Dracula (1931)

7 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Dracula” remains one of the most notable titles in horror movie history, as well as a common spot in the most influential “talkies” of the 1930s. But despite its reputation, does it still hold up? Well, the answer would be “no.” This movie has not aged well—it’s campy, hokey, and really dated. By today’s standards, it’s not very scary and you really can’t take a lot of it seriously. It’s a lesser movie that a lot of people make it out to be. Watch it again, and you’ll probably see what I mean. But “Dracula” is still an entertaining watch. It’s atmospheric, has its share of memorable moments, and features an entertaining villain in Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula, a vampire. For these reasons, I can recommend the film…slightly.

What do I mean by atmospheric? Look at the scene in the beginning of the film when a British real estate agent named Renfield (Dwight Frye) visits the dark and decaying Castle Dracula, high in the mountains of Transylvania. Look at the inside of this castle and just how decrepit it is. You totally buy this as Dracula’s castle. (Though, why are there armadillos in Transylvania?) It’s here where Renfield meets the sinister Count Dracula who stands on top of the stairs, hears a wolf howl, and states, “Listen to them—children of the night. What music they make.” Yes, this was the 1930s—subtlety in villain characters weren’t exactly a staple in horror movies. But I don’t care—it’s an iconic line for a good reason. Anyway, Renfield quickly falls under Dracula’s spell and becomes his assistant as he helps transport him to England. But upon arriving, Renfield is committed to an insane asylum because he has completely changed from sane and nervous to maniacal and ranting. He also eats flies and spiders.

Meanwhile, Dracula roams the village and seeks new victims to feed upon. He bites a woman on the neck and she becomes a vampire. But his next pick, Mina (Helen Chandler), is more of a challenge, since she’s constantly protected by her boorish fiancé John Harker (David Manners), her father (Herbert Bunston), and clever Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Van Helsing is the only one who believes in vampires and also delivers the line that hits a strong note in the screenplay—“The strength of a vampire is that no one will ever believe in them.” He soon becomes a threat to Dracula, since he knows how to stop him.

It’s so good to see most of the vampire trademarks in this movie. You can pretty much count them off and smile whenever they’re mentioned or shown. There’s the coffin for the vampires to sleep in during the day (because they only come out at night), the bites on victims’ necks, the setting of the castle in Transylvania, Dracula’s hypnotic eyes, the crucifixes that (for some reason) seems to harm vampires, the giant bat form of Dracula, Dracula not casting a reflection in a mirror, a wide-eyed, crazy assistant, and of course Dracula’s long black cape. It’s nice to see them all in one movie, and I enjoyed singling them out. \

If there’s one very important element to consider from “Dracula,” it’s Bela Legosi. His distinctive accent, calm manner, and huge eyes can make for a realistic vampire. Aside from Legosi, however, the only two actors who stand out in the cast are Edward Von Sloan who’s a hoot as the wily Van Helsing and Dwight Frye as the manic Renfield. Everyone else is either bland or unconvincing.

The film is anticlimactic. From everything Van Helsing states about handling the situation of saving Mina and killing Van Helsing, it’s a huge disappointment. It’s much ado about nothing, as most of it is taken place off-screen, it’s not exciting in the slightest, and the whole final act is let down already by its neverending, calm orchestra background music score.

“Dracula” may not be the classic that it’s been said to be, as it has many flaws. But it is still an entertaining watch.

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