Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi is a legendary actor. Even though he is known only for the role of Count Dracula, he does it so well that there is perhaps no equal substitute. And his portrayal of Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire in the 1931 film Dracula spawned more Dracula movies. Really, Lugosi is the man who brought Dracula to the big screen and solidified the character’s place in Hollywood history. With that, let’s take a few moments to explore that movie and understand why it’s a classic to this day.
First off, I won’t go into the plot too much, only because it’s simple and less important than other elements, which I will elaborate on. Just know that Dracula turns one man to his side, smuggles his coffins of dirt from Transylvania to London, and proceeds to victimize a few women while other characters try to stop the vampire’s threat. As for the cast of characters aside from Dracula, it includes Renfield, the man who becomes a crazed servant of Dracula; Lucy, one of Dracula’s victims; Mina, another prey for the vampire; John Harker, Mina’s fiance; Dr. Seward, who runs the mental institution where Renfield is held; and Professor Van Helsing, whose knowledge of the supernatural and the occult will be most useful here.
There are really just two things that make this movie stand out as an early classic. The first is the acting. When Bela Lugosi’s Dracula appears on screen, his expression and mannerisms project a sense of both mystery and fear. The vampire’s wide-eyed stare, exaggerated smile, and minimal yet drawn-out speech cannot be ignored or forgotten. It’s easy for the audience to experience the same trepidation as any human character in the film who comes face to face with Dracula. Really, it’s obvious why Bela Lugosi and Count Dracula are practically one and the same: the actor becomes the character, not merely assume or imagine a role.
I should also point out two other fine performances. While every cast member is great, I couldn’t help but be impressed even more by Dwight Frye as Renfield and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing. Whenever Renfield, after being converted by Dracula, appears on screen, he strikes the same fear into us, with his own wide-eyed stare and frightening speech. He’s even more creepy whenever he exhibits his craving for eating small living things, like spiders. As for Van Helsing, he stands out as an intellectual who knows things nobody else knows, which also makes him a man so determined to stop Dracula because only he truly understands the vampire’s threat.
As for the second thing that makes this movie work well, it’s the sound. Or rather, the lack of it. During the horror scenes, like when Dracula is ready to bite the neck of his next female victim, there is no music to accompany the action, nor is there much sound. The silence itself makes the movie scary. It forces us to really pay attention to what we are seeing and to use our imagination about what is going to happen or what is happening off camera. If not much is needed to generate a reaction from the audience, why even have to do more?
That’s all I have to say about Dracula. It was great for its time, and it’s still great for those who love to take a trip back in time to the early days of cinema.
Anthony’s Rating: 9/10