Less of an enduring horror classic, Dracula (1931) feels more like a weak product of his time. That is to say, not without it’s charm, technically and thematically it falls short of being particularly interesting as a film. I’d even say it’s the weakest of four Dracula adaptations I’ve seen for the big screen, though perhaps it’s on the same level of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) , though both fail for very different reasons.
The film begins very well though, and I was really taken in by the moody atmosphere. The early scenes in Transylvania are wrapped in darkness, feeling much more like a silent film than a clumsy early sound picture. Mist seems to hang over every shot, and you have to strain to spot the figures as they move through the creeping darkness. Painfully short, it’s in these moments that Lugosi really excels. The murky surroundings certainly help, but his dominating presence is what makes these scenes. Though in the novel, it seems to highlight the excess speed that Dracula moves, Lugosi seems to work against this type moving at least twice as slow as one would normally. Highlighting a sort of heightened reality, as if he experiences every moment with far more understanding than anyone else. The only drawback to these scenes (and really, all the ones with Lugosi which are otherwise the highlight) are the overused close-ups. We get it, Lugosi does a great eye-brow, I’m staring into your soul face.
Moving beyond Transylvania, the film mostly loses it’s atmospheric and Lugosi fades into the background, leaving the mostly uninteresting 30s actors to do their whiny, very scripted stuff. The film is almost unbearable at times. The effects are terrible, especially the bats! Oh god the bats. They could have avoided them, but there are about half a dozen shots of them in the entire film. It reminds me of Val Lewton, who painstakingly wrote scripts and produced films that showed as little as possible with incredibly haunting results. The film’s biggest failure is in the script, which is painfully uninteresting. Perhaps it was more refreshing back in 1931, but I’m so familiar with the story that I expected something… more. Even Nosferatu (1922), which is a more faithfully adaptation feels far more fresh because it takes it’s time, and really allows the visuals to take action. Also, in remaining more faithful to the plot, it allows more power to Mina. Though I most appreciate Herzog’s ironic take on the “virgin in distress”, at least in Murnau’s version they allow Mina some power. Here she is a hapless victim, and all the power is relegated to Dr. Van Helsing who not only does away with Dracula, but is able to resist the dark prince’s power. Mina in this film is a weak flower, and completely uncompelling as a heroine. Aside for my own bias for interesting and strong heroines, it really weakens the film’s sexual connotations. Dracula has always been about sex, though more a puritanical view of it, mostly demonizing the “outsiders” as well as female sexuality, at the very least it upheld the intelligent and chaste Mina. In this, there is nothing. I’m reminded of Lugosi’s rants in Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) about how Dracula is sexy, and though I’m almost inclined to agree, with no one to play off to… it never lives up his claims.
Suffice to say, the film is perhaps worth seeing because of it’s reputation, but it’s almost certain to disappoint. If you’re looking beyond history, and horror completism, this film is worth avoiding. From the same year, I’d recommend Frankenstein (1931), starring Boris Karloff. Not only a better film, it stars a much more talented actor… though, as I said, Lugosi does have presence.