Dracula, a late 19th century Gothic horror novel by Bram Stoker, was adapted into the movie Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror. They tried to make enough things different to avoid a lawsuit if it came, and came it did. Bram Stoker's widow was none too pleased and did what she could to have the movie destroyed. Luckily, she failed in that respect, and F. W. Murnau's Expressionistic horror classic still exists. It also serve, among other aspects, to influence what would become the cornerstone for vampire movies going forward: Universal's production of Dracula.
Carl Laemmle, head of of Universal Pictures, had wanted to do an adaptation of the novel since 1914, but budget problems and difficulties obtaining film rights had stalled him. Originally meant to be much closer to the novel, the ultimate movie was largely based on a stage play loosely adapted from it, while also grabbing a few of the more memorable moments from Nosferatu, including the idea that a vampire could not go out in the day time. The part was at one point meant to be played by Lon Chaney, but he died prior to beginning production on the movie. Still, Laemmle went ahead with director Tod Browning, a frequent collaborator with Chaney and, at the time, one of the most popular in Universal's stable.
What resulted from what was rumored to be a chaotic and stressful process would be the starting point for Universal's entire monster franchise, and an unfortunate albatross for both the director and the star.
Real estate agent Renfield (Dwight Frye) arrives in Transylvania. The local villagers are keen to head for the safety of the inn as it is Walpurgisnacht, and they are afraid of what may roam in the darkness. Renfield, however, is insistent that he must make it to Borgo Pass by midnight to meet a coach being sent to him by Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). The villagers become even more insistent, but so does Renfield, and the coachman agrees to take him there - but does not stay long. However, the other promised coach is there, with a silent, black-clad rider and shrouded horses.
Renfield arrives at Dracula's castle to find it largely a crumbling ruin, and his driver to have disappeared with his luggage. He is soon greeted by the Count, who is eager to sign the papers for the lease on the abandoned Carfax Abbey in London, which abuts the Whitby Sanitarium. Dracula, in fact, has already chartered a vessel to take him to London which leaves the next day. Renfield, nervous from his meeting but elated at his success, exits to a balcony, only to be confronted by a large bat. He faints, and is approached by three silent women. However, they retreat at Dracula's command, as he shows up to feed.
The next time we meet Renfield is aboard the Vesta, Dracula's charted transportation to London, as it nearly capsizes in stormy waters. Dracula eventually feeds on the entire crew and, when it arrives at its destination, everyone is found dead save for Renfield, who is immediately incarcerated at Whitby due to being perceived as a raving, bug-eating lunatic. Meanwhile, mysterious deaths start occurring around London. Not content to just feed, the Count is driven to make more like him, and takes the opportunity to make the acquaintance of Whitby's head physician, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), and in doing so is also introduced to his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her friend Lucy (Frances Dade) and Mina's fiance John Harker (David Manners).
Lucy becomes enamored with Dracula, but is soon found suffering from a mysterious blood disease from which she soon perishes. Since it is similar to other deaths, Seward calls on the services of Dutch scientist Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who believes the problem has a more supernatural cause. His suspicions play out when Dracula visits Seward and Van Helsing accidentally catches a glimpse of the vampire's reflection, or lack thereof, in the mirror of a cigar box. When confronted, Dracula speeds up his plans, especially after realizing that Van Helsing cannot be easily controlled.
Renfield helps him fulfill his plans, sabotaging the efforts of Van Helsing and Harker to keep Mina safe. Still, when daylight comes or he is far enough from the vampire's influence, Renfield does his best to warn everyone if Dracula's plans. His interference soon earns the displeasure of his master, but at that point his plans have largely come to fruition, with Lucy's vampiric form attacking children and Mina all but turned. Still, Van Helsing and Harker do have Dracula's weakness during the day to their advantage, and plan to use it in a last-ditch effort to save Mina's soul.
I am going to admit something straight up. Having watched these movies since I was a kid, the only thing that has ever sometimes been a problem for me in some of the first sound movies is the lack of a consistent music score. Many times it was just not possible and, for some reason, many film producers thought audiences would look at the inclusion of music when there wasn't an onscreen reason for it as intrusive. For modern audiences, the silence is even more intrusive than music would have been, and does make it hard to watch for modern audiences. The rubber bats and spiders? Not a problem for me. It's 1931. I do have a problem when I see even worse props used 40 years later, but at the time you used what you had. The reason I bring all this up is that there is an almost nine-decade generation gap that new viewers have to overcome when approaching Dracula.
Still, where I found the silence highly distracting in Frankenstein, I find Tod Browning (or Karl Freund, who directed large parts of the movie due to Browning's depressed state at the time) actually doing something with it. As a visual director James Whale may have surpassed Browning in many ways, but when it came to bringing out subtleties in a scene or using dramatic pauses to create an otherworldly atmosphere, Browning was a master. While still maintaining some hallmarks of silent film making, Dracula was not by any stretch Browning's first sound film, and he was on quite solid footing with the new format at this point.
Bela Lugosi was already quite familiar with the character of Dracula, having played the vampire in the stage play. In fact, he lobbied quite hard to get the role, eventually winning Laemmle over. His unblinking stare, and his halting line delivery, make it clear from the beginning that this is a creature largely detached from its human origins. This is why Dracula, among all the Universal monster films, still retains some of its original impact. The Count is evil, but, unlike his portrayal in the novel, still has some sparks of humanity - particularly when he warns that there are worse things that await man than death. The other frightening part is how, after a period of time, he starts to adapt himself back into society. Between the awkward meeting with Renfield to being able to entertain as the mysterious foreigner when among the Sewards shows how dangerous he truly is, as without his haste he could have remained camouflaged for years, or even centuries. After all, Van Helsing says that the vampire's greatest weapon is the general public's disbelief.
While Lugosi made Dracula an unforgettable character, we must not dismiss Dwight Frye. His over-the-top, scenery-chewing turn as Renfield is a sight to behold. While Lugosi is subtlety and otherworldly coldness, Frye is madness incarnate. It is no wonder that Van Helsing is originally suspicious that Renfield is the vampire. The only equivalent I can think of is Peter Lorre in Mad Love.
Edward Van Sloan is another holdover from the play, and it was wise to keep him as Van Helsing. He is brilliant, determined and not afraid to get his hands dirty. His interaction with Lugosi when Van Helsing and Dracula ultimately have a standoff is quite intriguing as well, and it is made even livelier by the fact that the two have inhabited the roles for quite some time.
Tod Browning followed up Dracula with a boxing movie called Iron Man, but his downfall came with his next horror film, Freaks. Though considered a classic today, audience and critical reaction was quite negative at the time, and he retired from directing after 1939's Miracles for Sale. As for Lugosi, although Dracula was his most famous role, he only played the character again in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Still, despite playing roles that demanded much more of him than Dracula did, he found himself typecast in the role and doing poverty row pictures the rest of his life, with his last few films being made with Ed Wood, Jr.
As for Universal, Dracula was a gamble that paid off. Supernatural films were largely a European thing, and both this movie and Frankenstein showed they could play well in the United States. It took awhile, but the inevitable sequel, and continuation of the franchise, came in 1936 with Dracula's Daughter.
Time: 75 minutes
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, David Manners, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan
Director: Tod Browning