Originally Published February 12, 2013
The further adventures in my American Horror class continue, and we’re still plumbing the depths of 1930s Universal Studios horror. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the Lugosi Dracula, and in rewatching it on a big screen I wouldn’t call it the greatest installment in the Universal horror canon. Bela Lugosi was born to play the titular Count, and his performance is unsettling, seductive, and campy. He’s the one who sells the entire movie, and because his performance is so grandiose it’s not surprising that the rest of the performances feel subpar. Dwight Frye (who also played Fritz in Frankenstein) is just as disturbing, and sometimes more so, as the deranged Renfield. The sets are atmospheric, but there’s something lacking overall in Dracula. For a 75 minute movie it can feel unnecessarily lengthy due to the slow pace of the actors dialogue. It’s a stand-out in the horror genre, but it’s not quite the tour de force it’s proclaimed to be. Count Dracula (Lugosi) is a vampire bent on consuming the blood of others. After a land deal goes through, and the Count acquires Carfax Abbey in London, he becomes enamored with the beautiful Mina (Helen Chandler). Intent on making Mina his bride, it’s up to Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Mina’s finacee Jonathan Harker (David Manners) to stop Dracula once and for all.
Watching Dracula is like playing a game of “Hey, they were in…” because so many of these actors simply moved from one film to another. I already mentioned Dwight Frye being in Frankenstein, but Edward Van Sloan was in this as well as Frankenstein and The Mummy; and David Manners was in The Mummy and The Black Cat! Of course, Lugosi himself was in more than a few movies with these actors as well. Really, if you see any of the later films you’ll realize that not a lot has changed with the actors since. Manners plays a man impeccable manners (yes, I totally planned that pun in advance), and he doesn’t show any range. If you see him in this, his acting and character are the same in his other movies. He’s the lovesick Englishman who doesn’t do much to save his lady-love. Van Sloan plays the determined Van Helsing here, a foreign foil to Count Dracula. It’s interesting that, with this movie’s fear of aristocracy and foreigners (themes that are also in the original Bram Stoker novel), Van Sloan’s character doesn’t feel big enough to save the day. He’s in the background for quite a portion of the movie and never feels like a sufficient hero opposite Dracula. I guess what I’m really saying is that I never felt that any of these people were going to be enough to stop our vampire.
Everyone seems to be sleepwalking through their roles because Lugosi is so haunting. His stilted speech (due to Lugosi not having a firm grasp on English and saying his lines phonetically), his unearthly stare complete with shafts of light to highlight his gaze, the sweeping cape; he’s an intimidating figure, to be sure. Lugosi’s vampire doesn’t have to be physically imposing to be scary, he represents the fear of the unknown. As I said about, a key theme in the novel is the fear of immigrants and old-world aristocracy. Coming at the height of the Depression, anyone with large amounts of wealth, who weren’t in screwball comedies, had to be evil! Lugosi’s Hungarian accent is helped by his expansive and decrepit castle, which is probably the best set Universal created during this period (and reused for White Zombie if memory serves). Lugosi is so iconic in the role that it’s not surprising how bland the rest of the cast looks. You watch this movie waiting for Dracula, and from the minute Lugosi walks down the steps and says “I am…Dracula,” he’s ensnared you just as much as his victims.The other actor worthy of praise is the aforementioned Dwight Frye. His role as Fritz in Frankenstein was unremarkable, but here he’s just as frightening as Dracula. When he crawls on all-fours towards an unconscious maid, he’s like a spider preparing to descend upon his prey (ironic that spider imagery is invoked when he walks up towards the spiderweb after meeting the Count). The Count and him work in tandem, and show the corruption of American values by European immigration (according to some theorists).
With the dominance in Lugosi’s character, the movie seems to drag when he’s not on-screen. For only being 75 minutes, there seems to be a lot of discussions in drawing rooms between Van Helsing and the gang. Before that, in the scenes with Renfield in Dracula’s home, and the ship sequence on the Vesta, have fluidity and intensity to them as needed to establish the horror aspects. Once we arrive in London, the movie slows down perceptibly and only arises when the Count is directly on the screen. When Mina and Jonathan are talking it becomes the stilted love speak of a melodramatic romance that isn’t as intriguing. It’s not due to the actors, it’s just that Lugosi is so captivating that the audience is seeking that immersion and not finding it.
With all that being said, I liked Dracula. If I had to rank them, I’d sandwich this between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. It doesn’t have the blend of camp and scares, nor the complexity of Bride; but it’s got a more captivating leading character and a better establishment of the setting than Frankenstein.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.