Directed by Tod Browning (with many arguing that the cinematographer, Karl Freund, also deserves a directing credit, for his substantial work on the film)
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2000
“Listen to them—children of the night! What music they make!”
At the current time of writing (fairly early in my NFR Completist project, but not so early in my ongoing attempts to watch “important” movies), I’ve seen several films from the early “talkie” era. Some of them surprised me by how modern they felt (such as “It Happened One Night”). Others surprised me by how relevant they still were, despite feeling very much like an “old movie” (such as “All Quiet on the Western Front”). Then there’s a movie like Dracula, which I didn’t fully appreciate while actually viewing the film. Many of the special effects are incredibly dated (fake bats and spiders galore!), the film has no actual score outside of the opening and closing credits, and both the editing and overall pacing seem to be much slower than a modern movie. Not to mention the fact that outside of a very animated and eccentric performance from a supporting character, much of the “horror” that the characters either cause or experience is conveyed through silent physical acting, rather than any audible dialogue. However, as I began to research the film, I learned several different pieces of background information that explained many of these aspects.
For example, the director, Tod Browning, made several silent horror films in his career before filming Dracula. In the extras on the Dracula Blu-ray, different film commentators noted that it is likely that Browning directed Dracula more like the silent films that he was accustomed to. (It should also be noted that “talkies” were only a few years old at this point, so the cinematic norms for talkies were still being formed.) Indeed, in those same extras, the niece of the film’s producer (Carl Laemmle Jr.) refers to this film as the “first talking supernatural thriller.”
In fact, it may have been the first American “supernatural thriller” period. Up until this point, most American “horror films” (though they weren’t called that yet—more on that in a moment) were either somewhat grounded in reality, or the supernatural aspects were revealed to be grounded in reality by the end of the film (think Scooby Doo—it was just Farmer Johnson using smoke and mirrors and wearing a mask all along). Dracula was the first to play up and focus on the supernatural elements. Dracula also popularized the now common term for this genre, “horror movie,” as critics and audiences quickly began using this (then) unofficial term to refer to the film, and it’s stuck ever since. While the film seems simple and almost quaint by today’s horror standards, there are (possibly apocryphal) stories of audience members fainting at the initial screenings.
One terrifying moment occurs in the epilogue scene of the film, which was later edited out by censors after its initial theatrical run (unfortunately, only low-quality prints of the scene now exist). The fourth-wall breaking scene involves a narrator on a stage speaking directly to the audience. At first, he seems to assure us, but then, he does just the opposite: “Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen! A word before you go. We hope the memories of Dracula and Renfield won’t give you bad dreams, so just a word of reassurance. When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains—and you dread to see a face appear at the window—why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all … there are such things as vampires!”
Much of the film’s continuing success comes from Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the titular character. Lugosi was playing the role of Dracula in the same stage play on which the film would be based when he was cast in the role of the film (the play itself was, of course, based on the classic Bram Stoker novel). However, his role in both the play and the film seemed to occur by luck: he was cast in the play largely because the production had already gone over-budget before casting him, and they couldn’t afford to cast any well-known actors in the main role. Likewise, several other actors were considered for the film role (including Lon Chaney Sr., who was a well-known horror actor, but was battling terminal cancer at the time, and Boris Karloff, who would later go on to star as other monsters in Frankenstein and The Mummy,) before Lugosi was finally offered the job. Nonetheless, his performance was a hit, and has gone on to influence the modern image of Dracula as the “tall, dark, and handsome” type, more than the gruesome-looking figure that is depicted in the novel.
This portrayal was helped by Lugosi’s actual Hungarian accent (having only emigrated to the U.S. a few years earlier.) Legend has it that when he first played the role of Dracula in the stage production, he had to memorize many of his lines phonetically, since he was still learning English. However, some (including film critic Roger Ebert), doubt the authenticity of this story, and consider it to be more of a Hollywood myth.
Despite his iconic performance (or perhaps because of it), Lugosi had a hard time finding roles for the rest of his career, as he was usually typecast as a monster or a villain in films that never reached the popularity of his breakout role. At times, he resented the way that the public continued to associate him with the role, but at other times, he seemed to embrace it. When he died, his wife and son chose to bury him wearing one of his capes that he wore in the film.
Dracula is a film that continues to impact popular culture today, though it may need some context for modern audiences to fully appreciate it. This background research provided me with yet another reminder of why I chose to undergo this NFR Completist project: as much as I enjoy watching these films, I sometimes enjoy learning about the history and context of them even more (and in so doing, usually gain a deeper appreciation for the film than I had while viewing it.)
Dracula (1931) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/dracula
Information sources and additional resources:
- The Wikipedia page for Dracula: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dracula_(1931_English-language_film)
- The official National Film Registry essay about Dracula: https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-film-preservation-board/documents/dracula.pdf
- The original 1931 New York Times review: https://www.nytimes.com/1931/02/13/archives/the-screen-bram-stokers-human-vampire.html
- A 1999 review from Roger Ebert: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-dracula-1931
- An essay from the British Film Institute: https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/why-i-love-bela-lugosis-dracula
- A YouTube video that examines Dracula’s place in the history of vampire films: