Is it wrong to review one of your top ten favorite movies? No, I guess not. Spoiler alert: I give this movie a high rating. But why? I mean, after all, it is one of many old monster movies, which are always cheesy. And I would agree: it is cheesy. But it is so much more than that.
Dracula was one of Universal’s very successful monster flicks. They really were the best at the time. They had this title, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, The Mummy, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and each of these titles had several sequels. These movies starred the likes of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Claude Rains, and Lon Chaney, Jr., and had support from some of the best character actors of the era.
So why do I like it so much? It just has a mood to it, albeit a disturbing one. It sets an eerie tone that, despite its age, lives on through bad special effects (budget had been cut due to the Great Depression). This is partly captured by the fact that no music is used during the film (although there is a new version available with a soundtrack from Philip Glass). Rather, most of the tension is created by the long, creepy stares of Bela Lugosi. Also, I just liked the Dracula storyline. But what is one of the main reasons I like it? …
Bela Lugosi and his unbeatable portrayal as Count Dracula. Lugosi got a rotten deal. He was an established character actor that was much more versatile than Dracula. But his portrayal of Dracula was so striking and innovative that it stuck. He would never be taken seriously as anything other than a villain again.
Movie monsters had always been grotesque in film (look at some of Lon Chaney Sr.’s makeup, or even the Dracula ripoff and silent film classic Nosferatu). Lugosi’s portrayal ushered in an era of the debonair vampire which still exists today. Lugosi became the template for how a vampire should look, move, react, speak, bite, and so on. Without him there would be no Count from Sesame Street! He was handsome, brooding, had an accent, and dressed to impress. And if Z.Z. Top taught us anything, it’s that every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man.
The movie opens with credits and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, which is at times eerie and mysterious, and at other times beautiful and magisterial, a perfect musical description of Count Dracula himself. The first scene opens showing a wagon transporting poor Renfield (Dwight Frye) up to see Count Dracula in Transylvania. The landscape is cold and barren (Central Romania). “Among the rugged peaks that crown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age,” quips one passenger, reading from a travel brochure. Through the interaction in this wagon we know early on that the people inhabiting this land are staunchly Roman Catholic and very aware of the evil that haunts the area: Nosferatu. This term may be an archaic Romanian word we usually translate as “vampire” or “Dracula.” It was probably taken from the Romanian “Necuratu,” meaning unclean spirit, a term that usually referred to Satan.
The moving close-ups of Dracula without sound and surrounding props are very chilling indeed, proving that old adage that says “less is more”. After Renfield enters the Count’s ruined castle (a mere shadow of what must have been its former glory), Dracula utters his first words in the movie: “I am Dracula … I bid you welcome.” Wow, what a seemingly gracious host! But then we get a glimpse into the real Dracula after he hears wolves howl: “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make!” This is one of the most famous movie lines of all time.
In the early dialogue scenes with Renfield, you will immediately notice the slow English used by Lugosi. This is due to his thick accent and the need for him to enunciate, but this again became a staple for Draculas that followed. And the way he holds his creeping, mesmerizing hands? Also Bela’s innovation that would be copied again and again (even by yours truly, in a short movie I made with my good friend Aaron Galvin).
I feel the rest of the story is so well known that there is little profit in rehashing it in detail. And the story is somewhat secondary in my mind to the atmosphere and performances. Watch Dracula as he strolls the streets of England, perfectly fitting in to upper-class social circles. Watch the scientists debate between “premodern” and “modern” philosophy: if science can’t substantiate or explain it, then is it real at all? If we can’t fit it into a test tube, does it exist? Does the supernatural exist? Can science prove everything? As much as I would love to engage these questions, it is a bit outside of the scope of a movie review. Until then, Google William Lane Craig videos.
One of my favorite “characters” in this movie is the landscape and scenery. It sets the perfect mood. The wide-open, empty, and dead space of this section of Romania parallels the evil that resides in it.
I know I’ve already said plenty about him, let me give you a few of my favorite Dracula quotes:
- After he pours only one glass of wine (for Renfield), Renfield asks, “are you drinking?” Dracula replies, “ I never drink (pause) wine.”
- “To die, being really dead, that must be glorious. There are for worse things awaiting man than death.” – followed by a perfect dimming of lights.
- “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing.”
Dwight Frye gives a deliciously over-the-top performance as Renfield. He looks like an actor used to the expressions of silent film, unaware that his words are being recorded. His facial expressions could be seen from even the most distant corners of any playhouse. And this is not just once he becomes insect-eating lunatic, but also as the square pencil-pusher.
But now I would like to highlight the character of Van Helsing, a scientist who knows exactly who Dracula is. In a lot of horror/sci-fi movies of this era (and even now), scientists were portrayed as near-lunatics haphazardly tampering with nature to “unleash its full potential” without a second thought to the consequences (Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jeckyll, and many more). But in this case, it is the scientist to the rescue. And like the Christian today who warns an unbelieving society against the social ills of evil (there is no evil, after all, only circumstances of nature and nurture) and the real person of Satan, Van Helsing would have been laughed at by his peers for believing in Dracula (and, in the film, he basically is at first).
He does not let the ridicule stop him in his pursuit, knowing right from wrong and good from evil, and understanding the limitations of empirical science. He even offers this memorable gem when describing the craftiness of the evil Dracula: “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.” He is the invisible enemy that everyone can feel, but most are not willing to admit exists.
By drinking the blood, the devilish Dracula is engaging in a twisted perversion of the Lord’s Supper that steals life to prolong undead life (and leads to another sinister, blood-thirsty “undead” life after the victim’s resurrection). In response to this supernatural evil, we can echo Van Helsing’s sentiments: “We know why the wolves [controlled by Dracula] talk, do we not, Mr. Renfield? And we know how we can make them stop.” This has great implications for spiritual warfare, as well. Van Helsing actually uses a crucifix to ward off Count Dracula. Kudos to you, Abraham Von Helsing, for staring directly in the face of pure evil and never giving into the temptation to back down, even at great risk to yourself!
Yes, near perfect rating. Why? For style, historical significance, the actors, the lines, and that nostalgiac feeling it gives me. This movie is best watched late at night with all of the lights off. Relive the moments that scared your grandparents to death. And hey, it’s only 75 minutes. Watch the movie with friends, and have some of the same discussions that the film, and this review, addresses. But also feel free to sit back, relax, enjoy … and laugh at the unintentionally funny parts! But let’s be honest: you can’t judge old movies against new movies. It was a different era with different limitations and ideas. So view with an open mind, understanding the original context. Try to see Dracula for the truly groundbreaking movie it was and still is. Can you sometimes see a string attached to a flying bat? Sure. Are the lights that illuminate Dracula’s eyes sometimes a little off their mark? Yes. Does it matter? Not one iota.