Let’s begin this monster mash with one of the big ones. It was a huge hit for Universal that launched its classic series of monster movies, it defined the public’s perception of Dracula, it heavily influenced decades of film and horror fans, it’s often considered one of the best horror movies of all time, and it’s…maybe, possibly, not quite as good as some may remember it.
Carl Laemmle, Sr., founder of Universal Pictures, had been wanting to make a film adaption of Dracula since the silent days. He was never able to make it happen, but there were two silent films in which Dracula appeared.
One is a little known lost film called Dracula’s Death from 1922 that had little to do with Bram Stoker’s novel. It was about a man in a sanitarium who thought he was the devilish count. Also in 1922, there was the German Expressionist classic Nosferatu. It was an unauthorized adaption of the novel directed by famed silent film director F.W. Murnau where Dracula went by the name Count Orlok.
After a competition between the major studios, Universal obtained the film rights for the novel from Stoker’s widow. Carl Laemmle, Jr., the then head of production at Universal, was its producer. His dad was not a huge fan of horror movies despite having produced many highly profitable ones (like The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney, Sr.). Laemmle, Jr. couldn’t have been more different from his father when it came to the genre. He loved horror and was keen to adapt Dracula.
Initially, Laemmle Jr. wanted to produce a faithful adaptation of the novel – one that would be a sprawling epic. Due to the rough times of the Great Depression, the movie was forced to be scaled down. Eventually, it had more in common with the popular Hamilton Deane 1924 England stage play and the revised 1927 John L. Balderston Broadway production. The story cut chunks out of the original book and was similar to a drawing room mystery and not the large-scale Stoker story.
The 1931 movie imported a few cast members from the stage production. One was Edward Van Sloan, a German-American actor who played the story’s ultimate hero, the wise Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Then there was Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward, the head of a sanitarium that is located adjacent to Dracula’s London dwellings. Lastly, there was the most famous of them all, Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi was a Hungarian character actor who only got the role in the stage play because the producers couldn’t afford a “name” actor (though he ended up being majorly popular in the production). Consequently, he was given the part in the movie because of his strong and persistent lobbying for the part and his agreeing to the measly sum of $500 a week for seven weeks of work. The fact that Lon Chaney Sr. died before the Laemmles could convince him to do it didn’t hurt either.
Thankfully (or not, depending on what you think of his interpretation), Lugosi was cast. He emerged as what would become the characterization of Dracula that almost everyone thinks of when the character comes to mind. More so than the novel in fact – the 1931 movie has created much of the iconography we now associate with the famous bloodsucker.
Dracula begins very much like the novel, with a visitor traveling to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania to discuss Carfax Abbey, a new piece of London property the Count has obtained. In the book, this man is Jonathan Harker. In the movie, this role is given to Renfield (Dwight Frye). Renfield goes insane after his encounter at Dracula’s eerie castle. He spends the rest of the film as Dracula’s crazed servant who is itching to drink the blood of flies, spiders, and – if he plays his cards right – rats.
Renfield, who is taken to Dr. Seward’s Sanitarium shortly after returning to London, helps the suave Dracula infiltrate the facility. Living there are Mina (Seward’s daughter, played by Helen Chandler) and, I guess (the movie is not very clear), Mina’s friend Lucy (Frances Dade). Dracula drinks their blood and is intent on making them both creatures of the night. Standing in Dracula’s way are Dr. Seward, Mina’s lover Jonathan Harker (David Manners), and a distinguished professor and scholar of strange occurrences and facts, Abraham Van Helsing.
The man heading Dracula was Tod Browning. He was an accomplished silent movie director (many of his films starred Lon Chaney, Sr.), but he was never comfortable making talkies. He had difficulty directing dialogue and there are scenes in Dracula that function without it like a silent film.
In later years, Manners said he didn’t remember Browning being all that present during filming. He suggested that cinematographer Karl Freund (pioneer of many moving camera techniques, even though his work in this film is mostly static, which might be down to Browning) stepped in to direct portions of the movie. I have also read that Browning was depressed after the death of Lon Chaney and he was suffering from severe alcoholism. This led to him being less meticulous than was his norm, even leaving the set at times.
How true all this is, I do not know. Watching the movie, it certainly feels like a bumpy, uneven production. Adapting a film from a play can be tricky. You don’t want a movie to feel confined and restricted in the same way as stage-bound plays. There’s also a different tempo and pace to motion pictures. Dracula doesn’t break free of these pitfalls.
The scenes in Transylvania feature some impressive special effects work and a grand set for Dracula’s creepy, cobweb-filled castle that give the film more scope. Once we arrive in London, the film takes place mostly in Seward’s Sanitarium.
The mundane sanitarium sets the characters occupy for the next 45 minutes feel like they were taken directly from a period drama and not a horror picture. They invoke nothing that could come close to being called a horrific or terrifying atmosphere and are more boring than anything else.
Another holdover from the stage is that characters tell us a lot and show us little. Mina tells us about the first time she is bitten by the count. Reinfeld tells us about a sea of rats below his window in the sanitarium. But we are shown too little of the former occurrence and none of the latter. This was partly because of the budget, I’m sure, but there was also some concern due to the censors of the time.
So the film opts to have characters explain certain scandalous scenes through dialogue, which only makes me ache for those moments to transpire before my eyes instead of just the character’s.
The pacing is incredibly wonky. Again, the opening scenes in Transylvania are fine, but most of what comes after, except for the initial scenes in London when Dracula is prowling the streets for victims in his top hat and tails, are horrible. Scenes sometimes come and go without much warning and the whole thing (and I hate to keep coming back to this) feels like a play. The movie could’ve added some energy to make up for this, but there’s little oomph in the picture.
When the film faded to black for the last time, it didn’t seem like much story had transpired. It was almost as if there was a reel or two missing and the last act or maybe the second and third act were held back. I was left feeling unsatisfied and under-stimulated.
Music might’ve helped but, as was common practice in early talkies, there is no non-diegetic music save for the opening credits. A new score was composed by Phillip Glass in 1999, and you have the option to watch the film with that score if you buy the 1999 special edition, the Legacy Collection or, I’m pretty sure, one of the subsequent solo Dracula releases.
I’ve honestly only watched snippets of the movie with the score. My verdict? It doesn’t really work. It’s a nice score but it’s not perfect. It’s played way too loud, for one. You can always hear the dialogue, but the music’s volume is up just enough that it draws too much attention to itself, almost like it was a music only track. From what I’ve experienced, it seems to rarely stop, giving you few moments of needed silence during important scenes.
Here’s probably an often asked question: Is the film still scary? I remember seeing pieces of the movie when I was a kid and being quite frightened by them. There’s a shot where we are looking down at Renfield with a crazed look in his eyes as he laughs manically in a unique way that gave me the willies.
As an adult, that moment still frightens me, but little else does. The film’s conservative and stage-y nature hurts it too much. There is some atmosphere left intact (especially in the well-done Transylvania sequences) but little enough of it is left that I was tempted to turn the movie off and pick up the book.
I will give the film some credit. Lugosi, while camp by today’s standards, is charming in the role and his line readings are fun.
Frye is another treat doled out occasionally. There’s some real subtly in his acting that makes you see how skilled he was as an actor and how unfairly he was typecast as just a guy who could play crazy people. His Renfield is insane, yes, but he’s also sympathetic. He doesn’t really want to do these horrible things but Dracula is using his power to make him. It’s moving stuff.
The rest of the cast (well, okay, Van Sloan isn’t bad) are stiff, wooden, not at the level of a top-tier cast, and bring down the production.
There’s still magic to be found in Dracula, but I had to look hard to see it. It’s covered up by bad direction, horrible pacing, a story that feels and plays out like a stage production, a lack of energy, and acting that, with a few exceptions, I would expect to see in a bad B-Movie. I will admit a modest affection for the film despite its flaws, but I think that’s more down to my love of classic films than it is the actual movie.