Release year: 1931
Director: Tod Browning, Karl Freund
Screenwriter: Garrett Fort, Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston, Bram Stoker (Novel)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade
Moviegeek Sunday Classic #1, week 24 2014
Reinfield (Dwight Frye) visits Transylvania and, despite the villagers’ warning, enters the castle of count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) with whom he has business. When Reinfield returns to England he is a changed man and he is not alone. Because with him is the eerie count with his hypnotic stare and soon his gaze is set on the beautiful and virtuous Mina (Helen Chandler). Soon the respected scientist Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) must hurry if he is to save Mina from becoming one of the count’s creatures of the night.
Count Dracula has made many many appearances on screen, this charming black and white movie from 1931 was not only the first but is also one of the best. Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi is magnetic as a dark and mysterious count with his famous hypnotic stare, an effect achieved by cinematographer Karl Freund by aiming two pencil-spot-lights into Lugosi’s eyes. He has an almost unworldly appearance so that even when he smiles he looks intimidating. Lugosi made this his part to such a degree that it was difficult for him to succeed as an actor afterwards, as he was only offered similar parts. So convincing and iconic was his performance that people found it difficult to see him as anyone other that the Transylvanian vampire. When he died of a heart attack in 1956, his wife and son had him buried in the costume of the character that made his name known all over the world. Even today it is hard to imagine this adaption of Bram Stoker’s famous novel with anyone else in the lead, and the question is if it would have been just as succesfull with a less magnetic actor playing the count.
Lugosi is supported by an excellent Dwight Frye, equally convincing as the straightforward and ignorant businessman who enters Dracula’s castle as he is as the lunatic that returns to England. His lines are spoken with theatrical power and his eyes manage to pierce even the black and white screen, only beaten by the aforementioned hypnotic stare of the vampire. Helen Chandler is well casted as the fragile innocent beauty with sweet appearances. She is a perfect damsel in distress while still managing to look powerful when required. Edward Van Sloan fills the role of the wise and mature Van Helsing as well as he can with the slightly underwritten part he has.
The effects of the movie are great considering the time in which it was made. Yes, that is obviously a plastic bat, but I never saw the strings! The fog creeping in looks so convincing I didn’t even wonder if it was real or not, and they solve a lot of the more difficult elements to film by having them take place out of the picture. The first half of the movie is a bit marked by the studio’s demand to cut cost which forced them to film in sequences, and it is without doubt the second half in which Dracula is in England that works best; the characters added there suit the storyline tremendously, especially as the tension is raised by Dracula preying on female victims and Van Helsing enters as a suitable enemy to the undead antihero.
Today this is not particularly scary, but it is without doubt a classic and a must-see for any horror fan. Before teenage hormones went nuts in Twillight (2008) and blood was splattered by zombie-like vampires in 30 Days of Night (2007), this is where it all began.
The original release ended with Edward Van Sloan talking to the audience about what they had just seen. This was removed for the 1936 release and the footage is now assumed lost.
If you want to watch the movie yourself, you can purchase it by clicking the image below:
Picture copyright: Universal Pictures