. Take, for example, the character of Renfield (portrayed by Dwight Frye, a recurring actor in Universal Horror), who has in this film version replaced the role of John Harker as Dracula's solicitor. In fact, Mr. Frye plays an extremely similar role in this movie as he does in Frankenstein as Fritz, Henry Frankenstein's assistant, a crazed, dedicated servant. Then the actual character of John Harker (Manners) takes on more of a pretty boy role, not unlike Manners' role in The Mummy.
While Frye's acting in this movie calls for over-the-top eccentricity, he often makes himself creepier than even the title character. Our leading lady Helen Chandler was not a favorite of mine, often delivering lines with an ingenue's melodrama yet with a lack of true feeling. She becomes, however, more interesting towards the end of the film as she suffers from the undead infirmity that the Count curses her with. Drawing heavily from the silent film era, there are some magnificent shots with her eyes and facial expressions. Universal Horror veteran Edward Van Sloan is present yet again in the typical role of an elderly and knowledgable doctor or supernatural professional (Frankenstein, The Mummy), here depicting monster's bane Van Helsing.
For good reason, the star of the film is Bela Lugosi himself as Count Dracula. Due to his native roots in Transylvania, Mr. Lugosi brings the dramatic flare of a foreign and irregular accent into the character, often permitting his dialogue alone to make us uncomfortable. I specifically enjoy that he is not disguised nor caked in makeup; his look in the film is quite natural and quite his own. Not a bad looking guy, Lugosi's Dracula perfectly fits the head honcho of all vampires reputation as devilishly charming, using his regal and exotic flare (and demonic mind control capabilities) to charm women before snacking on them. Like many other horror fans out there, I agree that Lugosi is untouchable in this early portrayal of Dracula, having left an iconic and cultural mark that has not been and cannot be easily surpassed.
I was surprised by the cinematography of this movie, finding some shots to seem pretty modern and much more thought-out compared to contemporary Universal Horror films. One of my favorite scenes was when the newly-escaped Renfield is on all fours, crawling towards the recently-fainted maid (Moon Carroll? Unsure of the credits). As he approaches her, moving like a wild beast closing in on its prey, the camera simultaneously pans down, making the audience feel like it is their own impending doom as well as the maid's. Also, I surprisingly did not dislike the countless shots that focused on Dracula's hypnotic eyes - scenes much akin to the popular shots of a transformed Lon Chaney, Jr. running around the woods in The Wolf Man. They are still spooky in their own way.
My main problems with this movie would simply be that it, like many others, is too old to be truly scary today. The movie is enjoyable, but it took me three nights to get through because I kept falling asleep. I realize that's my own fault as well, but it simply wasn't captivating to a sleepy Horror Buff. Furthermore, the poor, poor editing of this movie prevents it from reaching its full potential. There are countless cut shots, jumps in the plot line, and odd sequences that we realize we can attribute to poor editing and poor censorship, leaving almost a careless feel about the whole product. Really a shame, and even frustrating at times. (Examples: Renfield suddenly appearing a crazed slave to Dracula, leaving us unsure if its even the same character and if not where this new guy came from; Renfield somehow knowing who Mina is, and no one seeming to care when he says creepy things about her, etc).
Fun facts: May 26th was the 117th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker's Gothic novel. This movie adaption was released in the US on Valentine's Day in 1931! Talk about romantic.
Final critique: This is a good movie. It is not a scary movie, but it is a good movie that really brings us back to the horror and monster movies of yore. Given Dracula's lasting impact on the entire horror industry, it's only right that we watch and revere this movie, especially its titular star Bela Lugosi. A sort of classic around Halloween time, I would recommend this movie to horror newbies and horror veterans alike, as well as to those who frighten easily because this movie will not be too much for you to see. While boring and very old feeling at times, this is an interesting and entertaining movie that maintains its mark in the horror genre.