What would a Halloween movie collection be without at least one entry from the classic Universal horror series? It’d certainly be incomplete. And really, if I’m going to pick a single classic horror movie, then I can’t think of a better option than the 1931 classic, Dracula. I’d imagine that most people are aware of this film, and its huge legacy in terms of shaping much of the vampire mythos in popular culture.
I certainly knew that most subsequent portrayals of vampires, and specifically of Count Dracula owe at least something to Bella Lugosi’s performance in this film. But, having never seen it, I was left wondering whether or not it was actually any good as a film.
Having now seen it, I think it is. I certainly have some reservations, but with a film this old, it’s sometimes hard to find the right standards to use when criticizing certain aspects.
The film begins with Renfield (Dwight Frye) an English solicitor traveling through the back country of Transylvania to meet with a client. Despite warnings of danger from the locals, he proceeds unabashed to his midnight meeting with a mysterious carriage that will take him to the castle home of his client, a local nobleman, Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). After he arrives at the spooky mountain castle and meets with the immaculate Dracula, we learn that the reason for Renfield’s trip is to finalize the Count’s purchase of an old Abbey just outside London, and to arrange shipment for three “boxes” from Castle Dracula to this Abbey. Oh, and also it turns out that Count Dracula is (SPOILER) a real vampire! Dracula and his mysterious vapiric wives surround Renfield, and the next time we see him, he is hardly recognizable, a lunatic thrall of the vampire. Renfield accompanies and protects the Count’s boxes on their voyage to England, and, when the ship pulls into harbor is the only person on board left alive. He is committed to a sanitarium, which just happens to be next door to the Abbey purchased by Count Dracula. The sanitarium is run by Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston), who lives on the grounds along with his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler).
One night at the opera, Dracula introduces himself to his new neighbors, as well as Mina’s fiancée John Harker (David Manners), and the family friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade). Shortly thereafter Lucy dies under mysterious circumstances. When Mina starts exhibiting strange symptoms, and with no explanation for the strange behavior of his patient, Renfield, Doctor Seward decides to call in an expert, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). From there the tension is slowly ratcheted up, leading to the inevitable confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula.
This process of building tension is well done. Unfortunately the ultimate showdown is more than a little anti-climatic. The performance given by Frye as Renfield; his transformation from buttoned down attorney, to raving lunatic is fantastic. Yet, to the end Frye allows glimpses of Renfield’s humanity to show through. Watching the character’s devolution is simultaneously amusing and disturbing, which is a pretty great mix in a horror movie. Of course, when discussing acting performances, I would have to be mad myself not to acknowledge the title role, which is only one of the most well known performances in cinema history. Lugosi’s iconic performance as Dracula is both powerful and chilling. Despite the primitive special effects its easy to see how the blend of sophistication and soullessness embodied by the character could be so terrifying. Dracula presents a constant and barely concealed menace, and yet, aside from Van Helsing none of the denizens of sophisticated, modern, 20th century London can bring themselves that this apparently civilized nobleman could possibly be this mythical monster. Watching as they slowly become convinced of the reality of the situation is really an interesting process. This is a good thing, because really, it’s the meat of the movie.
By contrast, the conclusion comes quickly and is fairly anti-climactic. The entirety of what should be the third act of the film is wrapped up in a couple scenes. The final confrontation is virtually non-existent. There is a pretty good final moment between Dracula and Renfield, but even that feels half-rushed. Right up until the end there’s plenty of potential for conflict but it never seems to develop. It’s almost as if the filmmakers had lost interest in the film and just decided to quickly resolve the main issues, and call it a day. Then the movie just kind of… ends. There are a few storylines that are just sort-of dropped. We see the fate of Mina, Renfield, and (presumably) Dracula, but there’s no indication as to what happens with the rest of Dracula’s vampire thralls. Apparently the film’s original release contained an epilogue, but from the descriptions I’ve read, this didn’t really do much to resolve the issues I’ve mentioned here.
Still, in spite of these issues, this is really an excellent monster movie. Despite the primitive technology involved some of the special effects actually surprised me with their quality. The film is packed with powerful visuals, and the lack of a score really heightens the pure atmosphere of fear throughout the film’s middle act. Even if this film didn’t hold up particularly well, it would be worth watching just for its place in movie history, but it does hold up quite well. Part of this may be attributed do the fact that it moves along quite nicely, (the film is only about 80 minutes long,) but I think more is attributable to the fantastic acting performances that created some truly memorable characters, and to the magnificent tension which is only moderately let down by a lackluster final act. This abrupt conclusion does prevent me from even seriously considering ranking this Dracula as a “must see”, but it is absolutely worth seeing.