"Vot can I say? I am...an icon."
Tod Browning's DRACULA, unarguably one of the most influential films ever made, a landmark in horror cinema's landscape, and the effort that kicked off the classic Universal horror cycle. So pervasive is its influence that even today, some eighty-five years after its release, it is Bela Lugosi's version of Count Dracula that we all imitate when doing comedic vampire impressions. In fact, just about everything found in the 1931 DRACULA has entered our shared consciousness when we think of what an old school vampire flick is. So much so, that providing a synopsis of the narrative is pretty much unnecessary. The film only cribs certain elements from Bram Stoker's source novel, instead using the hit 1924 stage version as its Ground Zero, and what we are presented essentially became the carved-in-stone template for this sort of thing until Hammer Films and Christopher Lee's equally indelible and malevolent take on the Count forever relegated Lugosi's suave and accented interpretation to the fondly-remembered hall of fame gallery of 20th century pop culture.
The Count makes his move.
When I was a kid and absolutely determined to steep myself in as much horror movie history as possible, I sought out all of the classic black and white shockers to fill in any gaps of my education. My first exposure to the classic Universal Monsters (and other horrors of cinema) came in the form of those old Aurora model kits with the optional glow-in-the-dark parts, so I knew who all of the characters were but had yet to experience the movies that unleashed them upon the silver screen. (Upon seeing my long shelf of Aurora monster kits — I had all of them by the time I was seven, and they were among the first models I ever painted and assembled by myself — my mother remarked that she had no idea how I slept at night as a legion of monsters hovered over my bed, some providing an eerie glow in the dark of night. Little could she comprehend that those horrors offered me comfort in contrast to the real-life horrors that I was enduring at the time.) Of those kits, I have to say that the one of Lugosi's Dracula offered the closest likeness to its subject, so I took special care in providing it with a respectful paint job.
Anyway, when I finally saw the 1931 DRACULA on one of NYC's several televised showcases for old horror flicks, I was drawn in by its overwhelming sense of atmosphere and visual style, but I could not ignore the fact that the film itself was extremely slow-moving, stagey, featured virtually no music — which kills a great deal of a scary movie's power — and was not scary in the least. I was perplexed that such a film would be hailed as a classic and I just could not wrap my head around how it had gained such a lofty reputation.
That said, to me the strongest element of the movie was Lugosi's eerie and utterly suave Dracula. He's hands down my favorite filmic version of the Count, exuding an aristocratic air that has never been equaled in other portrayals, as well as conveying a real sense of other-than-natural power over those around him. He also seemed weary of his eternal existence and displayed no small amount of sadness to go with that emotional state. But an arch vampire must do what an arch vampire does, so he drives a man into a state of insect-devouring madness and over the top mental slavery, and he preys upon innocent young women in the wee hours. He also contends with Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), a doctor who, despite his firm grounding in science, absolutely believes in the existence of vampires, and the professor proves a worthy adversary who swiftly twigs to the exact nature of the Count.
Van Helsing busts Dracula with old mirror trick.
Those elements and more make up a solid 85 minutes of screen time, but the film's just-out-of-the-silent-era feel and storytelling style may prove a tough slog for modern audiences. The film is by no means bad, but it is very, very slow-moving and features many long stretches of total silence, so a viewer may find him or herself lulled to sleep by the movie's dreamlike feel and pacing. To tell the truth, it took me four tries to make it all the way through DRACULA when watching it as a refresher for this year's series of essays. I kept making the mistake of putting it on as my bedtime movie and in no time I would nod off. But if you've never seen DRACULA, it's an absolute must-see for your horror cinema education, so make sure to approach it when you are bright and chipper and not at the end of a long day. And just so we're clear on this, as the Universal horror cycle progressed and found its footing, the films became a hell of a lot livelier, as we shall soon see...
And one last thing: Though his accent has been the source of much lampooning and countless impersonations over the decades since the film's release, at no point does Bela Lugosi's Dracula state "I vant to suck your blood." I have no idea where that tired cliché came from but it is utterly spurious and best ignored by those in the know.
Poster from the original theatrical release.