My local library has been screening the classic Universal Monster Movies every Saturday night this month, which is just about the greatest thing any library has ever done (besides, you know, storing all of that knowledge). They kicked off the month with 1941’s The Wolf Man, but I think they saved the best for last—1931’s Dracula (this weekend they’re showing a non-Universal Monster flick).
The film version is based on a popular stage play from the time, which was a smash hit on Broadway. That version, of course, was based on Bram Stoker’s chilling Gothic horror. The filmmakers also pulled inspiration from the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, which was used the novel as source material without authorization from the Stoker family.
As much as I love vampire movies, I realized while watching Dracula that—much to my discredit—I’d never actually seen it all the way through. It’s amazing how well it holds up after ninety years. That’s right—Dracula, which spawned the title villain’s popularity on the silver screen, is ninety-years old.
But, again, it really holds up. It’s not terrifying by today’s standards, but watching it I could easily see how it would terrify audiences in 1931. The atmosphere of Dracula’s castle; Dracula’s ethereal brides; and, most of all, Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance all combine to make for a suspenseful opening.
In a formula we’ve all come to expect by now, but which this film established, a Londoner (in this case, Renfield), shows up in an Eastern European village and inquires about meeting Count Dracula’s midnight stage coach. The villagers are scared, and warn Renfield against the meeting, but he ignores their pleas and heads up to meet the Count. Dracula’s castle is dilapidated and covered in cobwebs, which clearly freaks out Renfield, but he continues on with his business.
There’s a great scene—apparently lifted from Nosferatu—in which Renfield pricks his finger on a paperclip. The small bit of blood draws Dracula in, practically licking his lips, before a crucifix falls across Renfield’s hand from his coat pocket, causing Dracula to recoil dramatically. All throughout this opening, the camera work focuses on Dracula’s eyes, which are cleverly lit to suggest the hypnotic power of his gaze.
I’ll confess that I spent a good bit of the flick chatting with my neighbor, but I still loved this film. It was fascinating seeing the inspiration for so many other Dracula flicks, and done in such a simple but effective way. Van Helsing, who has become something like an undead-hunting super hero in some adaptations, is just a white-haired, bespectacled professor working at a sanitarium. Despite his humble appearance, he’s tough, confronting Dracula with a mirror box, which the villain bats away in disgust (because there’s no reflection, of course).
Dracula’s enchantment-seduction of Mina is spooky, too, as she becomes callous and indifferent to her doting fiancé, John Harker. She can apparently communicate with Dracula in his bat form, too, which confuses Harker to no end.
What I found really interesting about this flick is how Dracula is so close to his enemies, and vice-versa. That’s pretty bold—he’s pretty much begging them to pick him off. He is incredibly confident in his power, but that hubris ultimately becomes his downfall.
All in all, I heartily recommend checking out the “original” Dracula. It’s obviously not a scene-for-scene adaptation of the novel (as it is adapted from the play), but it’s the quintessential film version of the Dracula mythos. The way we think about this character is probably shaped more by this film than by Stoker’s novel itself. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but it doesn’t matter—it just is, and no one ever saw Dracula the same after this flick. Bela Lugosi’s portrayal is the version of Dracula we see in our nightmares, even if we haven’t seen the movie.
Check it out—and Happy Halloween!