Children of the Night
One of the most pervasive characters in cinema is certainly the infamous count Dracula. The mythology behind the character originates of course with the real historical figure of one Vlad Tepes, who was the basis for the central character of Bram Stoker’s classic novel. But our perception of the character was mostly defined by this very film; the 1931 adaptation directed by the great Tod Browning. And although it was not the first adaptation of Stoker’s novel (that would be F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu”) it was certainly the adaptation that imprinted in our shared subconscious the image of the vampire count.
But, like it’s the case with Karloff’s “Frankenstein”, this portrayal of the character was submitted to quite a bit of lampooning over the years. Yet, unlike “Frankenstein”, it comes out very much unscathed and still preserves much of its power once the lights dim down and the film starts rolling.
Of course a big factor for this is that Tod Browning is objectively, with all due respect, a better director than James Whale. Here he builds up suspense and atmosphere masterfully with a rather unorthodox but alarmingly effective shot selection. Early in the film he prefers to go for the wide angles and let the foreboding locations do most of the work, instead of going for the obvious, that is, Lugosi's great performance. But no, he wisely decides to save that up for the later parts of the film. His camera also moves much more, making everything look less like a stage.
The other big factor is the man in the cape himself, the unforgettable Bela Lugosi. His Dracula dominates every scene he is in, and apart from the somewhat bizarre accent and the great vocal performance it is the physical performance Lugosi gives that makes his Dracula so potent. There is a creepy calmness to him and an unsettling precision to every single movement he makes. And most notably of all Browning focuses on his eyes constantly. There is obviously a separate light for Lugosi’s eyes in these close-ups, but the effect is fantastic and it makes their gaze feel like it’s coming right through the screen.
Lugosi's portrayal is indeed remarkable, but as adaptations go the film takes quite a few liberties with the plot and characters of the source novel. Not that it matters really, since adaptations that are slavish to the source rarely get the necessary flow for a film. And that is something “Dracula” has. The film is quite well paced and doesn’t care to loiter around, even maybe when it should at times. However the atmosphere does suffer a bit once the story moves to London, and for me that was always the problematic part of the source novel as well. But here is where Lugosi truly starts to shine as an actor, and splendidly carries the film.
Ultimately, the film provides quite an enjoyable watch; in fact I’d say it’s my favorite of the classic Universal monster movies. The first 30 minutes of the film are really amazing but it does lose some steam as it chugs along. Still, "Dracula" manages to create quite a few memorable moments and stays entertaining from start to finish. With that and the magnetic central performance, it is very easy to see why "Dracula" remains a beloved classic to this day.
Bela Lugosi - Dracula
Helena Chandler - Mina
Dwight Frye - Renfield
David Manners - John Harker
Edward Van Sloan - Van Helsing
Dracula on IMDb