Released: February 1931
Director: Tod Browning
Run Time: 85 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Bela Lugosi: Count Dracula
Helen Chandler: Mina
David Manners: Johnathan Harker
Dwight Frye: Renfield
Edward Van Sloan: Van Helsing
Herbert Bunston: Dr. Seward
Frances Dade: Lucy
When I talk about people being inspired to be film-makers by films like Star Wars, you have to consider that the people who made movies like that were inspired by films and serials that date back all the way to the early 1930s, or even earlier. When it comes to the genre of horror, a lot of folks who make movies in that particular genre will often talk about the early monster movies of the 30s and 40s as their muse and inspiration. It’s not hard to see why. The horror films of the early 20th century are some of the most iconic and memorable movies in cinema history. With Halloween coming up in a little over a month, I thought it would be a really good time to start talking about scary movies. For that, I would like to actually to start where they almost began, with films like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and the granddaddy of horror movies: Dracula.
Inspired by the Bram Stoker novel of the same name, Dracula follows the mysterious Transylvanian Count Dracula as he purchases a piece of property in England called Carfax Abby. Using the realtor, Renfield as his servant, Dracula makes his way to London and begins to cause all sorts of havoc by seducing and attempting to turn young Lucy and Mina into vampires. It’s a very simple set-up, but it works wonderfully for this film. Having read Bram Stoker’s book, I noticed a few changes here and there to the story, but considering when the film was made, these nitpicks are of the extremely minor variety. Overall, the story is paced quite well for a film that runs 85 minutes, and it gives us enough character development to care. It’s a classic story, always has been, so I really can’t say anything negative about it.
These days, when you go to see a horror movie or a creature feature, film-makers try to shoehorn in some kind of backstory or tragedy for the human characters. You know what? That’s not what we go to monster movies for. We go for the freaking MONSTER!! Back in the 30s, 40s AND 50s, the human characters were secondary, because people came to see the monster. People want to see Frankenstein’s monster wreak havoc, not Dr. Frankenstein having tea with a local girl. While the human characters had their place, the focus was on the actual monster. That’s what I love about those older monster flicks. They didn’t waste time with overly complicated character development, they got right into it. For the character of Dracula, who was loosely based on Vlad the Impaler during the 15th Century, there have been many people who played the character. From Frank Langella and Christopher Lee to Gary Oldman and Luke Evans, not one of them did a terrible job. I enjoyed them all. But the actor that really made the character was Bela Lugosi. When people talk about Dracula as a movie character, they think of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, no other actors have embodied the character the way these two did, but it was Lugosi who made it iconic. Look at how Lugosi portrays Dracula. Look at his mannerisms and listen to the way he speaks. Nobody has done it quite the way Lugosi did. Every actor that has come after, has modeled their performance on Bela Lugosi’s to varying degrees.
While the film’s focus is on Bela’s performance, I have to give credit to the other actors for giving everything they’ve got with the material. Dwight Frye, who plays Renfield, gives the character a very manic and disturbed performance unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s absolutely wild. Edward Van Sloan gives his character of Van Helsing a very distinguished and gentlemanly performance as someone who has experience with the supernatural. The ladies are your basic damsels in distress, nothing terribly special here. Not terrible, but not terribly memorable, either. Overall, the acting is phenomenal. Obviously, Bela Lugosi steals the show in every scene that he’s in. When he gives his famous stare, it’s genuinely creepy and unsettling. For a film that’s almost 90 years old and it still manages to creep you out, that’s AWESOME!!
There is a massive difference between horror movies of today and the horror films of the past. Horror flicks today rely on shock value and gore to make their audiences uncomfortable. During the 30s and 40s there was no gore. It wasn’t allowed. So, the film-makers had to rely on genuine tension to scare people. I’m not talking about jump scares, either. How they managed to creep people out was through the use of atmosphere. Now, the movies released during the 30s and 40s were mostly black and white, so that helped a great deal. They also relied on big sets and matte paintings to get across how scary these things were. Dracula’s use of these sets and paintings was phenomenal. The journey to Dracula’s castle was not as elaborate as it would become in later films, but it was still hair-raising. The castle designs were extraordinary. Dracula’s castle was epic. Cobwebs and rotting wood helped sell the setting. The other thing that sells the atmosphere is the sound design. For these old movies, the sound was fairly minimalistic, but the howling wolves was a very nice touch.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s much more that I can say that hasn’t already been said by other people. Dracula is a classic in every sense of the word. Of all the monster movies that would follow, Dracula is the one that stands out as the most iconic. Bela Lugosi’s performance is otherworldly and creepy. The visuals and the costumes are second-to-none and the whole thing is just extraordinary. I hadn’t seen this film in over 20 years and it’s just as good as the first time I saw it. If you are a fan of vampire movies or Dracula in general, this is a must-own. If you like classic cinema, this is a must-own. This is a movie that needs to be shown in film classes around the world. This is absolutely recommended. No score will be provided, because no score is necessary for a film like this.