The vampire subgenre of horror films has taken some good turns and some bad turns over its lengthy time on the big screen. Bram Stoker's 1897 gothic novel Dracula was first adapted for film - albeit, unofficially and unauthorized - with the 1922 movie Nosferatu. Since then, the famous Count has appeared a number of times in different adaptations and versions...
... just to name a few. However, there is no movie or no performance of Count Dracula more well-known or as recognizable as the 1931 film Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi in the titular role. This movie has an indelible place in the history of horror, and for good reason. To say that it is dated would probably be an understatement, but though the movie is over 80 years old, it still works. And why shouldn't it? The classic story and characters have been the inspiration for countless films, television shows, stage plays, novels, short stories, and comic books over the years.
One of the most obvious reasons for the film's longevity is the portrayal of Dracula by Lugosi. Watching the movie now in 2012, I still love almost everything that he does with the role. Lugosi's slow movement, mannerisms, and speech created a character that was charming and mysterious. With one eyebrow almost constantly raised and a crooked, cruel smile, Lugosi commands his presence whenever he is on screen, with every facial movement and hand gesture having a purpose. In this way, Lugosi was quite revolutionary in portraying the vampire, a monster that for all purposes looks and acts human, but is really not. They are still, simply, monsters who feed on the lifeblood of humans. They don't know how to act truly human themselves. Lugosi's speech pattern is often imitated or made fun of these days, with his accent, careful pronunciation, and pauses ("I never drink... wine," "We will leave... tomorrrrrrow eve...ning...") and I have to admit that I found myself smiling as well almost every time he opened his mouth, but I think it was a brilliant choice for this role.
For me, though, the real scene stealer of the movie is Dwight Frye as Renfield. I had completely forgotten about this wonderfully creepy performance from the first time I saw Dracula many years ago. Renfield is the character who leads the audience to Castle Dracula in the beginning of the movie where he is then put under the Count's spell. Dracula uses him to help him travel to England by ship, and when Renfield is discovered as the last "surviving" person aboard, he is mad. That shot of Renfield looking up and laughing that insanely weird laugh is still very chilling and effective, as is the shot of him crawling on the floor toward the maid after she's fainted. Like Lugosi, Frye also created an iconic character that is sadly not as recognized as it should be. His plastered-on crazy face and the conviction that he puts into each one of his lines completely sells the character and is a great juxtaposition to the Renfield in earlier scenes.
Most of the story centers around Dr. Seward, who runs the sanitarium where Renfield is placed after being found on the ship; his daughter Mina and her fiance John Harker; and Professor Van Helsing, who has knowledge of vampires and is able to see Dracula for what he is. Dracula focuses on Mina for his vampire-making seduction game, coming to visit her several times in the night. This is probably where the romanticism of vampires originated - not just biting a person and making them a vampire, but slowing getting them under their thrall and attacking them in their beds, which has obvious sexual undertones. The one scene where the character of Mina really shines is when it is revealed that she has been made into a vampire. It's a slow reveal, and you almost don't really notice what is happening until Mina starts to look very lustfully at John, or at least at his neck.
You almost can't compete with the sets on this film. Dracula's castle is just as it should be, huge and gothic and perched precariously on a cliff with only one road leading up to it. The castle is deliciously old and decrepit, with crumbling and broken concrete, and cobwebs everywhere (love that huge spider web on the staircase). The monstrous staircase at Carfax Abbey is also iconic, as is the basement that holds the coffins for Dracula and his wives. Director Tod Browning makes perfect use of wide shots in these locations to really show them off and add to the gothic nature of the film. I only wished that there more scenes in other parts of the castle, as we only get a limited view of what is surely a grandiose beauty of architecture.
Certain camera and editing tricks are used effectively in some scenes that I really loved. Love the part at the beginning where Dracula somehow walks through the large spider web covering his staircase without disturbing it. The well-known trick of identifying a vampire by the fact that he casts no reflection in mirrors is stumbled upon by Van Helsing, when John opens a little chest with a mirror in it and Van Helsing sees that Dracula is not there. The camera also teases the viewer by cutting away or dissolving at the moments right before Dracula bites a victim. Being 1931, I'm sure that actually showing the act would have been a huge no-no. But here, it works. It adds to the mystery of the vampire that all his dark deeds are done in secret, and all his charm would be taken away if he was shown feeding like an animal on a victim. Plus, it would have been a very sexual scene indeed, a part of the vampire lore that would be explored in later movies.
What more is there to say really? Dracula is a classic and will probably remain so forever. Even in our MTV generation, one can still admire and respect the subtle brilliance of this tale of the famous Count, his brides, his Renfield, and those that try to thwart him. Seriously, who doesn't love Dracula? I know I do.