For the unindoctrinated, there is a rock band called Steel Panther that started in Hollywood, California that is probably the greatest parody band of all time. Their schtick is that they don’t know that the ‘80s are over, and they continue to churn out hilariously good hair metal. I would argue that they are the greatest hair-metal band of all time, even with their parody nature. The opposite is true of 1931’s Dracula, which is the absolute best vampire movie of all time and plays it straight.
The adaptation of Dracula from book to stage to film is a convoluted one that has to an interesting story (that I won’t be covering) that revolves around the cost of the rights to Bram Stoker’s book, the cost of the rights to the stage play, production costs, and the Great Depression. All in all, Dracula could have been a disaster. The original person Universal wanted to star in the film, Lon Cheney, passed away. The director, normally meticulous, was drinking heavily and sloppy on set. The film had some awful casting choices, with ’30s leading man David Manners delivering an awkward and stilted performance that lacked chemistry with his female co-star, Helen Chandler, being the most obvious of the bunch. This all fades away with star Bela Lugosi’s performance, haunting, intimidating, creepy, and intense. Lugosi’s famous stare is chilling, especially without the introduction of a sound track in a later re-release. Herbert Bunston is serviceable in a role that he played on stage, which ultimately is relatively minor but compliments the performance of Edward Van Sloan playing Van Helsing. Van Sloan and Lugosi play off each other brilliantly, and every moment they share on screen together is palpable in a second half that is mainly dialogue. This film could have been awful, but it is a gem.
The adaptation itself does deviate from Bram Stoker’s novel, and was implemented before production codes could impede some of the more violent or controversial content within the film and book. The abrupt ending, however, does a disservice to the film as it feels like it just ends without wrapping things up. As a fan of foreign films, I don’t mind this and I find it refreshing compared to later films of the area that have a need to wrap things up in a nice bow for the audience. Leaving the film open ended is much more interesting, allowing for the audience to assume what might come next. It also gives the audience probably its first option to really root for the monster as opposed to the leading man. The film itself is paced pretty well, although short and glossing over large parts of the book it lends itself to an easy watch.
The work that Universal did with the sets is incredibly varied, with different mileage out of each set. The opening scene with Renfield, who is the unsung show stealer of the film, is very obviously on Universal’s backlot with hills and bushes that are very obviously Southern California. With that said, the work done with matte paintings and set design to trick the camera into seeing Dracula’s castle and the abbey are brilliantly done. While this is something that modern HD cameras could not get away with today, it should teach modern filmmakers about ways that they can best utilize a mix of CGI and practical effects that will fool the eye (I’m looking at you, Wachowskis).
Normally these reviews would have a snarky remark to wrap things up, but honestly the only thing that can be said about Dracula is that it is the best vampire movie ever made. With the respect due to the innumerable actors who have portrayed vampires throughout the history of film, none are suited to the role quite like Bela Lugosi. His performance is chilling and pulls together the entire film, which underlines the shame of him not being a more recognizable and utilized leading man in Hollywood. Pair this film with a nice Chianti and some Fava beans.
When evaluating Dracula, it’s necessary to first look at F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film, Nosferatu. Why? Because Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s first adaptation found itself shelved–and all prints (ordered) destroyed after Stoker’s wife won her court case for copyright infringement. However, a few copies of the films survived, and one wound up in the hands of Dracula’s screenwriters. The film obviously pays homage (or more realistically, rips off) Nosferatu in certain scenes, which is why I think both are required viewing.
However, ignoring the obvious rips from the first adaptation, Dracula showed 1930s audiences what constituted a great horror film. Yes, it was made on a shoestring budget (and the set was reused every night for the Spanish-language film of the same name). As Buono points out in his review, Lugosi wasn’t the first (nor the second, third, fourth, etc,) choice for casting. Lugosi had been touring on stage in the hit Broadway show (a role he would reprise later in his career) and happened to have a run in Los Angeles at the time, winning the coveted role.
Unaffected by the Hays Office and their draconian requirements, Dracula doesn’t shy away from violence or gore–although by today’s standard’s, the film seems tame. However, the methodology used to create the film appeals to me–a lot of it takes place in your imagination due to the wonderful set design and powerful performances. Yes, they’re not always stellar, but one is more than capable of suspending their disbelief when watching the film.
Overall, Dracula ranks as my favorite Universal Monster film. I’m confident in saying the film gave birth to the horror genre as we know it. This isn’t to say other films didn’t leave an impact, they certainly did, but Dracula made horror a studio staple that’s never gone away. Unlike my co-hort, I’m going to recommend Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Dracula Goulash and a Bela Lugosi (for those old enough to drink).