Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.
The 1931 Dracula film represents one of those most dreaded species of films: revered classics that are a slog to get through. It’s all the worse because, on paper, this should be the exact kind of film that’s a joy — a high-production studio-era film dedicated to a beloved horror story, centered around an iconic performance, and helmed by a regarded director, Tod Browning. But in practice, it’s a downer.
Dracula was the first film in the iconic Universal line of classic horror films. It was a fairly large budget A-picture, and enough of a hit to launch a franchise. It was Universal’s highest-grosser of the year. Its success not only inspired more monster hits by Universal, like Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, but helped codify some of the tropes and aesthetics of horror cinema. (E.g. the intro featuring a long trip to a haunted place punctuate by an encounter with a superstitious local, as seen in everything from House to Friday the 13th; and the look of Dracula’s castle, which is basically the default spooky setting.)
However, the actual watchability of the film suffers from its timing in cinema history, production quality, and made-for-stage script. The stiffness and staginess reminiscent of early talkie cinema permeate its scenes, especially in the latter half. While the opening gets by on sheer atmosphere, the scenes in London are basically people talking in prop-filled rooms (the better to hide bulky microphones), never once threatening to pierce the proscenium in any cinematic way. The totally empty sound design — eerie in the opening, deadening in the second half — also gives the film quite a bit of awkwardness.
It’s easy to blame the technological limitations of the early talkie era (see the instantly-iconic “Hello college!” scene in Babylon), but it’s not as if Hollywood was incapable of good sound design at this point. By 1931, cinema had witnessed masterpieces of elegant sound design. All Quiet on the Western Front, a triumph of sound cinema, came out a whole year earlier. So while it’s tempting to grade on a curve, there’s definitely some missed potential. (Check out the discussion in the comments of this review of the film by Tim Brayton to read people who know more about the era than I do opining on this.)
The film also has a hurdle to clear in that there was already a truly terrific and memorable Dracula adaptation in the silent Nosferatu. So Browning’s Dracula needs not only to capture the material well but differentiate itself from the German Experssionism-adjacent classic.
It’s worth noting, as I’ve already alluded, that the good parts of this film are indeed really good. The production design of Dracula’s castle, in particular, is striking near-masterpiece stuff: Grand arches, looming shadows, and a sense of Gothic grandeur set the mood. So do the creepy-crawly live animals, including an inexplicable armadillo, likely an homage to the frequent rats in Nosferatu.
No review of Dracula would be complete without applauding Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the title character. His role as Dracula truly is the stuff of legends, permanently etching into public memory a particular image and demeanor of the famous vampire. Lugosi’s Hungarian accent and oddly-cadenced deliveries lend an otherworldly quality to the count. Physically, though, it’s a bit stiff: his performance primarily consists of cold, calculated glares.
It hasn’t left as long a shadow, but I also quite enjoyed Dwight Frye’s campy, unhinged portrayal of Renfield. Frye is acting for the cheap seats with a delightful brand of mania. His wide-eyed commitment to the role add a spark to the otherwise drab proceedings in the film’s stilted second half.
Beyond the production design and acting, the film’s most striking feature is its sound design. The absence of a proper score means that many scenes are filled with an eerie hiss, almost like the quiet before a storm. I really loved this within the confines of Dracula’s castle, adding to the unsettling atmosphere, but it begins to feel empty the longer the movie goes, making the narrative feel emptier and more vacuous than it already is.
At its heart, Dracula seems trapped between worlds – not quite the silent cinema of its predecessors and not fully embracing the capabilities of sound cinema. The result is a film that feels more like a filmed stage play, lacking the cinematic fluidity and dynamism of the true classics of the era.
Yet, for all its flaws, Dracula’s legacy is undeniable. To paraphrase my podcast co-host Brian, any horror fan owes it some respect. Its success and influence paved the way for a long lineage of monster flicks — taking a European vision (Nosferatu) and making it mass-marketable and big-time Hollywood.
I am ultimately marking this rating one tick above my initial instinct for that reason. It’s Dracula; it deserves some respect. I’d guess it’s more likely I bump this down over time than up, but you never know: maybe I’ll revere its long shadow even more as I dive deeper into the Universal horror films.