"Dracula" (1931) Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
Dracula is one of the most iconic horror villains in history. From Bram Stoker's 1897 novel to his first film debut in 1922's "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror", he has been haunting readers and filmgoers for over a century. His first American film debut, in Tod Browning's 1931 film titled after the classic horror icon, is one of the best and most iconic films in Universal's classic monster series, as well as kicking off the franchise of monsters everyone knows and loves.
The film opens up on a stagecoach full of people talking about the myth of vampires being in the area. It chills them more when they learn that a man named Renfield (Dwight Frye) is heading up to the famous Transylvanian castle that house Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), even though the other townspeople beg him not to go as Dracula is known to be a vampire. Renfield ignores their warnings, and decides to trek up to the castle to meet the Count, who is selling his castle and moving to Carfax Abbey in England. However, the townspeople's suspicions were correct, and he is put under the spell of Dracula and his wives.
When Dracula makes his arrival in England, he starts to prey on the young women in the town, including Lucy (Frances Dade) and her friend, Mina Harker (Helen Chandler). When the people close to Mina realize what is going on, they recruit the help of Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) to put a stop the prince of darkness.
This Black & White picture is what kickstarted the whole Universal Monsters franchise, bringing in stories like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, and much more. Because of this, it meant the film had to succeed at everything it was going for, and thankfully it did. This movie, even though it was released in 1931, did absolutely everything right, and I would say perfectly stood the test of time. It is able to tell a compelling story, while also incorporating that creepiness factor inside of it.
The performances in this film are shockingly amazing for the day and age this film was made. Lugosi gives a fantastic performance as this famous vampire, and he really set the bar for what other actors had to hit when playing this role almost a hundred years later. He basically oozes charm and charisma, but he has that creepiness factor around him that it seems like only he could convey for this movie. Even now, his take on the Dracula character is perhaps the most famous due to things like Universal Studios and the appreciation of classic monster films.
However, one performance that absolutely blew me away was that of Frye. He is genuinely terrifying as Renfield, and I would say he is scarier than many of the actors portraying characters like this today. Consider the scene where the officials board the boat to find all of the crew members dead when it harbors in England. They open the door to find Renfield, wide-eyed and seething. It is absolutely terrifying to watch, and sends chills down the spines of the audience.
The cinematography is done very well, and does a great job at both leaving it all to the imagination of the viewer and conveying what is going on seamlessly. We don't really see many of the vampire attacks in this film, and because of that, it makes the viewer imagine what happened in their head, which is perhaps scarier than actually watching it. At the same time, it doesn't make the viewer feel lost or confused at what is happening, and the camera angles is so beautifully captured. Consider the scene where Dracula attacks a young woman on the street. All we see is him move in on her and the shadows of the attack, accompanied by the scream of the lady. It is so well done and perfectly shot; I couldn't imagine a better way for them to shoot this scene.
Overall, I think this movie does everything it needs to do to completely capture the horror of the "Dracula" novel, while also creating such a creepy and terrifying atmosphere for the viewer to watch it in. I applaud everything Browning was able to do, and I think he presented a damn good monster film, even for today's standards. With films like "The Invitation" coming out nowadays, it's depressing seeing how we went from something great like this to very bad films today.