Premise: The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.
1931’s Dracula, the beginning of the Universal Classic Monster films, is a work of stunning beauty and dread from the outset. The detail in the backdrops of the opening scenes is awe-inspiring and lends to an impressive scale and cinematography that has aged extremely well. Within the first few moments, we’re introduced to Count Dracula and his castle. Giant interior scenes are filled with broken staircases and cobwebs. The set design goes a long way in establishing tone and a sense of danger for every character who crosses Dracula’s path.
Dracula’s coffin room (affixed with an assortment of bugs, rodents, and armadillos) sets a specific tone and atmosphere that carries the audience through a quick 72 minute runtime. In particular, it’s the fact that the animals in the aforementioned scene don’t do anything grotesque, weird, or creepy that make them unsettling. They are just going about their evening, without any regard to the slumbering undead source of murder and mayhem nearby.
Speak of the devil, Bela Lugosi is astounding as Dracula. His movements make him glide throughout each frame. His demeanor and careful enunciation is disturbing, yet oddly comforting. He’s confident and seductive as he controls the people around him and drives some people to pure insanity. Each scene Lugosi occupies feels like Dracula has calculated his actions exactly as intended, which leads to disturbing close ups of the man, the monster.
The story of Dracula, and vampires in general, is heavily steeped in a primal, lustful feeling that permeates throughout this movie. It’s about as overt as it can be, given the era in which the film was made. But it’s through Lugosi’s terrific performance that the film’s much needed subtext is amplified a grand amount. Seeing him drawn to certain things, repulsed by other things, and carrying this seemingly all-powerful charm throughout the movie leaves you feeling engrossed in the atmosphere. By the time the character makes his way to London, all bets are off as we have been shown how powerful and mesmerizing this monster can be.
Particularly striking is the subplot involving Renfield, Dracula’s first victim and by all accounts his means to an end. There are moments of panic and isolation with Renfield in a sanitarium that provides an interesting counter to the uneasy dread that follows Dracula every time he’s on screen. Dwight Frye (who would appear in Frankenstein later in 1931 as Fritz) does an impeccable job portraying the crazed and disturbed Renfield. He becomes an element of uncertainty throughout the film as Dracula continues his work in London to great effect. Renfield is a character of conflict and complexity with a mercurial way about him that is simply spellbinding.
Edward Van Sloan’s portrayal of the timeless character (and Dracula adversary) Van Helsing takes a professorial and methodical approach. At times, he’s a step ahead of the vampiric plot but that’s not to say he’s infallible. When he comes face to face with the Count, the tension is palpable. We’ve seen Van Helsing go through the methodology of vampires, successfully deducing what is occurring. However, it’s a different energy when we see him come face to face with Dracula. The verbal dance of tension the pair engage in throughout their first meeting is the highlight of the film and its biggest strength.
At the center of the film, however, is the innocence in peril story of Mina (Helen Chandler). The story goes to some tragic places in this regard and is mainly seen through the perspective of the men close to her. Nevertheless, there is a strong sense of universality (no pun intended) and timelessness in the themes of control and manipulation that are present in Dracula. The fight for the life of Mina brings the plot home in a tense finale that also manages to be stoic in a way befitting the ghoulish Dracula.
It speaks to Bram Stoker’s legendary character as well as the people who brought it to life on stage and screen that this film has aged so wonderfully. It’s a spectacular beginning to a legendary and expansive run of monster films.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.