"For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you're a wise man, Van Helsing."
Dracula is a flawed film because it has become much more famous than it ever was decent. Not to say that the film is bad, but it does nothing for the audience in terms of horror. Maybe this can be blamed on the 1931 budget and shooting style, but then what keeps Nosferatu (1922) so terrifying? Bela Lugosi used this performance as a catapult to B-movie fame and Todd Browning used its success to justify the making of an extremely controversial film, Freaks. Though these names do resonate in countless horror blogs, it is hard to say that Dracula is not a classic work in style over substance. That could have easily been Browning’s desire as Freaks is hardly a different story.
The most famous and lasting aspect of the film is Bela Lugosi’s landmark performance as the apex of evil, Count Dracula. He became famous by playing the Count in the acclaimed Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, and (according to Hollywood folklore) it was Lugosi’s selfish desire to get his famed role onto the big screen that jumpstarted the entire project.
With that being said, he had every right to be selfish. Unlike the devilish Max Scherck, Lugosi played Dracula as a sexy, domineering and confident creature of the night. Turning into animals, mind control and the desperation for blood were all urgently added back to the character as if to separate itself from Nosferatu comparisons. It worked. This version of Dracula is the version that we all have seen imitated or parodied in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) to children’s breakfast cereal.
This signature performance was a blessing at the time for Lugosi, but it ended up causing countless typecasts and ultimately ruined his film career. The man who invented the cold-faced creature of the night was later reduced to making low grade crap from the “worst director of all time”, Edward Wood. This may be unfortunate, but it can also be rightfully pinned on Bela Lugosi for his inability to turn down a script as bad as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
Of course, Dracula is a cornerstone in the Universal horror catalogue because it showcases, like a majority of their horror flicks, one of the most famous monsters in cinema history. It is also directed by one of the Mt. Rushmore figures in cult film. But still, something is missing in Browning’s approach to the character and the mythos in general. The pacing is appropriately slow, but the editing and framing seem to be off. There are tons of extreme close-ups that work for the film, but any other shot seems to cut off some of the action. We are missing feet, hands and tops of heads throughout the picture to the point of almost feeling claustrophobic on our own couch.
Like Lon Cheney Jr in The Wolf Man or his father in The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula is solely about the leading actor’s characterization of the monster. This is a film that flourishes from a great performance, but falters due its overall dated approach and mock-worthy melodrama. I hate to say it, but this is my least favorite Universal horror so far….