1931's Dracula is considered a classic of the monster genre. In fact Universal considers this film to be the first official film in their line of 'Universal Monsters' films (even though they had about six films before that!) Dracula is obviously an adaption of Bram Stoker's original work but it was based primarily on the 1924 stage play. It's actually fairly accurate to Stoker's novel to a point, but plays out like a highlight reel jumping through to the most memorable moments from the story.
One thing to see this film for is the amazing sets and costumes. This is something that Universal was known for with all of their early monster movies and Dracula is a shining example.
Also I would even say that story-wise this adaption is one of the most accurate to Stoker's original work. Still there's whole scenes they glance over or merely nod to, (I'm assuming for time reasons), but even this is done in interesting ways. The film basically only hints that Mina has been bit by The Count without showing much of anything, but later there's a scene on a terrace where Mina's fiancé Jonathan is talking to her about it and the way she describes her experience is far more interesting than if they actually showed it.
Unfortunately, I feel like this movie hasn't aged super well. The advent of Talkies like The Jazz Singer was only 4 years previous and I feel it really shows. The direction of this film is pretty amateur. Director Tod Browning was primarily known for his silent career, and stopped making movies within the next decade. Also the effects though practical back then, don't hold up at all. I'm not even just talking about the fake spider on a string or the very fake bat prop but there's this camera move every time Dracula gets out of his coffin the camera pans to the side and looks out the window then pans back and suddenly he's standing there. This would be fine once but the film does this three times. By the third instance this seems VERY overdone.
The movie has a very slow pace. Something I can chalk up to part of it's charm, it adds a lot of interesting mood and creepiness to the picture. It’s something that can be interesting to watch but is definitely a remnant of the silent generation of film, and can put you to sleep pretty quickly if you're watching this late at night or after a long day.
So after all that, why is this film a classic? I believe it’s the acting. The whole cast is really amazing. But of course the memorable work is done by Bela Lugosi who’s acting comes through more than in just his words but how he carries himself, his slow but precise movements and of course those “haunting” eyes. Supposedly I’ve heard that Lugosi’s slow speech was due to the fact that he couldn’t actually speak English at the time, however after watching it a couple times and listening close I think this might actually be more of an urban legend than anything. I’d also like to think it was an acting choice personally, considering how well the rest of his whole act plays out. Lugosi’s Dracula probably has the same amount of screen time and lines as his film rival Van Helsing, played by Edward Van Sloan, and Lugosi’s performance completely eclipses Sloan’s.
The rest of the cast is quite good in this film but I feel like I need to mention and point out Dwight Frye’s amazing portrayal of Dracula’s first victim, Renfield. Frye plays the psychotic character who balances the line of hilarious and genuinely creepy so well it’s remarkable! It’s no wonder that he would go on to play similarly great performances during the next few years in Frankenstein (1931), The Vampire Bat (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
And lastly even though I crapped all over the direction of the film, I want to mention that there are a couple scenes, (and more realistically) shots that I really enjoy. They definetely stick out when they occur though, I don't know if they were suggestions from others or if they were just spur of the moment ideas that really worked out well? Also there are definitely lines that people quote from Dracula that were immortalized through this movie specifically. So that should say something too.
I also want to do a shout out, I was lucky enough to watch a recently “restored” version that Universal just did for their Centennial. They lovingly went through and fixed and cleaned defects in the picture and sound and darkened a lot of the scenes that have lost their original darkness and become foggy. It’s amazing I saw a digital projection of it but I imagine the Blu-ray of it will be just as good of quality. I did a quick search online and couldn’t find it for sale anywhere yet (correct me if I’m wrong?) but when it becomes available I’m definitely going to get myself a copy, and I highly recommend you check it out yourself.
1931’s Dracula is a bit dated, unfortunately it’s parts are better than it’s whole. But there’s still enough here to warrant a watch, especially if you’ve never seen the classic, do yourself a favor and watch this just for Bela Lugosi’s performance if not for anything else. 3/5 stars.
**EDIT 10/15/2012** I knocked this down half a star after watching the original Wolf Man that movie is dated too but holds up better than this one.
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