Starring Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler and David Manners
Dracula is dead and loving it! He decides that he can’t take the Transylvanian townspeople calling him a monster so he buys some property and moves to the big city…London! He meets and greets (and eats) a few people until he runs into Mina Harker, a married woman but that doesn’t bother the Count, he has three wives. He tries to make her his fourth but her husband and professor Van Helsing, who knows the ways of the vampire, try to stop him before it’s too late for Mina.
Dracula is a name everybody knows, the character has long been a staple of pop culture for decades and no doubt decades to come. While partially thanks to the novel considered public domain (anyone can make a film using the novel), this was the film to set the standard for not just the character of Count Dracula but for all future visions of what we know to be “vampires.”
I’ve seen many Dracula movies and movies that just so happened to have Dracula in them. I’ve seen a few of Hammer Films’ Dracula series starring Christopher Lee, I’ve seen a modernized retelling in Dracula 2000, and of course I’ve watched Francis Ford Coppola’s version “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” I think the first time I’ve seen a cinematic Dracula was in 1987’s Monster Squad and loved Duncan Regehr’s bad ass take on the world’s most famous vampire. But I’m probably in the same boat with people my age, I’ve never seen the original 1931 version. Until today.
Historically there’s a lot to enjoy about the movie but I’ve read so much and seen classic scenes from the film that it never occurred to me to sit down and watch it from beginning to end. Sure, it’s an old black and white film from the early 30’s, not exactly something to seek out. Yet for a fan of the genre, surely I should at least see it once, for history’s sake.
The first thing you’ll notice right off the bat is how different the movie looks from today’s style of filmmaking. And I’m not just saying “Oh it’s in black and white” because that’s just the tip of the iceburg. It was a much simpler time back then. Acting styles were different, camera operation was point and shoot. The sets all are indoor locations aside from the few outdoor scenes early on where you can definitely tell the background is actually a large painting. It didn’t help that the budget was hampered due to the onset of the Great Depression. But that’s just how movies were made back then. It was like watching a play happen on screen. Just remember that when you see the bat flying on a string. Cause that happens…a lot.
While the producers were eager to make the first official movie based off the novel (there was an unofficial adaptation filmed 9 years earlier, F.W. Murneau’s Nosferatu, which was Dracula minus the name) they didn’t attempt to film the whole novel. What we get is a very straight forward story that cuts out a lot of the book to fit into the movie’s 75 minute run time. One of my bigger complaints is that there’s no reason given for what sets the movie into motion. Dracula buys a house in London and leaves Transylvania…but for what purpose? If you hadn’t read the novel, it makes no sense. Maybe he just wants to stretch his wings?
Another issue is the pacing. It’s not a long movie, but there’s no tension to the film whatsoever. Maybe back then there was, but the movie just plods along at a such a slow, steady pace that I couldn’t believe it when the movie ended. You’d think there’d be a climactic finish but it ends on such a low-key whimper. It just…ends.
As I mentioned earlier, acting styles were different back then. It was like a play, so the characters emote differently than if it were a movie today. Most of the actors do a fine job, though I have to point out Dwight Frye’s take on Renfield was over the top hilarity throughout the movie, so hard to take the character seriously.
But why talk about anyone else when this is clearly a movie that is carried by the star, Bela Lugosi. His interpretation of Dracula has been mimicked so much and inspired so many of the actors who went on to portray the vampire later on. Dracula was never a physical monster, Lugosi played him as a dignified, noble gentleman (and his Hungarian accent helped a lot.) His portrayal is a very quiet, reserved monster. There’s a lot of focus on his eyes and that’s probably what scared people the most back then. If you really compare anyone else’s portrayal, you can see they even try to do the stare that Lugosi was so good at doing.
When it comes down to it, this isn’t the best interpretation of Dracula but it created a solid foundation for others to work off in order to make better and better adaptations of the classic novel. It set the standard for the character of Count Dracula as well as setting the standard for establishing cinematic vampires for generations to come.
Story: 6 – A lot of the novel is cut out giving us a very straightforward telling of Bram Stoker’s novel.
Blood: 0 – We’d have to wait a few more years to see Drac actually drink blood.
Nudity: 0 – A big no no back in the 30’s.
Overall: 5 – Historically worth a watch, maybe if you’re into film history or just a big fan of Dracula, it’s not the best version out there. Not the worst either.
-This was not the first time Lugosi portrayed Count Dracula as he did the character in a play based on the novel.
-Lon Chaney, Sr. was the studio’s first choice to be Dracula, however Chaney died of throat cancer before they could film. Scrambling to find a suitable choice, the studio balked at Lugosi initially though he lobbied hard to get the role and agreed to do the film for just $500 a week for seven weeks of filming. His most iconic role only got him $3500.
-The studio used a story of audience members fainting to create interest for the film, which of course turned into a huge hit for Universal Studios.
-Lugosi’s career would decline after Dracula, he would winding up working in many of Ed Wood’s pictures until his death in 1956. He would be buried in his Dracula costume.
I still love the scene where Lugosi says “Listen to them, the children of the night…”
If you haven’t seen the movie ‘Ed Wood’, in which Johnny Depp plays the eponymous B-Movie-maker, do so. There is a wonderful supporting performance by Martin Landau as the ageing Bela Lugosi. Martin is, of course, the father of Juliet Landau, who played the vampire Drusilla in TV’s ‘Buffy’.
Vampire fiction is not that easy to write, mainly because there is now so much of it. In 2013, my publisher casually asked if I would write a teen-vampire novel. The result was ‘From My Cold, Undead Hand’, the first of a planned trilogy. Faced with the task of writing a book like this, an author seems to have two choices – ‘Buffy’ or ‘Twilight’. I guess my protagonist Chevonne Kusnetsov is a little buffyesque, inasmuch as she hunts vampires, but I think that’s where the resemblance ends. She’s feisty and rebellious, but is swept along by forces she can’t control. As her mid 21c story unfolds in NYC, we get the 19c European back-story. What is the truth about van Helsing? Did Dracula really exist, or was he a product of the imagination of Anna Lund, an earlier vampire-hunter, and of her obsession with the Drăculești? What is the truth about Bram Stoker? What have all these historical threads got to to with Chevonne and ‘Old Stoker’, a teacher at her school? What has all this got to do with the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States? I’ll leave you to find out. 🙂
I thought Ed Wood was fantastic. Everyone did a great job, especially Landau. I guess Landau’s family said it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of the man, but I don’t think it makes Legosi look bad at all (the sleeping in a coffin part was pretty far fetched.)