Vampires have long intrigued us as a mysterious type of monster that can be brooding and misunderstood, ferocious and frenzied, or even romantic and heroic. Many stories have been written about vampires and nearly all of them can trace some inspiration back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Chief among those adaptations is turning 90 years old.
Released on February 14, 1931, Dracula is one of the early entries in the Universal monster movie lineup that produced some of the most significant horror films through the 1950s. The iconic horror movie was directed and co-produced by Tod Browning, a director with a reputation for horror and crime thrillers like Freaks and Outside the Law. Based on Stoker’s novel, the screenplay was written by Garrett Fort, which was an adaptation of the stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston.
The film opens with Renfield (Dwight Frye) as a solicitor who visits Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in Transylvania. Once the vampire puts Renfield under his thrall the pair travel to London where Dracula joins wealthy society and Renfield is sent to a sanitorium. Dracula meets Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston), his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), and her fiancé John Harker (David Manners). He becomes infatuated with Mina, visiting her in the night to begin the process of siring her as a vampire. Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is called in to analyze Renfield and since he’s familiar with vampirism, recognizes the signs of Renfield’s affliction. Dracula’s vampiric nature is discovered and Mina, now in the midst of changing, follows him as they attempt to evade Van Helsing and Harker. But, they are found in Carfax Abbey where Van Helsing kills Dracula, returning Mina to normal.
Universal had already seen success in horror with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, produced by Carl Laemmle. His son, the ambitious young producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., recognized that Dracula could be box office gold, so he secured the film rights.
Browning’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t the first adaptation for the king of vampires, but it is the archetypal version. He utilized the best parts of Stoker’s book, which itself used bits of historical folklore and legends, and the Broadway production, to tell the story.
Despite having already performed the role on Broadway, Lugosi was not the initial number one pick for the movie. Laemmle considered a handful of other actors like William Courtenay, John Wray, Paul Muni, and Chester Morris. As the casting process was being held, Lugosi was in Los Angeles with the touring company of the play. He met with studio bigwigs and convinced them that he was the best man to portray the famous count.
Anchored by Lugosi, the main cast could all be counted on for incredible performances. Using the theatricality he employed on Broadway, Lugosi made Dracula a refined predator by embodying a regal carriage and perfecting a hypnotic stare, to mesmerize and terrify audiences. Frye gave Renfield intensity that bounced between manic desperation and bloodthirsty focus. For her part, Chandler was able to seamlessly flip the script from carefree young woman to frightened prey before becoming predatory herself. Van Sloan, who had played Van Helsing on stage opposite Lugosi brought his depth to the performance layering the professor with measures of confidence and fear.
Karl Freund, the film’s cinematographer, accentuated the vampire’s powers with expressionistic effects through the lighting, camera angles, and focus on how things moved in the shot. Borrowing techniques from the stage production, the movie used fog and lighting techniques to invoke the desired ambiance. Extended closeups and long periods of silence heightened the drama and built the tension. Through Browning’s direction and Freund’s camera work simple moments like Dracula staring at Renfield’s bleeding finger or Renfield looking unsettled after Dracula walked through a nest of spiderwebs without breaking them created a sense of foreboding.
Despite having The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera under their belts, Dracula was considered a gamble for Universal. Before its nationwide release on Valentine’s Day in 1931, it was shown on February 12 at the Roxy Theatre in New York City. After that first showing, newspapers recounted that viewers had fainted in shock by the horror shown in the movie. The news was keenly directed by Universal and had the desired effect of drawing in more audience members. That shrewd tactic is one that is still used to promote horror movies, though now its done by showing recorded test audience reactions or promising that the movie is unrated by the MPAA.
A few years after it was released some scenes were edited or deleted to align with the Production Code. Audio portions of Dracula groaning as he died and Renfield screaming as his character met his demise were shortened and partially muted. One notable deletion was an epilogue scene in which Van Sloan reappeared onscreen to tell audiences that when they went home and were afraid of seeing leering faces at the window to remember that vampires aren’t real. It was determined that the scene would have the opposite effect and make people believe in the supernatural so it was removed.
Dracula’s success, along with that of Frankenstein, which was also released in 1931, helped launch many more Universal horror films, including The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. Dracula and his legacy appeared in sequels, starting with Dracula’s Daughter in 1936, then Son of Dracula, with the count himself appearing in House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – the last of which saw the return of Lugosi.
The film combines stage and silent film style performances with the ominous tension created by Dracula and the wide-eyed lunacy of Renfield. Many Dracula films that have followed mimic elements and styles of the film collaboration between producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., Browning, Lugosi, and Freund, though few have caught lightning in a bottle the way they did.