Horror Film Countdown: Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning, Universal Pictures

Considered by some to be the first ‘proper’ Universal Horror film, or at least the first to establish some popular elements of the genre, the film was a landmark when it opened in 1931. The first vampire film with sound set the tone for many other bloodsuckers to follow.

We open with real estate agent Renfield (Dwight Frye) bouncing along in a horse driven coach in the Carpathian Mountains. When the coach stops at a local inn, Renfield horrifies the innkeeper when he mentions his final destination. The utterance of the words “Castle Dracula” sends the innkeeper and the guests into a panic, which Renfield dismisses as superstition.

Meanwhile, at Castle Dracula, Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), his brides, along with the rare Transylvanian armadillo and bumblebee wake from their coffins. Dracula silently moves up the stairs and into the outside. While at the Borgo Pass, Renfield is thrown from his coach along with his bags. Before he can protest, another coach arrives from the castle. The driver, however, is totally silent and bares more than a passing resemblance to the Count. The driver disappears when the coach arrives at the castle, but before Renfield can question this, Count Dracula himself makes an appearance.

Things go downhill from there. Renfield ends up utterly insane, the ship Vesta ends up crashed and the crew dead, and Dracula moves into Carfax Abby, which happens to be next door to the Seward Sanitarium, run by Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston). Things go amiss and soon Mina Seward (Helen Chandler)’s best friend Lucy (Frances Dade) has died of a strange disease. Even Seward’s old friend Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) seems puzzled by the deaths of Lucy and the crew of the Vestra, until he meets with the Count, and then a picture begins to form…

From a 1930’s standpoint, this film must have been amazing. Before, most movie monsters had to be unmasked as madmen or imposters by the final reel. Here, make no bones about it, Dracula is a real vampire. How does the film hold up from a 21st Century perspective? Not that a great; Frye’s Renfield has two moods: Englishman who scoffs at everything or rubber faced lunatic. Lugosi’s Dracula, on the other hand, was a career defining role for good and bad. Lugosi never managed to shake Dracula (or Frye Renfield for that matter), but here he is charming and urbane with only hints of a darkness underneath the surface. He never overacts, unlike the rest of the cast. According to rumors, Browning was fired halfway through filming and replaced with Karl Freund, which might account for the spooky atmosphere being sucked out and replaced with drawing room melodrama with Cockney accented orderlies.