Updated: Mar 30
The horror in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula, isn’t necessarily in the blood sucking and gothic violence; the true terror lies in what happens off screen. In today’s world of ever-heightened special effects and jump scares, it’s amazing to look back to 1931 to witness just how horrifying the power of suggestion can be. All of the vampiric acts (save for the flying bats and the repulsion to crucifixes and wolfsbane), take place just off camera. But one never has to wonder what is happening when Dracula is bending over his next victim, or luring a woman into an alleyway to feast. While Dracula does indulge in some intense moments of theatricality and humor, for the most part its subtlety carries the horror of the film. It’s refreshing to watch a film nearly 90 years old that can still hold its own with the horrors of today.
While Dracula is an adaptation of the 1897 novel of the same name, written by Bram Stoker, it is more closely associated with its theatrical counterpart, 1924’s Dracula, written by Hamilton Deane, which was later revised for the Broadway stage in 1927 by John L. Balderstone. It was in the 1927 New York production that Bela Lugosi cemented his role as Count Dracula, as well as Edward Van Sloan as Abraham Van Helsing. Browning’s 1931 film is essentially a filmed version of this nationally touring production that ran for over 265 performances. Even with only 34 years passing between the original subject material to Browning’s film, several characters were changed or omitted to bring the tight 85 minute long film to the screen. These many changes help enhance the horrific elements of a Penny-Dreadful-era London, at the cost of weakening many of the lead characters’ development.
Aside from Lugosi’s iconic turn as the infamous Count, Dracula immortalizes Dwight Frye’s interpretation of the batty Renfield. At the beginning of the film, it is Renfield not Jonathan Harker, who travels to Transylvania to finalize Dracula’s leasing documents in order to help facilitate Dracula’s move to London. It’s unfortunate that the plot moves at such a clip, because the set pieces for Dracula’s castle are astounding. The film only sticks around in Transylvania for one night, so we only see his beautiful foyer, his three brides and Renfield’s sleeping quarters, for one series of scenes. And what a great three scenes these are: “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” Watching this film in retrospect, it’s easy to see how influential so many of these iconic lines have become. It is within these first few scenes of the film that Dracula ensnares Renfield into doing his bidding, with promises of life everlasting. And with that, they’re off to London.
What follows is a hodgepodge of characters and plot that all follows a variation on their original interpretation. At the end of Dracula and Renfield’s voyage to London, (once Dracula has drained the entire crew and has left Renfield to take the blame), Renfield is taken to a sanitarium and is treated by a Dr. Seward. This Dr. Seward, however, is also Mina’s father, and no longer one of Lucy’s suitors. And John Harker has no affiliation with the Dracula situation whatsoever except for the fact that he is engaged to Mina. The plot deviates based off of these differences, but it really doesn’t trail too far off the beaten path all things considered. Lucy becomes infatuated with Dracula upon his arrival, as he is so unlike the common suitors she is accustomed to. She is beguiled into repeatedly letting him into her room, draining all of her blood until she is transformed into a vampire herself. The deterioration of her health prompts Dr. Seward to contact his mentor, Van Helsing, to assist him in solving the case. After Lucy “passes,” the remaining cast bands together to save Mina from the same fate.
The battle for Mina’s soul is supposed to be the driving plot of the film, but the rapid pacing doesn’t allow for this climax to be nearly as compelling as Renfield’s battle for his own soul. One moment Renfield is doing Dracula’s bidding by sneaking into Dr. Seward’s home as to invite Dracula in, and the next he is warning the group to take Mina far away from here before Dracula can bring his plan to fruition. And nobody seems to care. The entire cast belittles Renfield for being a nutter and repeatedly chastises him for pretty much everything he says. They use him for information when need be, but other than that, he’s a nuisance to them. In the film’s most chilling scene, Renfield describes to the group what his master has promised him. He speaks of Dracula coming to his window amid thousands of rats, promising him their blood if he is granted entry into Mina’s bedroom. His conviction is real, and it is terrifying. There is no way an actual scene with thousands of rats could have been any more horrifying than the look on Dwight Frye’s face describing it.
In the movie’s final act, Dracula does succeed in abducting Mina to Carfax Abbey, almost securing her as his everlasting bride, but the rescue team is hot on their tracks. Renfield arrives just before John and Van Helsing show up, causing Dracula to believe that Renfield has led them there. With no justice for Renfield, Dracula murders him and quickly takes Mina inside. John and Van Helsing follow and find them in the catacombs; Dracula already asleep in his coffin as the sun rises. Van Helsing stakes him through the heart, lifting Dracula’s curse from Mina. All is well and the film concludes as John and Mina climb to safety.
Dracula succeeds as a horror film for the painting of terror that it depicts, not for the actual scenes the audience pays witness too. Elements of the script are outright nutty (a la Martin the caretaker, who truly is a laugh riot), and half of the acting in the cast is subpar. But what is done right, is done bone-chillingly right. Bela “maybe he died with it, maybe it’s Maybelline,” Lugosi’s eyes are forever haunting as he compels you to do his bidding, and Frye’s manic laughter has been mimicked for nearly a century to evoke a sense of dread. If anything, the scariest truth of Dracula is that it sent both of these actors to typecast purgatory, respectively cast as monsters and lunatics until their graves. Neither actor truly came back from the dead after Dracula. Now, that’s one hell of a horror film.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.