Dracula (United States, 1931)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The golden era of Universal monster movies began in early 1931 with the release of Dracula, which, despite shaky acting and even shakier direction, is nevertheless regarded as one of the seminal early talkies - a movie that not only helped to keep its studio solvent during the Great Depression, but was instrumental in shaping an entire genre. Although Dracula would quickly be eclipsed by Frankenstein (released later in the same year), its importance in the annals of motion picture history should not be underestimated. Indeed, this is one instance in which a film's reputation greatly outstrips its actual content. As a movie, Dracula is seriously flawed. As a phenomenon, however, it has had a profound and lingering cultural influence.

Tod Browning's Dracula, which went into pre-production in 1930, was not the first motion picture adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, but it was the first authorized one. A decade earlier, German filmmaker F.W. Murnau brought the story to the screen in the silent classic Nosferatu, but Stoker's widow sued for copyright infringement, and the movie was withdrawn. To this day, however, Nosferatu stands as the most artistic and eerie adaptation of Dracula, and, while preparing the 1931 version, the creative principals at Universal made a careful study of the earlier film. Several nods to Nosferatu can be seen throughout Dracula.

The film is not based directly on Stoker's novel; those familiar with the book will immediately notice numerous differences, most of which weaken the material. Instead, the movie is directly descended from a mid-'20s British stage production written by Hamilton Deane. When the play came to Broadway after a successful run in Europe, John L. Balderston was brought in to re-write it for American audiences, and a relatively unknown Hungarian expatriate named Bela Lugosi was given the title role. Of course, Lugosi would eventually reprise the part in the film, creating one of the great icons of cinema.

Dracula opens with the journey of a British real estate agent named Renfield (Dwight Frye) through the mountains of Transylvania to the decrepit and decaying Castle Dracula. He is in Eastern Europe for the purpose of leasing a London property to Count Dracula (Lugosi). However, he quickly falls under the Count's spell, and, upon his return to England, is committed to an insane asylum, where he eats flies and spiders and laughs maniacally. Meanwhile, Dracula sets up residence in his new home and begins to prey upon his neighbors. His first victim, Lucy Weston (Frances Dade), succumbs quickly and becomes a vampire. His next choice, Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), proves to be more difficult, because she is protected by her father (Herbert Bunston), her fiance, John Harker (David Manners), and the wily Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). For Dracula, Van Helsing represents a real danger, because he believes in vampires and has divined the Count's true nature.

Nosferatu vividly illustrated how chilling and atmospheric an adaptation of Dracula could be. Browning's 1931 edition doesn't match the earlier movie for effort or effect, but it has its share of memorable moments. Chief among these are the opening image of a horse-drawn carriage careening through the Carpathian Mountains, the tracking shot that moves slowly through the innards of Castle Dracula when the Count makes his first screen appearance, and a sequence outside of Seward's Sanitarium where Dracula enfolds Mina in his cloak. The cinematographer, Karl Freund, came to Hollywood from Germany (where he worked on films like Metropolis, The Golem, and Murnau's The Last Laugh), and was known for his use of tracking shots and camera movement. Some of this technique is evident in Dracula, but the largely static look of the film has been attributed to Browning's reticence regarding cinematic innovations.

In retrospect, Browning was a particularly poor choice to helm the production. Although he had developed a solid reputation as a director of silent films, he was clearly out of his element during the early sound era. With the exception of some of the Castle Dracula scenes, he lacked a basic grasp of how to make a compelling horror/monster movie. Less than a year later, James Whale's Frankenstein would ruthlessly illuminate the weaknesses in Browning's approach - too many static shots, unconvincing dialogue, poor pacing, and clumsy camera positioning. A Spanish version of Dracula, filmed at night on the sets used by Browning during the day (albeit with different actors and another crew) and employing a Spanish translation of the same shooting script, also shows many of the areas where the director erred. The Spanish 1931 Dracula is in almost every way a superior production. Not only is it technically more proficient, but the acting shows greater depth and range, and there's an energy to the proceedings that is absent from the more popular English cousin. There is, however, one crucial element missing from the Spanish Dracula - Bela Lugosi.

Today, whenever anyone thinks of Dracula, they think of Lugosi, and it has been that way for 70 years. His distinctive vocal inflections, the result of a thick Hungarian accent, have made him one of the most imitated men of the 20th century. What child has not, at one time or another, uttered the phrase, "I vant to suck your blood"? Even though dozens of actors have played the part since Lugosi, including Christoper Lee, Frank Langella, Louis Jordan, and Gary Oldman, no one has come close to eclipsing his image. Ultimately, Lugosi became so closely linked to Dracula that it ruined his career. He was instantly typecast and spent the next 25 years battling Boris Karloff for the title of Most Popular Horror Movie Star. He often played misfits and monsters, and even the occasional vampire. (He reprised his role as the Count only once - in the 1948 horror comedy Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.) At the time of his death, in 1956, he was working with director Ed Wood. His last screen appearance was in the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Lugosi's accent, theatrical gestures and mannerisms, and penetrating eyes made him into a larger-than-life figure. He is the perfect suave Dracula - the displaced European aristocrat come to a new country in search of fresh game. Although he is a far different beast than Max Schreck's hideous Count Orlock, he is equally dissimilar to the tragic/romantic figure that has come into vogue through the writings of Anne Rice. Lugosi's Dracula is almost asexual - indeed, the subliminal eroticism often associated with vampire tales is greatly subdued in this movie. It is there (most obviously in the scene where Dracula wraps his cloak around Mina), but Browning, unlike Murnau, chose to downplay it. (In all fairness, Browning had to worry about censors; Murnau did not.) However, although there is a minimalization of the sexual subtext, religious icons are much in evidence, from the crucifix to the perversion of Christian ceremonies (such as the blood, wine, and bread of Holy Communion in Castle Dracula).

Ironically, Lugosi almost didn't get the part. Producer Carl Laemmle Jr's first choice was versatile actor Lon Chaney, who had scored hits in a number of silent horror classics, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and London After Midnight. (In fact, when Browning signed to direct the film, it was with the understanding that Chaney, with whom he had developed a good working relationship, would be the lead.) Unfortunately, the Man of 1000 Faces died of cancer before Dracula got out of pre-production. After other options were exhausted, Lugosi, who was openly campaigning to carry the role from stage to screen, was offered the part, but at pay rate of a quarter of that of the lower-billed David Manners.

Outside of Lugosi, the acting in Dracula is pretty sad, with many of the performances looking like they belong in a silent production. Manners, who plays the one-dimensional John Harker, is wooden and unconvincing, and often appears to be standing around in scenes waiting for someone to direct him. His leading lady, Helen Chandler, is appealing to look at, but she's not much more impressive than Manners. (Her work really looks bad when compared to that of Lupita Tovar, who played the role in the Spanish version.) For both actors, Dracula would be one of the high points of their careers. Several years later, Manners would quit acting in disgust. Meanwhile, Chandler's problems with alcohol and drugs would drive her out of Hollywood altogether by the end of the '30s.

In addition to Lugosi, two other actors translated their work from the stage to the screen -- Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing. Since Lugosi and Van Sloan had been playing against one another for so long, it's a little surprising that their climactic battle of wills generates so little tension. This, like so many of Dracula's problems, can likely be laid at Browning's feet, since the Spanish version does the same scene more effectively. One thing that Van Sloan manages to do is to make Van Helsing's numerous expository speeches sound almost plausible - not necessarily an easy thing to do considering that the topics are the undead, shape changing, and mind control.

If anyone other than Lugosi is remembered for his work in Dracula, it's likely to be Dwight Frye, whose enjoyably loopy performance as the insane Renfield caused him to be typecast as effectively as Lugosi. Being a skilled Broadway actor didn't help Frye when he arrived in Hollywood - after appearing as Renfield in Dracula and the hunchback Fritz in Frankenstein, his film career was mapped out. Over the next decade, he would appear in such titles as The Vampire Bat, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (the latter two once again with Lugosi).

70 years after its first release, Dracula remains one of the most instantly recognizable screen titles. As is often the case with pioneers, it is ragged around the edges, but the film's weaknesses are not enough to prevent it from being appreciated. Dracula is not scary; it's a little too campy and hokey to be so (especially by today's standards), but it is nevertheless an effective storytelling vehicle, and there are occasional moments of movie magic (such as when Lugosi descends the stairs of Castle Dracula or bends over to bite Mina's neck with a feral expression distorting his features). Dracula deserves its status as a classic, although one might be tempted to append the word "lesser" to that label.

Dracula (United States, 1931)

Run Time: 1:15
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1