Quite possibly the most over-filmed novel that’s ever existed (virtually anything with vampires in techincally a riff), Bram Stoker’s Dracula has gone through more iterations than Doctor Who, James Bond and Batman combined. I have no idea exactly how many actors have portrayed the jugular nibbling Count over the years (and I have no intention of trying to work it out) but surely one of the most endearing portrayals is that of the one gifted us in 1931 by Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó – or should I say, Bela Lugosi.
The other cornerstone (besides Frankenstein) to the series of classic monster movies birthed by Universal after the advent of sound being used in motion pictures, Dracula takes the admittedly dense source novel, streamlines the fuck out of it and gives us Lugosi’s, molasses thick Hungarian accent instead thereby creating an instant icon.
Renfield is a hapless solicitor travelling through Transylvania on business when he name drops his client’s name to the horrified locals. He’s here to arrange the purchase of property in London by the reclusive Count Dracula, a man believed by the superstitious townsfolk to be a Vampire who feeds on the blood of his hapless victims, but Renfeild brushes off these rumours as the merest of poppycock and diligently forges ahead to his client’s cobwebby castle. Of course, the locals are absolutely correct and the hapless solicitor – first wooed, then chewed on by his charming host and his vampiric trio of brides (apparently there’s no word for “bigamy” in Transylvania) – becomes a deranged slave to his new master upon his arrival in London.
Shaking off his gruelling journey like a champ, the Count immediately targets the pretty, white necks of both Mina and her best friend Lucy but soon appears on the radar of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a vampire expert, who rallies Mina’s bland fiance Jonathan and her father against the toothy assault of the supernatural villain. However, Dracula isn’t without his own weapons as his unique condition allows him to transform into a floppy bat, ensnare his victims with his hypnotic gaze and turn others into vampires themselves and he isn’t going down without a fight.
Those more familiar with the orginal novel or any of the more accurate adaptations of Stoker’s prose may initially be thrown at the rather sizable changes made to the story, the main example being the odd notion of Renfield having far more impact on the story than traditional hero Jonathan Harker. This is just one of the many curious aspects that stand out in the movie that, while not impacting it’s rightfully iconic status, does somewhat prevent the film from reaching the same, transcendal heights as James Whale’s adaptation of Frankenstein, which is a far more free flowing and less stilted movie.
The first issue is that for various reasons, so much of the good shit happens off screen – and I don’t mean in a shadow-on-wall kind of way, no I mean in a character-standing-in-a-doorway-describing-shit-to-us kind of way which starts to get a bit frustrating during moment like when Dracula supposedly turns into a wolf or Lucy supposedly dies in the middle of the night. Things get even more anticlimactic when even the final reel staking of the movie’s title character occurs utterly out of view from the audience but comes complete with awkward stage groans from the dying Count himself…
Other famous aspects of the characters may also be suspicious by their absence (look ma, no fangs!) but even I’m not gonna take a cheap shot at the rubber bat on a string method of realising Dracula’s most infamous transformation (it is 1931, after all) but I will point out that most of it’s attacks are easily fended off by vaguely irritated hand gestures…
Director Todd Browning (he of the unnerving masterpiece Freaks) was a master at conducting gloomy atmosphere off the screen thanks to a string of thrillers that correctly suggested he was born to translate Dracula to the screen, but sometimes the film feels too much like we’re watching a filmed play instead of a motion picture and feels fairly constrained. However, with the addition of some magnificently rich set design and some colourful performances (although I could have done without the risable comedy relief of “cockney” orderly Martin), Dracula finally and truly earns it’s legendary status thanks to it’s central performance of it’s lead. Bela Lugosi, who never met a vowel he didn’t like, hams things up immensely and you get a real feeling that his Dracula truly enjoys being the utter Count that he is. Dastardly and malevolent, he’s not the tormented, undead romantic some has portrayed him as and Lugosi pitches him as a creature smugly overjoyed to be toying with his prey like mice – although it’s never truly made clear WHY he wants to move to London in the first place… change of diet, perhaps?
Keeping old Drac on his toes as his nemesis Van Helsing is Edward Van Sloan and while he has a distracting similarity to Joe Pesci in coke bottle glasses and yes, his German accent seems to veer into Glaswegian more often than not, he’s a fitting foil to Lugosi’s gleeful bloodsucker.
While it’s true that the 1922 Nosferatu is an infinitely superior (and far creepier) version of the legendary tale, it’s not Max Schrek’s take on the legendary nightstalker who you’ll see kids dressing up as on Halloween night and that’s the true secret to this verison’s staying power. I may personally prefer Christopher Lee’s more sexually complex and threatening take on the character and Francis Ford Coppola’s spectacularly chaotic attempt may be more impressive, but without the efforts of Browning and Lugosi, those version would most likely never had existed.
Quaintly dated, yet utterly essential to the horror genre, Dracula may long since surpassed as the quintessential vampire movie, but you’d be a fool not to give fangs for the memories…