I'm out of the office for a few days, so as Halloween approaches, I'm reposting some essays about classic horror films. I'll catch up on comments early next week.
The brain child of Oscar-winning producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., Dracula was the first of Universal Studios' classic "monster" movies, a series that included Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Black Cat and Bride of Frankenstein and continued well into the 1950s (see, e.g., Creature From the Black Lagoon). The title character was played by Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian film actor who had had a huge success on Broadway with a stage adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. Although Lugosi was not Universal's first choice to play the title character (Lon Chaney was reportedly set to play the role until his untimely death; also considered were Conrad Veidt and Paul Muni), he became so closely associated with the role, he rarely appeared in any other kind of movie.
The story, based more on the stage play than the novel, is by now a familiar one. A young British lawyer (Dwight Frye in the movie's other great performance) journeys to Transylvania to arrange Count Dracula's sea journey to London. Once there, Dracula begins to prey on beautiful young women, first Lucy Weston then Mina Harker—famously conflating sex, seduction, virginity and horror, soon to become staples of the genre—until that old vampire hunter Professor von Helsing arrives and divines Dracula's true nature.
The movie was a big box office hit upon its release in February 1931 and continues to enjoy acclaim today. Just last month, the London Telegraph included Dracula on its list of the twenty-five best book to film adaptations in movie history. The American Film Institute chose Lugosi's Dracula #33 on its list of the fifty greatest villains, ranked the movie #85 on its list of the 100 top thrillers and voted the line "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make." one of the top 100 movie quotes of all time. In 2000, the Library of Congress selected Dracula for the National Film Registry.
Lugosi himself didn't fare as well. Although he continued to work right up until his death, even appearing posthumously in Ed Wood's camp classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, most of his roles after the early 1930s were in campy, low-budget horror films for poverty row studios. He did have a supporting role as a Russian commissar in the 1939 comedy Ninotchka and in the 1945 Val Lewton adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson's short story The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff. Lugosi died of a heart attack in 1956.
Martin Landau won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lugosi in Tim Burton's comedy Ed Wood.
Will you find Dracula scary? Not unless you under the age of four. I mean, the guy's wearing a tuxedo for crying out loud—how scary can he be? I'm not even sure audiences in 1931 found this movie scary and certainly by the time Bela Lugosi reprised the role for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein he was playing the part strictly for laughs. But while it's true that one generation's horror becomes the next generation's camp, the appeal of Dracula has always rested not on its shock value but on its ideas and it's there you will find the lasting power of its horror.
You have to know what kind of a movie fan you are. If you're a sit back, arm's crossed "show me something" kind of viewer, you may find Dracula slow and campy. But if you're willing to give yourself up to it, particularly with Halloween just around the corner, I think you will find it fun. At least I did.