Directed and Co-Produced by Tod Browning
Dracula (Bela Lugosi) arrives in London and sets his sights on the lovely young Mina (Helen Chandler). Really not much else than that to this classic.
This is quite possibly the first live action depiction of the Bram Stoker novel to tell the story of Dracula. Sort of. This movie is actually based on the 1924 play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston which is in turn based on the Stoker book. So a cousin of a cousin.
This is the great granddaddy of all horror movies. When people think of Dracula the personae and performance that Bella Lugosi created is often what comes to mind. He had a deliberate and slow performance that became closely associated with the character and set a bit of a standard for future performances.
Lugosi is iconic here. He is still the definitive Dracula. His appearance here is the basis for every Dracula Halloween decoration we have to this day. He is what people think of when it comes to Dracula.
Some have said Lugosi could not speak English at the time and was reciting dialogue in English he did not understand. Considering he played the character on Broadway prior I am not sure how that is possible. It strikes me more as an urban legend than anything else. He also appeared in a handful of other productions in film and in theater before Dracula. His English may not have been the best ever at the time, but I don’t think he was unable to speak it. I think this story gets traction because of his decidedly unusual delivery of his lines.
I especially love Renfield (Dwight Frye). Renfield was all crazy eyes and over the top bizarre dialogue. He is quite possibly the second-best part in the whole movie. It is almost as good of a performance as Lugosi gave. While not standard setting, it was very memorable.
Much of what they do here is not frightening or spine tingling these days because it has been copied and rehashed so many times since this movie came out around 89 years ago. Yet it still entertains and can give you a slight chill.
This is a film that is style and atmosphere and acting. Special effects were way more difficult and at times cost prohibitive since they were in their infancy. So much of what they accomplish is either done with acting or within ways that we find a little bit cheesy, but you have to remember the times in which this movie was done. One thing you might notice is at no point does Dracula transform to a bat onscreen. Such things occur off camera and the bat itself is a flexible rubber piece.
The rubber bat is quite probably the worst thing in the whole film. Then again it is probably the only real “effect” in this whole movie. I am not sure what they could have done better but even when I first saw this movie back as a little kid it made me laugh.
Something else is they spent a lot of time talking about a large dog that looked like a wolf that they all saw but nearest I could tell never appeared on the screen. I know this was back in the day and that this movie was based off of a play that was based on the book but why could you not put in a shot of the dog? I am sure there was a dog somewhere in California at the time that would fit the bill. I am not asking to see a transformation. I am just asking to see the dog.
This movie had a definite style to it. It had an atmosphere that was designed to heighten the fear and create a mood. That is something missing in large part in modern horror films. That is not to say they are not scary but here they were aiming more for art than they were for horror.
I do draw some issue with the humor in the film. There is Renfield’s attendant Martin (Charles K. Gerrard) who is put in the movie just to be a punchline. Such characters were a bit of a given in serious films of the day and I never understood why. Comic relief by an unimportant extraneous character seems like a poor story decision.
This is a beautiful movie that set a standard for many years after. What Tod Browning did here has been copied and even built upon by later films. It may not scare you, but it will affect you. This movie is still good so many decades later.