Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels to Transylvanian to arrange for Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to move to London. Renfield is turned into an insane slave of the vampire count and together they travel to England, where Dracula settles in a ruined abbey next to Doctor Seward’s (Herbert Bunston) sanitarium, inside which Renfield takes up residence. Dracula takes a special interest in Seward’s daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler) and her friend Lucy (Frances Dade). This puts him at odds with Mina’s ineffectual fiancé, John Harker (David Manners) and vampire hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who fight for Mina’s soul and to destroy the undead fiend.
“I am Dracula.”
“I bid you welcome.”
Few characters, and few actors, have had such a powerful and memorable introduction. Sure, first we got a moment of Dracula just out of the coffin, and as the driver, but this is, literally, his introduction. Lugosi, or Dracula, glides along those marvelous stairs, a well designed set combined with some of the finest matte paintings ever, gives us a gothic other-world that took my breath away in the early 1970s when I first saw it, and still does now. Dracula has some of the greatest dialog in cinema, but it’s about the image, not the words, and those images carry the picture.
In 1926 Carl Laemmle Jr. took over running the studio from his father, and he saw horror as the future. The film to kick things off would be Dracula, starring Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning, who’d worked with Chaney in a string of silent macabre melodramas. But Chaney became sick, and died soon after, and the Stock Market Crash signaled that the project needed to be reassessed. Instead of the large scope of Bram Stoker’s novel, Universal would approach Dracula by way of the successful stage play, and the star of that play, Bela Lugosi, wanted the film role. His performance had been well received, and he took lead in negotiating with Stoker’s estate for the film rights, so Universal decided to take a chance. It seems absurd to think of it as a gamble now. Has anyone ever been more perfectly cast? Dracula is one of the most famous and popular characters in the world, and it isn’t the book’s version, but Lugosi’s. Hebert Bunston as Doctor Seward, and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing, were also ported over from the play.
There were obstacles, not the least of which was cinema and the public having an uneasy relationship with horror. In America, silent “horror” rarely had a supernatural connection. Ghosts and other creepy items turned out to be a guy in a mask—it was the age of the Old Dark House film. Even the gruesome Phantom of the Opera was just a guy. But Dracula was going to be a real vampire, a supernatural monster. No one was sure how the audience would take that; they loved it, of course.
Sound was a bigger issue. It would be several years before Hollywood had a handle on sound artistically, and longer technologically. And not all theaters had been converted. If Universal wanted Dracula to play everywhere, they need to make it functional both as a talkie and as a silent film. The answer was to pull back on dialog, making every word momentous, while telling the story with the images.
The result is a hybrid, a beautiful film filled with atmosphere, but one that is sometimes hard for modern audiences to leap into because it uses a different cinematic language than most movie-goes are used to. It succeeds as a series of visual poems. It isn’t the overall flow that matters, or a step-by-step plot, but indelible instants. Think of gothic verse, not prose. Individual moments hold the weight and allure (meeting Dracula, “The Children of the Night,” Renfield crawling across the floor, Dracula and Van Helsing’s confrontations ove the mirror and cross). The effect is like walking through an uncanny art gallery. Don’t worry about your pace in moving from Canvas 1 to Canvas 2; just enjoy the paintings.
But Dracula wouldn’t have become a classic without Bela Lugosi. His expressions, piercing eyes (enhanced by lighting) and stylized voice combined death and sensuality in a way that had never been done before and has seldom been approached since. He cared about the part, dedicating himself to it. He practiced constantly, and used stage techniques to get himself into character (and no, the Internet is wrong; Lugosi could speak English; he didn’t learn it all phonetically).
It’s a good thing he was so focused, because not everyone was. Bunston and Van Sloan were ready, but Manners didn’t take the film seriously and Chandler didn’t want to be there, and it shows. I watch for Lugosi and Frye. There are no moments of Manners or Chandler that I feel the need to rewind to, to replay and study. It isn’t entirely their fault. Their characters are boring; it was a tendency in silent cinema to make milquetoast males to cling to a false image of “decency” in society, and that was held over into early talkies. It’s hard to care if something bad happens to Harker as he barely exists as a person. Mina is no better. But they are just background for Renfield’s iconic laugh and Dracula’s intense stare. Tod Browning wasn’t at his best either, perhaps grieving over the death of Chaney, or perhaps from alcoholism, which explains why Dracula looks more like a Karl Freund film than a Browning one. Freund was a cinematographer and director (credited only for cinematography here, though those on the set say he did more), whose credentials include Metropolis, which makes him more suited for this project than Browning, whose interests were in the sensational and startling and less in the otherworldly and moody.
The editing for Dracula is…uneven. Freund and others have said this is due to Browning ripping pages out of the script while filming. Browning said it’s due to Carl Laemmle finding the film too disturbing and chopping out bits. Both are probably true, along with a desire to trim down anything that wouldn’t work in silent form. While the staccato effect works most of the time, I would have liked to see a bit more in the intro scenes, and the third act could use a few extra minutes (such as letting us know what happens to Lucy). Those are minor issues when I can hear Lugosi say, “I don’t drink…wine.”
For the 1999 DVD re-release, Universal commissioned Philip Glass to compose a musical score. It was a good idea. While the silence often given Dracula a chilling vibe, a well-conceived score could do so even better (there is a reason why most films have scores). And Dracula didn’t lack a score for some well considered artistic reason. In the first few years of talkies, the studios thought that audiences wouldn’t accept non-diegetic (without a source) music in a picture. They learned otherwise quickly. So adding an optional score now is clever. But Glass’s isn’t that well conceived score. He’s a minimalist and avant-garde composer, which is far from the lush eroticism Dracula requires. What’s need is cocaine and velvet, not opium and a bare mattress.
Drácula, a Spanish language version, was shot simultaneously, using the same script and sets.
Universal would make two sequels, Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Dracula (1943); neither have a strong connection to Dracula, nor reach its heights. The character would return in two monster-mash pictures in 1944, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, portrayed by John Carradine. Lugosi would only return to the character once, in Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1944).