Cinema Sweetheart's Rating: 8 out of 10
Director: Tod Browning
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 75 minutes
Sequels: Dracula's Daughter (1936), Son of Dracula (1943), House of Dracula (1945), Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Other Versions: Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), "Spanish" Dracula (1931), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
When the unsuspecting real estate salesman Mr. Renfield (Frye) travels to Transylvania to sell some London property to the Hungarian aristocrat Count Dracula (Lugosi), he has no idea the terror that will soon be inflicted on the people of England. Dracula, a vampire, drives Renfield to madness and then seduces and kills Lucy (Frances Dade), the friend of Mina Seward (Chandler), whose father owns the lunatic asylum that houses Renfield. Concerned about his daughter's failing health, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) enlists the help of his old friend Dr. Van Helsing (Van Sloan) who delivers the unbelievable truth: Count Dracula is a vampire, and together, Dr. Seward, Van Helsing, Mina's fiancé Jonathan Harker (David Manners), and the reluctant madman Renfield, must find and destroy him.
I'm a huge fan of classic horror films as a whole, and because of that, Dracula did not disappoint. It was creepy, powerful, and interesting all throughout. I adore Bela Lugosi, and his Dracula is the one responsible for the classic image of the immortal Count: a dark, handsome aristocrat with a strong foreign accent and suave manners. Most of the time, when someone mentions Count Dracula, the first image that comes to mind is NOT Max Schreck's Graf Orlock, but Lugosi’s immortal Count!
Even though the story of Dracula really is about the vampiric Count, I will admit that I've always had a soft spot for the deranged lunatic Renfield. Dwight Frye is known for his portrayal of creepy characters, from Renfield in Dracula to Igor-like Fritz in Frankenstein. This guy is simply creepy! By far, Frye's performance was the best in the film. While most actors play Renfield like he’s just plain nutty, Frye’s Renfield is sympathetic and pitiful; your heart goes out to him. Even though he’s the weak-willed, insect-eating slave to the heartless Dracula, his love for Mina Seward is a strong redeeming feature. At one point in the film, after he has escaped from his cell, he begs Dr. Seward to move him to another asylum so that he will not wake “Miss Mina” in the middle of the night with his screaming. His role as a madman, however, is more than just munching on flies and screaming in the night. Everything about Renfield seems “off”. From the way he talks, to the way he moves, to the freakishly creepy laugh which almost makes him sound like he’s crying.
While Lugosi’s performance is wonderfully mysterious, this was not his best performance by far. In fact, many film historians specializing in the Universal horror films actually find that Lugosi's Dracula role is perfected in the humorous sequel Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
All in all, I think that Dracula is a wonderful film. It has just enough suspense and atmosphere to sufficiently give you the chills, while avoiding sexual references and gore that are normally associated with vampires in today's films and books. Lugosi is wonderful as the creepy archetypal Count Dracula, Dwight Frye the perfect, unhinged Renfield, and Edward Van Sloan is by far my favorite Van Helsing.
Van Helsing is a very hard character to pull off. The actor portraying him must have the proper balance of mystery and brains, as well as appearing a bit off, so that it's hard for the other characters to really believe him; at least at first. Van Sloan, however, is perfect for the role. Unlike performances like Anthony Hopkins’s role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Van Sloan’s Van Helsing is calm, collected, and always in control. He comes across as a rather quiet, unassuming man, and his subtlety is a perfect match for Dracula’s own dark brand of subtlety. The tension is just right in the scenes where the two characters face off, because you never know who is going to come out on top.
If you enjoy the classic Universal horror films, or have seen Frankenstein or The Wolf Man and are looking for something new, then this should be the next on your list. Also, if you’re seen some of the more recent vampire films, then you quite simply need to see this one as well! This is by far one of the best vampire movies of all time, and an enduring classic. It’s the perfect film for a dark, rainy night.