Notice the caption on the above poster: “A Nightmare of Horror”? It was no-doubt dedicated to all the men who have forgotten to buy a card or send flowers on Valentine’s Day—the day this film was released in 1931. Only a male producer would think this would be a good release date for a film about a man who sucks the lifeblood out of women!
In this classic horror film, directed by Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi immortalized the image of Dracula for countless generations. Based on the 1897 Bram Stoker novel of the same name, the film follows English real estate agent Renfield (Dwight Frye) to Eastern Europe and his fateful meeting with Count Dracula. Evidently Renfield was a typical Englishmen, because only an Englishman would dismiss an entire warning village as superstitious. Add the fact that he didn’t jump off a bat-driven coach and it’s easy to see why British nobles would rather remain land rich and bank account poor than have to deal with real estate agents.
Anyway, the most impressive scenes take place after he arrives at the castle. I suppose 1931 audiences found the huge castle door creakingly opening on its own impressive. The opening shots of the deserted and dusty castle are eerie. When the sharp-dressed Dracula glides down the staircase and introduces himself in Lugosi’s Hungarian accent he obviously knew how stupid Renfield was because he emphasized his name: Drac-u-la.
We soon learn that Renfield had been hired to find Dracula a home in England. Dracula is told about Carfax Abbey, but unlike many consumers he doesn’t need to see the Carfax to know he wants the property. He informs Renfield he’s chartered a ship to take them to England, and remembers who he’s dealing with and specifies they will be leaving in the “eve - n - ing." Soon after, Renfield cuts his finger on a paper clip and the count’s countenance changes at the sight of blood. Luckily for Renfield one of the superstitious villagers gave him a crucifix and this sends the count to cover his eyes in agitation. The count offers Renfield a glass of drugged wine and declines to imbibe with his guest uttering the classic, “I never drink...wi-i-i-ne”—coincidentally this film is not a French auteur favorite. Soon Renfield passes out and Dracula has a midnight snack. Oh, don’t be sad for Renfield, we quickly learn he’s still alive when we find him sailing the high seas with his “master” and his coffins. When the ship docks all that is found is a dead crew and a crazy bug-eating Renfield—he’s carted off to the Seward sanitarium, which is coincidentally located next to Carfax.
In London the count shows his appreciation for the arts: the symphony, opera, and bloodsucking. This is where he meets Dr. Seward and his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), as well as her fiancée Jonathan Harker (David Manners) and her idiotic friend Lucy. The count drops a line about his castle in Transylvania and Lucy instantly becomes enamored with him—will women never learn? Later that night the count flies (via Bat-suit) into Lucy’s open bedroom window and has another snack. When Lucy is found and brought to the sanitarium it is determined that nothing can be done for her.
They decide to consult Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloane), an expert on the occult, about the string of unusual deaths. By using Renfield’s “undead” blood the professor determines that they are dealing with Nosferatu (but unfortunately not the ultra-sexy Max Schreck version); a vampire. The next evening Dracula pays a visit to Mina’s room. As Mina’s personality begins to change she warns Jonathan about the strange dreams she’s been having about howling wolves and breath on her lips. When Van Helsing examines Mina he finds bite marks on her throat. Before the examination can continue the count is introduced and Mina does her best impression of an unfulfilled nympho. Van Helsing soon notices this behavior (as would anyone with eyes), as well as the fact that the count shows no reflection in the lid of Jonathan’s cigarette case—yet another reason not to stop smoking. After Dracula makes a hasty exit, the professor pronounces him as a vampire.
While Van Helsing is jabbering on about his theories, Mina wanders out of the house and is accosted by Dracula. In one of the more famous images of the film we see the count lift up his cape and totally envelop Mina with it. They later find her, barely alive, on the lawn.
Meanwhile, the “Woman in White”, a.ka. Lucy, is roaming the streets offering chocolates to children for their blood—a step up from free rides at Neverland Ranch I would think. Van Helsing learns from Mina that Lucy is a part of the count’s harem. As night approaches, Van Helsing adorns Mina with wolfsbane (some plant anti-vampire repellant) and closes all her bedroom windows. The plan to save Mina? Find the count’s hiding place and drive a stake through his heart. Evidently this plan angers the count, because he soon appears before Van Helsing and the men engage in Stare Down 1931. The professor uses bush league tactics, using a cross to drive Dracula out of the house. Ah, but the damage has been done, as the count paid a visit to Mina before the staring match. This is quickly confirmed when Mina tries to bite Jonathan’s neck, only to be saved by Van Helsing’s handy cross.
Later, Dracula returns to claim his new bride and take her to Carfax. While this is happening, Jonathan and Van Helsing decide to tail Renfield, who leads them to Carfax just in time to see the count taking Mina into the cellar. An enraged Dracula strangles Renfield for his betrayal and then flees into the cellar with Mina. Van Helsing and Jonathan pursue them and at day break find the count’s coffin and drive a stake through his heart. Fortunately the count didn’t have time to completely transform Mina before the rising sun and with his death her soul is freed. Thus, allowing, presumably, the two lovers to walk in the sunlight together for the rest of their lives.
When you watch this film today it seems a bit cheesy. Yet, you must remember that it was made in 1931, and so what we call horror today cannot be applied to a film made almost 70 years ago. What this film did was launch the horror genre in Hollywood, specifically at Universal.
The cinematography of Karl Freund is superb. The many tracking and overhead crane shots created an otherworldly atmosphere. Director Tod Browning must have remembered how well Murnau used lighting to create shadows in Nosferatu, because he employs the same technique in many shots.
The acting leaves something to be desired. This doesn’t mean that Lugosi didn’t do a good job with the overall creepiness of Dracula, because he did. Yet, I just can’t seem to see the sexually charged elements Dracula is supposed to possess in Lugosi. Yes, I know they say some women fainted in the aisles upon seeing this film. Who knows, perhaps they forgot to eat that day… As for the rest of the cast, they were a bit campy. There is a reason that this film launched a string of B-movie horror/monster films.
Overall, I would say that if you want to see where the Hollywood horror genre was launched, then you should watch this film. It is not the greatest horror movie ever made, but it is significant to film history.