dracula | tod browning | hamilton deane | john l. bladerston | bela lugosi | helen chandler | david manners | count dracula | vampire | vampires | remake | fantasy | dwight frye | edward van sloan | based on | novel | bram stoker | play | herbert bunston
Director: Tod Browning
Writer: Hamilton Deane and John L. Bladerston
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler and David Manners
This film I originally sought out right after college. It was a blind-spot for me and I rented the box set from local library. I decided that I was going to seek out all of the Universal classical and this was one of the first. I’ve now seen it 3 times, with the second in the theater on a 35mm print and now a third as part of my Odyssey through the Ones. The synopsis here is after a naïve real estate agent succumbs to the will of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the two head to London where the vampire sleeps in his coffin by day and searches for potential victims by night.
We start in the back of a horse drawn carriage going down a country road. We learn that we are in Romania. The people inside want the driver to slow down, but he is afraid to be out after the sun has gone down. They make it to a little village. One of the men is Renfield (Dwight Frye). He tells the driver and the members of the village that he is going to see Count Dracula and needs to continue on. This upsets everyone who listens as they warn him of the vampire. It is to no avail though as they cannot sway him. A rosary is given for his protection.
Renfield is dropped at Dorgo pass where there is another carriage waiting. This one’s driver is Lugosi. He is hiding his face from his passenger as he takes his luggage and Renfield gets inside. They start this next part of the journey. Renfield looks out the window toward where the driver should be to see there’s no one there, but a bat is flying by the horses. They arrive at the castle and the bat is gone as well as the driver.
He goes inside and we officially learn that Lugosi is Count Dracula. They go about their business upstairs and we learn Dracula has purchased Carfax Abbey in England. A ship has been prepared to take them the following night. We then see that Dracula has three wives living in the castle with him. Renfield is turned into a servant of the count.
Renfield is cursed to drink the blood of insects and small animals. During the day he watches over his master’s coffin and by night, Dracula feeds on the crew. When they arrive in England, Renfield is found and thought to be mad. The ship is thought to be cursed since everyone onboard aside from is dead. Renfield is taken to a sanitarium ran by a Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston).
Count Dracula is enjoying his time in England already. We see him feed on a young flower girl before arriving at the opera house. It is there he meets his neighbor of Dr. Seward along with his daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners) and her friend of Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).
That night the count attacks Lucy. In charge of the autopsy is a world renowned doctor of Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). He notices the marks on her neck match those of the deceased flower girl. He suspects it could be a vampire, but they’re living in a modern world so it couldn’t be possible. Mina then becomes the object of Dracula’s desires and the men in her life do what they can to protect her.
To get into my thoughts here, I’ll preface once more that this is my third viewing of the film. I can also say that it is quite the experience. It is interesting to me since this one isn’t based on the novel, but a play that was adapted from the novel. This is also one of the first actual on film appearance of Dracula under the correct name as well.
What I found interesting is that in the first 5 minutes, we’re establishing most of the basic lore of the vampire. We learn that they’re nocturnal and weak to sunlight. We know that religious icons protect you and later we will see about vampires not casting a reflection in the mirror. Something else that I really liked here is that we have a man of science with Van Helsing believing that there is a vampire that is attacking London. His colleagues and those around him don’t believe though and I don’t blame them. John is really bad even though the love of his life is dying before his eyes. I really like the blending of old lore with a modern approach like we got here.
Something that is interesting about this adaptation is that it is not using the novel, but the play. The reason there is probably due to the fact that it was easier since it was already on the stage. What doesn’t necessarily work for me are all of the changes a lot of to the characters. I don’t mind making Dr. Seward as Mina’s father. It does completely remove the character of Quincy Morris and Arthur Holmwood as well. There’s something else that is removed that I will delve into next.
My major problem would be there isn’t much of a mystery or investigation. Something I tend to run into when it comes to these Universal films is a basic story and lack of a subplot. A lot of this could be that they are early cinema. This version of the story completely cuts of Van Helsing taking the suitors of Lucy to her coffin to prove and destroy her as a vampire. This does hurt the movie for me and how it ends was a bit too abrupt as well. They never do travel back to Transylvania which also is a misstep. I shouldn’t harp too much as this is a variation on the story, but there are other movies out there that do the story more justice in my opinion.
For a positive though, acting though is really good. Lugosi kills it as the iconic character. When you look and hear him speak, I think that he is a Dracula. He is the second best Dracula of all time just behind Lee in my opinion, which is saying a lot for the amount of versions there are of this story. I do enjoy the gentleman take on the role for sure. The best acting performance in the film for me though was Frye. He was amazing as Renfield and I was blown away by his performance. He comes off as crazy and it was highly believable, but there are moments where he gains clarity as well. It just works for me. Aside from that, I’d say that Chandler, Manners, Van Sloan, Bunston as well as the rest of the cast rounds out the film well for what they needed.
Being that this film is from 1931, the effects were done practical and don’t always look great. I actually don’t mind it though due to the era this film was made and what technology they had to work with. The bats clearly don’t fly as they would in real life, but they aren’t much better than you’d see in films from like the 1970s or CGI ones you see now. There also a spider that was bad, but there’s a bit of charm there. I do like that they focus in on Lugosi’s eyes, highlighting them with a light. It shows us that he has the power to entice and I liked that. The editing is fine. The film has a low running time. It does build some tension, but not enough. I think part of the problem here is things are just revealed instead of more investigation.
Now with that said, this film is a classic. It helped kick off the Universal Monster films, back when the horror genre was taken from great literature. I enjoy this film, but feel the story could have benefited from a subplot or two to help bolster the story or even just including some more aspects from the book. The acting was really good. The effects aren’t great, but I have a soft spot for them being the era they were from. The editing does build tension, but the issue with the basic story affects the tension. The score is solid as well. I do have to warn you that this film is in black and white as well as being from the 30s. If that is an issue, then I would avoid this, but if that’s not a problem I would recommend a viewing. It is a classic and a good film.
My Rating: 8 out of 10