It’s October again, but this time I’m doing something a little different. For the past three years, I’ve done all kinds of Halloween, horror and monster related posts throughout October, but for this year, I’m doing eight full movie reviews from one specific horror series. This month I’m paying tribute to Universals classic horror movie monsters. Now there are lots of famous movie monsters that have crept their way out of Hollywood and into the nightmares of many viewers, but Universal has a special collection of timeless monster movies that practically breathed life into the horror genre. These of course are the classics that began in the 1930’s, and introduced modern audiences to iconic horror legends like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man.
Obviously Universal has released hundreds of horror movies, but these are the eight that stand out as the great classics, the ones that seemed to define memorable movie monsters, and it all began in 1931, with the motion picture “Dracula”. This movie is adapted from Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula novel, it makes a number of alterations from the book, but the overall story remains the same. A gentleman named Renfield is on an important business trip in the secluded land of Transylvania, and is invited to the castle of Count Dracula. At first, the Count seems like a civilized host, but it doesn’t take long for Renfield to learn the truth, his host is in fact a vampire that praise on the lives of living people. Dracula then uses Renfield as a puppet, and travels to London. There he unleashes his horrors on the unsuspected towns folk and kills a number of women. All the victims soon get the attention of Professor Van Helsing, who is determined to find this rouge vampire and slay him before he takes another life. It all culminates into a classic confrontation of good versus evil.
The best parts of this movie are its first fifteen minutes, because this is the only time the movie is set in Transylvania, while the rest of the movie is set in London. It’s true that things can come off as scarier when there in a more civilized setting, because it’s so close to home, but the overall look and feel of Transylvania creates such an eerie mood and it looks fantastic. The castle setting is a big spectacle, and I love all the little details like the cobwebs, fogy roads, and lots of animals running around. I especial love the bats, which are obviously fake bats on strings, but there’s something about their simplicity that just adds to the overall charm of the film. I think that of the eight Universal monster movies, this one has the richest atmosphere, watching it from beginning to end is like having a dream that goes through all kinds of haunting twists and turns.
Unfortunately, most modern audiences may not give this movie a chance or they’ll find it slow and boring. This was an early sound film, so there are a lot of really quiet moments. In fact, aside from the “Swan Lake” music herd during the opening credits, there isn’t a single musicale note herd throughout the rest of the movie, and when characters don’t talk, everything is completely silent. Some may say that it only adds to the films chilling atmosphere, but I think most would regard it as dull. In 1999, there was a special edition which added a musical score composed by Phillip Glass. This may spoil some of the subtlety of the chilling quiet moments, but personally I prefer the special edition, because the music composed by Phillip Glass is nothing short of awesome! Every time I hear those violins, it just gives me chills, and when matched with the imagery, it’s just makes the film feel more like a haunting spectacle.
Let’s cut to the chase, the big reason this film stands out as a classic is because of Bela Lugosi’s unforgettable performance in the role of Count Dracula. He has such a foreboding presence, every time he’s on screen he’ll be staring at you with those big scary eyes of his, and his wicked smile is just spot on. I especially love the way he moves his body, it’s very elegant but also very sinister and no one else wears that cape like he does. Lugosi would forever more be immortalized as the most iconic actor to ever play the Count, in fact the rhythm in which he spoke would become a common cliché for most vampires in the pop culture. He actually has a good deal of charm and sophistication, which only highlights the performance more.
This movie’s also responsible for introducing most audiences to the lore of vampires, how they don’t cast reflections, their driven away by holly symbols, they transform into bats, they can hypnotize other people and this movie also establishes that vampires transform into wolves. I think one of the most fascinating aspects of Vampires is how deceptive they are, which this movie takes full advantage of. While other creatures like Zombies and Werewolves are just as dangerous, you’d also know to run away from them on site. Vampires on the other hand can come off as humble, everyday people, and you wouldn’t even be aware of the danger until after you’ve invited them into your home. One thing to note is that Dracula never has fangs, it’s implied that he dose because he leaves bite marks in his victims, but we never actually see him baring teeth.
Edward Van Sloan is also really good in the role of Dr. Van Helsing, I like how he’s an older gentleman whose strength comes from his mind and intellect. My favorite scenes are the interactions between Van Helsing and Dracula, they don’t fight but there back and forth conversations are so riveting that you hardly notice. Most conflicts of good versus evil result with them fighting, and proving who’s stronger, but here it’s all about these two titans outsmarting one another. Then there’s the crazy Renfield played by Dwight Frye, he really hams up this performance, but in an effective and creepy way, plus he has one of the most memorable evil laughs ever. I have to say that I never cared for his character, once Dracula transforms him into his servant, he hardly dose anything useful, he just eats fly’s, spiders and acts like a total nut. While the performance adds to the films creepy overtone, I just never felt like he contributed that much to the story.
One common tradition among these eight Universal monster movies is that the lead monster will have some kind of connection to the female lead, and do everything in their power to claim her. Our female love interest in this movie is named Mina, who’s a very generic lead but the actress Helen Chandler is actually quiet good in the role. Her best scenes are when she becomes a servant of Dracula and adopts many of his traits, especially the lustful gleam in her eyes as she succumbs to Dracula’s will. I also like that we usually see her dressed in a bright white night gown, which almost makes her look like a princess, and a perfect offset to all the gothic surroundings. One thing I don’t understand is Dracula’s interest in her, he meets a number of other girls in this film and kills them on the spot, but for some reason Mina stands out to him, and he slowly turns her into some kind of vampire queen. This is especially confusing because we see that he had three brides at the beginning of the movie, aren’t those enough, what happened to them anyway, they just disappeared? Oh and there’s also the obvious boy friend named John, but he’s hardly in the movie and is about as generic as boy friend characters get.
The ending is also a disappointing letdown, in fact this might just be the most anticlimactic ending I’ve ever seen in my life (spoiler alert). Dracula is taking Mina deep into his evil lair, but the sun’s coming up, which means it’s time to take a nap in his coffin. Dr. Van Helsing and the boy friend John aren’t far behind, they discover Dracula sleeping in his coffin, and put a stake in his heart before he wakes up. Dracula never even gets the chance to fight back, and worse, it all takes place off screen. Mina’s trans is immediately broken, and then the movie ends so abruptly that it makes you wonder what on earth you just sat through. In 1995 there was a Mel Brooks comedy titled “Dracula: dead and loving it”, which almost copied this movie scene for scene, just with some comedic twists thrown in. It was a complete disaster, but I can at least give it one bit of credit, that movie actual has a climax, and a fairly decent final confrontation with Dracula that should have been featured in the 1931 classic. How sad is that, one of Mel Brooks’s most hated comedies actually did something better then the original “Dracula”.
Bela Lugosi only made one last appearance in the role of Dracula and that was in the 1948 comedy titled “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”, other than that he never appeared in any of the sequels. The following two sequels were “Dracula’s Daughter” in 1936 and “Son of Dracula” in 1943, which obviously only focused on Dracula’s children. In 1945 there was one last sequel titled “House of Dracula”, which brought Dracula back from the dead and paired him with both the wolf man and Frankenstein’s monster. While this movie lacked the same eerie suspense of the original, and went for a more over the top, comic book style plot, it still made for a genuinely fun monster mash.
Over the years, Dracula has gone through many different changes and reincarnations, in cartoons, comedy’s, remakes and all kinds of fun stuff. In 1958, Hammer Studio launched a Dracula remake that’s often titled “Horror of Dracula” and stars Christopher Lee in the title role. This is personally my favorite Dracula movie of all time, and is often regarded as a superior movie to the original 1931 classic. Lee returned in the title role for six direct sequels, and while his version of Dracula isn’t as subtle, I’d like to make the argument that he’s just as iconic in his own right, and personally, I think he’s even cooler. Another note worthy remake was the 1992 motion picture titled “Bram Stoker's Dracula”, which stared Gary Oldman in the title role and was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. While it received mostly positive reviews, I feel like this movie put way to much style over substance, and was ultimately very forgettable.
Even though there were a number of silent movies that already featured the Count, and Bram Stoker’s classic novel, it was undeniably the 1931 motion picture that cemented this character as a cultural icon. Every time someone says the word vampire, immediately Dracula comes to mind first, and the way Bela Lugosi portrayed him is what they’d often imitate. Overall the 1931 “Dracula” is still a good movie, it has great atmosphere, incredible set pieces, a strong cast of characters and a landmark performance from Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula. Plus, depending on which version you see, the movie boasts an incredible musical score composed by Philip Glass. Having said all that, I’d honestly be lying if I said I thought this was a masterpiece. It’s definitely a classic and a benchmark in the history of horror cinema, but it’s also overshadowed by better movies. Even in comparison to most of the other eight Universal monster movies, this film comes off as a tad mediocre. It’s worth a viewing, but it’s just not worth repeated viewings the way some of my favorite horror movies are, not just new horror, but old horror as well. It’s still a good start to the Universal Monster collection and great way to kick off my October marathon. That’s one monster movie down, and seven more to go.
I give the 1931 “Dracula” 3 stars out of 5.
Next Time: We take a look at a monster created in a lab by a mad doctor.