Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 15 min.
Release Date: February 14th, 1931 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Tod Browning Actors: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Charles Gerrard
truggling to reach an inn before sundown, a stagecoach of weary travelers rocks back and forth violently, as if mere inanimate cargo. At the lodging, one of the passengers, businessman Mr. Renfield (Dwight Frye), insists upon going ahead to Transylvania’s Castle Dracula to meet the Count himself. But the townsfolk warn him of the dangers of the dark – and of the legend of the vampire and his wives who inhabit the cursed estate. Before his hasty departure, undeterred Renfield is given a crucifix for protection; but no one believes he’ll survive the night.
In one of the most iconic sequences, a collection of crypts pop open, with spidery fingers plucking at the perimeters, unveiling Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and his bloodthirsty brides rising from their slumber. It’s a perfectly horrific introduction to one of cinema’s most influential personas. And, sure enough, the unwitting Renfield is drawn into the realm of that most famous of neck-biters, oblivious to the uninviting nature of the domain and ignorant of the hazards of accidentally spilling a drop of blood in Dracula’s presence. “I bid you welcome.”
Thanks to Renfield’s paperwork, Dracula heads to England aboard the schooner Vesta, bringing with him his coffins and his faithful servants. Expectedly, the crew doesn’t make it, their gruesome deaths erroneously blamed on the terrible storm. But once corpses start to appear, with signature holes on their throats where blood has been drained, it would seem that a powerful vampire is at work. And young women Lucy (Frances Dade) and Mina (Helen Chandler) become the targets of Dracula’s thirst when he discovers a connection to Dr. Seward’s (Herbert Bunston) Whitby sanitarium, where his slave, Renfield (the lone survivor discovered aboard the Vesta), has been detained.
Despite the collection of esteemed scientists researching Renfield’s condition, the hypothesis of nosferatu implications put forth by Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) proves to be a readily accepted theory. And he’s careful to explain the details and the rules of vampire existence and destruction. Directed by Tod Browning, adapted from the Garrett Fort play (which was adapted from Bram Stoker’s 1897 epistolary novel, which would be difficult to turn into a screenplay straight away), this early take on the vampire myth established many of the bedrocks that would be used for virtually every subsequent take. Lugosi’s performance, though one of few lines, is an unavoidable archetype; with just a few mesmerizing gazes and precisely accented, ominous observations, he has created a striking vision for all time. He’s so exquisite in the role that it hardly matters that his rival is bland and that Mina’s gallant fiancé, John Harker (David Manners), is utterly forgettable. As the title would suggest, it’s the villain who is the star of the show; the protagonists fail to make much of an impression.
A rubbery bat prop hovering above galloping horses; the massive, cobwebbed interior of the decrepit Castle Dracula; the hair-raising howling of the children of the night; the three ghostly vampire brides gliding like graceful zombies toward their victim; Dracula’s hypnotic stare, aided by illuminated eyes; and the slapping away of a mirrored box that reveals the vampire’s lack of a reflection are but a few of the film’s epochal scenes. Interestingly, there’s no comedy relief here, which helps to maintain the thrills in the face of primitive special effects, an absence of graphic imagery or jump scares, and simplistic editing techniques. And it’s more fantasy than horror, though it excels in crafting a forbidding atmosphere. It’s actually rather awe-inspiring that this classic Universal monster would become so influential, considering the underdeveloped structuring, moments of ineffective suspense, and a general deficiency in filmic polish. Clearly, Lugosi’s definitive performance is to be thanked for the picture’s prominence, endurance, and critical and commercial successes.
– Mike Massie