ⓘ Dracula (1931 English-language film)

Dracula (1931 English-language film)

ⓘ Dracula (1931 English-language film)

Dracula is a 1931 American pre-Code supernatural horror film directed and co-produced by Tod Browning from a screenplay written by Garrett Fort. It is based on the 1924 stage play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, which in turn is adapted from the 1897 novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. The film stars Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, a vampire who emigrates from Transylvania to England and preys upon the blood of living victims, including a young mans fiancee.

Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures, Dracula is thought to be the first sound film adaptation of the Stoker novel. Several actors were considered to portray the title character, but Lugosi, who had previously played the role on Broadway, eventually got the part. The film was partially shot on sets at Universal Studios Lot in California, which were reused at night for the filming of Dracula, a concurrently produced Spanish-language version of the story also by Universal.

Dracula was a commercial and critical success upon release, and led to several sequels and spin-offs. It has had a notable influence on popular culture, and Lugosis portrayal of Dracula established the character as a cultural icon, as well as the archetypal vampire in later works of fiction. In 2000, the film was selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


1. Plot

Renfield Dwight Frye is a solicitor traveling to Count Draculas Bela Lugosi castle in Transylvania on a business matter. The people in the local village fear that vampires inhabit the castle and warn Renfield not to go there. Renfield refuses to stay at the inn and asks his carriage driver to take him to the Borgo Pass. Renfield is driven to the castle by Draculas coach, with Dracula disguised as the driver. En route, Renfield sticks his head out the window to ask the driver to slow down, but sees the driver has disappeared; a bat leads the horses.

Renfield enters the castle welcomed by the charming but eccentric Count, who, unbeknownst to Renfield, is a vampire. They discuss Draculas intention to lease Carfax Abbey in London, where he intends to travel the next day. Dracula hypnotizes Renfield into opening a window. Renfield faints as a bat appears and Draculas three wives close in on him. Dracula waves them away, then attacks Renfield himself.

Aboard the schooner Vesta, Renfield is a raving lunatic slave to Dracula, who hides in a coffin and feeds on the ships crew. When the ship reaches England, Renfield is discovered to be the only living person. Renfield is sent to Dr. Sewards sanatorium adjoining Carfax Abbey.

At a London theatre, Dracula meets Seward Herbert Bunston. Seward introduces his daughter Mina Helen Chandler, her fiance John Harker David Manners and the family friend Lucy Weston Frances Dade. Lucy is fascinated by Count Dracula. That night, Dracula enters her room and feasts on her blood while she sleeps. Lucy dies the next day after a string of transfusions.

Renfield is obsessed with eating flies and spiders. Professor Van Helsing Edward Van Sloan analyzes Renfields blood and discovers his obsession. He starts talking about vampires, and that afternoon Renfield begs Seward to send him away, claiming his nightly cries may disturb Minas dreams. When Dracula calls Renfield with wolf howling, Renfield is disturbed by Van Helsing showing him wolfsbane, which Van Helsing says is used for protection from vampires.

Dracula visits Mina, asleep in her bedroom, and bites her. The next evening, Dracula enters for a visit and Van Helsing and Harker notice that he does not have a reflection. When Van Helsing reveals this to Dracula, he smashes the mirror and leaves. Van Helsing deduces that Dracula is the vampire behind the recent tragedies.

Mina leaves her room and runs to Dracula in the garden, where he attacks her. She is found by the maid. Newspapers report that a woman in white is luring children from the park and biting them. Mina recognizes the lady as Lucy, risen as a vampire. Harker wants to take Mina to London for safety, but is convinced to leave Mina with Van Helsing. Van Helsing orders Nurse Briggs Joan Standing to take care of Mina when she sleeps, and not to remove the wreath of wolfsbane from her neck.

Renfield escapes from his cell and listens to the men discuss vampires. Before his attendant takes Renfield back to his cell, Renfield relates to them how Dracula convinced Renfield to allow him to enter the sanitorium by promising him thousands of rats with blood and life in them. Dracula enters the Seward parlour and talks with Van Helsing. Dracula states that Mina now belongs to him, and warns Van Helsing to return to his home country. Van Helsing swears to excavate Carfax Abbey and destroy Dracula. Dracula attempts to hypnotize Van Helsing, but the latters resolve proves stronger. As Dracula lunges at Van Helsing, he withdraws a crucifix from his coat, forcing Dracula to retreat.

Harker visits Mina on a terrace, and she speaks of how much she loves "nights and fogs". A bat flies above them and squeaks to Mina. She then attacks Harker but Van Helsing and Seward save him. Mina confesses what Dracula has done to her, and tells Harker their love is finished.

Dracula hypnotizes Briggs into removing the wolfsbane from Minas neck and opening the windows. Van Helsing and Harker see Renfield heading for Carfax Abbey. They see Dracula with Mina in the abbey. When Harker shouts to Mina, Dracula thinks Renfield has led them there. Renfield pleads for his life, but Dracula kills him. Dracula is hunted by Van Helsing and Harker, who know that Dracula is forced to sleep in his coffin during daylight, and the sun is rising. Van Helsing prepares a wooden stake while Harker searches for Mina. Van Helsing impales Dracula through the heart, killing him, and Mina returns to normal.


2. Cast

The following individuals appear in uncredited roles: director and co-producer Tod Browning as the off-screen voice of the harbormaster; Carla Laemmle, a cousin of producer Carl Laemmle Jr., who appears at the start of the film as a woman in the coach carrying Renfield; and Geraldine Dvorak, Cornelia Thaw, and Dorothy Tree as Draculas brides.


3. Background

Bram Stokers novel had already been filmed without permission as Nosferatu in 1922 by German Expressionist filmmaker F. W. Murnau. Bram Stokers widow sued for plagiarism and copyright infringement, and the courts decided in her favor, essentially ordering that all prints of Nosferatu be destroyed. Enthusiastic young Hollywood producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. also saw the box office potential in Stokers gothic chiller, and he legally acquired the novels film rights. Initially, he wanted Dracula to be a spectacle on a scale with the lavish silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1923 and The Phantom of the Opera 1925.

Already a huge hit on Broadway, the Deane/Balderston Dracula play would become the blueprint as the production gained momentum. The screenwriters carefully studied the silent, unauthorized version, F. W. Murnaus Nosferatu, for inspiration. Lifted directly from a nearly identical scene in Nosferatu that does not appear in Stokers novel, was the early scene at the Counts castle when Renfield accidentally pricks his finger on a paper clip and it starts to bleed. Dracula creeps toward him with glee, only to be repelled when the crucifix falls in front of the bleeding finger.


4. Production

Decision on casting the title role proved problematic. Initially, Laemmle was not at all interested in Lugosi, in spite of good reviews for his stage portrayal. Laemmle instead considered other actors, including Paul Muni, Chester Morris, Ian Keith, John Wray, Joseph Schildkraut, Arthur Edmund Carewe, and William Courtenay. Lugosi had played the role on Broadway, and to his good fortune, happened to be in Los Angeles with a touring company of the play when the film was being cast. Against the tide of studio opinion, Lugosi lobbied hard and ultimately won the executives over, thanks in part to him accepting a paltry $500 per week salary for seven weeks of work, amounting to $3.500.

According to numerous accounts, the production is alleged to have been a mostly disorganized affair, with the usually meticulous Tod Browning leaving cinematographer Karl Freund to take over during much of the shoot, making Freund something of an uncredited director on the film.

The peasants at the beginning are praying in Hungarian, and the signs of the village are also in Hungarian. This was because when Bram Stoker wrote the original novel, the Borgo Pass was near Transylvania and modern Hungary. This part of the world was then part of the Kingdom of Hungary and within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now that area is part of Romania.

The scenes of crew members on the ship struggling in the violent storm were lifted from a Universal silent film, The Storm Breaker 1925. Photographed at silent film projection speed, this accounts for the jerky, sped-up appearance of the footage when projected at 24 frames per second sound film speed and cobbled together with new footage of Dracula and Renfield. Jack Foley was the foley artist who produced the sound effects.


4.1. Production Cinematic process

The films histrionic dramatics from the stage play are also reflected in its special effects, which are limited to fog, lighting, and large flexible bats. Draculas transition from bat to person is always done off-camera. The film also employs extended periods of silence and character close-ups for dramatic effect, and employs two expository intertitles and a closeup of a newspaper article to advance the story, a seeming holdover from silent films; a point made by online film critic James Berardinelli is that the actors performance style seems to belong to the silent era. Director Tod Browning had a solid reputation as a silent film director, having made them since 1915, but he never felt completely at ease with sound films. He only directed six more films over an eight-year period, the best known being the notorious Freaks, a horror movie with Baclanova and a cast of actual carnival freaks that was yanked from distribution immediately. Browning directed his last film in 1939.


5. Music

Owing to the costs of adding an original musical score to a films soundtrack, no score had ever been composed specifically for the film. The music heard during the opening credits, an excerpt from Act II of Tchaikovskys Swan Lake, was re-used in 1932 for another Universal horror film, The Mummy. During the theatre scene where Dracula meets Dr. Seward, Harker, Mina, and Lucy, the end of the overture to Wagners Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg can also be heard as well as the dark opening of Schuberts "Unfinished Symphony" in B minor.


5.1. Music 1998 score

In 1998, composer Philip Glass was commissioned to compose a musical score for the classic film. The score was performed by the Kronos Quartet under the direction of Michael Reisman, Glasss usual conductor.

Of the project, Glass said: "The film is considered a classic. I felt the score needed to evoke the feeling of the world of the 19th century - for that reason I decided a string quartet would be the most evocative and effective. I wanted to stay away from the obvious effects associated with horror films. With we were able to add depth to the emotional layers of the film."

The film, with this new score, was released by Universal Studios in 1999 in the VHS format. Universals DVD releases allow the viewer to choose between the unscored soundtrack or the Glass score. The soundtrack, Dracula, was released by Nonesuch Records in 1999. Glass and the Kronos Quartet performed live during showings of the film in 1999, 2000 and 2017.


6. Release

Dracula was a big gamble for a major Hollywood studio to undertake. In spite of the literary credentials of the source material, it was uncertain if an American audience was prepared for a serious full length supernatural chiller. Though American audiences had been exposed to other chillers before, such as The Cat and the Canary 1927, this was a horror story with no comic relief or trick ending that downplayed the supernatural. Despite this, Dracula proved to be a box office success.

When the film finally premiered at the Roxy Theatre in New York City on February 12, 1931 released two days later throughout the U.S., newspapers reported that members of the audiences fainted in shock at the horror on screen. This publicity, shrewdly orchestrated by the film studio, helped ensure people came to see the film, if for no other reason than curiosity. Within 48 hours of its opening at New Yorks Roxy Theatre, it had sold 50.000 tickets, building a momentum that culminated in a $700.000 profit, the largest of Universals 1931 releases.


6.1. Release Critical reception

The film was generally well received by critics upon its release. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times called it "the best of the many mystery films", characterizing Brownings direction as "imaginative" and Helen Chandlers performance as "excellent". Variety praised the film for its "remarkably effective background of creepy atmosphere" and wrote, "It is difficult to think of anybody who could quite match the performance in the vampire part of Bela Lugosi, even to the faint flavor of foreign speech that fits so neatly". Film Daily declared the film "a fine melodrama" and remarked that Lugosi had created "one of the most unique and powerful roles of the screen". Time called it "an exciting melodrama, not as good as it ought to be but a cut above the ordinary trapdoor-and-winding-sheet type of mystery film". John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote a negative review, remarking that "there is no real illusion in the picture" and "this whole vampire business falls pretty flat". The Chicago Tribune did not think the film was as scary as the stage version, calling its framework "too obvious" and "its attempts to frighten too evident", but still concluded that it was "quite a satisfactory thriller".


7. Censorship

The film was originally released with a running time of 85 minutes; when it was reissued in 1936, the Production Code was enforced. For that reissue, two scenes are known to have been censored.

  • Audio of Draculas off-camera "death groans" at the end of the film were shortened by partial muting, as were Renfields screams as he is killed; these pieces of soundtrack were later restored by MCA-Universal for its LaserDisc and subsequent DVD releases with the exception of the 2004 multi-film "Legacy Collection" edition.
  • The most significant deletion was an epilogue which played only during the films initial run. In a scene similar to the prologue from Frankenstein, and also featuring Universal stalwart Edward Van Sloan, he reappeared in a "curtain speech" and informed the audience: "Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen! A word before you go. We hope the memories of Dracula and Renfield wont give you bad dreams, so just a word of reassurance. When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains - and you dread to see a face appear at the window - why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all, there are such things as vampires!" This epilogue was removed out of fear of encouraging a belief in the supernatural. This scene was briefly shown in the Road to Dracula documentary, but it may be unusable and cant be restored.


8. Alternate versions

In the early days of sound films, it was common for Hollywood studios to produce "Foreign Language Versions" of their films using the same sets, costumes and so on. While Browning filmed during the day, at night George Melford was using the sets to make the Spanish-language version Dracula, starring Carlos Villarias as Conde Dracula. Long thought lost, a print of this Dracula was discovered in the 1970s and restored.

A third, silent, version of the film was also released. In 1931, some theaters had not yet been wired for sound and during this transition period, many studios released alternative silent versions with intertitles.


9.1. Legacy Retrospective assessments

In 1999, film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars, praising Lugosis performance and Freunds cinematography. He noted the films lasting influence, and included it in his list of "Great Movies". Angie Errigo of Empire gave the film four out of five stars, commending Lugosis performance as "the against which all others are measured", and writing that the film "is stagey and creaky, but it also has wonderful, unforgettable moments." John Oliver of the British Film Institute credited the film with establishing the "popular on-screen image of the vampire" and wrote that "the cinematic horror genre was born with the release of Dracula." He concluded that although he feels the film becomes almost "overly stage bound in its middle section, the virtues of its star performance and general visual style outweigh any such deficits."

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 91% based on 46 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The sites critical consensus reads: "Bela Lugosis timeless portrayal of Dracula in this creepy and atmospheric 1931 film has set the standard for major vampiric roles since."


9.2. Legacy Sequels and influence

After the commercial and critical success of Dracula, Universal released Frankenstein later that same year. Universal in particular would become the forefront of early horror cinema, with a canon of films including The Mummy 1932, The Invisible Man 1933, Bride of Frankenstein 1935, and The Wolf Man 1941.

In 1936, five years after release, Universal released Draculas Daughter, a direct sequel that starts immediately after the end of the first film. A second sequel, Son of Dracula starring Lon Chaney, Jr., followed in 1943. The Count returned to life in three more Universal films of the mid-1940s: 1944s House of Frankenstein, 1945s House of Dracula and 1948s comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Universal would only cast Lugosi as Dracula in one more film, the aforesaid Abbott and Costello vehicle, giving the role to John Carradine for the mid-1940s "monster rally" films, although Carradine admittedly more closely resembled Stokers physical description from the book. Many of the familiar images of Dracula are from stills of the older Lugosi made during the filming of the 1948 comedy, so there remain two confusingly distinct incarnations of Lugosi as Dracula, seventeen years apart in age. As Lugosi played a vampire in three other movies during his career, this contributed to the public misconception that he portrayed Dracula on film many times.

Since its release, Dracula has become widely regarded as a classic of the era and of its genre. In 2000, it was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It was also ranked 79th on Bravos countdown of The 100 Scariest Movie Moments.

To many film lovers and critics alike, Lugosis portrayal is widely regarded as the definitive Dracula. Lugosi had a powerful presence and authority on-screen. The slow, deliberate pacing of his performance "I bid you… welcome!" and "I never drink… wine!" gave his Dracula the air of a walking, talking corpse, which terrified the movie audiences at the time, compelling with no dialogue, and the many close-ups of Lugosis face in icy silence jumped off the screen. With this mesmerizing performance, Dracula became Bela Lugosis signature role, his Dracula a cultural icon, and he himself a legend in the classic Universal Horror film series.

However, Dracula would ultimately become a role which would prove to be both a blessing and a curse. Despite his earlier stage successes in a variety of roles, from the moment Lugosi donned the cape on screen, it would forever see him typecast as the Count.

Browning would go on to direct Lugosi once more in another vampire thriller, Mark of the Vampire, a 1935 remake of his lost silent film London After Midnight 1927.

Also, the film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

  • 2001: AFIs 100 Years.100 Thrills – #85
  • 2003: AFIs 100 Years.100 Heroes & Villains
  • Count Dracula – #33 Villain
  • Count Dracula: "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make." – #83
  • 2005: AFIs 100 Years.100 Movie Quotes

9.3. Legacy Posters

The films poster campaign was overseen by Universal advertising art director Karoly Grosz, who also illustrated the "insert" poster himself. Original posters from the 1931 release are scarce and highly valuable to collectors. In 2009, actor Nicolas Cage auctioned off his collection of vintage film posters, which included an original "Style F" one sheet that sold for $310.700; as of March 2012, it stood as the sixth-highest price for a film poster. In summer 2017, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett loaned his rare "Style C" poster to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts for an exhibition on horror film posters. In December that same year, an extremely rare "Style A" poster - one of only two known copies - sold at auction for $525.000, setting a new world record for the most expensive film poster.

  • Original 1931 posters

After the films original theatrical run, several theatrical reissues were promoted with new poster designs.

  • Theatrical reissue posters

9.4. Legacy Iconography

This film, and the 1920s stage play by Deane and Balderston, contributed much of Draculas popular iconography, much of which vastly differs from Stokers novel. In the novel and in the German silent film Nosferatu 1922, Draculas appearance is repulsive; Lugosi portrays the Count as a handsome, charming nobleman. The Deane-Balderston play and this film also introduced the now iconic images of Dracula entering his victims bedrooms through French doors/windows, wrapping his satin-lined cape around victims, and more emphasis on Dracula transforming into a bat. In the Stoker novel, he variously transformed into a bat or a wolf, a mist or "elemental dust."

The now classic Dracula line, "I never drink. wine", is original to this film. It did not appear in Stokers novel or the original production of the play. When the play was revived on Broadway in 1977 starring Frank Langella, the line was added to the script.


10. Home media

In the 1990s, MCA/Universal Home Video released Dracula on VHS as part of the "Universal Monsters Classic Collection", a series of releases of Universal Classic Monsters films. The film was also released on LaserDisc.

In 1999, Universal released Dracula on VHS and DVD as part of the "Classic Monster Collection". In 2004, Universal released Dracula: The Legacy Collection on DVD as part of the "Universal Legacy Collection". This two-disc release includes both Dracula and the Spanish-language Dracula, as well as Draculas Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula.

In 2012, Dracula and Dracula were released on Blu-ray as part of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection box set, which also includes a total of nine films from the Universal Classic Monsters series. In September 2013, Dracula received a standalone Blu-ray release that also includes Dracula. That same year, Dracula was included as part of the six-film Blu-ray set Universal Classic Monsters Collection, which also includes Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. The following year, Universal released Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection on DVD. This set contains seven films: Dracula, Dracula, Draculas Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In 2015, the six-film Universal Classic Monsters Collection was released on DVD. In 2016, Dracula received a Walmart-exclusive Blu-ray release featuring a glow-in-the-dark cover. In September 2017, the film received a Best Buy-exclusive steelbook Blu-ray release with cover artwork by Alex Ross. That same year, the seven-film Complete Legacy Collection was released on Blu-ray.

On August 28, 2018, Dracula, Dracula, Draculas Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein were included in the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection Blu-ray box set. This box set also received a DVD release. In October 2018, Dracula and Dracula were included as part of a limited edition Best Buy-exclusive Blu-ray set titled Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection, which features artwork by Alex Ross.

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