Bela Lugosi in Universal Pictures’ Dracula (1931)

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Dracula is based on the 1897 novel of the same name by Irish writer Bram Stoker (1847-1912) and the Broadway play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Garrett Fort, Dudley Murphy, Louis Bromfield, Max Cohen, Louis Stevens and Tod Browning all had a hand in the screenplay, with Browning (The Unholy Three, The Blackbird, Freaks) also directing. Karl Freund served as cinematographer, with a generic music score playing in the background.

Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina Harker) and David Manners (John Harker) head the cast. Other players include Dwight Frye (Renfield), Edward Van Sloan (Professor Van Helsing), Herbert Bunston (Dr. Jack Seward), Frances Dade (Lucy Weston), Joan Standing (Briggs), Charles Gerrard (Martin), Moon Carroll (Maid), Carla Laemmle (Coach Passenger) and Josephine Velez (Grace).

Dracula Filmed in United States and England

Budgeted at $355,000, Dracula was filmed in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Much of the picture was lensed at Universal Studios in Hollywood, which housed the elaborate sets for Dracula’s castle and Carfax Abbey. California’s Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park and England’s Chatham Historic Dockyard were employed for scenic purposes.

Unlike the vast majority of films, Dracula was shot in chronological order, ostensibly to save on production costs. Universal Pictures insisted that Count Dracula be perceived as nothing but a “straight” vampire, sending a memo to Tod Browning that “Dracula is only to attack women.” The memo grew out of the controversial scene where Dracula waves away his hungry wives and savors the hapless Renfield for himself.

Bela Lugosi: I Am Dracula

Dracula opens in Transylvania where an English solicitor named Renfield takes a coach through the Borgo Pass to Castle Dracula, where he has urgent business. It proves to be a harrowing ride, with the driver apparently abandoning his perch and a bat now leading the team of horses.

Renfield arrives at his destination where he meets the owner of the castle. “I am Dracula,” the aristocratic Count announces. Renfield and Dracula discuss business, which centers on the Count’s intention to lease Carfax Abbey in England. Retiring for the night, Renfield is later attacked by Dracula in his bedroom, with the Count’s three vampire wives looking on in envy.

The next day Dracula travels to England with the raving Renfield in tow as his hypnotic slave. During the journey Dracula feeds on the crew of the Vesta, which later docks in England with no one alive on board except the lunatic Renfield, who winds up in Dr. Seward’s clinic.

In England, Dracula continues his feeding, eventually preying on both Lucy Weston and Mina Seward. Meanwhile, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing suspects a vampire is at work. The intrepid Van Helsing, along with John Harker, Mina’s fiance, finally corner Count Dracula in his coffin at Carfax Abbey, where a wooden stake is driven through Dracula’s heart. With the Count’s spell now broken, Mina returns to normal.

Dracula Opens in New York City

Dracula opened at New York City’s Roxy Theatre on February 12, 1931, where some 50,000 tickets were sold in the first 48 hours.

“Count Dracula, Bram Stoker’s human vampire, who has chilled the spines of book readers and playgoers, is now to be seen at the Roxy in a talking film directed by Tod Browning, who delights in such bloodcurdling stories…Mr. Browning is fortunate in having in the leading role in this eerie work, Bela Lugosi…What with Mr. Browning’s imaginative direction and Mr. Lugosi’s makeup and weird gestures, this picture succeeds to some extent in its grand guignol intentions,” reported Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times (2/13/31).

Film Analysis: Universal Pictures’ Dracula Still Vampire Movie King

For those youngsters who think vampires began with teenybopper fare like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, go out and rent 1931’s Dracula some time. Although nearly eight decades in the can, the Tod Browning version is still the king of vampire pictures, a slick, enigmatic, fog-shrouded adult production that retains the ability to scare the absolute bejesus out of everyone from the Greatest Generation to Generation Y.

Bela Lugosi, who originated the Dracula role on stage in 1927, is a real monster as the evil Count. His principal tools of terror are those hypnotic, bloodshot eyes, which flash impending danger in every horrific closeup. Lugosi’s natural Hungarian accent adds to the terror, even when mouthing such seemingly innocent lines as “I never drink…wine.”

Dwight Frye has a field day as the mad solicitor Renfield, groping around his cell at Dr. Seward’s sanitarium, hungrily devouring spiders and house flies. Helen Chandler and David Manners are also excellent, as is Edward Van Sloan as the wise, heroic Dr. Van Helsing, whose iron will proves to be more than a match for Dracula.

News accounts of the day reported that Dracula produced a fair amount of hysteria, with some moviegoers fainting in the aisles. At the New York City premiere, fans cheered when Professor Van Helsing proffered a small crucifix, causing Dracula to cower in fear beneath his cape and beat a hasty retreat.

Universal Pictures’ Dracula, like a fine old wine, seems to get better with age. The box-office success of Dracula opened the horror floodgates at Universal, leading to such gems as Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941).

Rats, as the crazed Renfield might say, they just don’t make ’em like this anymore…

Dracula Notes, DVD

  • Lon Chaney Sr. (1883-1930) was producer Carl Laemmle Jr.’s first choice as Dracula.
  • Bela Lugosi’s salary: $500 a week, which amounted to $3,500 for seven weeks’ work.
  • Price paid by Universal for Dracula’s film rights: $40,000.
  • Best line, from Bela Lugosi: “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”
  • Special effects were limited to lighting, a fog machine and flexible bat props.
  • Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) was buried in his Dracula cape at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. For you tourists it’s Plot: Grotto, L120, 1. And, yes, there’s a cross on the simple grave marker!
  • On DVD: Dracula Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection (Universal, 1999).

“Oh, it’s really good to see you. I don’t know what happened to my driver and luggage and…Well, and with all this, I thought I was in the wrong place,” Renfield tells the grinning Count Dracula.

Hey, counselor, you are in the wrong place…

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