Not as big a horror fan as I claim to be, I’d never seen Dracula before. Watched at least three other Tod Browning pictures, and at least seven other Dracula movies, but never the original that kicked off Universal Horror in the sound era. And I probably should have started with it, because it’s anticlimactic after having just watched Hammer’s blood-soaked version. The sound work is primitive compared with Lang’s M, the horror isn’t horrific compared with Browning’s own Freaks (or even Frankenstein if my memory serves), and the story is nothing to rave about if you’ve ever seen a vampire movie before (I suppose most of Dracula’s original audience had not). One of those movies I can’t unqualifyingly like, just say something weak like “it seems good for its time.”
Exceptions: not much Ed Wood-style hand acting, but Lugosi is a striking figure in wide shots and close-ups. Dwight Frye as Renfield starts out as your standard easily-amazed eyeliner-wearing actor, but turns into a creepily intense giggling psycho after being bitten. He’d play Fritz (the sidekick mistakenly known as Igor) in Frankenstein the same year. And there’s a surprising scene at an opera, where Drac first meets our heroes and has a sober line about fates worse than death, giving an edge of unfortunately-tortured-soul to his standard murderous-villain role.
Tame: no fangs, no bite marks, and needless to say no blood. No score, either – some scenes are conspicuously quiet, lacking any sound effects for minutes at a stretch. No money at Universal to film the storm at sea during the crossing from Transylvania to London (one of my favorite parts of Herzog’s Nosferatu) so they used a scene from a silent film, comically sped-up from 18fps to 24. It works, though, making the scene more intense (it’s the biggest action scene in the entire film, and it’s stolen).
Renfield, not Harker, visits the castle at the beginning, gets turned (halfway?) and helps Drac move to England where he meets useless, boring Harker (David Manners would costar with Lugosi and Karloff in The Black Cat) and his girlfriend Mina, along with Mina’s dad and friend (?) Lucy. He goes about his business draining blood from the girls until family friend Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, who appeared in Frankenstein and The Mummy) catches on after Lucy’s death. VH runs down Drac, catches him burying Mina (?), chases him into the castle and pulls down the curtains as the sun rises, turning the vampire to ash and freeing Mina. And Universal stood behind that death – Dracula wouldn’t appear in any sequels until the mid-40’s. Lugosi wouldn’t even fare as well as his most famous character. He’d play Dracula in one more film, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, before ending up in Ed Wood hell and giving Martin Landau an oscar.
Mythology: They’ve got the no-reflection thing, the turning into bats and wolves, aversion to sunlight and crosses, wooden stakes through the heart, but Drac can enter a room without being invited and vampires avoid wolfbane, not garlic.
Karl Freund, formerly F.W. Murnau’s image-man in Germany, would go on to shoot most episodes of I Love Lucy.