Dracula (1931) is the definitive take on the most famous vampire ever made. Created by Irish author Bram Stoker as far back as 1897, Dracula is one of the most famous books ever written. It has been terrifying readers for generations, but the printed word couldn’t contain the bloodthirsty monster. Count Dracula has appeared in every form of media there is. Books, movies, TV, video games, stage plays, and even breakfast cereal. I’m actually eating Count Chocula cereal as I write this review. I consider myself a vampire expert since they’ve had more exposure than any other monster.
Dracula is practically vampire royalty. Most people believe Vlad the Impaler to be his primary inspiration. Stoker mostly drew from Transylvanian folklore and vampire legend. His story inspired the famously unauthorized silent film Nosferatu. Universal monsters all began when the studio properly obtained the rights to the character. Although I never knew a Spanish film was also made by Universal in 1931. The English version of Dracula was a major step forward as a Hollywood horror movie that was consistently scary throughout. Although I admired Dracula when I watched it as a child, I never appreciated it as much as I do as an adult…
Dracula (1931) is the definitive portrayal, but it isn’t the most faithful. The movie is actually inspired by both the Bram Stoker novel and a 1924 play. Dracula is the first depiction of the vampire as anything other than a hideous monster. Even Nosferatu maintained a mostly accurate book description. The image of Dracula was forever changed with the casting of Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. Turning Count Dracula into a handsome and charming vampire with dark slicked back hair who could more convincingly manipulate his victims. Dracula notably wears a suit with a theatrical high collar cape. Although black & white, the color red is very much implied.
Unlike the book, Renfield is the solicitor traveling to Transylvania instead of Jonathan Harker. Much like the village in the movie, Transylvania has forever been associated with vampires. Ignoring all warnings, Renfield heads to Dracula’s castle driven by the Count himself. Vampires are known for there many strengths and weaknesses. The film uses any method it can to portray them. Everyone knows Dracula can turn into a bat, but only true experts know he can become a wolf or even mist. The latter two are implied, while the former is only done off-screen. Bats are achieved with crude puppetry. Count Dracula makes his iconic introduction when he awakens from a coffin. He’s joined by his beautiful unnamed brides who have a very small part in the movie.
Dracula is made even more eerie with the complete absence of a score. Director Tod Browning was more known for silent films, but the real reason is cost. Only in the late 90’s did composer Philip Glass score the movie. Dracula famously bids Reinfield welcome and poetically points out the music made by the “children of the night.” Reinfield helps Dracula move from Transylvania to London since vampires can’t survive in the sunlight. His thirst is first depicted when Reinfield cuts his finger, but the almighty cross compels him. Reinfield only becomes a mindless slave when he drinks the wine that Dracula gives him. Hypnotism is depicted with haunting closeups on Lugosi’s eyes.
Dwight Frye is the perfect raving lunatic who makes Reinfield just as creepy as the Count. Dracula drinks the blood of innocent women in London, but his fangs are never shown. He continues to manipulate Reinfield as he’s locked in a sanitarium for wanting to consume flies, spiders, and rats. Other primary characters are altered with the renamed John Harker being given a less central role. Though David Manners does a fine job as the concerned fiancée of Mina Harker. Another change is making Mina the daughter of asylum owner Dr. Seward. Dracula creepily preys on Lucy Weston as she sleeps and she becomes a vampire off-screen.
Edward Van Sloan confidently takes on the role of famous vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. As Dracula’s archenemy, Van Helsing is a professor who figures out the vampire’s secret and prepares himself with all necessary weapons. Wolfsbane replaces garlic as a repellent, but holy objects like a cross will always work best. Van Helsing also uses a small mirror, shot to look like Dracula has no reflection. None of it is enough to keep Dracula away from Mina. Helen Chandler is excellent at portraying Mina’s innocence as a human and her uncontrollable thirst as a vampire. John and Van Helsing track Dracula to his London castle where they drive a stake through his heart. Ending the curse on Mina since you have to kill the head vampire. Although Bela Lugosi hated being typecast, his depiction of Dracula is a cinematic icon. Dracula is a sophisticated horror movie legend.
Followed by: Dracula’s Daughter