This month I move away from silent horror and into the heyday of Universal Studio’s monster films, as I watched 1931’s Dracula. Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) is an ancient vampire from Transylvania, who travels to England with his lunatic slave Renfield (Dwight Frye) and moves into Carfax Abbey in London. The Abbey is next door to a sanitarium run by Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), with Dracula becoming attracted to Seward’s daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), who is engaged to John Harker (David Manners). After Renfield is admitted into the Sanitarium, Dr. Seward calls for the assistance of Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who suspects a vampiric presence.
With this film being one of the most iconic monster movies of all time, I kind of feel silly that I never ended up seeing Dracula earlier, especially since I have seen other adaptions of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, such as 1922’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (and its 1979 Werner Herzog directed remake) and 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
While this film, starring Bela Logosi in the titular role, is usually what people think of in regards to Dracula, it is also probably one of the least faithful adaptation of the source novel. The film is actual based on a 1924 stage production of Dracula, with many of the stage actors (including Legosi) reprising their roles in this film. The first very notable change from the novel is that it is Renfield, instead of Jonathan Harker, who visits Count Dracula at the start of the film, with an attack by the Count being the cause of Renfield’s madness. Instead John Harker is reduced to being both merely Mina’s love interest and the main skeptic of Van Helsing’s belief that there is a vampire among them.
A very interesting stylistic element to Dracula is how the film lacks a musical score, with the exception of the opening credits (which uses a theme from Swan Lake) and a scene that takes place at a symphony performance. Presumably the reasoning for the lack of score is that, due to the film being one of the earliest of the sound era, it was believed that audiences wouldn’t understand music being present, unless it was part of the world of the film. That said, the lack of music does inherently make Dracula much more atmospheric and creepy, especially with some effective sound design, including a somewhat iconic scene of wolves howling and Dracula commenting on the music made by the “children of the night.”
Without a doubt, the notable element of Dracula is Bela Lugosi’s performance of the titular Count. While some of the the hand movements he makes might come off as overtly theatrical, this performance (and Legosi’s accent) has become the standard for the depiction of Dracula (and all vampires) in pop culture. The film features multiple close-ups of Dracula’s unblinking gaze, which makes it no wonder that the character is so unforgettable. Another standout in the film is Dwight Frye’s absolutely insane performance as Renfield, who almost steals the film. Frye also appears in Frankenstein, so I look forward to seeing more of him next month.
While Dracula definitely shows its age, with many obviously fake effects, I will also say that I was not at all disappointed with finally seeing one of most iconic monster movies.