From the DVD case:
Although there have been numerous screen versions of Bram Stoker’s classic tale, none is more enduring than the 1931 original. The ominous portrayal of Could Dracula by Bela Lugosi, combined with horror specialist director Tod Browning, help to create the film’s eerie mood. Dracula remains a masterpiece not only of the genre, but for all time. (1931, b&w)
The audience that viewed Dracula for the first time in 1931 had some advantages going in that we don’t have the privilege of today. First, they were not yet numb to onscreen blood and violence, and therefore could appreciate the subtlety of the film.
Less importantly, they did not have the foreknowledge of Lugosi’s later films. For me, anyway, it is difficult to watch Dracula without thinking of Mr. Lugosi in the roles that would eventually diminish his stature as a serious actor. Dracula isn’t quite so frightening when you’re thinking of him as Dr. Eric Vornoff from Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.
But don’t get me wrong, Dracula is a great film. I love the fantastic sets, especially the Transylvania scenes and the shots of Carfax Abbey. The story also remains intriguing even after all these years. The acting seems stagy by today’s standards, but it lends to the ancient atmosphere.
Of interest is the lack of music in Dracula. At some points you perceive an unsettling silence. If you purchase the Dracula Legacy Collection you can listen to the movie with a score composed by Phillip Glass.While the music is beautiful (performed by the Kronos Quartet) it has a tendency to overpower the film. I actually prefer the original score (or lack of score) over the Phillip Glass treatment.
Dwight Fry (Frankenstein, The Vampire Bat) is wonderfully entertaining as Renfield. It’s not easy to forget Renfield’s laugh after hearing it. Mr. Fry portrayed a lunatic so well that he would be typecast as a madman for the remainder of his career.
Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy) is powerful and wise as Prof. Abraham Van Helsing. I much prefer this 1931 version of Van Helsing over the newer, “hip” version portrayed in Stephen Sommers movie Van Helsing. Of course, I prefer watching reruns of Scooby-Doo over the Stephen Sommers’s film.
Helen Chandler and Frances Dade play Mina Seward and Lucy Weston, respectively. No complaints here, except that some of Mina’s scenes with Jonathan Harker (David Manners) seem awkward, overly-dramatic and at times, comical.
Of course, this is Bela Lugosi’s picture, and he does bring an exotic element to the story. When people do imitations of Dracula, you are far more likely to hear a Lugosi inflection in the voice than a Christopher Lee. Lugosi’s Dracula is certainly the most iconic.
Lugosi can be genuinely eerie, especially when he arrives as the coachman to pick up Renfield at the Borgo Pass. Other times, he is less effective. When Dracula speaks to Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) in the balcony, the doctor seems to tower over the Count. Lugosi looks almost ridiculous in comparison. A little more attention to stage direction could have helped this scene, but it does not significantly diminish Dracula’s eeriness.
My least favorite character in the film is Martin the orderly (Charles K. Gerrard) who is used for comedy relief. He might be appropriate for an Abbott and Costello picture, but he is extremely distracting here.
Overall, this is a wonderfully entertaining and atmospheric film, and it gets extra points for its historical significance.
Dracula is directed by Tod Browning (Freaks, Mark of the Vampire).
Scene to watch for: Dracula’s castle seems to have an armadillo problem.
Line to listen for: “Isn’t this a strange conversation, for people who aren’t crazy?”
Special Note: I highly recommend Universal’s Dracula The Legacy Collection.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.