Continuing with the month of horror it is time to step into the Golden Age of Cinema. In 1931 Universal Studios released Dracula based off of the novel by Bram Stoker. This was not the first time that Dracula had been adapted to film, during the 1920s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror was released in Germany based off of the novel but had to have many names changed to avoid copyright infringement. As one of the classic monster movies made by Universal, alongside Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy Dracula is a key horror movie for, not only fans of the genre, but cinema goers everywhere.
The plot resembles that of the novel fairly well and has become well known among the general populace. A solicitor named Renfield (played by Dwight Frye) visits Transylvania to broker a property deal with the elusive Count Dracula (played by Bela Lugosi) despite the pleas of local villagers. It quickly transpires that Dracula is a vampire who bites Renfield and makes him his slave. Renfield manages to smuggle Dracula to England where he is sent to an asylum while Dracula goes around as a respectable nobleman. He makes the acquaintance of several upper class Londoners, John Harker (David Manners), his fiance Mina (Helen Chandler) and Lucy Weston (Frances Dade). Meanwhile Dr Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan) finds out why Renfield is acting in a peculiar way and has to team up with Harker to save Mina from being made a vampire before it is too late.
Like the novel that it is based on the plot is quite captivating. With a simple premise it pulls it off effectively. Compared to many modern vampire films the plot to Dracula moves at a slow pace but this is not detrimental to the film. Instead of continuous plot progression, such as in The Lost Boys, Dracula allows a slower pace to build up tension making key plot points to play off well. A key scene is when Dracula is leaning over Mina ready to bite her. Instead of a few seconds of him biting her you see Dracula slowly creep up on her, slowly lean over her allowing tension to build up. You become so tense to see if Dracula bites her or is interrupted by a character allowing further enjoyment of the film. There are lots of talking in the film also benefiting to the plot. It helps build up atmosphere without appearing dull. Although easily the best dialogue is between Van Helsing and Dracula. Both are aware of each other's true identities but their polite demeanor does not betray it. It seems to be a battle of wits. The only downside to the plot is the end (due to the popularity of the film it is given that Dracula is slain). Thanks to 1930s censorship how Dracula meets his end seems rushed and unimpressive which hinders the overall feeling of accomplishment.
The acting is good but the acting of Bela Lugosi, Edward van Sloan and Dwight Frye overshadows the other actors. Bela Lugosi as Dracula is staggering. His thick accent, slow methodical voice and small devilish smile is exactly what you imagine the vampire lord to be like. His stare is unbelievable. Lugosi is known for his hypnotic stare and in Dracula it truly hypnotizes you. Near the start of the film when he says 'Children of the night. What music they make.' when referring to wolves howling is unnerving. He is a man to be feared. Lugosi as Dracula has actually influenced other portrayals of Dracula. Lugosi used his native Romanian accent which almost every version of Dracula since has copied and his gentlemanly looks in contrast to his hideous portrayal in the novel can be directly linked to Lugosi playing the vampire.
Frye as Renfield is so melodramatic that it is captivating. His juxtaposition from a smart, Victorian gentlemen at the start of the film to a raving lunatic at the end shows how good he is as an actor. The scene where he cries for rats is so dramatic that it becomes unnerving. Sloan as Van Helsing again is phenomenal with his austere initial image and how he still sounds professional despite talking about fantastical creatures. Few actors could have pulled it off so believably. The rest of the acting is good but not spectacular. Compared to other Universal horrors like Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man none really stand out and leave you with a lingering lasting image.
Setting and Filming
The set design is amazing. Intricately detailed and overwhelming in magnificence the sets are mind blowing. The cobweb in Dracula's castle alone adds such level of detail to the film. You feel that you are in a Gothic castle and the tropes of a haunted castle such as cobwebs, fog and long shadows add to the foreboding atmosphere that the film presents. It is easy to see why this film helped establish those tropes in the popular culture. Director Tod Browning has definitely used this to his advantage. The long shot of Renfield looking up the staircase to see Dracula slowly descend creates an awe inspiring and yet uneasy feel to the film's atmosphere. Even lighting is done to great effect with the long shadows in the opening and ending helping create unease, that you are in Dracula's domain, and how Bela Lugosi's eyes are highlighted by the light while the rest of his face is hidden makes his stare even more effective.
The music is well done. Using an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake actually works to the films' benefit. Turning a song of grace to one of chills helps make a stunning atmosphere to terrify the audience. Dracula was made in the early days of sound film so the makers of the film did not know how much musical score to use in case it put the audience off. Hence at many times of the film there are long silences which now would be filled with music. This turned out to be a good choice with it effectively building up tension. As with the earlier mentioned scene when Dracula goes to bite Mina there is a long pause in the music. Thus it creates a tension that you want broken. With music Dracula has shown that sometimes less is more.
In conclusion for its great music, phenomenal acting from Lugosi and Frye, detailed setting and good pacing but with mediocre acting from other cast members and a seemingly rushed ending I give Dracula 7.8/10. Being one of the Golden Era Universal monster movies it set up many expectations of what a horror movie could do. For any fan of horrors, or anyone wanting to get into horrors, who wishes to watch a Universal horror Dracula is one of the first films that you must watch.