Written by Garrett Fort
Directed by Tod Browning
This was not the first vampire movie, but it was the first official adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. F.W. Murnau had made Nosferatu nine years earlier, leading to a copyright infringement lawsuit from Stoker’s widow. The jumpstart of the Universal Monster movies began here and came under the hand of Carl Laemmle Jr. Carl’s father had founded Universal, and at the age of twenty, Junior became the head of production at the studio. How’s that for some nepotism? Carl led Universal at the dawn of the “talkies” and had no qualms throwing piles of money at movies that had no chance of earning it back. He seemed to genuinely love films and wanted them to look fantastic.
The film Dracula is actually closer to an adaptation of the stage play than the novel itself. It is a short movie, clocking in at just 75 minutes long. The story begins with Renfield, a lawyer, traveling to Castle Dracula in Transylvania for a business matter. He quickly realizes something is terribly wrong with the Count, but he’s too late. Dracula and his brides attack Renfield, turning him into their personal slave. Renfield helps Dracula sneak aboard a ship headed to England.
Once there, Renfield is caught and put into the care of Dr. Seward and lives in his asylum. The Count presents himself as an exotic wealthy man and meets Seward’s daughter Mina and John Harker, her fiancee. Dracula ends up killing Mina’s friend Lucy after feeding on her too much. He then sets his sights on Mina. Professor Van Helsing is studying Renfield and realizes he’s dealing with a bigger problem: a vampire. The good professor works with John and others to create a plan to stop Dracula. Eventually, they will discover Dracula’s lair and finish the monster for good.
If you exist in Western culture of any kind, I am sure you know Dracula, its iconic visuals, and tropes. Unfortunately, as an adaptation, the narrative is not great. I think there are too many jumps in time, and by the middle of the second act, the plot feels sort of muddled. The production has some lovely sets, so much is clearly on soundstages, as is to be expected at this time. I think later adaptations would do a better job capturing the story and the grand scale of the settings. However, this movie has one big thing going for it: Bela Lugosi’s performance. He is pretty much a perfect Dracula which is why he is the icon when people think of vampires.
If you jump just a few years back to Nosferatu, we see vampires presented as ghoulish inhuman creatures. In much of the pre-Dracula stories, vampires weren’t necessarily associated with aristocracy. They were a manifestation of the disease and plagues people were worried about as hygienic conditions were deplorable. The decision by Stoker to make his vampire a wealthy noble is the stroke of genius that makes Dracula so different from other horror characters. A quick survey of literary and movie monsters shows us mindless creatures or mad scientists. Dracula stands out as we never really know how he became who he is, but it’s clear he was either once human or has extensive knowledge of the human world.
I’ve always felt the character of Dracula also serves as a warning about the wealthy. So often in American media, it is shown that good respectable people dress nicely, which is a signifier that they can be trusted. Dracula challenges that. He’s wealthy, has nice clothes, and can mingle among the gentry. But this power and position are used to protect himself from punishment. There’s also the dark side of interpreting Dracula as xenophobic fear-mongering. He’s Eastern European and very much an Other compared with the (American sounding) English people we meet. The association of vampires with disease is also sadly linked to immigrant classes, with some misguided cultures seeing them as interloping disease vectors.
Overall, I wasn’t in love with Dracula, but I understand why this interpretation of the character remains so embedded in the culture. I will say I am more partial to Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish, over-the-top film version than the classic Universal one. Yet, I don’t think that the 1990s iteration would exist without the profound cultural resonance of this specific movie. However, Dracula shared 1931 with another famous monster movie next up in our reviews: Frankenstein.