The 1930s were a golden age for multiple movie genres. While many associate this decade with the rise of the gangster film, it was also a high point for cinematic horror, specifically at Universal Studios with its monster movie phase. Filled with notable titles, the Universal Monsters period included the release of classics like Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and, of course, Dracula, which was directed by Tod Browning and released in 1931. Remembered to this day as one of the definitive adaptions of Stoker’s original text, the film is indeed iconic in many respects. From its cavernous sets to star Bela Lugosi’s immortal turn as the film’s titular villain, Browning’s Dracula is a solid, sturdy riff on its source material. It isn’t, however, the equal of other adaptations that both preceded and followed it, and it doesn’t rank as one of director Browning’s best works.
Based on the 1920’s Broadway adaptation of Stoker’s Gothic shocker, the plot of the 1931 Dracula is fairly faithful to the original story; although, the filmmakers do take some liberties. For instance, instead of Jonathan Harker being the solicitor who first encounters Count Dracula on assignment in Transylvania, the Browning version injects the character of Renfield into this role.
This is a minor change, one which doesn’t really alter the progression of events found in the novel. Like Harker, Renfield is attacked by Dracula in the villain’s mountaintop castle and transformed into his manic slave. He and the bloodsucker then return to London, England together. Operating under the auspices of leasing a decrepit old building, Dracula soon begins wreaking havoc on the city, assaulting a young woman almost immediately after coming ashore. He then meets many of the other famous Stoker characters, including Jonathan Harker, his fiance Mina, her friend Lucy and Dr. Seward, who here is recast as Mina’s father. As in the original novel, Dracula develops quite the interest in this particular group. He attacks Lucy, killing her quickly, before turning his sights on Mina. The group responds by enlisting the help of batty, old Dr. Van Helsing, who is able to discern the true nature of Dracula and prepare a strategy for fighting back.
Dracula is a film of its time, which is not meant to imply that it is dull or perfunctory. The film simply possesses a look and feel synonymous with the era of ambitious studio productions. The film’s massive sets are a primary example of this: big, hulking structures that imbue many scenes with a transporting power. As in most adaptations, the scenes set at Dracula’s castle contain the most obvious visual panache. For instance, the grand staircase which leads into the castle, and where Lugosi’s Count first greets Renfield, is so nightmarishly massive that it almost defies description. Production designers Herman Rosse and John Hoffman, who went uncredited at the time of the film’s release, must have knocked themselves out providing the epic scope contained in these scenes. It isn’t sustained throughout the film, particularly when the action transitions to the westernmost regions of Europe and character interaction begins occurring predominantly in a series of flat-looking rooms.
Even without Hoffman and Rosse’s overwhelming sets, DP Karl Freund is able to craft several atmospheric shots through harnessing the power of melodramatic lighting. The focus of his technique is frequently the eyes of Lugosi’s monster, lending the demon a real sense of intensity and malice. Without question, this simple aesthetic feature is more credible than many of the film’s other effects. There are several moments in the film where Dracula – being a shape-shifter – transforms into a bat and menaces other characters. For obvious reasons, director Browning eschewed using a real bat, instead employing a ridiculous, synthetic stand-in. My best guess is that these moments are supposed to be taken seriously. Yet, the artifice is so obvious that it’s hard to imagine even a 1930’s viewer not shaking their heads and howling with laughter. They look like a child’s toy being moved around by flimsy pieces of string.
In many ways, the acting styles employed by the film’s primary players are just as stylized as the film’s aesthetics. As Renfield, Dwight Frye offers a totally unhinged portrait of madness. With bulging eyes, erratic movements and lip-smacking cackles, his work in Dracula is both unsettling and somewhat hilarious. It’s a performance congruent with the original source material, which characterizes Renfield as frequently and frighteningly unpredictable.
Many of the other primary characters are not quite as compelling. Jonathan Harker is one of those roles that is absolutely thankless, and this particular adaptation is no different. David Manners is incapable of elevating the part, and his Jonathan remains confined to being a feckless doofus. Other actors like Edward Von Sloan (who plays Van Helsing) fare better, exuding the right amount of authority. However, as Mina, Helen Chandler is somewhat wasted, her character is stripped of the agency Mina displays in the original novel. This quality was thankfully restored in later films like Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu.
As the main man himself, Lugosi’s performance as Dracula is an immortal part of the canon. From a heavily stylized physicality, to iconic articulations of dialogue, Lugosi, pardon the pun, “stakes” a claim to the part. Lugosi’s turn as the Count is also one of the first on-screen to emphasize the character’s aristocratic side. This quality is so palpable that when characters occasionally resist his telepathic powers it seems that Dracula’s angry response has to do with his elitism, rather than him being simply a murdering psychopath.
Coming towards the tail end of his career, Dracula is one of the films for which director Browning is the most well-known, the other being 1932’s Freaks. Insanely controversial at the time of its release, Freaks is now regarded as a horror classic and even today inspires with its audacious power. Dracula feels somewhat sanitized and conventional by comparison. Despite its fascinating, sanguinary villain, the film is a little too bloodless – both visually and thematically. Only some of the freakish eroticism – wildly prevalent in Coppola’s 1992 adaptation – comes across, and the xenophobic anxieties conveyed by Murnau’s original Nosferatu are even less apparent. Basically, Browning’s Dracula has the aesthetics and performances necessary to make a good adaptation of Stoker’s novel. However, it’s missing the key ingredient of hot-blooded passion.