As the story behind Universal’s Dracula unfolds, it’s a joy to pinpoint all the elements helping to intensify the dread and solidify it among the studio’s emerging array of horror classics.
There has to be a kind of mythology and lore that the scares can be built out of. The protection of the cross is that of a powerful talisman capable of warding off evil. Superstition and religion intermingle seamlessly like many of the horror films of the day.
Likewise, there must be a visual palette to help the world manifest Bram Stoker’s famed character. He already received a dose of notoriety in F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation, but now Nosferatu returns in the guise of Bela Lugosi’s now-paradigmatic Dracula. He definitively ate up and defined all future tropes for years to come.
The tale opens in a carriage when a callow young man named Renfield (Dwight Frye) disregards the warnings of the local population and ventures to the castle of Count Dracula on some proposed business. I watch Dracula and I’m immediately taken by the gaunt Transylvanian atmosphere.
Far from feeling corny, there’s an eerie spareness that’s to the credit of the picture introduced in the bleakness of night. The count’s ominous castle proves itself to be both a foreboding space and one falling apart with decay. Working with director Tod Browning, the incomparable Karl Freund translates his cinematography from Europe to become the epitome of Hollywood genre filmmaking at its finest.
The second portion of the story is born when a schooner, the Vesta, is found drifting into Whitby harbor with all the crew having perished aside from one raving madman. He’s put under lock in key in Seward Sanitarium, all but prepared to do his master’s bidding. Because of course, Renfield is now beholden to his master Dracula — by his blood.
In this new locale, Dracula borrows liberally not only from the traditions of Bram Stoker but the menacing Jack the Ripper, Jekyll & Hyde-type atmosphere of foggy London streets weighed down with gloom. It’s in this milieu one evening that Count Dracula makes the acquaintance of Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston) as well as his daughter Mina. They are perfectly oblivious to who he really is. But, of course, he’s hardly looking for a romantic partner. Rather, he’s on the prowl for another unsuspecting human to provide him their life’s blood.
Meanwhile, a Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) takes a particular interest in Renfield’s peculiar tendencies. When he starts making claims about the undead, Nosferatu, and vampires, this is yet another dose of necessary logos to explain the movie’s scares. Wolfbane is another tried and true vanguard against this unknowable evil.
As such, even as others remain skeptical, Professor Van Helsing becomes the film’s main advocate and certainly fits the mantle of a detective, prepared to deduce the answers and go head-to-head with Count Dracula. The man has no reflection and when he’s found out, he gets desperate like a caged beast.
The Professor and The Count have a standoff in the study — a literal crossing of wills — although Dracula manages to get to Mina and fuse with her blood. It remains to be seen if she (or Renfield) can be saved from their sorrowful fate.
Most of the movie’s horrific power is born in the face of Lugosi — how he is lit, the fire in his eyes — it’s indelible imagery. The rest is illusion borne in the space between what we see on the screen and the cut away. This is what makes it quite effective even generations later. Because it’s not about hokey gore or any such dated method of special effects.
It relies on us and the frights we can conjure up within our own imaginations. The movie supplies the building blocks of terror, but we must put them together for ourselves. Even 90 years later there’s something deeply powerful in this cumulative effect.
This might be an unpopular observation, but somehow, having a movie unaccompanied by music somehow augments this sense of piercing dread. There’s something direct and unembellished about it — it’s starkly beautiful — and yet it pierces like a stake through the heart.
The story is expedient but these quick strokes are so heartily effective until the very last heartbeat. Dracula does everything we should require from a horror movie, and it remains a timelessly perturbing experience.
Like so many of the horror greats, Bela Lugosi would forever be typecast by the part. It’s the curse of an actor but the glory of a screen icon. He’s unforgettable and people never have forgotten him even those who have never seen the movie. He lives on purely through our cultural consciousness.