Bram Stoker, adapted by John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane for the stage, screen play by Garrett Fort.
Bela Lugosi as Dracula
Helen Chandler as Mina Seward
David Manners as John Harker
Dwight Frye as Renfield
Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing
By Dennis LeFevre
“I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.” – Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
This line, present in the Stoker novel, was immortalized by Bela Lugosi. When we think of Dracula, we usually always think of Lugosi, his image, and especially his voice. The Hungarian accent that Lugosi spoke with is how we hear Dracula speak, and if you ever hear an impression of Dracula, the impersonator is always using Lugosi’s accent.
The image of the dark, crumbling castle up in the mountains with bats hovering around the battlements comes from the 1931 Dracula, as does almost every cliche’ and stereotype we associate with Gothic horror today. It all started with Dracula.
Most of today’s audience is unaware of the impact this film had upon its release, and though Dracula has been remade many many times, this version is always the standard bearer. Many of the actors who have portrayed Dracula over the years tend to go against the Lugosi portrayal, however, Lugosi always comes to mind.
It is hard to believe that after playing the part of Dracula hundreds times to great reviews on Broadway, Lugosi was not Universal’s first choice for the film role. However, he did get the part, and with this film, the “Golden Age” of horror began.
The film opens over title cards with a portion of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful “Swan Lake”. We meet the character of Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, as he arrives at a small Transylvanian village by coach. Renfield talks with the innkeeper, telling him that he is on his way to Castle Dracula. The innkeeper warns Renfield (Harker in Stoker’s novel) to stay away from the castle because after sunset Dracula and his wives rise from their coffins and feed on the blood of the living. Renfield dismisses this as superstition and prepares to leave. The innkeeper’s wife gives Renfield a crucifix, saying it will protect him.
We next see some eerie and classic shots of Dracula and his wives rising from their coffins, and we see Lugosi for the first time staring almost blankly into the camera (something that we see a lot of over the course of the film).
Renfield’s coach arrives at the Borgo Pass to meet Dracula’s coach. The coachman tosses Renfield’s bag to the ground and quickly drives off, leaving Renfield confused. Another coach is waiting for him, and after conversing with the driver he discovers it is Dracula’s coach. Once Renfield is safely inside, the coach tears off at break neck speed. As the journey continues, Renfield is tossed about in the coach and opens the window to complain, but there is no driver! A bat is leading the horses along the pass and we see a beautiful glass shot of the coach arriving at Castle Dracula.
Renfield exits the coach and tries again to complain to the non-existent driver. The door to Castle Dracula slowly creeks open and Renfield goes inside the crumbling castle. He meets Dracula on the stairs. Dracula welcomes him and leads him up the grand staircase. A massive spider web covers every inch of the steps and Dracula passes through it without ripping it via a cut away. Renfield is startled and pokes his way through with his cane, much to the amusement of Dracula.
They enter a brightly lit and very comfortable looking den with a cheerful fire burning in the fireplace and dinner laid out. Dracula serves Renfield dinner and a glass of very old wine. Renfield sips the wine and asks the Count if he’s having any. Dracula replies with the classic line not found in Stoker’s novel, “I never drink… wine.”
They discuss the lease to Carfax Abbey, the property in London that Dracula wishes to purchase. While handling the paperwork, Renfield cuts his index finger on a paper clip. The blood draws Dracula closer, but the crucifix from the innkeeper’s wife falls out of Renfield’ shirt, repelling Dracula. After showing Renfield his bed, Dracula leaves Renfield.
Though sound was new to film at this time the following scene is silent, setting an enjoyably eerie mood, and is one of the best sequences in the film. Renfield opens the window, faints after seeing a large bat, and the brides of Dracula enter the room. Dracula appears at the open window and with a small gesture, dismisses the women and leans over to feed on Renfield.
The film is very good and atmospheric to this point, but begins to go down hill almost immediately. The scenes of the ship in the storm carrying Dracula’s boxes of earth is stock footage and a bit cheesy. The ship actually tips over completely on its side at one point, but somehow everyone survives! Renfield opens Dracula’s coffin and Dracula stands on the deck, searching for a victim amongst the crew.
The ship arrives in one piece at Whitby Harbor, but the crew is dead. The captain is tied to the wheel. As unseen voices lament the tradgedy, a low, maniacal laugh is heard from a hatchway. The hatch is opened to reveal a laughing Renfield, and Dwight Frye steals the show from this point.
Dwight Frye was type cast as the maniacal character after his appearance in this film. He has a memorable scene later in the film where he describes a visit from Dracula while in his cell. He is promised thousands of rats to feast on if he obeys Dracula. The monologue is classic, and one of the best moments of the film after the Transylvania scenes.
The film is literally a filmed stage play after the sequence with the ship. Almost every scene takes place indoors and most of the action is discussed rather than seen. The staking of Lucy, a very key plot point in the Dracula story, is reduced to just being mentioned as if it was a minor detail.
Some technical mistakes appear in the film. The bat enters on one side of the room and Dracula appears on the other after a cutaway to the sleeping Mina. In one shot, as Dracula leans over Mina to feed, a piece of cardboard can clearly be seen next to the bedside lamp.
The climax of the film is dull, not climatic at all. Harker is looking for Mina in the catacombs of Carfax Abbey as Van Helsing drives the stake into Dracula’s heart. We hear the strike of the metal against the stake, and a scream, but that is all.
Dracula was very successful in 1931 and it also type cast Lugosi; he appeared in mostly horror films after this and usually as an evil character. His dreams of being a romantic lead were shattered by this film, though it did keep him working.
This film is not the best Dracula or vampire film ever made, but its contributions will have impact forever. It is a decent film, though the first third is the best part. The film definitely owes more to the Bolderston and Deane stage play adaptation than the novel. The film spawned some sequels over the next decade and though it lacks a lot of what horror fans really want to see, it set the bar for all vampire films to come, whether they go with it or against it.
Dracula has many classic scenes and, although dated, is worth seeing for any horror movie fan.