Some things are so good that they become ingrained in pop culture and are copied and parodied to the extent that the original is almost forgotten and lost. This is the case with the 1931 Dracula starring the great Bela Lugosi. This is the film that has formed most of the modern common Dracula look, the suit and cape, the slicked back hair, the charming eloquent mysterious man (however no fangs appear in this film). Every Dracula fancy dress costume that we see today in shops and supermarkets is based on this film but it is it any good? The film is 83 years old and film making has progressed so much in that time but I will say up front, this is a very good film.
It’s hard to spoil a film that’s central story has been told so many times in so many different formats, so I will only skim over the plot and focus on what I really enjoyed about this film. I should say, I only watched this film for the first time last week and I watched the remastered Blu ray. If you do watch this film and I strongly recommend you do, this is the best format to watch this film on. The remastered version is beautiful, the picture is fantastic and the contrast of the black and white image is great. I can honestly say that this film has probably never looked better.
This is a rather short film, running at 74 minutes. One of the reasons for this is that the screenplay was a direct use of the stage play version. A lot of the original novel has been dropped or contracted but this is a real benefit to the film. It would not have been possible to create some of the expansive scenes and locations on stage or for the film at the time it was made. So the film focuses in on the central characters and the key story points. This is excellent concise storytelling, supported by some iconic performances.
Before I get to Bela Lugosi there are a couple of other performances that I want to highlight, first off, Dwight Frye who plays Renfield. A character from the Stoker novel but expanded for this version to be the person that visits Dracula and helps him travel to London. It is this interaction that drives him insane in this version of the story.
While he replaces Jonathan Harker for this part of this story it actually does make reference to a Stoker short story “Dracula’s guest”. This was originally part of the novel (Dracula) as an introductory section but was removed by the publisher. It was later published in a collection of Stoker’s short stories. “Dracula’s guest” tells the story of another English lawyer being chased down in the woods of Transylvania. It is disputed whether this is an earlier start to Harker’s story or the story of Renfield’s interactions with Dracula. Either way, in the film we get a character that is a very reserved and goes crazy.
Frye is superb in this role. When he is introduced he is clean cut and almost naïve and reacts as you would expect to the strangeness he encounters on his way to and at Dracula’s mansion. His facial expressions are great as he interacts with Dracula, he is nervous and a little lost but keeps doing his job. The scene between Frye and Lugosi near the start of the film is a stand out for me. He is also brilliant as the insane Renfield when they get home; he is excessive crazy without being over the top. He has some of the best lines in the film and a great monologue about being promised hundreds, thousands of rats on which he can feed when he has done the work of his “master”.
Frye was a stage comedian for a lot of early career and this comes through in his timing and delivery. If this guy was working today I would expect him to be someone like Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, a comedian who takes on and succeeds at more dramatic and creepy roles.
The second character I want to bring up is Van Helsing play by Edward Van Sloan. This Van Helsing is portrayed as a man of science and superstition and happens to be right all the time. It is not really explained how he got this knowledge and to be honest it doesn’t matter. Sloan is like a force of nature in the film, despite being an older gentleman he orders people around with confidence that everything he is doing is right and I was bought into it.
There is a scene where he stands toe to toe with Dracula and lets him know that he knows what he is and what he is doing. Dracula attempts to use his hypnotic stare to bring him close enough for the kill but Van Helsing resists. Not only is Dracula impressed, so am I. it quickly shows that these two are a match and I want to see them face off at the end of the film.
Bela Lugosi had played Dracula on stage for a period and was so keen to get his performance on screen that he took a huge pay drop to make the film. It is a stage performance that he gives but it is so engaging. There are moments of stillness, where he just watches someone and or his is animated and charming as the exotic count. Either way he commends the screen and owns the character.
Forget all the over acted parodies and the ridiculous accents, this performance contains real menace and the accent is legit and perfect for the performance. The one line that I loved and has become so famous “Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make.” It can be read as corny and over the top but Lugosi delivers it with such sincerity you believe that he does take comfort from the sound.
Lugosi’s performance is taken from great to iconic by really effective lighting and direction. In 1931 this film was made to make Dracula a serious villain and it achieved it. I would suggest that a modern comparison is the way Hannibal Lector is presented in the TV show Hannibal. The audience is well aware that this suave charming person is a danger but the cast don’t see it. In fact I would suggest that Mads Mikkelsen would make a fantastic Dracula.
The three roles that I have highlighted are male, which for a film made in 1931 isn’t surprising. The female characters in this film, whilst key to the story (as in the novel) are only secondary to the males. The plot revolves around the male characters reactions to what is happening to the women. However, a lot of events regarding the women happen of screen. This is not unusual for the time, however it is one of the flaws of the film and an extra 10 – 15 minutes expanding on the women in the movie would add so much more tension and empathy.
In Summary this is a classic, a film that has set the template for all future Dracula films. Granted this is a film of its time but this only adds to the appeal. Whilst this isn’t scary by today’s standards the portrayal of both Dracula and Renfield is unsettling enough to stay with you, Bela Lugosi is and always will be Dracula. Also, as I mentioned before go and find the remastered version it is a fantastic transfer and makes the film look stunning.