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Bela Lugosi - Count Dracula
Edward Van Sloan - Abraham Van Helsing
Dwight Frye - Renfield
Hellen Chandler - Mina Seward
David Manners - Jonathan Harker
Tod Browning - Director
Carl Laemmle - Producer
Garrett Ford - Screenwriter
Karl Freund - Cinematographer
Pytor Tchaikovsky - Music Cues

Lugosi & Frye "I am Dracula. I bid you welcome." With these famous first words the horror film proper was born: yet even now the term did not exist. Only when Universal found their mid-budget picture building into their biggest money-maker of 1931 did they declare their intention of making "another horror film." Thus Dracula (1931) back-tracked into becoming the first horror film, and Bela Lugosi the first horror film star. No Lon Chaney he, Lugosi forswore the makeup box for the smooth hair and black cloak favoured by Satan since 1908: the debut of The Devil by Ferenc Molnar. His voice was laced with melodic menace; a natural aid was his native accent which, like his acting, was strictly from Hungary. The actor had fled from the Bela Kun uprising, abandoning a silent cinema career as Arisztid Olt. In New York he played the lead in The Red Poppy without knowing English: he learned his part phonetically "like the music of a song." Ultimately a handicap, Lugosi's curious cadence added a queasy quality to the voice of the vampire.

A wolf howls hollowly. "Listen to them. Children of the night . . . what music they make." The film is filled with memorable lines. Renfield (Dwight Frye's definitive performance) has taken his classic coach-ride to Castle Dracula. It is an opening sequence that more than visually recalls Murnau: "It is Walpurgis night, the night of evil -- Nosferatu!" His courtly host escorts him up the curving, crumbling stairway, leaving a vast spider's web curiously undisturbed. "The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr Renfield." The Count does not share his guest's refreshment: "I never drink . . . wine." The blood is the life. Renfield, bitten sufficiently to enslave, takes up the creed. Starting in a small way, he catches flies to eat alive, progressing to spiders. He escorts master and coffin aboard the Vesta, and when that ship sails into Whitby is the last man alive. His laugh as he comes creeping from his cabin is the most spine-chilling sound in the talkies.

Moving into Carfax Abbey ("It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle in Transylvania.") the Count calls on his neighbor, Dr. Seward. Mina, the daughter, is a gloomy lass given to sombre toasts: "Hurrah for the next to die," she cries, prompting Dracula to muse, "To die . . . to be really dead . . . that must be glorious!" Soon he is a bat flapping at her windows, materializing to stoop over her sleeping throat. Her boyfriend, Johnathan Harker (David Manners), is powerless to help, but venerable Abraham Van Helsing (venerable Edward Van Sloan) is at hand, armed with wolfbane. "The superstition of yesterday can become the scientific reality of today," he declares, and soon the vampire is tastefully staked through the heart, off-screen and off-mike. Carl Laemmle Jr., who had been given Universal City as a 21st-birthday present, was playing it cool. He released the film on Valentine's Day as "The Strangest Love Story Man Has Ever Known!"

Bela Lugosi Bram Stoker's novel had been dramatized for the London stage in 1924 by Hamilton Deane, as a vehicle for himself. John L. Balderston adapted it for Broadway, and Garrett Fort and Dudley Murphy had developed it further for the screen. Director Tod Browning's only concession to cinema is his use of the camera in the opening scenes. It creeps through the crypt, watching the bowed glidings of Dracula's three wraith-like wives, the scurrying of rats around their coffins, then cutting away as the Count rises from his, as if to spare his embarrassment. A moody piece due less to Browning than his gifted cameraman, the fabulous Karl Freund. Yet antique as Dracula undoubtedly is, it can still hold an audience in thrall. That it is the oldest talkie still playing commercially is due entirely to the hypnotic performance of its star.

"An evil expression in the eyes, a sinister arch to the brow or a leer on my lips -- all of which take long practice in muscular control -- are sufficient to hypnotize an audience into seeing what I want them to see, and what I myself see in my mind's eye."

Lugosi's hypnosis was helped out by Browning aiming twin pencil-spots into his eyeballs. That one consistently missed its mark worried neither audience nor Warner Brothers, who quickly picked up the effect for John Barrymore's Svengali (1931).

--DENIS GIFFORD, from A Pictorial History
of Horror Movies
, 1973

Chandler & Lugosi The original 1931 filmization of Dracula which spawned so many sequels, beginning with Dracula's Daughter in 1936, still fascinates the viewer mainly due to Lugosi's spellbinding characterization. Bram Stoker's novel of the 500-year-old Transylvanian vampire who invades England after devouring his countrymen's blood, and is destroyed by the Dutch scientist, Professor Van Helsing, was adapted to the screen nearly a decade earlier. A pirated version of Dracula, retitled Nosferatu, had been filmed in Germany by F.W. Murnau in 1922. Stoker's widow sued and won a judgement, but collected nothing, because the German company who filmed it went bankrupt.

Several writers worked on the Dracula script, including novelist Louis Bromfield. Unfortunately, the final treatment followed its stage origins instead of adhering to the novel, leaving a somewhat static, talky second half. But this was compensated for by Charles D. Hall's superb sets and Karl Freund's atmospheric camera work.

As at the play's ending, a brief curtain speech was filmed in which Edward Van Sloan bid the audience good night, telling them not to be afraid when they went to bed, then suddenly reverting to a sinister tone, saying: ". . . Just one word of warning, ladies and gentlemen . . . there are such things as VAMPIRES!" This epilogue was later deleted from the film during the theatrical reissues and never restored. For the Vesta's stormy voyage to England, stock footage was borrowed from a silent Universal maritime drama.

Unlike Nosferatu's vampire, a repulsive-looking creature that reeked of decay and the grave, Lugosi's vampire, no less evil, was aristocratic in character, enabling him to move freely in the world of mortals to satisfy his lust for the life-sustaining blood. Lugosi portrayed a cold, malignant monster who could be well-mannered, cultured and radiate a mysterious sex-appeal for his doomed victims. Lugosi's effective vampire depended on his own unique personality and imaginative acting style. Lugosi's distinctive portrait and Stoker's legendary vampire merged forever, making the man, Lugosi, and the character, Dracula, synonymous.

Dracula was a landmark to film historians. It was the first sound horror picture dealing in supernatural terror which did not explain its mysticism away as the result of some human scheme. Its success encouraged Universal to produce Frankenstein later that year, launching Hollywood's first sound cycle of horror films, which lasted until the British horror movie ban in 1937. After the American company had begun filming, Universal made a complete Spanish version of Dracula. Under the direction of George Melford a Spanish-speaking cast shot scenes on the same Hollywood sets, with Spanish actor Carlos Villarias replacing Lugosi in the role of the Count.

--RICHARD BOJARSKI, from The Films of
Bela Lugosi
, 1980

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A History of Horror

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