BELA LUGOSI IS DRACULA!
Dracula, 1931, 75 minutes, Universal, black and white. Directed by Tod Browning. Starring Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, Helen Chandler as Mina Seward, Dwight Frye as Renfield, David Manners as Jonathan Harker and Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing. Schlock-Meter rating: 9 and 1/2 stars out of 10.
As a film, Dracula too often appears like a stage play. Most of the actors aren’t particularly strong, and the climax of the film (Dracula’s death) foolishly takes place off screen. Nevertheless, thanks to Bela Lugosi — and to a lesser extent Dwight Frye — the film remains a classic, a true cult film that brings viewers back for repeat visits to Transylvania, foggy London and Carfax Abbey, the lair of the Count.
The plot: Dracula prepares for a move to London. He drives Renfield (a Londoner in Transylvania to help him move), mad, and then arrives in London. He soon ingratiates himself with the Seward family, and lusts for the blood of two ladies. He is foiled when a family friend (Van Sloan) suspects he is a vampire, and pretty Mina Seward (Chandler) is saved when Dracula is destroyed.
Lugosi’s performance is magnificent. He is truly the Count, with his urbane charm, his sly humor (I never drink … wine.), his greedy eyes sighting blood, his melodramatic answers to questions, and his artful fencing with vampire hunter Van Helsing. However, few critics capture another personality of Lugosi’s Dracula: His desire to die. In a poignant scene at an opera, Dracula expounds in melodramatic fashion the peace of death. One realizes in that scene the Count wants to die, that he’s as much a prisoner of fate as his victims. He simply lacks the will power to end his long existence.
Frye’s Renfield is marvelous. He succeeds in convincing viewers that the secret of the Count — discovered first hand — is so horrible that it would drive anyone insane. His mad chuckles when discovered on a deserted ship are chilling. Frye also conveys terror and adoration when pleading with Dracula late in the film. Manners and Chandler are barely adequate as two lovers threatened by Lugosi’s Dracula, but Van Sloan is pretty strong as Van Helsing. He manages a sense of humor despite the seriousness of his task, and reminds me of Donald Pleasance’s slightly crazy psychiatrist who pursued monster Michael Meyers in Halloween.
Lugosi’s eyes, used to seduce victims, are hypnotic. He knew this character — he’d played Dracula on Broadway. Director Browning conveys atmosphere early in the film with scenes of a coach in the wilds of Transylvania and a ship tossed at sea. Unfortunately, the last two-thirds of the film are often too static and talky. But every scene with Lugosi is a pleasure, and he turns an ordinary film into a classic of the genre.