Review: Dracula (1931)

Directed by: Tod Browning
Starring: Béla Lugosi, Helen Chandler and David Manners.
Based on: the novel of the same name by Bram Stoker.
Genre: Horror
Released: February 12 1931
by Universal Pictures
Running time: 71 mins (1 hr, 11 mins)
Cert: PG
Rating: ★★★★

IMDb | View Trailer

After a harrowing ride through the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe, Renfield enters Castle Dracula to finalise the transferal of Carfax Abbey in London to Count Dracula, who is in actuality a vampire. Renfield is drugged by the eerily hypnotic count, and turned into one of his thralls, protecting him during his sea voyage to London. After sucking the blood and turning the young Lucy Weston into a vampire, Dracula turns his attention to her friend Mina Seward, daughter of Dr. Seward who then calls in a specialist, Professor Van Helsing, to diagnose the sudden deterioration of Mina’s health. Van Helsing, realising that Dracula is indeed a vampire, tries to prepare Mina’s fiance, John Harker, and Dr. Seward for what is to come and the measures that will have to be taken to prevent Mina from becoming one of the undead.

Feel free to laugh at me because this is the first horror film that I have ever seen. I’m being serious. I’ve never been a fan of horror films ever since I saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the first time when I was six. I just don’t like being scared, I don’t think it’s a nice feeling. Even though I’m a scaredy-cat, my brother got me a box set of classic Universal monster films for my birthday and I figured that they won’t be too scary since they’re so old. I have read Dracula before, and I absolutely love it. The book is my all-time favourite vampire book, even though it did take me about a year to finish. Oops…
While this film version of Dracula does stay relatively faithful to the book, there are a few changed to the story, mainly to the characters. Here are a few of them:

  • Renfield is the one who goes to Transylvania to give Dracula the lease to Carfax Abbey, rather than Jonathan Harker (whose name has been shortened to simply John and given a smaller role).
  • Mina Murray’s name has been changed to Mina Seward as she is now Dr. Seward’s daughter.
  • Dr. Seward is no longer a suitor to Lucy, whose name has been changed from Westenra to Weston.
  • Quincy Morris and Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming) do not appear in the film.
These aren’t particularly major changes and they didn’t make a huge impact on the film or my enjoyment but I would have preferred if the characters were not changed and certain characters were included. But then again, the film would have been quite long and incredibly long films were quite a rarity in the early 1930s (to my knowledge). Other than those changes, the basic plot of Dracula is essentially the same but a bit more condensed for those who probably can’t sit for hours on end.
Although it is incredibly OTT by today’s standards, I couldn’t help but like Béla Lugosi’s performance as the titular Count. Because Lugosi was Hungarian, like the Count himself, he brought a foreign mystery to the character that seems incredibly fitting and also his deliberate slow manner of speech made the Count seem more like a walking, talking corpse, which is essentially what a vampire is. He’s definitely not the best Dracula, but he’s the most memorable and the one whose portrayal has been imprinted in everyone’s minds since just about forever.
There aren’t much to the sets, especially those of Dracula’s castle and Carfax Abbey (he does sleep in a box of Transylvanian dirt, after all) but it works incredibly well because they give the appearance of being incredibly ancient and basically crumbling to pieces, which is exactly how I always imagined Dracula’s castle to look. There is an interesting piece of recycled film during the scene in which Dracula and Renfield stow away on the Vesta (the Demeter in the book), which is why the movements look incredibly jerky in shots of the ship being steered through a storm.
There is hardly any music in Dracula; the only songs in the film are Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (in the theatre scene) and part of Act II of Swan Lake. That’s pretty much it and the rest of the scenes have no music at all. I actually know why and it’s because audiences in the early days of talking pictures were not used to hearing music in a film without there being a reason for it to be there. It actually works to the film’s advantage especially in scenes were Dracula is manipulating people because it gives an eerie edge that music would usually be needed for.
Would I say that this version of Dracula is scary? Not at all, which is probably why I enjoyed it. Like I said, I don’t like being scared and my first venture into the world of horror films allowed me to keep my fingernails and my knuckles stayed their natural colour. Lugosi’s somewhat suave portrayal of the Count was kind of reassuring, despite its theatricality. But there is still an unnerving atmosphere to the film, especially in the close-ups of the Count mentally manipulating his latest victim. If you’re wanting to be scared out of your skin, this probably isn’t the film for you, but I would definitely recommend Dracula to fans of the book and fans of classic horror films.

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