Review Date: 12/1/15
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye
"Listen to them, children of the night, what music they make..."
Universal Studios' classic adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" made a star out of Bela Lugosi, and defined Count Dracula's noble and cultured character for decades to come. The film opens with a doomed lawyer named Renfield (Dwight Frye) traveling to Transylvania to complete the sale of a castle in London to the dark and mysterious Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). Once the deal is sealed, Renfield is drugged and becomes a devoted servant to the hypnotic Count. Once Dracula gets to London, the crazed Renfield is committed to an insane asylum, while the Count starts feasting on beautiful young women. He eventually becomes obsessed with young Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), and her concerned father consults a certain Dr. Van Helsing to help identify what ails her. Van Helsing casually deduces that Dracula is a vampire, and prepares himself to destroy the undead fiend and save Mina's immortal soul. A well placed wooden stake does the trick, and Mina presumably lives happily ever after with her uptight fiancé, Johnathan Harker.
While the film has lots of dark and oppressive atmosphere, it hasn't aged well over the last eighty years. Apart from a couple of dolly shots, the camera is firmly locked down and nearly the entire film consists of people just standing around and talking. It's very much like watching a play, which is actually what the film is based on. There is no action whatsoever, and all implied violence happens offscreen. You don't even see Dracula touch his victims - he just leans in and then the scene cuts or the camera moves away. The climactic death scene is particularly amusing in that you just hear a couple of dull thuds and a scream come from somewhere off camera. Bela Lugosi gives a refined and eerily creepy performance with his overly drawn out Hungarian enunciation, but he's not particularly engaging. It's Dwight Frye who steals the show as the long suffering Renfield, and his sniveling and overwrought performance is full of inspired lunacy and pitiable self-loathing. He's the archetype of every pathetic toady that's ever graced a horror film. The film looks quite good for the most part, with impressive sets, classy costumes, and some evocative matte paintings. Music from "Swan Lake" sets an appropriately dreary mood early in the film and makes a lasting impression. It's an interesting and important film from a historical and cultural standpoint, but I prefer Christopher Lee's portrayal in the 1958 Hammer production of "Horror Of Dracula."