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.