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Dracula (1931)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DRACULA (1931)

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, David Manners

Written By: Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston, Garrett Fort (play) Directed By: Tod Browning

The Short Version

This was the beginning for the Universal Horror juggernaut.

It also cemented the image of the gentleman vampire.

The film itself is a very mild adaptation of a very mild adaptation…

…but Bela Lugosi was and remains the actor by whom all other players are judged.

Dracula is not a spectacular film by any means, but it is still required viewing for all.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

ROASTED GARLIC BAKED TRIPLE CREAM GOAT BRIE.

Go ahead, Dracula.  Bite me.


Pairs Well With...

VAMPIRE VINEYARDS MERLOT.

Dracula never drinks… wine, but why should that stop you?

“I am… Dracula.”


Dracula.  One of my oldest and dearest friends, speaking from the perspective of a fan to a character.  Since the dawn of cinema, he has been locked in an eternal cage match with Sherlock Holmes for the title of “most adapted literary character on film.”  At first, there was some resistance from the Bram Stoker estate (Mrs. Stoker sued the producers of the first intended screen adaptation of her husband’s  novel, thus causing it to be not-so-subtly transformed into Nosferatu), but by the turn of the 1930s, the call of destiny could no longer be denied.  And so it came to be that an American film studio by the name of Universal made its first major foray into the world of horror, and a Hungarian actor became an overnight sensation.

Universal’s Dracula is not adapted directly from Bram Stoker’s voluptuously enthralling (to borrow one of the author’s own favored descriptive terms) gothic novel; rather, it is adapted secondhand from a heavily watered down stage adaptation of said novel.  Dracula connoisseurs will readily notice that multiple characters have gone missing and that relationships between others have been significantly rearranged.  (Most notable of all is the reimagination of Dr. Seward as Mina’s aging father, as opposed to being Lucy’s young and ambitious suitor.  Indeed, in this film, Lucy has no suitors… though she does take a shine to the Count of her own volition.)  Once the action – or, to be more honest, the exposition – gets to England, it never turns around to leave again; the book’s entire third act has been sliced clean away in favor of an extremely quick and frankly unsatisfying off camera ending.  Overall, this initial American studio attempt at Dracula is a rather lackluster take on one of the most influential stories to come out of Western literature during the past two centuries… and yet, it became one of those films that changed the course of cinema forever.  (And put a studio on the path to being a powerhouse, at that.)  Why?

A famous tale from behind the scenes provides the best answer.  Instead of going the route of post production dubbing as modern audiences would expect, Universal filmed a Spanish language version of Dracula with a different cast and crew but using the same sets as the main picture once the English language cast and crew had left for the night.  The director of the Spanish version of the film told his own people to ignore most of what the daytime crew was doing and follow his own lead, with one exception.  He pulled aside the man playing the title role in the Spanish language production, pointed to his English language counterpart, and said “watch him.”

“He” was, of course, the great Bela Lugosi, whose spellbinding performance as Dracula has come to set the standard by which all other screen vampires are judged… and generally found wanting.  As both a gentleman and a fiend, Lugosi’s Dracula is without question one of the most compelling characters ever to grace the silver screen.  His presence commands attention before he says a single word, and his voice carries a magnetism that makes it very simple indeed for the audience to believe that he has supernatural powers of charisma.  The lighting crew may have shown pinpoints into his eyes to create the famous “hypnotic stare,” but it’s Lugosi’s facial expression and body language that really sells it.  He presents both grace and menace with ease, and though by modern standards what audiences see of his physical attacks may seem tame, there’s horror to them all the same, and by 1930s standards, tthey’re downright terrifying.  As a film, Dracula succeeds or fails based on the performance of the man in the title role, and it is the amazing work of Bela Lugosi which, more than anything, caused it to become an instant sensation upon release and makes it remain an all time must-see classic.

He does have some decent help from the second tier, as well.  Some of Lugosi’s most compelling scenes involve his exchanges with Edward Van Sloan, who takes the largely expository role of Van Helsing and turns it into something more formidable than the script alone would have otherwise allowed.  And then there’s Dwight Frye, who would spend the next decade plus as horror’s most compelling player of henchmen, here taking an unforgettable turn as the unfortunate Mr. Renfield (and inventing one of the creepiest laughs in motion picture history in the process).  Frye’s talent is only surpassed by that of Lugosi, and he’s just as capable of holding the viewer’s attention whenever he’s on the screen.

Cinematography courtesy of Karl Freund, one of the pioneers of German horror, also helps, especially given the made-for-the-stage confinements placed upon the production by the script.  (Indeed, Freund’s camera does a fair job of making the film’s overall director look better than he is... though it's said that Freund also took some uncredited time in the Big Chair here, too.)

Those standouts aside, the rest of the film’s components are decidedly mediocre, living up to the standards set by the watered-down screenplay.  Any major players not already mentioned give just enough animation to their flatly written roles to make them come across as lived-in, but they’re hardly inspired.  (Particularly hapless here is David Manners, slapped with the always-thankless role of “John” Harker, made even more superfluous than usual by the adaptation at hand.)  They do their jobs well enough, however, and the obligatory comic relief isn’t too odious to stand.  (The tendency to overemphasize that element in these pictures wouldn’t come until James Whale made his influence felt via Frankenstein.)  Most importantly of all, however, they have the good sense to recognize the major talent in the room and let those gentlemen do their thing largely unimpeded.

And so, mediocre though the overall film may be, a classic Dracula none the less instantly became, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of one actor and worthy support from a few others.  That’s why the cheap, too-quick ending doesn’t really matter; anything shot on camera couldn’t have possible done Lugosi’s work leading up to that moment any justice.  Sometimes, suggestion really is the better part of valor.

Bottom line, though it may not be the greatest horror film of the age, Universal’s Dracula is nevertheless one of cinema’s must-see titles, whether or not one usually considers oneself to be a horror fan.  Bela Lugosi’s performance alone is enough to make this one a candidate for compulsory viewing, and the rest has grown to be a matter of cultural competence.  Besides, when Count Dracula bids one “welcome,” how can one possibly refuse?

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2013

This review written while seated in my favorite coffee shop on Earth.  Mill Valley, CA, December 9, 2013.


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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