With an apparent resurgence in vampire-themed TV shows (particularly on Netflix), why not look at another vampire classic? Yes, I’m talking about Tod Browning’s Dracula. Even though it’s not my favorite vampire (or even Dracula) film of all time, there’s no denying that this film is incredibly influential. It helped solidify Dracula as a permanent movie monster, and Bela Lugosi’s appearance as the Count is as iconic as ever. Think about it: When you picture Dracula, don’t you often think of Bela Lugosi’s style, almost as the default? Though Ed Wood later transformed Bela into a B-movie goofball, in this movie he’s undeniably suave as hell. Rather than sounding hokey (like in Ed Wood), his voice in this film sounds exotic, cool, and like it carries a world full of woeful wisdom.
While I could praise Bela’s performance all day, it is not the only worthwhile performance in this film. One should also emphasize the manic and delightful performance of Dwight Frye as Renfield. Renfield always seems ready to go apeshit, yet he is always tempered by his own fear of the Count. Though I’ve always loved Tom Waits’ performance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the 1990s, it’s very hard to imagine anyone needing to play the character better than Frye.
If that’s not enough, the 1931 Dracula has a commendable performance by Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing. He also comes across as a cool dude, whereas Anthony Hopkin’s version in Bram Stoker’s was just a lunatic, almost seeming comparable to Renfield himself. Like Lugosi, Van Sloan comes across as a cool guy, even if not quite as suave.
The Flaws? (Yes, I Think There Are Some)
It’s hard to pick on a classic because it makes it seem like I’m being a contrarian or even a full-blown misanthrope. Still, I have to say this movie always felt incomplete to me. It just seems like it could have been more. For example, Dracula’s (all but inevitable) defeat at the end is simply lackluster. The weird thing is, 1922’s Nosferatu isn’t quite as bad in this regard, somehow. It’s hard to put this critique into words, but maybe it has to do with the overall tone. Nosferatu comes across almost as more of a magical fairytale, whereas Browning’s Dracula is more of a straightforward tale that requires a bigger payoff.
One expects Nosferatu to fade into the sun, but for Lugosi to get steaked in the heart off-camera, it is unimpressive. When you don’t get that visual of Dracula actually in his death throws but a tiny whimper instead, it’s simply disappointing. There really is not a compelling showdown between Van Helsing, Johnathan Harker (David Manners), and the fanged one, and I challenge anyone to argue otherwise.
The other big, obvious flaw is the run time. This is one movie that should have simply been longer, had more stuff thrown into it, and maybe some more character development. Browning’s version does not have as much meat on its bones as one could possibly imagine. For these reasons, I ultimately prefer Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the two major Nosferatu‘s (Murnau’s and Herzog’s) — although the ’90s movie is perhaps sleazier than it should be.
Those critiques aside, I would be remiss to not watch Browning’s Dracula every once in a while. It is, after all, better than something like Jason Takes Manhattan, which I’ve seen more times than I should freely admit (and that movie has a shittier, way more mystifying demise of its villain). Ultimately, though, Bela Lugosi, Frye and Edward Van Sloan make this movie. Were it not for them, it would have just been a classic due to it being an early horror film, as opposed to being genuinely iconic. Without Bela’s unending influence, our conception of Dracula and vampires simply wouldn’t be the same.
What are your thoughts on Dracula? Let us know in the comments!