Count Dracula leaves his castle in Transylvania to prey on a woman who lives in London.
The first time I saw this movie was at a drive in theater the night before Halloween, and that was quite an experience. I remembered the film fondly, though I remember thinking that the film was a bit slower paced than some of the other Universal Monster movies. I looked forward to my rewatch with mild anticipation, expecting to find more things that I hadn’t caught on my first viewing. However, after the first twenty minutes had passed, and Dracula (Bela Lugosi, “Island of Lost Souls”) had already arrived in London, I found myself wondering what happened for the other fifty minutes of this film. Well, not much. This version of Dracula, it seems, was adapted from a play that had been adapted from Stoker’s original novel, and this movie feels like a play. Scenes play slowly as characters talk about the same things over and over again, never really making any forward motion with the plot. From about the twenty-minute mark till the final fifteen minutes of the film, this movie moves ridiculously slowly, and there isn’t really any sort of tension or spooky things happening. The film feels flat, Lugosi isn’t remarkably captivating as an actor, and the finale of the film is anticlimactic. The best part of the movie comes in the first twenty minutes, after that its slogging through repetitive dialogue and a bunch of shots of Dracula lurking around in the darkness. The movie does have the allure of old Hollywood charm, so I wouldn’t say the film is a total wash, but I don’t think I’ll ever go out of my way to watch this multiple times.
“To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious.”
This version of Dracula begins with Renfield (Dwight Frye, “The Bride of Frankenstein”) traveling to Dracula’s castle to assist him in purchasing an Abbey in London. However, Dracula hypnotizes Renfield, and the Count forces him to be his servant. The two travel to London, but when they arrive Renfield is locked away. After stalking the streets of London for a few nights, Dracula attends a concert hall and meets Mina (Helen Chandler, “Salvation Nell”) and her fiancé John Harker (David Manners, “The Black Cat”), as well two of their friends. Dracula falls in love with Mina and tries desperately to steal her away to be his bride.
So, as I’ve already mentioned, on my second time through this film I found it to be rather boring. It’s a movie that starts out at a quick pace for the first twenty minutes, and then it really applies the breaks and makes us wait through a bunch of scenes where nothing happens, and the same conversations are had over and over again. I don’t need to be reminded that Renfield likes to eat bugs every time Renfield is on screen; trust me, I haven’t forgotten; nor do we need to be constantly reminded that Vampires abhor wolfsbane and garlic; nor that people think the idea of Vampires existing is preposterous. It feels like we rewatch scenes going over the same beats to really nail home the most mundane of plot points.
I remember also being rather impressed with Lugosi as Dracula, but not so this time. Dracula has always been a seductive man that lures his victims through his charm (and hypnosis)- he has to ride the fence of being fascinating but also disturbingly repulsive, and Lugosi just cant pull that off. He does a the allure of an intriguing gentleman, but he fails to really convey the sense of danger that Dracula’s character really need in order for that character to work. Much of the time it felt like I was just watching Lugosi talk to people; his presence really didn’t do a whole lot for me. Actually, I found that Dwight Frye’s character, Renfield, was far more intriguing and disturbing than Dracula’s character. Dracula just felt far too theatrical, and I really just found myself more bored with his acting than anything else.
You know, I’m sure atmosphere has something to do with my initial reaction to seeing this film for the first time. I really enjoyed it when I first saw it in the drive in theater, but I honestly believe that was 90% atmosphere and experience vs enjoying the actual film. This time, when I’ve taken away all the other cool elements of the drive in- the darkness, sitting in a field surrounded by other people all intrigued by a 75 year old film, just the general drive in experience- when I take away all that extra stuff and just sit down to watch this film on a gloomy Saturday morning with breakfast, it just doesn’t do anything for me. I’d say that perhaps it was just the fact that films were still new and the tech still being figured out, but Nosferatu, which was made nine years before this, was infinitely more atmospheric and creepy (thanks in large part to the performance of Max Schreck), and is overall a far superior film. As far as Universal Monster movies go, I’m sorry to say that this was one of my least favorite entries. While the story is pretty decent, the slow pacing, lack of soundtrack, and direction by Tod Browning just makes this film feel mediocre. It’s a fine film from the earlier days of cinema, but it’s certainly not great. Browning’s Dracula isn’t nearly as memorable as the James Whale Universal entries (“Frankenstein”, “Bride of Frankenstein”, “The Invisible Man”, The Old Dark House). Having watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula and this version recently, I think the only reason I’d choose to watch this version over the other is the shorter runtime.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
Review Written By: