It was the movie that I rented more than any other. Along with professional wrestling pay-per-views, I handed Tod Browning's Dracula to the cashiers at my local video store more than any other film. I wasn't even 10 yet, but I had already seen one of the most influential horror films in history over twenty times. It got to the point where the cashiers would fain mock horror if I handed them anything else. Thus began my reputation as one of Morgantown's premiere "weird kids."
From the vantage point of over a decade, I can easily identify the reasons why I was so attracted to the film. First of all, I was completely infatuated with vampires. I not only wanted them to be real, but I held dreams of both fighting them and eventually becoming one of them. They, like me, enjoyed the night more than the day, but unlike me they were strong, powerful beings who did not have to abide by curfews or perform onerous chores. When I got a little older, I came to identify vampires with sexual magnetism, and I often thought that if I were a vampire, I could have anything (and any woman) I wanted.
But more than anything else, Dracula just felt right to me. Call me an inborn traditionalist, but what appealed to me the most about Browning's film was that it's everything a classic horror film should be. Sure, when I see the film now, I wince at its production and inability to overcome its stage origins, but even today I still recognize and admire the film for its shadowplay, its wonderful script, and Bela Lugosi's mesmerizing performance. Then as now, Dracula is the film that I associate with winter evenings and the cool fog of autumnal woods. Dracula is the film I saw with my mind's eye every time I went out into the woods near our Preston County home at around dusk. For a brief time, Dracula helped me to imagine my world in West Virginia as a little pocket of Transylvania.
Before becoming the centerpiece of my ridiculous inner life, Dracula was an incredibly popular stage play. It can be argued (and successfully argued, as a former professor of mine once demonstrated) that Bram Stoker's contribution to the world's never-ending obsession with vampires is fairly minor. Yes, Stoker, an Anglo-Irish Protestant who worked as a theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, is the man solely responsible for creating Count Dracula - the most famous vampire of them all. And yes, Stoker's 1897 novel not only created the modern vampire tale, but it is also the source for most of modern society's beliefs and superstitions regarding the nocturnal bloodsuckers. Because of Stoker, when one hears "Transylvania," one thinks about vampires changing into bats, wolves, and mist. They think about biting throats, wooden stakes, and drinking blood. Essentially, they're thinking about the stuff that Stoker made up whole cloth.
While Stoker's importance can't be disputed, it is equally hard to argue against the notion that the films about Count Dracula have proven more influential than the book. From Lugosi's thick and melodious Hungarian drawl to Christopher Lee's sanguine fangs, Dracula has become more of a silver screen idol than a literary monster. Don't believe it? Look no further than sunlight. Until F.W. Murnau decided to dispatch Graf Orlok (who is a German version of Dracula due to copyright issues) by throwing sunlight on him, most folkloric and literary vampires, including Stoker's Romanian tyrant, were repelled by, but not killed by sunlight. More importantly, Browning's Dracula is based less on Stoker's Victorian potboiler and more on an adaptation for the stage.
In 1924, Hamilton Deane, a playwright who came from the same part of Dublin as Stoker, adapted his friend's novel for the stage. Later, in 1927, John L. Balderston, an American screenwriter, magazine editor, and former war correspondent, substantially rewrote Deane's slightly antiquated play for a more modern audience. Both versions were the first adaptations to be authorized by Florence Balcomb, Stoker's widow and the very person who almost kept Nosferatu from ever being seen.
After a run in England with Raymond Huntley as Dracula and Deane himself as Van Helsing, stage producer Horace Liveright brought the play over to Broadway and called in Balderston to update it. The Liveright/Balderston collaboration of 1927 featured the suave Hungarian Lugosi, who was then acting in his first major English-speaking role, as Dracula and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing. Both would reprise these roles for the later film.
Notably, the 1927 stage play significantly condensed the plot. Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker became one character, while the British aristocrat Arthur Holmwood and the brave Texan Quincey Morris (who kills Dracula in the novel with of all things a Bowie knife) were expunged all together. Short, action-oriented, and mostly set inside of an English home, this is the version that was put on-screen in 1931.
After Carl Laemmle, Jr. (an often overlooked hero of the Pre-Code horror wave) purchased the rights to Stoker's novel, the germ of Dracula began to grow around the lots at Universal. First, screenwriter Garrett Fort and others studied Murnau's Nosferatu for inspiration, which is odd considering how different the two films are from one another. Besides the obvious contrast of silent vs. sound, Dracula is a sensual and gothic romance in comparison to Murnau's often abstract and highly Expressionist symphony of horror.
While the screenwriters were busy watching film, casting directors were scouting out potential prospects to play the Count. Although the obvious choice, Lugosi was initially passed over because Laemmle didn't like him. But, as luck would have it, Lugosi was in Los Angeles playing the vampire onstage during the film's casting, and thus found it easy to persistently pester producers and executives. He ultimately got the part and was paid $3,500 for seven weeks of work. Even by the standards of the Great Depression, this was a pittance.
By all accounts, once filming got underway, it was a mess. A usually involved and active director, Tod Browning, a maestro who was then best known for his silent collaborations with Lon Chaney, was erratic and often MIA during filming. The great Austrian cinematographer Karl Freund did most of the work and many today consider him the film's unrecognized director. Unfortunately, Browning's behavior was a sign of things to come. A brilliant silent director known for his weird and disturbing films, Browning found the transition to sound awkward, and thus some see this as the reason why Dracula is such a herky-jerky sound film. From the long periods of silence to the use of intertitles, Dracula is not by any stretch of the imagination a fully-realized sound film.
Also, on top of that, Dracula is barely a film. Besides its effective close-ups, most of Dracula is shot like it's a stage play put on film. From the static sets to bouts of wooden and stiff acting, the overwhelming strangeness of the film can be partially blamed on the clash of two mediums.
Despite its many faults, Dracula proved to be more successful than anyone ever imagined in February 1931. Not only did Dracula propel Lugosi into superstardom, but it was the film that opened the horror floodgates in the United States. Without Dracula, the era of Universal Monsters would have never happened.
The original print of the film opens with Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Swans" from Swan Lake. This would be used again in 1932's The Mummy, a film directed by Freund, so it's likely he had a hand in selecting the haunting piece for Dracula as well. After the credits sequence, which features a spooky background involving a spider web and a bright-eyed bat, the film opens in Transylvania. British solicitor Renfield (played brilliantly by Dwight Frye) is traveling to the Borgo Pass in order to discuss a business deal with his client - Count Dracula. It just so happens that Renfield (who is both Renfield, the novel's lunatic and the henchman of Dracula, and Jonathan Harker, the novel's main protagonist) is traveling on Walpurgis Night, Central Europe's far scarier version of Halloween that involves Satanic witches copulating with demons and such. Everywhere he goes in Transylvania, deeply superstitious and deeply Catholic Hungarian peasants beseech him not to go to the castle. One woman even presses upon him to wear a crucifix for his "mother's sake." This is the first of many great lines.
After Renfield leaves the village, the film transitions to Castle Dracula and enters the cobweb-filled basement. While there, a low-laying fog surrounds the screen as we see hands (and one wasp) emerge from inside of coffins. These hands belong to Dracula and his three wives. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howls. Things are definitely not good.
At midnight, Dracula's carriage meets Renfield at the Borgo Pass. The driver, who is clearly Lugosi, travels at a quick clip to get Renfield to the mountaintop castle. This scene is noticeably less powerful than the one in Nosferatu, where Murnau uses film negative and fast motion to heighten the scene's unnatural quality. Also, Murnau made the wise decision to show Graf Orlok (played the wonderfully frightening Max Schreck) after the carriage ride, not before it.
Once inside of Dracula's dirty, cathedral-like castle (which inexplicably features armadillos), Renfield meets the well-mannered aristocrat, who politely introduces himself:
I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.
A lone wolf's howl inspires the cloaked count to remark: "Listen to them. Children of the night, what music they make." From here Renfield watches in surprise as Count Dracula walks through a giant cobweb, then opens the door to a well-lit room with warm food and wine. All business, Dracula wants to talk about Carfax Abbey, his new home in England, and his plan to leave the next night on a ship he's privately chartered.
The following sequence, in which Dracula reads his contract and Renfield in turn cuts his finger open, was clearly influenced by Nosfeatu. The only difference being that Dracula's advance on Renfield's open cut is thwarted by the peasant crucifix, which does not occur in the earlier German film. Also, it goes without saying that Lugosi's line of "I never drink...wine" is not an adoption from Murnau.
During the night, Renfield is turned by Dracula's three wives and quickly descends into madness. The solid businessman of the film's first fifteen minutes becomes a bug-eyed wildman once aboard the Vesta. When the ship lands in England with its entire crew dead, responders discover Renfield after noticing his maniacal laughter. After opening the hatchway, they discover one of cinema's most nightmarish faces.
Lucy's death, along with Renfield, who is Dr. Seward's most troublesome patient, necessitates a call to Dr. Van Helsing. Before long, Dr. Van Helsing begins to suspect that a vampire is in their midst, and his suspicions are confirmed upon meeting Renfield, who is a constant thorn in the side of Martin (played by Charles K. Gerrard), the film's Cockney comic relief and Renfield's assistant. Dr. Van Helsing's suspicions only deepen when reports of a "woman in white" turn out be to the undead Lucy, who has fallen to attacking children. Mina, who has already been bitten by Dracula in the sanitarium's garden, recognizes Lucy and retells her experience to both Van Helsing and her lover Jonathan Harker (played by David Manners), who bears little to no resemblance to the character in the novel.
At this point, Van Helsing knows that Dracula is trying to take Mina. The two confront each other in Dr. Seward's house. Their battle of wits, which ends when Dr. Van Helsing exposes Dracula to a mirror (a weakness that was created by Stoker), sets the final battle in motion. The first shot comes when Dracula attempts a full frontal attack on the Seward house. His attempts to hypnotize Dr. Van Helsing are defeated by yet another crucifix, but Van Helsing's bravery does not stop Mina from removing the protective wolfbane in her room. Once clear, Dracula hypnotizes Nurse Briggs (played by Joan Standing) into opening the window. He then takes Mina back to Carfax Abbey, where he's followed by Renfield, Van Helsing, and Harker.
Realizing that Renfield led Van Helsing and Harker to the abbey, Dracula kills him by throwing his limp body down a series of stairs. It's an unnecessary death, for it's already too late for the undead count. Van Helsing and Harker break in and soon discover Dracula asleep in his native soil. Off screen, Van Helsing stakes Dracula. All the audience hears is the vampire's protracted death moans, which, before the Production Code revised the film, were apparently longer. The staking of Dracula releases Mina from his enthrallment, and thus the film ends with her and Harker walking into the light of day.
Put simply, Dracula is the grandaddy of great American horror. It remains the quintessential vampire film, and without question Lugosi's performance presents the definitive Dracula. Everyone after him, even the great Christopher Lee, walked in his shadow. You can say the same thing about most horror films after Dracula. The film is just that important.