Written by: Garrett Fort
Starring: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
No matter the number of warning signs one person or thing can produce, some individuals just know how to get by in polite society. They have something going for them and they use it to the fullest extent as seen in a tale as old as time, Dracula. Stylistic, genuinely frightening, and a strong presentation of this legendary creature, this film manages to display what makes him scary and alluring to the right person.
Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) spends his time frightening the people of Transylvania until he gets the opportunity to purchase a piece of property in London. Upon his arrival, he ingratiates himself with the people and begins to wreak havoc as people are showing up dead from mysterious bite marks on their necks.
It’s hard to believe there’s a single person in this world who has not heard of Dracula as a mythical creature, as he remains the iconic vampire since the writing of Bram Stoker’s novel in 1897. Many words have been used to describe this vampire from alluring to downright frightening, which makes his appeal so broad for anyone interested. It has manifested into a large collection of different forms of media portraying this creature in various reincarnations and time periods with this one being one of the earliest forms. This iteration of Dracula manages to be frightening, which many would not believe from a film made in 1931, but the unsettling imagery and discussion manages to create such unease to match the story.
The story begins with a solicitor, Renfield (Dwight Frye), heading to Transylvania to close the deal of the Count purchasing a property in London. The warning signs for the trouble he will run into nearly ranged into the comedic as the townsfolk expressed their fear of him going up to visit Dracula and his persistence to continue on his voyage. When he almost gets there, he looks outside to see the steerer of his carriage has turned into a bat and then he arrives at a ghastly castle with no one to greet him. He wanders through, seeing no one, and then sees a scary looking man approach him. All the signs were there for Renfield to get out of there, but money makes the world go round. This sequence of events builds up the mystique of Dracula so well, which receives its exclamation mark when Bela Lugosi appears with the famous frightening stare. With darkness surrounding him and a beam of light resting on his eyes, Lugosi provides the stare that made this character so beloved. It gets utilized on multiple occasions with each instance working more effectively.
What occurs to Renfield makes him the most frightening character for the rest of the film, as he becomes a devoted follower of the Count and perhaps turns into a werewolf. Dwight Frye uses his eyes and vocal expression in a purely horrifying manner because of the pathetic person his character turns into. A menace trying to break from the clutches of the Count, this struggle can be seen in how he grapples to warn people of the power of this vampire and his evil ambitions with the people of London.
The rest of the story becomes a ticking time clock to see if the Count will complete what he sought to achieve in London or if he will be stopped by Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). It creates tremendous moments where Van Helsing begins to put the pieces together of this threat with the reflection scene being one utilizing the folklore around this creature. The effect gets completed in such an effective manner to display what Van Helsing can see and what appears on this particular reflective surface. As Dracula navigates through these conversations, it puts everyone at unease, but his stature and status to afford a place similar to all of the wealthy individuals automatically put him in a place where he cannot be outright excluded. It makes for an interesting observation, for how much people tolerate if they believe the individual to be in the same class.
Scary in moments but thrilling throughout, this early iteration of Dracula tells an eerie and alluring story of a man slipping his way into an exclusive society and making it work for his own gain. The mystery of the vampire becomes a major focal point of the story and carries how it could be possible to stop him. Thoroughly entertaining in bringing forth one of the most iconic creatures in all of fiction, this adaptation gets everything right.