Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, has been plundered time and time again for movie adaptations of varying quality and now seems like a particularly hard-trampled piece of intellectual property. However, back when this version was released on Valentine’s Day 1931 it still seemed fresh, a story with originality and panache —and sex. It’s hard to believe now that in 1931 moviegoers were unfamiliar with vampires and the rules governing their undead existence. To the average moviegoer at this time, a ‘screen vamp’ was a sultry actress, an exotic siren like Theda Bara, Pola Negri, or Olga Baclanova.
Dracula changed all that.
The movie’s aesthetic and narrative referenced the stageplay as opposed to the novel, and the results are highly theatrical. This is in no small part due to Bela Lugosi. Lugosi was far from director Tod Browning’s first choice —originally, Lon Chaney Sr. was assigned the role, but he died of throat cancer before filming began. Chaney would have taken the role in a completely different direction — with facial hair. He was notorious for his reliance on heavy makeup when creating a character and would no doubt have stuck to Stoker’s description of “a tall old man, clean shaven, save for a long white mustache and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of color about him anywhere”.
Lugosi had played the Count on Broadway with great success, and he campaigned heavily for the part, even accepting a low-ball offer of $500 for a two-picture deal. His depiction of the Count-as-seducer is aeons removed from the feral creature represented in Nosferatu and remained definitive for decades — not until Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1994 were there any real variations on his theme.
Although Lugosi is never less than watchable, his opera cloak billowing behind him as he stalks the innocent, the rest of the movie creaks to the modern viewer. The supporting cast use their stage training to ham it up (this was the very first talking horror film and no one, least of all the director, was sure how to pitch it) and come across as grimacing and grotesque.
The mise-en-scene are spectacular, nonetheless — this movie invented the concept of “Mittel-Europe”, land of swirling mists, howling wolves, frightened peasants and crumbling castles owned by heavily accented individuals with strange eyes and an interesting taste in evening dress.
Dracula was extremely successful for Universal and kicked off their cycle of high profile horror classics that would dominate the 1930s.