Universal Monsters: ‘Dracula’ (1931)


**The following is an in-depth review of “Dracula” and does contain spoilers.**

Dracula” was the first film in what would come to be known as the Universal Monsters series of the 1930s and 1940s.  It was directed by Tod Browning and stars Bela Lugosi as the titular vampire, a role the Hungarian actor would forever be associated it.  “Dracula” was based on the novel of the same name by Bram Stoker, but it wasn’t the first time that material had been adapted for the screen.  The F.W. Murnau German expressionist film “Nosferatu” had been released almost a decade earlier to critical acclaim.  This was, however, the first “talkie” adaptation of the material.

“Dracula” tells the story of Count Dracula, an Eastern European nobleman who journeys to England under the pretense of purchasing a building known as Carfax Abbey.  In actuality, however, Dracula is a vampire and is going to England to feast on new blood.

Dracula is visited by a real estate agent from England called Renfield.  In the novel this is Jonathan Harker, but in the film the Harker and Renfield characters were amalgamated.  The film does still have a “John Harker” character, but his role is reduced to being little more than the husband of Mina Harker – one of Dracula’s victims.

As strange things begin happening after Count Dracula arrives, Professor Abraham Van Helsing is brought in to investigate.  Van Helsing is the world’s foremost authority on the undead, but at first his claims are dismissed as the ravings of a madman.  The other characters are soon convinced and help Van Helsing hunt down and destroy Dracula.

“Dracula” was a cinematic achievement in 1931.  While it is a very simple film by today’s standards, in 1931 it was something movie-goers had never quite seen before.  The scope and scale of the film was much grander than movies had been in those early days.  The sets were some of the biggest and most elegant that had ever been built for a film before.

Browning was also able to make the material positively blood curdling at all the right parts.  Again, much of the horror is tame by modern standards, but at the time it was one of the most terrifying films put to screen.  If you can divorce yourself from the novelty of modern movies and allow yourself to be sucked in to the story – which really isn’t hard since the  film is so well done – it can be every bit as scary as anything that has been put on cinema screens since.

Because of sound limitations with the early talkies, there was originally no score set to the film.  Film scores wouldn’t really start becoming a thing until 1932.  However, in 1998 Golden Globe-winning composer Phillip Glass was hired to finally score “Dracula” properly.  Glass’ score adds so much more dimension and eerieness to the film, it’s almost like night and day watching the unscored version vs the scored version of the film.  Glass also does a good job of adding to the more haunting aspects of the film, as well as capturing the musical style of Old Hollywood films.  The score feels like an organic part of the film that could easily have been part of the original production.

“Dracula” is also notable for having both English and Spanish-language versions filmed simultaneously with different actors and crew, but using the same sets.  The English crew would film on the sets during the day and the Spanish crew would take over at night.  This makes watching the Spanish-language version interesting, as it is a nice comparison to the original.  In fact, cinematically, the Spanish film is much more visually interesting because the Spanish director was able to view the English versions dailies and was able to devise better shots.

The costumes are hit and miss.  In the Transylvania scenes, the characters are all in beautiful Eastern European garb and you truly believe you’re in Romania.  Many of the English characters, however – most notably Renfield – wear what really just appear to be modern 1930s clothing.  The modern clothing kind of spoils the period illusion a little, but the movie itself does a good job of making up for it.

Lugosi has become so identified with the character that when most people do a Dracula – or even a generic vampire – accent, they are actually doing a Lugosi accent.  “Dracula” was so successful that later that year when Universal was casting the monster for their adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” the role was first offered to Lugosi.  Lugosi turned it down, thinking that the part didn’t have enough substance to be worth his time.

Despite its – admittedly very few – flaws, “Dracula” has stood the test of  time and continues to be one of the most memorable of the classic horror movies.

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