It’s October and Halloween is approaching–those are basically the only reasons you need to whip out this definitive vampire horror. That and no Dracula since has been able to touch Bela Lugosi’s ominous stare, even if excelling in the role left him typecast. So with Dracula Untold hitting theatres this Friday, what better time is there to reflect on one of the first Dracula movies that’s also the most definitive.
Year Released: 1931
How it fared back then: While there’s a funny story about Universal drumming up excitement for the film by orchestrating publicity that suggested audience members passed out with fear during the first screening, none of this was actually necessary. The studio’s first straight-up supernatural creeper, Dracula was a hit when it opened and kicked off Universal’s very successful foray into horror, leaving us with some of our favourite classics.
Why it’s lasted: No other adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Victorian thriller has come close to capturing the essence and details of the story. Not to mention Lugosi’s natural Hungarian accent keeps this from ever sinking into the campy, though the adaptations that followed would. And despite nearly no effects or splatter, there’s something inherently creepy about Dracula’s castle and Lugosi’s slow delivery.
Classic moments: Pretty much any line delivered by Lugosi, but especially when he tells Lucy (Frances Dade), John (David Manners) and Mina (Helen Chandler) at the theatre that “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” Of all Dracula’s incongruous, mesmerizing moments, this is the one that delivers the real threat of what he brought with him to London. That and Renfield (Dwight Frye) screaming at Martin (Charles Gerrard) when he takes away his spider, which manages to be both funny and a sign of how damaged he now is.
Does it hold up? Surprisingly, yes. Without any flash or gore, and with all the transformations, attacks and bites happening off-screen, Universal’s 1931 Dracula still goes down as one of the best film adaptations of Stoker’s story. There’s something essentially creepy about the lighting we do get and even as the camera lingers almost excessively on Dracula’s eyes, it all works in a way it hasn’t in any other Dracula movie since—Lugosi is iconic in this role for a reason. Apart from being one of the purest adaptations out there, it’s also one of the few to strike Stoker’s fine balance between letting Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) reveal what’s really at play and leaving plenty for the audience to imagine, which is what all good horror needs.