Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi, Murders in the Rue Morgue), a Transylvanian vampire, moves to London, England, and begins a killing spree. A determined occult expert, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, The Mummy), makes it his mission to put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror.
Reaction & Thoughts:
Over more than eight decades, no other studio has been more successful at expanding and further developing the horror genre than Universal Pictures. Tod Browning’s Dracula started the ball rolling, laying down the foundation for everything that followed it. From the moment Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi intoned that most imitated phrase, “I-a-m Dracula,” Universal claimed complete ownership of the thrills and chills that only the most horrific stories can create.
Dracula was a smash hit and quickly became a beloved horror classic. That being said, modern critics and movie buffs always complain about the film’s stately pace. They often attribute the film’s admittedly slow pace to the fact that it is based on Broadway’s popular 1927 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, not the book itself.
I’ve always had a different take on this issue. In my opinion, director Browning (Freaks) deliberately matched the film’s tempo to actor Lugosi’s weirdly slow movements. Lugosi acts almost as if he was operating in slow-motion. He tends to drag out dialogue, often making very strange pauses. I’ve read Stoker’s epistolary novel and Lugosi’s Dracula has nothing in common with his literary counterpart (Stoker’s Dracula speaks perfect English) — what you see on the screen is all Lugosi’s.
The actor succeeded in conveying the idea that Dracula is an out-of-this-world fiend, and I believe Browning simply built the entire film around his leading actor’s cunning performance. The end result is a film where time seems to stand still. Dracula disappears for sections of the movie, and because the story is in perfect sync with Lugosi’s unique characterization, you feel his presence even when he is not on the screen.
Although Lugosi’s work remains the best thing about the movie, there are other goodies here as well. The scenes at Dracula’s castle are the best. Granted, Dracula loses momentum during the London sequences. But the Dracula-Van Helsing confrontation near the end of the film is my favorite sequence in the entire movie. Because both characters are foreigners, there is an implied kinship (it-takes-one-to-know-one) that makes those scenes stand apart from the rest.
I also loved Dwight Frye’s (Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein) Renfield, Dracula’s pathetic manservant. Frye’s edgy performance provides a nice contrast to Lugosi’s creepy stillness. He overacts, but so what? It’s a fun, no-holds-barred performance that makes the movie fun to watch.
Edward Van Sloan’s fearless vampire slayer is pretty great too. You believe him when he says, “I prefer to remain and protect those whom you would destroy.” Lugosi, Frye and Van Sloan are a wonderful trio — they make you forget that you are watching a nearly 90-year-old movie. Ironically, the weak performances of the romantic leads give the film’s real age away — David Manners (A Bill of Divorcement) and Helen Chandler (Christopher Strong) are theatrical in the worst possible way.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Dracula is flawed, yet there is “something” about the movie that compels me to re-watch it over and over. That “something” is Bela Lugosi — it’s one of the greatest horror movie performances. Imitation and parody haven’t diminished the power of Lugosi’s iconic work. P.S. Dracula is also available with a newly composed music score by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet. B&W, 71 minutes, Not Rated.