Ghastly Gems: Dracula (1931)
With Universal Pictures recently launching their “Dark Universe” series of rebooted monster movies (starting with Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy), now is as good a time as ever to look back on the classic “Universal Monster” movies to see what made them such a big deal in the first place, as well as gauge their longevity. I’ll look at the films that introduced the world to Universal’s interpretation of each monster before moving on to sequels and spin-offs.
Director Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) isn’t the first of Universal’s “monster” movies (that would be 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame), but it is arguably the most important. By emphasizing star Bela Lugosi’s otherworldly screen presence, Browning helped to create one of cinema’s most enduring icons. It wasn’t even the first cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, but it certainly popularized the portrayal of the titular vampire as a suave, Machiavellian killer.
So what is it exactly that makes this version of Dracula such a beloved pop culture icon? More recent adaptations of the Dracula novel tend to focus on the romantic aspect of the character, while Browning’s film emphasizes the fear the human characters have of becoming enslaved by the Count. The film utilizes Lugosi’s piercing, hypnotic stare to great effect, making it perfectly believable that Dracula could take control of his victims with nothing more than a steely gaze. The image of Dracula with his high-collared cape and thick Hungarian accent has been savagely lampooned for the better part of the last century, but there is something undeniably magnetic about Lugosi’s portrayal.
Aside from Lugosi’s performance, Dracula is a rather average film, with some baffling editing (Browning accused Universal executives of making drastic cuts to the movie without his permission shortly before its release) and a surprisingly sanitized approach to horror – even for the 1930s. Much of the novel’s content is excised in favor of a simplified narrative that makes Dracula’s obsession with heroine Mina feel strangely random. The story feels rushed (it feels like Dracula’s bug-obsessed lackey Renfield gets more screen time than anyone else), but there are still some great moments, such as the scene where Dracula is confronted by his nemesis, Van Helsing – a man of science who knows how to destroy vampires and is the only character the count considers a threat.
The film’s narrative deficiencies are somewhat offset by striking cinematography and a surprisingly effective lack of music, which was kept to a minimum out of fear that it would distract audiences who were used to seeing silent films. The lack of a traditional soundtrack adds to the atmosphere during some of the film’s pivotal moments, and an early scene where the camera silently approaches Dracula after he emerges from his coffin will give even the most hardened of horror fans some serious goosebumps.
Tod Browning’s Dracula is far from my favorite adaptation of the novel (heck, I prefer Browning’s own Freaks as a horror film), but it certainly deserves its place in the pantheon of horror cinema. Although it jettisons the novel’s latent sexuality, it deserves credit for giving us one of the greatest movie monsters ever with an ancient vampire who makes humans want to sacrifice themselves to him. Everything from Sesame Street to Castlevania owes a debt of gratitude to this movie and Lugosi’s phenomenal performance.
Fun Fact: Bela Lugosi reprised his role as Dracula in only one other film: 1948’s Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Memorable Moment: Dracula’s impeccably delivered line, “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” is as awesome as ever.