There are certain films that are so iconic, their imagery lives on through cinema. The first-ever Dracula film, Tod Browning’s 1931 version, is one of these films. That image of Dracula we all intuitively recognise – suave, sophisticated, boasting an instantly recognisable accent – it all comes from here. Bela Lugosi became the Dracula, setting the marker against which all later Draculas would be judged. But, outside of his portrayal, does the film still hold up on its own accord? Nearly ninety years later, I finally sat down and watched this horror staple, and I have many thoughts.
But, outside of his portrayal, does the film still hold up on its own accord?
The film is vaguely an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s book, although it mixes in elements of the 1922 German horror Nosferatu and the Broadway version of Dracula. Solicitor Renfield (Dwight Frye) is summoned to Transylvania on a business matter with Count Dracula – Dracula attacks him and turns him into his slave. The two return to England, where Dracula occupies Carfax Abbey. He meets a cast of characters including Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), on whom he sets his sights to feast. But his true nature is suspected by Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who does everything in his power to protect the living and defeat the vampire.
My immediate impression is quite how static the whole film feels. It owes a lot to the stage play and, in many ways, it feels as if you’re watched a play – everything is so oddly stilted, with so little movement that it really is noticeable. This feeling is compounded by a lack of any incidental score, save (for some reason) an excerpt from Swan Lake in the opening credits. This is down to the cost of creating an original score, but the movie does suffer as a result. I know we’re coming to this as modern viewers, but there are certain scenes in which you’d expect the music to swell or do something, and things look a little silly when it doesn’t. One example is the first time we meet Dracula – it’s just a really long shot of him walking down stairs, and dramatic music would go a long way.
It’s also very true that some of the acting in this film is very of its time. David Manners as John Harker is the worst culprit, a drippy romantic lead who never feels overly interesting and who has a single emotional reaction to everything that happens. Attacked by a bat, watching the opera, listening to Van Helsing – whatever it is, he always feels like a petulant child. I also don’t understand why we had a comic relief character in one of the attendants, who looks after Renfield and gives him nicknames. A lot is cut in this version of Dracula, yet we have this bizarre new addition for no good reason – he adds little, and he completely breaks the mood.
Dracula is really quite good at creating a mood – it doesn’t always come across, but some of the sequences are really still effective.
After ninety years, Dracula is really quite good at creating a mood – it doesn’t always come across, but some of the sequences are really still effective. When Dracula first arrives in England, he prowls through the fog like Jack the Ripper, and it’s a really atmospheric shot. The Van Helsing character has a terrible knack of over-explaining, but Van Sloan shines opposite Lugosi. There’s a scene in which Dracula tries to hypnotise Van Helsing, and it’s really very tense – this is something I haven’t seen in other vampire films, and I was engaged at this point. I should also sing the praises of Dwight Frye, whose insane laughs and transition from solicitor to slave is genuinely chilling. His acting at the film’s climax is great – more of that through the film would have elevated it.
I’m not going to attack the flimsy special effects (a bat clearly on some string, for example), but these are of their time, and there’s a certain charm to them. It’s the structural problems that make Dracula a bit of a hard watch. It does a lot, but over-explains and under-explains in equal frustrating measure. It builds to a grand finale and then just… ends, a disappointing climax for a still-genuinely menacing villain. It has some good sequences, but a lot of the film is static and unengaging. I can’t deny its importance, but it now feels like a bit of a period piece – one to check out as a horror fan, but certainly not the most enjoyable time you’ll ever spend.