Dracula – Classic Horror Week

Dracula is currently available on instant Netflix.

Dracula (1931)

“Bela Lugosi turns in a landmark horror performance in this 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel. Revisit Transylvania for the eerie mood created by spectacular cinematography and Lugosi’s oft-copied take on the infamous Dracula. Dwight Frye as Renfield also helps define the grotesque and sniveling sidekick role.”

“For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing.”

Universal made plenty of horror movies prior to Dracula. Their big silent horror star was Lon Chaney who not only played all the horrific roles but designed his own makeup for them as well. His Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera are iconic.

Even though Bela Lugosi was famous as Dracula in the Hamilton Deane stage play, Universal planned this for Lon Chaney. With Chaney’s untimely death (is anyone’s death timely?) in 1930, the role passed to Lugosi. Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan were the only two actors carried over from the play.

Lugosi’s performance is obviously wonderful. The actors who would later play this role for Universal (Gloria Holden, Lon Chaney Jr., and John Carradine) are positively anemic (teehee) in comparison. His accent works for him in this role and he had a very successful three-year run playing Dracula in the theater to help him know which lines and syllables to emphasize. In film, he would only repeat the role once more, in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Acting is generally stagy as this is an adaptation of a popular stage play. Edward Van Sloan is amusingly professorial as Dr. Van Helsing. Dwight Frye is a delight as the cringing Renfield and steals all of his scenes. Helen Chandler makes for a very delicate and fragile Mina and David Manners is a standard stalwart John Harker.

While he did not get credit, cinematographer Karl Freund ended up directing portions of the film as Tod Browning was still quite distraught over Chaney’s passing. Freund brought a wonderful sense of expressionism over from Germany in filming Dracula. The scene where the three brides advance on Harker is haunting.

The sets are impressive, especially the open expanses of the castle. The catacombs beneath the castle are fantastic. The atmosphere is appropriately thick and the matte paintings are quite good. The music is nice but unfortunately the sound is tinny and hissy. Universal recently released a classic horror blu-ray set that hopefully corrects this but it is very pricey.

Every night after filming was finished, a hispanic crew came in to film the Spanish version on the same sets. The Spanish version featured the same sets and essentially the same script but with a completely different cast. The Spanish version is available in the Legacy collection.

People Watch: Director Tod Browning plays the voice of the Harbormaster. Carla Laemmle, niece of Universal head honcho Carl Laemmle, gets to speak the first line of dialogue as a coach passenger.

Sequel-itis: Universal followed up with Dracula’s Daughter (1936) w/ Gloria Holden as the titular daughter and Edward Van Sloan returning as Van Helsing. Lon Chaney Jr. played Son of Dracula in 1943. After the offspring were disposed of, Universal brought back Dracula, albeit an emaciated John Carradine, with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Bela Lugosi finally returned to the role in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)