This film kicked off the horror movie craze of the 1930’s and 40’s. Todd Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (which came out later that same year) would establish the standard for Gothic horror cinema. Dracula is arguably the most culturally significant horror movie character of all time. Dracula has had more on-screen representation than any other literary character ranging from serious adaptations to parodies. Although we can thank Victorian novelist Bram Stoker for introducing us the character, audiences and filmmakers everywhere look to the horror icon Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the now famous vampire for inspiration. Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula has long been established as the definitive interpretation of the character. While this film is not without its problems Lugosi’s performance makes this Universal Horror Classic a pure delight.
We are introduced to the Count via Renfield played by Dwight Frye, who is a solicitor traveling from London to Castle Dracula in Transylvania for a business matter. Castle Dracula is reminiscent of an old gothic church. The ruined castle is an externalization of corrupted innocence. A church is not only a place of worship but an institution of morality as well. During the Count and Reinfield’s dinner meeting, there is talk about wine and blood. There is also a male to male fluid exchange in the castle (blasphemy!). Reinfield being Dracula’s only male victim is noteworthy considering the sexual nature of the vampires bite.
The castle is a perfect example of corrupted innocence and the fall from glory. The roman columns, the beautiful high archways, the long winding steps, and the high windows have all been neglected of care. Dracula’s home is covered in dust and overran by dirty decrepit cobwebs. The movie being filmed in black and white only emphasizes this further. The dark blacks, pale grays, and impure white coloring make the castle feel even dingier. While the German expressionist film Nosferatu (which is also based on Bram Stoker’s novel) may have innovated the set design which inspired Browning’s Castle Dracula, it is Browning’s film which made them iconic. The American public during the 1930’s largely wasn’t exposed to Nosferatu and at the time the look and feel of this film seemed completely original.
Although Dracula may have first been a literary work this film is actually based on a stage play adaptation written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. In fact, both Lugosi and his co-star Edward Van Sloan who portrayed Dracula’s nemesis Professor Van Helsing played these respective roles before their silver screen debut. Lugosi and Van Sloan were part of Deane and Balderston’s touring cast for their theatrical production of Dracula. Despite this fact, Lugosi wasn’t always pictured for the titular role in the Universal film. Originally Universal decided to cast horror veteran and Phantom of the Opera star Lon Chaney Sr. in the role of Count Dracula, but unfortunately Chaney Sr. passed away in 1930 from throat cancer. Fortunately, this tragedy introduced audiences to Bela Lugosi. It is his and Van Sloan’s performances that captivate viewers.
Great characters like Renfield, Van Helsing and Dracula draw in everyone’s attention. The tension between Dracula and Van Helsing never felt overly staged. The battle of wits the two engage in is compelling to watch. While some of their lines may not roll off the tongue exactly or bring much value or dimension to their characters the subtleties in their performances as well as their individual charm make up for the poorly written script.
We have only begun to explore the cinema landscape of 1930’s America and this film has quickly made an impression on me. However, I am noticing a trend in Golden age Universal Horror films. It seems as though 30s writers didn’t know how to create a satisfying ending. The heroes of our story case the Count to Carfax Abby where they already know he lives and stakes him while he sleeps. It isn’t as though Dracula was unaware of their intentions to destroy him, and he was aware of their presence just before the crack of dawn yet all he does is sleep in his crypt. Dracula even kills Renfield for leading them to Carfax Abby as though they didn’t know this prior. If Dracula is vulnerable during the day then why doesn’t he use his human familiar Renfield to defend him while he rests? Why did the Count adverts his resting place? Why is his exact resting place in Carfax Abby not better hidden nor secured? It almost seems as if Dracula wanted to die.
Dracula is an eccentric outsider whose mysterious nature both seduces and frightens. Shortly after arriving in London he is introduced to John Harker (David Manners) his fiance Mina (Helen Chandler) and her best friend Lucy (Frances Dade) at the theatre. During their encounter, he charms the women with the most bizarre conversation. He speaks to them about his purchase of Carfax Abby and how he has no intention of renovating the filthy run down place. Later during that same conversation, the Count goes on to romanticize death.
To die, to be *really* dead, that must be glorious!
Why, Count Dracula!
There are far worse things awaiting man than death.
Although he is immortal it seems as if the Count views his immortality as a form of torment. He later seduces, stalks and assaults both Lucy and murdering the former in the process. While Dracula’s initial motive for pursuing Mina is because her father Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) is the psych doctor overseeing Reinfield’s care he still persists even after discovering that Seward’s colleague Professor Van Helsing is aware of what he is.
Dracula’s bite like Count Orlok’s (Nosferatu) is a sexual act. His nocturnal visits to Ms. Mina is not only a violation of her body but of what remains of the vampire’s soul as well. When Dracula feeds he doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself. Dracula represents immoral sexual desire and the film demonstrates that by giving into these desires results in the corruption of innocence. The vampire sees his perverse nature and is disgusted by it. Dracula continued to visit Mina regardless of the clear and present danger in order to bring about his own death. In the end, the film states that the only one who can save you from moral corruption is yourself. It is with Dracula’s “glorious” death that he is able to free himself after all being a self-loathing perverted creature is a thing far worse than death.