Monster #19 - Dracula


United States, 1931

A Universal Pictures Production
75 mins, black & white, 1.37:1 aspect ratio (original 1.20:1)
Shot on 35mm film

Director - Tod Browning
Screenplay - Garrett Fort
Cinematographer - Karl Freund
Production Design - John Hoffman, Herman Rosse (uncredited)
Make-Up - Jack P. Pierce (uncredited)
Editor - Milton Carruth
Music - no original score

Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing), Herbert Bunston (Doctor Seward), Frances Dade (Lucy)


Monsters of the Movies contained many ghouls and fiends my 13-year old self had never heard of before browsing the collection Denis Gifford had compiled for his readers, but there were a few familiar names and characters, and Dracula was one of them.

Monster number 19 in Gifford's alphabetic roll-call, the basic facts concerning Count Dracula were known to me thanks to Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula, which I had been avidly reading for a year before picking up Monsters of the Movies - a somewhat fitting connection, since Gifford himself was an avid fan and collector of (British) comic books.

The image of Bela Lugosi closing in on his victim was certainly one of the most evocative stills used in Monsters of the Movies, and together with more stills from the movie published in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (which I discovered at my local WH Smith and bought only a week or so after picking up Monsters of the Movies) it compelled me to get ahold of and read Bram Stoker's original novel in record time.


(Carousel Books / Transworld Publishing)

Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula was first published in the United States in 1899 - and immediately fell into the public domain due to Stoker's failure to follow proper US copyright procedures. However, when Hollywood produced the first sound version of the vampire count's tale in 1931, director Tod Browning’s Dracula wasn't actually derived from Stoker’s novel but rather based on a theatrical adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston which had stripped the novel to its core so that the central conflict could be portrayed on a stage.

Dracula: The Vampire Play was set in two locales only: Dr. Seward’s parlour and Carfax Abbey. Jonathan Harker’s travel to Transylvania, Dracula's voyage to England by ship, and the pursuit of the Count to Transylvania had all been eliminated. Enjoying continuous success since its opening in New York in 1927, it was this play which prompted Universal to produce a film version. Carl Laemmle Jr., who had taken charge of the studio's operations in 1930 and was himself a great fan of "fright movies", had originally cast classic horror actor Lon Chaney for the title role.

However, within a month of acquiring the film rights to Dracula, Chaney died of cancer and the Great Depression hit Hollywood.

With no star and half a budget, Laemmle fell back entirely on the Broadway production and took on two actors who had already portrayed their characters on the stage: Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula and Edward van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing. 

Dracula was a roaring success for Universal, casting the mould for what would become a trademark: the 1930s Universal horror movie. Creating a thick layer of atmosphere through imposing sets, craning shots and the use of sound was one part of the success formula - iconic actors would become the other agent. Ten months before Boris Karloff shaped the visual concept of the Frankenstein Monster for ever, Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula as a foreign predator in the guise of aristocratic sophistication became the role model for most vampire portrayals to come (Frank, 1974).

His outward appearance was very much in line with Stoker's descriptions - a tall figure clad in black (underscored by the use of a cloak) - and Browning's close-ups and low-angles in addition to underlighting gave Dracula a fearful appearance and created a dramatic horror effect by distorting Lugosi’s facial features.


The movie has had a profound and lasting impact by bringing mainstream acceptability to the horror genre, and it also shaped the perception of vampires forever. Lugosi's Dracula provides a stark contrast to Max Schreck's Nosferatu, portraying the count as a suave and elegant persona whose terrors lurk beneath his appearance. Possibly the ultimate star of the movie, however, are the studio sets by John Hoffman and Herman Rosse, who were both unbilled in the film's credits but provided work in a league of its own.

  Oddly enough (given the film's high profile), it took me a very long time to actually see the movie. My current copy comes from a 2013 Universal release of 8 classic horror movies on high-definition Blu-ray. The film has been carefully and meticulously restored from the original nitrate camera negatives with an amazingly stunning (given the movie's age) 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. After decades of washed-out renditions on TV and VHS, the amount of visible definition on this Blu-ray provides details previously lost, enhanced by stable contrast with deep and eerie shadows - the rightly famous sets have never looked better. The audio was also meticulously restored and remastered; according to an interview contained in the extras the mono tracks proved a difficult challenge and were carefully worked on without losing the integrity of the original design. The end result provides clear dialogue, music and background acoustics.

There are plenty of extras on the history of the individual movies, including notes on restauration, along with the Spanish version which was famously shot during night sessions and produced for the Latin American market - before dubbing became an established part of the cinema trade.

Whilst undoubtedly a formative classic, Dracula is very much a masterpiece with quite a few flaws.

In spite of veteran cameraman Karl Freund's camera and lighting techniques adding an enormous amount of depth and atmosphere, the film has both a very distinct theatrical flavour (with extended periods of silence and character close-ups for dramatic effect) and a sense of echoes from the silent era (such as using two expository screen titles and a closeup of a newspaper article to advance the story).
The likeness to a silent movie extends, to some degree, to the acting - a feeling shared by a number of individuals involved, including Edward Van Sloan, who reprised his stage role of Van Helsing on screen but quite bluntly felt that the movie was "overplayed, overwritten, and altogether lousy" (Mank, 2017), whilst David Manners (who played John Harker) even felt that Bela Lugosi - perceived by the crew as polite but always mysterious and distant - wasn't actually acting but rather "just being the odd man he was" (Mank, 2017).

The movie also shows some sloppy editing and a few obvious continuity issues, all said to be the result of a chaotic and troubled production and a distinct lack of interest on Browning's side.

And finally, the film lacks a specifically composed musical score. A cost-saving move (that helped complete the film $14,000 under budget), what little music there is was taken from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Wagner's Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" in B minor.


Although always seen as the personification of Dracula after this film, Lugosi would only play the role of the vampire count one more time on film - in the 1948 spoof Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. An attempt at a comeback in the role on stage in the UK in 1951 ended in an unmitigated desaster (O'Rourke, 2020); Lugosi died five years later, famously buried in his Dracula cape.
Only two years after Lugosi's death, the vampire count made a comeback, in Hammer's 1958 widescreen Technicolor Dracula (released as Horror of Dracula in the US), and moviegoers were handed a new iconic rendition of Stoker's famous creation at the hands of actor Christopher Lee.

Interestingly enough, Lee (who eventually played Dracula in a total of ten movies, seven of which were Hammer productions), didn't think too highly of Lugosi's 1931 performance.

"I was so disappointed. I absolutely had been wanting to see [the Lugosi Dracula movie] for a long, long time. There are aspects of it, for instance, that I considered ridiculous. Dracula is played too nice at the beginning. Practically no menace in the character - there is no shock or fright in it." (Rhodes, 2006)

In stark contrast, Gary Oldman (who played Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola's opulent 1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula) rated Lugosi's rendition very highly, declaring him to be his favourite Dracula (Stuart, 1997).


Christopher Lee in his iconic role as Dracula - Original 1968 Lobby Card for Hammer's Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (personal collection)

Monster Factor:

Overall Movie Rating:


Whilst undoubtedly a formative classic, Dracula is at best a masterpiece with a good many flaws. By today's standards, it is rather underwhelming and feels very antiquated with its stage acting and extremely slow pacing. On the other hand, Dracula is the birth of the horror film as we know it, and it is for this reason that it deserves to be judged somewhat outside of changing times, the general progress of movie-making, and fleeting personal tastes. But taken simply as a period movie, it is, unfortunately, something of a disappointment.


Denis Gifford on Dracula
in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973)

"Dracula (1931) [was] the first horror film, and Bela Lugois the first horror film star. No Chaney, Lugosi forswore the makeup box for the smooth hair and black cloak (...) his voice was laced with melodic menace; a natural aid was his native accent which, like his acting, was strictly from Hungary (...) ultimately a handicap, Lugosi's curious cadence added a queasy quality to the voice of the vampire (...) 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."


FRANK Alan (1974) Horror Movies - Tales of Terror in the Cinema, Octopus Books

GIFFORD Denis (1973) A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Hamlyn

MANK Gregory William (2017) Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, With a Complete Filmography of Their Films Together, McFarland Inc.

O'ROURKE John (2020) "A Dracula disaster: When Bela Lugosi came to Britain", BBC Website, 28 October 2020

RHODES Gary Don (2006) Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers, McFarland Inc.

STUART Roxana (1997) Stage Blood: Vampires of the 19th Century Stage (2nd edition), Bowling Green University Popular Press

WEAVER Tom, Michael Brunas & John Brunas (1990) Universal Horrors, McFarland Inc.


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All images from Monsters of the Movies (Carousel/Transworld) were scanned from my personal copy purchased in 1977
All images of Blu-ray or DVD covers were scanned from my personal copies
All images of lobby cards were scanned from copies in my personal collection

Page created 13 August 2023
Last updated 2 September 2023

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