Benjamin Wollmuth is a lover of literature who enjoys sharing his thoughts on everything from movies and video games to books and music.
The Legend of Dracula
Bram Stoker's Dracula, to this day, stands as one of my favorite horror novels of all time. While it can be slow-paced at times, Stoker really knows how to build suspense and properly develop his characters. To me, it's no question why Dracula is as popular as he is, nor why vampires are so popular. They look human, yet are actually undead monsters seeking to expand their race. To me, that's terrifying. Sure, Dracula was not the first vampire ever put onto the page, but he became the archetypal vampire that so many creators would seek to recreate, to varying degrees of quality. While the first unofficial film adaptation of Stoker's horrific tale was 1922's Nosferatu––unofficial because the creators didn't actually have the rights to use the story––the first official adaptation was 1931's Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring the very talented Bela Lugosi in a role that would define the vampires put to film for years to come. No, it's not as faithful an adaptation as I would have liked, but it still includes some terrifying suspense and amazing performances.
However, I will not be basing my review of this film on how well it adapts Stoker's original novel, nor how well it adapts the Dracula play. Instead, I will be judging this film for what it is: film. Does it still hold up nearly 90 years later, and how well does it handle its vampire? Let's talk about it.
Bela Lugosi's Dracula
All of the performances in this 1931 classic are over-the-top and brilliant, yet Bela Lugosi's portrayal of the Prince of Darkness is definitely the stand-out. The over-exaggeration of his lines helps show Dracula's attempt to fit in with the rest of society as he tries to hide his spread of vampirism. His awkward encounters with other characters in the film represent his disconnect from the living. I honestly don't know if that's what Lugosi was going for, but that's how I saw things, and I absolutely love it. Even then, he still has a sort of charm. If he weren't so awkward, I think he would be able to fit in among the living just fine!
Above anything else, Lugosi's eyes are what really add to the terror of Dracula. His hypnotic stare is horrifying, and the camera lingers on it for so long while silence fills the air. It was as if he was trying to hypnotize me... and sometimes I thought it was working.
Much like Dracula's stare, we have Renfield's look of madness. Bitten by Dracula and led to do his bidding, Renfield is a genuinely terrifying character with a smile and stare that sent shivers down my spine.
In terms of vampiric characteristics, Dracula is really the only vampire we see and hear of using his abilities. He turns into a wolf, or so we are told; we see him in bat form; we are told of his misty visit to Mina; we see his lack of reflection in mirrors; and we see how he––as well as Mina––reacts to crucifixes and wolf's bane (instead of garlic. I don't know why they made that change). All of the vampire characteristics developed in Stoker's novel are there. However, we don't see his sharp teeth, and we are never shown bite marks, which I'm kinda surprised about. But, I know that vampires have that characteristic, and I don't need to be explicitly shown it in order to know it.
90 Years Later
That's honestly so weird to think about. It's 2021. How strange is that?
To me, it's no wonder Lugosi's portrayal became that which so many creators would try to recapture. The widow's peak. The black cape. The accent. The eyes. It all adds to the terrifying nature of the character. Yeah, black-and-white films definitely look very low-quality when it comes to today's standards, but you need to respect the tools they had at hand back then. There wasn't the technology to make CGI bats, which is why we get obviously fake practical ones. But hey, it doesn't take me out of the movie. I'm just glad they had bats. And yeah, there isn't much for violence or gore. But it was the 1930s. The violent stuff wasn't really the norm. And that's okay.
To throw in a negative, I will say that the film definitely feels rushed. Van Helsing is kinda just there––there isn't really an arrival or explanation scene for him; Dracula doesn't really try to hide who he is around Seward, Harker, or Van Helsing, which I found a little strange; and Lucy's introduction to the story and her death occur in a very short span of time. It definitely feels like the filmmakers were trying to include as many events and characters from the novel as they could while also keeping the runtime extremely short. I didn't hate it, per se, but it was definitely noticeable.
I really like this version of Dracula. It captures the essence of vampires splendidly and includes an amazing performance by Lugosi. Yes, it feels rushed at times, and at some points, I questioned why Dracula was doing what he was doing. But Lugosi's portrayal is so iconic and paved the way for so many Draculas in the future that I have to be semi-forgiving. Even with its negatives, there is still so much to love. Oh, the silence. The long, drawn-out silence. I wish more modern horror movies did that.
I'm going to give 1931's Dracula an 8/10. It is indeed a classic in every way.
© 2021 Benjamin Wollmuth