So, this is the one. When someone asks if you’ve seen Dracula, they’re more than likely referring to Universal’s Dracula (1931), the film that launched a memorable era of movie monsters and defined vampires to this day. Universal had been making horror films–like The Man Who Laughs and The Hunchback of Notre Dame–for years before they turned to Stoker’s novel. But Dracula launched Universal horror into the stratosphere and made its central figure the first of a team that would come to be known as the Universal Monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Varsity horror!Classic films don’t always hold up to modern scrutiny. But, even now, it’s clear why Dracula captivated audiences and launched a cinematic dynasty. Director Tod Browning and writer Hamilton Deane switched from adapting the book to the contemporary stage play when their budget went south, but made few changes to the source material. Renfield replaces Jonathan Harker as the Count’s visitor to Transylvania. Mina is repositioned as Dr. Seward’s daughter. The Count never makes it out of Carfax Abbey in the final act, simply staked by Van Helsing while still in his coffin. Otherwise, the story remains familiar.
I mentioned the liminality of the Hammer films but was surprised to find similar ambiguities in this version. London clearly lives in the ’30s–with the post-flapper fashions and fancy motorcars–even though it doesn’t particulary feel like London. Dracula’s Transylvania, by contrast, seems stuck in the novel’s Belle Époque, all peasants and horse-drawn carriages. An amusing assortment of vermin overrun Dracula’s castle, including a possum (!), two armadillos (!!) and odd bugs crawling out of miniature coffins. (One assumes a vampire has no reason to fear rabies or leprosy.) The ambiguous setting creates a timeless feel that preserves the atmosphere to this day. Cinematographer Karl Freund no doubt deserves a lion’s share of credit for importing German Expressionist sensibilities to Hollywood. I love the use of Swan Lake as the opening theme, not an obvious choice but still somehow unsettling. This hodgepodge of influences keeps the film from feeling dated, unlike many versions to follow.And then there’s the acting. For ill or good, Bela Lugosi‘s Dracula is the Count that springs to mind when you hear the name. His appearance and performance encode all the traits associated with Dracula and vampires in general: the widow’s peak, the tux and cape, the jazz hands, the overwrought Slavic accent. Although parodied without mercy for almost a century, this Dracula holds fast as the One True Count, embodying the character more than the novel itself. Edward Van Sloan provides a memorable Van Helsing in chunky spectacles, but Dwight Frye steals the show in the film’s other iconic performance as the fly-eating Renfield. Charles K. Gerrard and Joan Standing are entertaining in walk-on bits as the maid and the asylum orderly. Helen Chandler, David Manners and Frances Dade are adequate but forgettable as Mina, Jonathan and Lucy. The trio, Americans all, don’t even attempt British accents, which adds to the un-London factor. (Based on later attempts, perhaps that was wise.)
Atmospheric more than terrifying today, this remains a classic. The webbed columns of Carfax Abbey and the infested ruins of Castle Dracula inspired untold horror movies to come. Later adventures of the Universal Monsters descend into parody; once Abbot and Costello show up, you know the horror’s over. Still, the legacy of this film is hard to overestimate. I doubt a majority of the later DraculaFest flicks would even exist without this, the Dracula Handbook.
Dracula earns 2 out of 2 fangs out. Another classic!
Next time: En Español!