This first ‘sound’ horror film opens with some stunning graphics. For years, silent films only had visuals to tell their story, so already the art of matte painting used as backgrounds had been implemented successfully. So as Renfield (Dwight Frye) makes his way by carriage through the Universal films backlot, it is transformed, very impressively, into Transylvania! The first words spoken are from Carla Laemmle, niece of studio founder Carl Laemmle (she died as recently as 2014 aged 104).
After local murmurings of vampires and Walpurgis Night, the camera allows us inside the dusty basement of Castle Dracula, where small animals scamper away as a selection of coffins betray their supernatural hosts. Three somnambulistic women and one man are revealed in near silence. These are beautiful, classic horror scenes. Dracula moves but rarely speaks. When he does, it is to welcome Renfield and then glides up a colossal stairway leaving his somewhat fey guest scrabbling through outsized spider’s webs.
Bela Lugosi had been playing Dracula on stage for some years and by 1931 made the role his own on film. It was a sensation. For a few months, he was an undisputed movie superstar, a horror icon. This story – which he described as a blessing and a curse – would be mentioned in virtually every interview and article about him until his death. He is magnificent, alien and captivating in these opening moments. The first time you see him, you notice how theatrical he is. When you watch him again, he is never quite as theatrical as you remember. He moves slowly, like a hungry lizard and is at one with the thick, macabre, frightening atmosphere – when he is removed from that, however, his performance takes on an anachronistic aspect.
After an opening that is as near perfect as any in horror, Renfield loses his mind and is presided over by Martin, a warder at the sanatorium, (a truly grotesque, comedy-mock-cockney character who refers to his client as a ‘loonie’) and the horror is restricted almost entirely to Dracula’s persona (on the rare occasions he is on screen) because the action is placed very much in the (then) present day. From here, it seems very much that we are watching a filmed theatre production, a drawing room drama. The camera barely moves, performances are very crisp and clear and static. The heroine Mina (Helen Chandler) is a meek, fragile, bloodless thing (perhaps The Count prefers subordinate females to Frances Dade‘s feistier Lucy) and her beau (David Manners) is even wetter. Of course, it is easy to note the difference in filmic styles from over 80 years ago – but ‘Dracula’ has dated less well in this respect than other films made during this era.
As The Count is staked by Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing, it is off-screen. We hear a groan (trimmed on the insistence of the censor) and it is rather anti-climactic. One would have hoped that any sequel would give Lugosi’s Dracula a more memorable send-off. What a shame it was with Abbott and Costello, 17 years later.
Horror was a largely unknown genre in 1931, so Universal’s trepidation was understandable. Whilst Lugosi approached his role with full-blooded confidence, it’s a pity the studio didn’t do the same.