Were this any other horror movie where the characters stood around and unconvincingly spewed forth lines and plot points while periodically swiping haplessly at oversized rubber bats suspended on wires as visible as in any Godzilla movie, I would complain about problems involving bad acting, unimaginative direction, a barely explained villain, and an actor playing the villain with such laughably exaggerated gestures and mannerisms that you wonder if he thought this was a Mel Brooks comedy and file it away as just another low budget terror flick that had neither the talent nor the inclination to be anything else.
But this is Dracula! The granddaddy of the entire horror genre! And that bad actor was Bela Lugosi, a thespian that conventional wisdom would have us believe didn’t stink until several years later when he switched from the classic Universal thrillers to abysmal poverty row thrillers. Surely, I’ll overlook all this film’s flaws because of its place in history. Surely, I’ll explain how Bela was the template for all movie vampires that were to follow and that it was the cruel caprice of fate that led to him ending up being replaced by a chiropractor in his final film. Surely you jest.
A man named Renfield is traveling in the mountains of Transylvania to the castle where Dracula lives. Inaugurating a long-standing tradition in these types of castle-intensive movies, the locals are a superstitious and crabby lot who don’t want anything to do with an outsider looking for the castle of the local nobleman who is viewed with suspicion for shadowy reasons.
Even with minimal help from the villagers, Renfield eventually finds himself at Drac’s shack and doesn’t seem too bothered by the fact that it looks like Dracula let the housekeeper have the day off – since about 1506! There’s dust everywhere, giant fake spider webs strung across doors and stairs, and I’m not sure, but I think Drac was still just pulling his TV channels in off an antenna on one of the parapets! Obviously Renfield should have had his guard up, or at least worn old clothes.
It’s at this point that the audience firsts begins to nod off as Renfield whips out the lease agreement for Carfax Abbey. Simply put, no more real estate closings in horror movies please!
Dracula’s new digs are located in London and it turns out that it’s right next to the sanatorium run by Dr. Seward. This works out well for Dracula for a number of reasons. It allows him to be near his new crazy pal Renfield who after a long voyage with Dracula now craves the blood of small bugs and is prone to insane ravings. It also allows Dracula to dole out hickeys to Dr. Seward’s hot-for-1931 daughter Mina.
Mina has a fiancee named Jonathan Harker and he does very little other than stand around looking like an absolute hick with his sport coat buttoned with the bottom button! Egads! Was this kid raised in Scotland or something? You never button the bottom button of your sport coat!
He also has a really unfortunate scene where Mina is under Dracula’s spell and she’s trying to bewitch him and he’s waving furiously at that big rubber bat that director Tod Browning seemed overly fond of. Tod also had a possum running around near Dracula’s coffin once, but the best scene was when all these armadillos appeared for no reason! Where was Dracula staying? London, Texas?
Once Van Helsing and Harker rescue Mina, Van Helsing tells Harker to leave with her and that he’ll be there in a minute and then he stakes Dracula in the heart (off camera of course) and that’s pretty much it. It felt like there was supposed to be another scene where everyone could stand around and wrap it all up, but I was probably just so used to scenes where characters stood around emoting that it was a conditioned reflex.
No one in this movie distinguishes themselves with the exception of Bela and he does it in a way that he probably didn’t intend to. His comic stylings are always a welcome slice of cheese when teamed with folks like Abbott or Costello, but he’s surrounded by a bunch of straight men in this one, so I don’t suppose you can fault him for this movie not being terribly funny since he’s doing his darnedest to eek laughs out of a script as creaky as the coffins in his armadillo-ridden basement.
The problem Dracula has as a character in this movie is that he’s entirely one dimensional. All the great Universal monsters – from the Mummy, Invisible Man, and especially the Frankenstein Monster have some element of humanity in them, something the audience can grab onto and identify with even as the creatures play out their various rampages.
The Mummy is about trying to reunite with a true love, the Monster is simply someone trying to find his place in a world that rejects him, and the Invisible Man is a naked dude running around in the snow. All of them have something to offer the audience to invest themselves in.
Dracula has a bad accent and sneer. There’s no reason to care about this puffy, pasty-faced, middle-aged loser. He’s even creepy to look at, but not in a scary way, but merely in a “go away you icky old man” way.
Tod Browning, of Freaks fame, doesn’t do anyone any favors either with a cinematic eye that can only be charitably be described as “stage-bound.” Uh, Tod, this is a movie, not a high school play. You can let the action breathe a little bit if you want. You can move the characters out of the two or three sets you had built and you can also tell some of them to tone down the vocal and facial expressions.
One of the most overrated movies you’re likely to run into, it really is a chore to sit through and would be a shame if it was your introduction to the Universal horror canon when you’ve got legitimately great movies like Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy out there still standing unbowed after all these years.
Seeing this one will make you appreciate the fact that Bela turned down the Frankenstein Monster role. This one should’ve been buried with Bela and his moth-eaten Dracula cape.
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