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31 Iconic Horror Films in October: Dracula (1931) Review

Note: This is a series of 31 iconic horror film reviews I plan on doing throughout October. See the introduction post for more information and the list of films.

Produced almost a decade after the unauthorized but still good “Nosferatu,” “Dracula” does some things better while being inferior to its older cousin in some other ways. “Dracula” was released in 1931 and along with “Frankenstein,” helped launch the Universal Monsters franchise to new heights and made a star out of Bela Lugosi. Like the previous two films I reviewed in this series, “Dracula” isn’t scary at all for today’s viewers but like “Nosferatu,” it added a lot of horror conventions and techniques to the genre and should probably be watched for its historical value alone.

The plot of “Dracula” is widely known but here are the basics if you somehow haven’t seen or read one of the character’s stories yet. Dracula is apparently sick of living in Transylvania and sends for a real estate agent (Renfield, played by Dwight Frye) to get a move in order (he’s headed for London in this film instead of Germany in “Nosferatu”). Dracula attacks and basically enslaves Renfield and heads via boat to his new destination where he not surprisingly brings a series of mysterious deaths. He is particularly fascinated by a young woman named Mina but must avoid Van Helsing, who quickly learns his secret.

“Dracula” is an iconic film that does a lot right. Like I wrote earlier, it isn’t scary by any means (the film’s horror techniques are over 80 years old and it shows) but the film added a lot of things that almost all future horror films would borrow. Things like cobwebs, creaky old staircases, and creepy mansions were either originated by or popularized by “Dracula” and other Universal Monster films. The film is pretty well acted, Bela Lugosi is well-known for his portrayal of Dracula and he deserves it (even though Nosferatu’s Max Schreck is just as good). The other actors like Edward Van Sloan (as Van Helsing) and Helen Chandler (Mina) are solid though not particularly memorable. There is one weak link amongst the cast (Dwight Frye as Renfield), but his over-acting is actually kind of hilarious and adds some cheesiness to the film (as a fan of cheesy B-movies, this is actually a positive for me).

The cheesiness doesn’t stop there though. There aren’t a ton of special effects but when the film tries, the results are pretty funny (I know they were groundbreaking for their era but you’ve got to admit they are pretty laughable nowadays). In particular, Dracula transforming into a bat and bouncing up and down while driving the horse carriage made me laugh out loud for some reason. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. Since these old horror films can’t really scare today’s audiences too much, I like ones that have a bit of cheesiness to them that you can laugh at. Other positives about the film include the gorgeous and grand (for their time) sets and the overall story and pace (even though I think it did the opposite of “Nosferatu” and spent too much time after Dracula arrived at his new home and didn’t set up the story enough in Transylvania). Both films are much better at pacing and tell a more complete story than “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Also, while the silent Nosferatu’s text screens weren’t too unbearable the fact that this is a “talkie” is a huge positive.

However, even though its an unauthorized film, “Nosferatu” does a few things better than “Dracula.” For one, I like the Nosferatu character design a lot more than this Dracula. Bela Lugosi does a great job with the character but he just looks too plain for me. I prefer the much more unique and even somewhat frightening Nosferatu (this Dracula just looks like a normal person). An even bigger disadvantage is the lack of an actual musical score. Philip Glass was commissioned to do a score for the film in 1998 but it wasn’t included on the release I watched. Considering how much I loved the score included on the “Nosferatu” release I watched, a total lack of music throughout most of the film is a big problem. Music adds so much to the mood of a film and while I can understand the technical limitations of 1930’s filmmaking, I wish they had an earlier musical score to add to it (waiting until 1998 to commission a score is pretty odd). Also, even though both of the film endings are pretty lame, I prefer Nosferatu’s since Dracula’s had a bigger opportunity to be more dramatic but pretty much failed at it (the film’s climax feels like it lasts two minutes and has a very “meh” ending).

Like all of these early horror films, don’t expect to be scared. However, if you are interested in the history of horror and don’t mind a little cheese, “Dracula” is pretty much a must-watch. While much of the film is outdated, it is still worth a watch. However, the earlier and unauthorized “Nosferatu” is just as good and also deserves a watch.

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