Looking back on Universal’s Dracula

Why the 1931 vampire classic is still the king

To celebrate the release of Universal’s Home of Horror website Daniel Cairns bids you welcome, as he sinks his teeth into the movie which started the whole bloody affair in the first place. Sit back, enjoy, and maybe pour yourself a glass of… wine.

You probably don’t need to be told this, but if you’re into your horror (and if you’re on this site, the chances of that are pretty good) you really owe everything to Tod Browning’s Dracula. See all those films you like? All those ravishing, sexy antiheroes? It’s a good chance they wouldn’t have been half as devastating or popular if Messieurs Lugosi and Browning hadn’t travelled down the mines of early Hollywood cinema like sharply dressed, murderous canaries. There had been horror films released before, but never had a movie caused such a fuss among the public. Not only did Dracula prove to be a huge success, but it opened the floodgates (or bloodgates) for a whole shambling melee of supernatural icons.

Sure, Dracula seems a bit clumsy now, with its clunky dialogue, hammy acting and disjointed editing, but at the time it was utterly unprecedented. According to David J Skal in his documentary The Road To Dracula, the movie represented “the first time Hollywood had presented a kind of supernatural story that didn’t have a logical explanation tacked on at the end.” There was no smoke and mirrors deceit, no reassuring denouement. Something alien had just made its mark (or indeed, marks), and it left a whole slew of cinemagoers stunned.

And enthralled.

For all its wear and tear, the movie’s lost little of its power. By no means is it a truly frightening film nowadays, but its atmosphere is undeniable. This could probably be attributed as some kind of happy accident, as the quiet menace of the movie arguably came about through director Todd Browning’s reticence with talking films. A veteran of the silent era, his movie often seems ill at ease with itself where there’s dialogue, but this adds to the unreal eeriness of the flick. When Browning is allowed to let rip with the silence, it lets its stark, expressionist roots (probably provided by renowned German cinematographer Karl Freund) shine. Desolate crypts are filmed with a torturous, deliberately paced glee, coffins creak open against gloomy downcast foregrounds, and how the ruddy heck did those armadillos get there? When Bela Lugosi’s titular Count makes his grand entrance, it’s not a flashy bat to man metamorphosis or coffin raising, it’s a looming, unhurried zooming close up of his static, staring form that slowly pulls the audience towards him, as if to evoke a hypnotic, yet unwilling attraction to the character. Eek.

It’s all wonderfully bleak, and it’s made even more so by the lack of soundtrack. Save for the use of Act 2 of Swan Lake in the opening credits (a motif that was used in a number of Universal horror movies) and some diegetic music, it relies heavily on its long moments of quiet and use of howling, unearthly sound effects for its atmosphere. A soundtrack was created for it many years later by Philip Glass and the Kronos quartet, but even his minimalist score (despite being excellent in its own right) felt oversaturated. Less is very definitely more here.

Dracula also endures because of the various performances. Though Lugosi’s Dracula is great, and defined the vocabulary and mannerisms of the character (probably forever), it’s Dwight Frye’s crazed turn as Renfield that steals the show. His transition from pleasant, professional agent to insect-eating, laughing, screaming bedlamite is compelling, and every time he’s on screen, all mad-eyes and paranoid rambling, the film kicks up a few notches. The scene where we’re fully introduced to how far gone he is, his rictus grin staring feverishly up from a staircase, is one of the most unforgettable instances in the movie, if not cinema history.

That’s not to say that Lugosi is eclipsed. He’s a riveting presence. His fractured, polite, yet subtly threatening vernacular (despite being admittedly pretty funny sometimes) is effective at portraying the fact he’s playing a character not quite on the same page as everyone else. Dracula’s attempts at integration often fall flat, whether he’s telling people that death would basically be bloody brilliant (hinting a yearning for peace that’s never really expanded upon) or annoying David Manners’ prim, proper and bloody stupid Jonathan Harker. He portrays Dracula as an upstanding, unflappable outsider. In today’s vocabulary, he’d probably be labelled a badass.

Another badass is the equally mysterious Abraham Van Helsing. Like Dracula he’s something of a wise, proud outsider. Portrayed by character actor Edward Van Sloan (Van Sloan played the character in the theatre adaptation, and he went on to portray similar characters in Frankenstein and The Mummy), he acts as the perfect foil for Dracula. He’s misunderstood, and often at odds with the people he’s trying to help, but he fights on and prevails regardless. Every time Van Helsing and Dracula are in the same scene there’s an added sense of gravitas, as if a genuine struggle between good and evil, inconceivable to mere mortals, (especially the bourgeois dumbbells in this film) is taking place. This gravity was echoed many years later in 2004’s demented (and seriously underrated) Van Helsing, where Van Helsing (renamed Gabriel and looking like Wolverine) and Dracula face off yet again, though instead of exchanging sharp words and pitting their wits against each other, the buggers jump around a lot and make crap jokes. Oh well.

Lastly there’s the mise-en scene. Though such sights had been described in novels for centuries, Browning’s Dracula was arguably the movie that popularised the dilapidated, fog shrouded castle backdrops so beloved by horror traditionalists. It also gave form to the atmosphere of broken, corrupt decadence described in the novel. This was expanded (and undeniably improved) upon in James Whale’s Frankenstein and Karl Freund’s The Mummy, but Dracula provided the blueprints clearly. You don’t need to think hard to guess how influential the hedonistic, sinister aesthetic of Dracula is. It’s lived on through a huge number of influential horror films. You see it in the movies of Hammer, Tim Burton and countless others. You also see it every October 31, as you arm yourselves against the hordes of children harrying you for rotten teeth and cold hard cash.

Eighty years later we’re still talking about Dracula. Everywhere we look its influence is palpable, and not just in the myriad of remakes, adaptations, spoofs and sequels (the less said about the spectacularly bloody awful Dracula 2000 the better). It’s most enduring legacy is the most obvious though… it made horror sexy. Where the character in Bram Stoker’s novel was a rat-like, repulsive creature (Max Shreck’s Count Orlock from FW Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu was far closer to the spirit of the book’s character) , Lugosi’s was a charming, successful, exotic aristocrat with an irresistible wicked streak that ruffled the feathers of the stiff upper lipped society types, and thrilled the ladies. Browning’s 1931 movie successfully blurred the line between fear and arousal, thus changing cinema forever, giving a lascivious new meaning to the infamous line “children of the night, what music they make.”

There would be no Buffy, no Angel, no Vampire Diaries, no True Blood or any others if Browning, Freund and Lugosi hadn’t blasted the whole thing open.

Probably no Edward Cullen either.

Actually for that last reason alone they can sod off.