Director: Tod Browning
Writer: Garrett Fort
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Joan Standing, and Charles Gerrard
Composer: Heinz Roemheld (Uncredited)
Release Date: 2/14/1931
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
After traveling to Transylvania for the purpose of finalizing a real estate transaction, Renfield (Dwight Frye) is put under the spell of a charming but predatory vampire named Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). Upon arriving at his new home of Carfax Abbey, Dracula fixates upon Lucy (Frances Dade) and her friend Mina (Helen Chandler), the fiancée of John Harker (David Manners) and daughter of Renfield’s caretaker Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston). Given the bizarre nature of Renfield’s craving for insects, Seward seeks advice from Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan)—the only man with the combined knowledge and fortitude to end Dracula’s reign of terror once and for all.
An iconic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel, Dracula brings to life the gothic atmosphere of its source material despite emphasizing many drastic differences in narrative structure. In addition to its powerful use of symbolism, this presentation will appeal to fans with an appreciation for those classic movies that shaped the modern horror genre.
The quintessential vampire performance, Bela Lugosi’s representation of Dracula embodies a certain mesmerizing yet terrifying quality that few actors have since managed to emulate without resorting to cartoonish stereotypes, let alone overshadow. Dracula’s sinister attributes are never accentuated more effectively than in the castle sequences, during which an assortment of cobwebs, coffins, and creepy-crawlies of the carnivorous variety draw attention to the death and decay that follow the title character wherever he happens to establish himself.
Also commendable is Dwight Frye’s portrayal of Renfield, which, though comically exaggerated at times, works to exemplify the mental and spiritual torment of a man whose moral freedom has been stripped away by forces beyond his comprehension. Substituting the role of Jonathan Harker as depicted in Stoker’s novel, Renfield begins his journey as a daring but sympathetic real estate agent whose abrupt descent into madness should allow audiences to fully grasp the dehumanizing effect stemming from Dracula’s corruptive influence.
By failing to maintain a cinematic presence upon transitioning from Transylvania to London, Dracula too closely resembles the stage production that inspired it. Tod Browning’s bland approach to storytelling becomes especially problematic when addressing Lucy’s fate, which is revealed only through expository dialogue and never explicitly shown onscreen.
At its core, Dracula is a simple but visually striking metaphor that represents an unequivocal struggle between good and evil; specifically, Van Helsing relies upon Christian iconography to overpower a vampire whose very name implies kinship with the devil (also translated to “dragon” in more archaic contexts). While such themes are hampered by an anticlimactic ending wherein Van Helsing is given no choice but to slay his antagonist in cold blood, the poignant imagery used to convey Dracula’s most central conflict has no doubt impacted the modern vampire mythos in ways that cannot be overstated.
Though occasionally sluggish, Dracula makes for a chilling inaugural chapter to Universal Studios’ groundbreaking series of (non-silent) monster films. Exceptionally remarkable are the performances of Lugosi and Frye, both of which have left a lasting impression on the minds of susceptible moviegoers in the decades following Dracula’s Hollywood debut.
Overall Quality: 8/10
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