The 1931 movie Dracula begins on an ominous note. An English businessman named Renfield (Dwight Frye) arrives in Transylvania to finalize a deal with his client in that country. The land part of the journey includes a carriage ride that ends near his destination. He arrives at an inn which has dropped off other passengers, and the people there implore him to stay the night. Renfield, though, insists on going, and one of the people there gives him a crucifix when she learns where he's going. A hooded man takes him to the castle of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), who wishes to travel to London and lease Carfax Abbey. Shortly after the deal becomes final, he turns Renfield into his blood-thirsty servant, but leave him the ability to survive in the daylight. Dracula and Renfield then board the ship Renfield chartered. By the time they arrive in London, the crew is dead. A crazed Renfield winds up a patient in the sanitorium run by Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston).
Dracula, though, arrives safely at his destination, located right next to the sanitorium. One evening, he meets Seward, as well as his daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiance John Harker (David Manners), and their friend Lucy (Frances Dade). Dracula doesn't take long to go about his business. He charms Lucy, then drains her blood. Seward works to save her unsuccessfully. Seward's associate, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), takes a look at Renfield's blood sample and discovers he's been affected by the vampire. When Dracula comes to check on Renfield after dark, Van Helsing discovers the truth about the count. Meanwhile, Dracula has chosen Mina as his next target while Van Helsing and Harker try and stop him.
Dracula, based on Bram Stoker's novel as well as a play based on this work, certainly won't look very scary to a generation used to the graphic nature of modern horror films. Dracula's nature here is entirely suggested. Dracula himself gives a look of dominance, but the film cuts away before he ever sinks his teeth into any victim. This movie became Lugosi's best known role, and is one of the best known works of director Tod Browning, who would go on to direct the cult classic Freaks the following year. Browning creates a dreary atmosphere that doesn't stop until the movie ends. The cinematography of Karl Freund helps to set that atmosphere. The movie feels stagebound, but it effectively provides scares from both the count and Renfield, both of whom need a fresh supply of blood to remain powerful.
Lugosi, who also played Dracula on stage, shows both the menace and the charm of this character. In his opening scene, he shows he has his eye on Renfield, for the count comes to get him from the inn after sundown. On arrival in London, he charms a flower seller before she becomes a victim of his need for blood. This role would be the one with which Lugosi was most closely associated in his life and to this day. The other noteworthy performance comes from Van Sloan as Van Helsing. Unlike the people of Dracula's home land, he knows how to stop Dracula, and not just deter the vampire. Even Dracula knows that Van Helsing does not submit to his command. The professor raises the alarm for the sanitorium as he shows what affects Renfield's unusual behavior. He then gets Harker to work with him as they try and find Dracula at his most vulnerable.
I'm sure that, for some viewers, Dracula will show signs of its age with the way it presents the terror without any graphic depiction. I say viewers don't need to see a single drop of blood to grasp the notion of an undead being striking fear into, and usually overpowering, someone who's not undead. The count takes his act from Transylvania to London, pursuing new victims in the night. Films that have followed have built on vampire logic and found other deterrents besides crucifixes and wolfsbane. Dracula is one of the best known early vampire films that still impresses as a good introduction to the most famous bloodsucker of all.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Dracula three stars. Beware of men with capes.
© 2018 Pat Mills