Horror Is Universal: “Dracula (1931)”

When we’re talking about horror film history, there are several years that stand out as important milestones in the evolution of the genre. 1978 and 1979 are both contenders, with the former giving us Halloween and the latter giving us Alien, to name just two classics. 1981 can’t be overlooked with its groundbreaking werewolf double feature, which we’ll discuss in detail later on in this series. 1987, with its combo of The Lost Boys and Near Dark, made vampires cool again.

But these all pale in comparison to the importance of the year 1931. Why? Because that was when Universal released two of the greatest and most influential horror films of all time: Dracula and Frankenstein.

Because Dracula came first, premiering in February of that year, that’s the film I will discuss today. Or films, because there are actually two versions of this particular movie. That’s right, we’re also gonna talk about the Spanish-language remake, considered by many critics to be superior to the English version. Do I think it’s better? You’ll find out. For now, let me assure you that both versions are really good — and shockingly spooky as well.


The Plot: A ship full of corpses washes up on the coast of England, the site of a grisly, unexplainable tragedy. The only survivor is Mr. Renfield (Dwight Frye in English, Pablo Alvarez Rubio in Spanish), a lawyer who went off to Transylvania as a perfectly normal fellow and returned as a cackling madman. He is placed under the care of the elderly Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston/Jose Soriano Viosca) at a sanitarium, where the origin of his madness remains a mystery. But Renfield’s talk about consuming lives and following the orders of his unseen master takes on new meaning when Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi/Carlos Villar) moves into the ruined abbey next door. Soon women all over London are dying of a strange malady, and it looks like Seward’s daughter Mina (Helen Chandler/Lupita Tovar) will be the next victim. Seward calls on the help of Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan/Eduardo Arozamena), who deduces the truth: Dracula is a vampire, and he’s turning Mina into one as well. Can our heroes stop him before he claims another innocent soul?


Part 1: English Dracula

The origins of this film go back to 1924, when Bram Stoker’s estate allowed playwrights Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston to adapt the 1897 novel for the stage. You won’t like it if you’re a Dracula purist; it’s a heavily truncated version of the story which omits the first two-thirds of the book, axes several characters and reduces the female lead’s autonomy to pretty much nil. But it was a commercial success in both England and the US, not to mention much cheaper than a full adaptation would have been, and so Universal’s film was based on that play rather than the novel. The studio even had Lugosi and Van Sloan reprising their roles from the original Broadway production.

To direct the project, Universal hired Tod Browning, a circus and vaudeville performer turned filmmaker. Browning was a bit of an odd duck when it came to his movies: he wasn’t quite the David Lynch of his day, but he had a talent for strange, provocative pictures with a macabre flair. His other major film besides this one was 1932’s infamous Freaks, which would be a hard sell today and definitely wasn’t acceptable at the time. He made several silent movies with Lon Chaney which included The Unholy Three, a crime drama about sideshow performers going on a murder spree. They also did a vampire movie called London After Midnight, in which Chaney ran around looking like this:

I know nothing about this man, but I am certain he lives under a child’s bed, eats hamsters and will launch into a trippy musical number if provoked. Threat level: extreme.

Of course, Browning’s background could very well be irrelevant to all this since multiple accounts have said that he was disorganized and unprofessional while shooting Dracula, leaving cinematographer Karl Freund to do most of the actual direction (remember his name, because we’re going to see him again very soon). But his interests and storytelling style would go a long way to explain the main takeaway I got from Dracula, which is “This movie is so much creepier than I thought it would be!”

With the decades’ worth of parodies and family-friendly takes on Lugosi’s Dracula, you might be tricked into thinking the original film can’t be all that scary. But it is, in its own special way. There’s an unrelenting eerieness about it that grabs hold of you from the beginning and never lets go. A lot of that is due to Lugosi’s performance, but it also comes from the bleak, lonely nature of the rest of the film.

The first thing you’ll notice about Dracula early on is that it feels like a silent film lost in the talkie era. Outside of playing a Swan Lake snippet over the opening titles and having diegetic background music when the characters are at a symphony, there is no soundtrack. There isn’t much in the way of sound effects, either, which means that a good chunk of the film plays out in dead silence. Sure, there’s plenty of dialogue, but when there isn’t? It’s quiet, and you feel that. The DVD I have does come with the option to play the film with a score by Philip Glass, but I chose the normal version since that’s what audiences in 1931 would have seen. The lack of music and sound makes the atmosphere of the movie pretty grim. There’s tension in the silence: you know something has to break it eventually, but you don’t know what or when. And when the break in the silence does come, through a scream or a deranged laugh or even just a line of dialogue, it catches you off-guard.

Another element that enhances the dark nature of the film is just how well Dracula depicts vampirism as a sorry state of existence. Everything from the set design to the makeup to the costumes really plays up the undead aspect of these monsters. They’re pale and haggard, and their preferred haunts are crumbling castles and dusty tombs. Dracula is the only one who actually talks: the three Brides just stagger around in silence. Every move the vampires make is slow and deliberate, like even the basic act of walking doesn’t come naturally to them. Everything about their demeanor feels off. Even the vampires themselves know on some level that they aren’t supposed to be alive. As Drac himself says, “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious…there are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

That leads to our discussion of Lugosi. Like Phantom before it, Dracula is a movie that works as well as it does because of some excellent lead performances. Lugosi is at the center of that, with his Dracula still being the standard by which all others are judged. Believe it or not, Lugosi’s Dracula and that crazy-looking dude from London After Midnight have more in common than you might think. You see, neither of them care much about trying to appear normal. They live in the uncanny valley where something is not quite a monster but definitely not human, and that’s where the fear they induce comes from.

Chaney was actually supposed to play Dracula at one point, but he died in 1930 before filming began. Lugosi, who had starred in the stage version since 1927, still had to lobby hard for the role and ended up doing it for a salary of only $3,500. A Hungarian immigrant with a heavy accent and only a few prominent film roles, his casting in such a high-profile project was a risk for the studio.

But Lugosi, I think, brings an elegance and determination to the character that would have been lost with a different actor. His Dracula is a subtle figure, able to act urbane and gentlemanly when the situation calls for it. But with him, there’s always a sense of tension bubbling beneath the surface. When he isn’t being watched, or when things aren’t working out in his favor, that tension manifests as steely intimidation that is, frankly, chilling to see. Some of the film’s best moments happen when he drops all pretense of being the nice guy; the standout example is when Dracula tries to attack Van Helsing, first through intimidation and then through mind control that Van Helsing barely resists. It’s a wonderfully tense confrontation that plays out not as a big fight, but as a battle of wits and wills between two old masters.

But Lugosi isn’t the only great part of this movie. Here’s a big secret: Dracula has not only one of the best Draculas out there, but also one of the best — if not the best ever — version of Renfield.

In Stoker’s book, Renfield is not a terribly important character. He spends most of his time off to the side acting creepy, and then Dracula kills him once he’s no longer useful. The stage adaptation gave him an expanded role, which the film script then expanded even further. Renfield replaces Jonathan Harker as the character who goes to Transylvania and ends up as Dracula’s prisoner while helping him get to England, with the added bonus of Dracula doing…something to him that drives him insane. We never see exactly what happened, which makes it all the more creepy. But the main change to Renfield’s character is how the narrative treats him. He goes from a cackling minion to a tragic anti-villain. He’s aware on some level that he’s being destroyed and controlled by this malevolent force, and he has moments of lucidity where he’s clearly trying to seek help and prevent more people from getting hurt. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t dig himself out of the hole he’s been dragged into. The sympathy you feel for him is definitely increased by Dwight Frye’s performance, which doesn’t really get talked about these days but is easily on par with Lugosi’s work. The way he flips back and forth between wide-eyed menace and desperate helplessness, sometimes in the same scene or shot, is seamless and incredible to watch. You can hear the change in his voice and see it in the way he holds himself. The writing and the acting combined bring a lot of humanity to this character that wasn’t fully realized in the book and is absent from most other adaptations. It feels a bit odd to phrase it this way, but if Dracula himself is the crown jewel of this film, then Renfield is its heart. He is Dracula’s first victim, and the one who ultimately suffers the most.

He came and stood below my window in the moonlight. And he promised me things, not in words, but by doing them…By making them happen. A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire! And then he parted it, and I could see that there were thousands of rats, with their eyes blazing red, like his, only smaller. Then he held up his hand, and they all stopped, and I thought he seemed to be saying: “Rats! Rats! Rats! Thousands! Millions of them! All red blood! All these will I give you! If you will obey me!”

Renfield

The movie’s not perfect, of course. There are the things most people make jokes about, like how armadillos are used as a stand-in for rats inside Dracula’s castle and the random bee with its own tiny coffin. But my main issue with the film is all the threads it leaves hanging. Lucy’s plotline is cut down to only a handful of scenes: she gets attacked by Dracula once, promptly dies and returns as a vampire sometime later. But for whatever reason, the scene of the heroes killing her is cut from the story. It’s not that we simply don’t see it, it’s never even alluded to. Nor is it a situation where the heroes never find out what happened to Lucy, because they do. It’s just odd that we don’t even get a quick line of dialogue to provide closure for that part of the plot. The ending is also fairly abrupt as well: Dracula dies offscreen, Jonathan and Mina are reunited and ascend from the vampire’s ruined hideout while Van Helsing makes a comment about some unfinished business inside the tomb. What exactly that is, we never find out (at least in the English version). So the ending is less of a quick incline and more of a sudden, jarring stop. It does feel like some of the film was probably cut for time, which is likely since it’s only 75 minutes long, but fixing these issues wouldn’t have extended the film’s runtime by that much.

Another issue is most of the acting. While Lugosi and Frye are clearly giving it their all, the same can’t be said for the other cast members. They’re not bad, per se, they’re just sort of shuffling through the film as best as they can. The one exception is Edward Van Sloan, who does a safe but decent job as Van Helsing. There’s also a comic relief character in the form of a wisecracking sanitarium orderly who adds nothing to the plot and only succeeds in being mildly annoying. While none of these elements ruin the film, they do keep it from being as great as it could have been.

If you’re a horror fan or just a Dracula fan, this is obviously required viewing. You won’t like it if you’re looking for the most accurate adaptation possible, but I would say this falls into the category of “not a great adaptation but still a good film.” It’s worth watching just for Lugosi and Frye — the rest of the cast, not so much. The average supporting performances combined with the sloppier parts of the script make it somewhat frustrating at times. But in the end, we don’t really remember the flaws in Dracula. They’re outshone by the moments of brilliance which have rightfully stood the test of time and remain part of our cultural subconscious to this day.

Final Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Part 2: Spanish Dracula

So what is Spanish Dracula, exactly? I called it a remake in the intro, but that’s not quite accurate. It’s an alternate version of the film made for Spanish-speaking audiences that filmed on the same sets as the English version and used almost the exact same script. It was actually pretty common for studios to make these back in the day: quite a few Laurel and Hardy films got this treatment, and so did the failed John Wayne vehicle The Big Trail. Spanish Dracula was directed by George Melford, who didn’t actually speak Spanish and had to direct the cast and crew via an interpreter. When you take that language barrier into account, it’s surprising that the film ended up being so good. In fact, a lot of critics find it better than the English version. And you know what? They’re right.

This section is going to be much shorter than Part 1 because most of what I had to say about the English version can also be said about the Spanish version. In terms of the technical aspects, it’s largely a shot-for-shot copy. Where it really differs from the English film is in the script and the acting. Spanish Dracula has a slower pace than the English version: it’s about a half hour longer, it’s got less dialogue (notably in the Transylvania sequence), and there’s a greater focus on the heroes debating how to stop Dracula. The extra length is due mostly to a few additional scenes of Van Helsing interrogating Renfield or giving an explanation to the whole group. To be honest, you don’t really notice the extended runtime. There isn’t anything in the film which feels like it shouldn’t be there. It even fixes the loose ends from the English version: we see the aftermath of Lucy getting staked, and Van Helsing’s unfinished business at the very end of the film is burying Renfield’s body as he’d promised to do earlier.

The most interesting differences are in the actors’ performances. Carlos Villar was apparently the only cast member who saw the English version, and he was told to imitate Lugosi’s performance as closely as possible. Villar’s Dracula, however, is a lot more convincingly human than Lugosi’s. It’s much easier to imagine him fooling Seward and the other humans into thinking he couldn’t be a threat. But he stumbles when it comes to making Dracula seem actually scary. While Lugosi has that icy stare that goes right through you, Villar has “crazy eyes.”

Pablo Alvarez Rubio, who plays Renfield, brings a lot more manic energy to the role than Dwight Frye does. Spanish Renfield is literally screaming nuts. I think the best way to compare the two is to watch both versions of the “rats” monologue I quoted earlier. Frye has a restrained and ominous tone throughout and seems to be relishing the memory of his encounter with Dracula, while Rubio nearly has a breakdown in the middle of his dialogue as though he’s realizing how effed up what he’s saying is. It’s a somewhat different take on the character, but no less valid or high-quality than Frye’s performance. They are both among the best parts in their respective versions.

There is one instance where I think the acting in the Spanish version is noticeably better than the English version, and that’s with Mina (or “Eva” as she’s called here). Helen Chandler’s performance doesn’t have much enthusiasm behind it and is pretty unmemorable overall. Her behavior and demeanor when she’s under Dracula’s control isn’t that different from how she acted before that point. Lupita Tovar’s performance as Eva is a lot more varied and interesting. Like with Renfield, you get the sense that she’s aware of what’s happening to her and that she’s afraid of accidentally harming her loved ones. Beyond that, you can see Dracula’s growing influence over her in how she becomes more relaxed when he’s present. And towards the end, when he’s controlling her almost completely, her sudden perkiness is downright unsettling. You can tell that something’s very wrong even before she tries to take a bite out of her fiance’s neck.

Spanish Dracula may not have Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance at its helm, but it makes up for that by being a stronger film overall. It manages to smooth out the narrative holes and inconsistencies that were present in the English version while retaining the grim atmosphere that makes the English version so good. Villar’s Dracula is just okay, but Rubio’s Renfield is great fun to watch and Lupita Tovar creates a more lively, engaging female lead than the English version has. Right now this film is only available in certain Universal compilations and box sets, but hopefully it will get an individual release. It deserves to be recognized as a great horror film along with its counterpart.

Final Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Dracula was a gamble that paid off for Universal. Within the first forty-eight hours of its theatrical run, it had sold 50,000 tickets, a high number back then. It ended up making a profit of $700k, becoming the largest of Universal’s 1931 releases. Critics at the time praised the film and especially Lugosi: he would play the role of Dracula only one other time after this, but his name would be synonymous with that role for the rest of his life and beyond. Universal had a new hit and a new star on their hands, and it was only February. Their big year was just beginning…

Up Next: Frankenstein (1931)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.