Dracula (1931)

A macabre Gothic portraiture of one of the mankind’s most ancient unholy fears with a majestic countryside setting, lute-strum ethnical score, ocular themes, & bone-chillingly intense physicality-centric Lugosi-led performances: A New Age Of Vampire Movies. 8.7/10.

Plot Synopsis: The dashing, mysterious Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), after hypnotizing a British soldier, Renfield (Dwight Frye), into his mindless slave, travels to London and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon Dracula begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires. When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to the count’s never-ending bloodlust.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Official CLC Review

The Origins Of A Cultural Icon

The Vampire Is One Of, If Not The Most Popular Halloween Monster Costume Ever; A Prevalence Due To 1931 & Bela Lugosi

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

Every Halloween, there is one absolute constant beyond the candy, trick-o-treaters, jack-o-lanterns, and macabre: vampire costumes. CLC has never gone even one October without seeing multiple of the cape-and-fang combo’s – and it has been the #1 selling costume for a reason: 1931’s Dracula. Bram Stoker’s 1897 eponymous novel may have established the lore, but it wasn’t until the world saw that Lugosi-in-costume death-stare running around night streets sucking blood and subjugating minds to his will that the concept got elevated to become an icon of horror & spooky-season history just as cogent and omnipresent today as it was ~100 years ago. A macabre Gothic portraiture of one of the mankind’s most ancient unholy fears with a majestic countryside setting, lute-strum ethnical score, ocular themes, & bone-chillingly intense physicality-centric Lugosi-led performances, Dracula created an icon of movie history and a new age of on-screen vampires.

A Masterclass In Atmospherics

A Breathtaking Transylvania Countryside & Gothic Castle Set/Aesthetic – The Perfect Backdrop & One Of The Best In Film History

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

The opening of Dracula has one of the most jaw-dropping aesthetics I’ve ever witnessed in cinematic history. The breathtaking Transylvania countryside feels straight out of your wildest Italy summering fantasies and boasts magnificent rolling hills and dramatic rock monolith formations juxtaposed with a hypnotizing lute-strummed Tchaikovsky overture and quaint small town where the villagers feel like they’re on-edge and are terrified to go out at night. A naïve, young real estate businessman bravely ignores the ‘superstitious’ warnings of the villagers and decides to go out for a midnight-meetup with Count Dracula at his Gothic castle at the top of the hill – and nothing was the same. The set pieces and dark macabre aesthetic that befalls this fairy tale-esque natural backdrop when the sun goes down is one of the greatest of all-time: dark, epic, grandiose architecture and sets captured through purposeful use of extreme long shots to dramaticize the grandeur alongside a transfixion of strings that coax your senses into a false-sense of normalcy before the first victim of the night is taken by the man-of-the-hour: Bela Lugosi’s Dracula.

A Vampire For The Ages

Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula Remains ~100 Years Later One Of The Greatest Performances Of All-Time – Physicality, Eyes, & Bone-Chilling Intensity

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

The performance of Bela Lugosi in the titular antagonist role of Dracula is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest performances in cinematic & horror history. After his tragic death in 1956 in Los Angeles, he was buried in his cape from the film – and it’s easily to see why: he defined the vampire on-screen for generations and millennia-to-come. The physicality, unflinching death-stare, and bone-chilling intensity of Lugosi is ensorcelling acting of the highest pedigree – able to say more and evoke more fear in slow-moving, stealthy gazes into the deepest pits of your soul without words than most actors do with soliloquies and dialogue. There is a fantastic attention-to-detail of the eyes in the cinematography: there is special floodlight put on the eyes of Lugosi every time we see him stare us frontally straight-on from uncomfortably short distances to highlight his talents and expose one of the film’s greatest themes. The eyes have been traditionally-defined as windows to the soul – the pith and essence of humanity and an indicator of human spirit for most, here twisted into instruments of terror and unnatural macabre as we cannot look away from the gazes given extreme close-ups right in our faces. We are put in a trance as much in the audience as his victims are in vampires – and the hierarchy he creates is one that’s equally as inspired and brilliantly-acted.

The Hierarchical Structure

A Score Of Hypnotizante Lute-Strummed Majesty & Tchaikovsky + Wagner; A Web Of Subjugated Character Performances

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

The performances surrounding Lugosi’s timeless/iconic Dracula are just as strong – especially Frye, Van Sloan, and Chandler. Dwight Frye’s Renfield is just as disturbing as Lugosi’s – given an antithetical persona in a ludicrously-madman, squealing, unhinged weasly one that’s every bit as terrifying and you feel might attack at any point. The character is also compelling being put under Dracula’s thumb-of-rule, yet betraying him quite often by undermining his plot to turn Mina while professing his undead-devotion to the Count – a Victorian hierarchy as he might want to fight the evil, but cannot shake the power of dark suggestion. Helen Chandler’s Mina is also sensational as the perfect female counterbalance of Dracula, a plucky and innocent young girl who meets her ill-fated guest on a night at the opera – only to be slowly turned through the fight for her soul across the screenplay into a scary dual-slasher near-the-end. Finally, Edward Van Sloan’s Professor Van Helsing is, of course, one of the best performances of era history – the calculating, powerful, authoritarian doctor antidote to Dracula who has to go against everything his scientific background tells him to be the one respectworthy public figure to expose a wolf in sheep’s clothing: a rivalry for the ages.

The Horror, Themes, & Legacy

A Precursor To Supernatural, Undead, & Religious Horror Filled With Iconography – Despite Being Comparatively-Meek Itself

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

The horror of Dracula is one that would be groundbreaking in the genre: precursors of supernatural, undead, and religious horror. Indeed, a dead-not-so monster who preys and sucks the blood of the living and turns them into zombie servants drained of their own free will to be subjects of him for centuries is conceptually-frightening – and there are instances where the brilliance of the ancient fear of mankind shines through here. The film deserves high credit for establishing the aesthetic of Dracula much better & scarier than Stoker’s 1897 novel did: here, Dracula is a suave, charming nobleman who is better able to seduce than the comparatively-repulsive appearance of Nosferatu is the ’20’s film and novel. There is also better exposition of his ability to morph into a bat and preying on victims while they sleep – all nice scary innovations of the premise that have come to define the bloodsuckers. The film is filled with religious iconography – from the vampires being terrified by the crosses to townspeople being highly-religious and preaching piety to references to Biblical scenes twisted like Dracula parting a sea of red mist like first just as Moses did the sea in the Testaments and fights for the soul to the film being set purposefully in the irony-centric sin-filled city where vampires can feast being so far away from God. Ideologically, the film is very scary and undoubtedly great in atmospheric construction – in execution, not as much.

Too Much Time In London

A Bizarre Decision To Base 80%+ Of The Film In A Common London & Completely Ignore Its Jaw-Dropping Transylvania Sets

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

The big thing I hate about 1931’s Dracula is that the film spends barely any time in its best part: Transylvania. The masterpiece setting and backdrop of the breathtakingly-charming little town loomed over by the ominous shadow of Dracula’s castle.. is featured for like 10-15 minutes of the screenplay – in order to go to London of all places instead. A major metropolitan city makes our vampire flick feel like any other horror movie – including fellow-1931 and fellow-Universal Monster film Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde releasing that very same year; there’s no singularity or idiosyncrasy except in that first 20 minutes. I feel awful for the craftsmen who built that masterpiece setting.. only to have it almost condescendingly-wasted. Heck, even the sequence on the boat was a more interesting and inventive backdrop than the city. Going off that, Dracula and his wives are tremendously underpowered – when your big bad antagonist is scared off by a leafy plant in Wolfsbane or sticks in crosses (also why he had to go to London in the first place).. that’s not exactly a jaw-dropper scary feature and somewhat-weak. The rest of the performances outside the vampiric hierarchy are a bit stiff and stagy – even tonally-incongruent in parts like the wise-cracking security guard that massively detracts from the atmosphere, tone, & terror a classic horror movie should be going for (not to mention a vexing accent).

Conclusion

The Definitive Movie Vampire

A Groundbreaking Monster Movie Boasting One Of The Greatest Set Of Performances In Movie History, Legacy, Aesthetics, Genre-Definition, & Atmosphere – Despite The U.K.

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

Overall, 1931’s Dracula is one of the most important horror movies ever – the reason vampires are so popular today. Bela Lugosi’s performance is truly a once-in-a-generation cultural phenomenon: a masterclass in physicality and aura that says more in bone-chilling stares than most actors do with soliloquies. The film’s Transylvania countryside, Dracula’s castle aesthetic and set-pieces, and lute-strummed ethnocentric score are the biggest otherwise accomplishments in the film and some of the best establishment works in movie history – alone cementing with its performances (just as many strong ones around Lugosi as the big bad Count himself) it as a hallmark of movie history. The problem is: they’re bizarrely-neglected for 80% of the movie running away to a London that feels common and like every other modernized monster movie, including fellow Universal franchise picture that year Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Regardless, it is still a thoroughly-enjoyable textbook clinic of atmospherics that served as a precursor to supernatural, undead, and religious horror films as we know them today. A macabre Gothic portraiture of one of the mankind’s most ancient unholy fears with a majestic countryside setting, lute-strum ethnical score, ocular themes, & bone-chillingly intense physicality-centric Lugosi-led performances, Dracula created an icon of movie history and a new age of on-screen vampires.

Official CLC Score: 8.7/10