Dracula has been one of the single most recognizable figures in movie history. His thirst for blood and his ability to shape shift into a bat, and at times a wolf, has become common knowledge even if you weren’t alive or know of the 1931 classic film. Dracula has been remade time and time again, but for now I would like to take a look at the original 1931 film that I had just been introduced to.

Dracula, in 1931, was one of the first of many iconic monster movies that Universal would make. Bram Stoker’s Dracula had already once been made, however, without permission in 1922 under the title of Nosferatu, a silent film by German expressionist F.W. Murnau. Carl Laemmle, Jr. would receive full permission to create a movie base on Bram Stoker’s book. The iconic Dracula that we know today, with slicked back hair and a devilish stare, would have almost never been. Laemmle originally wanted to cast Lon Chaney for the roll of Dracula because of his brilliant performance in the silent film “The Phantom of the Opera”. In this role he had a monstrous face that could have been the very face of Dracula had Lon Chaney not succumb to and died of throat cancer. His replacement was Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi who had learned the lines for the role phonetically, for this reason Dracula has always had somewhat of an accent and a very recognizable speech pattern. His trademark stare and his always slicked back jet black hair became the most recognizable features of Dracula…well, that is, aside from the cape and fangs, of course.

But, I suppose that is enough of a history lesson for now, let’s get on to the actual movie shall we? It’s the story of Dracula we all know fairly well. Dracula has decided to move away from Transylvania and head to England where he has leased an Abbey next to an insane asylum with his slave Renfield. He roams the streets, killing and sucking blood at first but then focusing his attention on the daughter of Dr. Seward, Mina Harker, the owner of the Asylum next to Dracula’s Abbey.

There are three reasons that this movie, regardless of time period, should be seen; Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan. Bela Lugosi is the obvious star of this show because his performance of Dracula is outstanding. The way he says each line is simply breathtaking, despite him not knowing the language. He has a slow methodical way of saying his lines that has this eerie charm to it, it’s something to just have to experience. Like he is taking his sweet time to indulge in every word he is speaking. The way he glares…it’s chilling even today. There is a scene where he meets Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, in the middle of the night at his carriage. Lugosi’s face is all black except for his eyes and the way they seem to pierce all the darkness around him is a sight that my words can do no justice. However, as many familiar with this era of movies, this proved to be almost a curse for Lugosi. He was forever typecast as a horror movie villain. Even worse, he seemed to always be pit against actor Boris Karloff who seemed to always get first billing ahead of Lugosi and more often than not Lugosi’s character would get the bad end of the deal. Which, is a little ironic since the movie that made Karloff’s career bloom was his role as Frankenstein, a role that was originally offered to Lugosi but turned down, allegedly and I can’t stress allegedly enough, due to lack of lines and tedious make up sessions.

Dwight Frye plays the crazed Renfield and he is damn crazy. His laugh is absolutely chilling, but you can’t imagine his crazy laugh as a guttural sinister laugh. His laugh seems to come completely through the throat and through almost clenched teeth. At one point, his laugh even causes a maid to faint out of shock from hearing such a maddening laugh. It’s something you should hear, even if you don’t go out and see the movie, YouTube “Renfield’s Laugh” and just listen to his laugh. It’s fucking creepy. But his appeal in this movie doesn’t just come from his laugh, everything he does, after he “visits” Castle Dracula, is eerily crazed. When Renfield is on the screen you can’t help but focus all your attention on him.

Edward Van Sloan plays Van Helsing and when you first see him you may think he’s just a somewhat stereotypical German guy. He rolls his “R”s and he bows really jerky, it’s kinda weird. But, as the film goes on he really grows on you. He has this “Knows Too Much for His Own Good” vibe about him that makes him really interesting and his knowledge never comes back to bite him. It’s odd, he is basically the main hero of this story and he knows everything about vampires and how to stop them. Yet, personally anyway, you find yourself rooting for Dracula to somehow kill Helsing.

The problem with these three being so good is that it makes the other characters seem so dull and shallow. They play their characters well enough for the time period, but when you put them next to Lugosi, Frye, and Sloan…they just seem lacking. There is a groundskeeper named Martin, basically the comic relief, that is amusing but he still just seems over the top in a bad way.

Another thing is that the ending is a little anti-climactic. When you realize the ending has happened you find yourself hoping there was a bigger finale. I almost expected somewhat of a final battle with Dracula, and not to give too much away, I found myself a little disappoint at how Dracula met his end and almost how little of a struggle there really was.

If you’re not used to black and white movies then this one might take some getting used to. There aren’t any fancy CG effects and really there isn’t even  much of a soundtrack because Universal was just starting to make movies with sound. But, depending on who you ask, the lack of music really adds a sort of eerie feel to the whole movie. The only real recognizable soundtrack to the movie is Swan Lake being played during the opening credits. Being so used to hearing music it was a little odd at first, but the second time around I actually preferred it that way. The DVD I was watching even had an  added soundtrack you could have in case you absolutely can’t stand the silence. I, however, find it better without the music. It isn’t as suspenseful today as it must have been in the 1930s but it’s still a very entertaining, and somewhat creepy performance. If you’re into horror movies and you’re looking for a classical piece of cinema that holds its entertainment value even today , then I highly suggest the original 1931 Dracula. I became an instant fan of Lugosi because of this movie alone, let alone all the other great roles I’ve now seen him in. If nothing else then watch this just to see Lugosi and Frye’s performance in one of the most classic horror films ever made.


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