October already! And as every October, I force my children to watch scary movies with me. This year, the theme is vampires, and our first movie is Dracula, released by Universal in 1931. I hardly feel like I need to describe this one, as it’s a cultural touchstone. Bela Lugosi plays Count Dracula, a guy who really likes capes and blood. He hosts Renfield, an English real estate agent, at his spooky castle in Transylvania, where he signs the papers for a property near London, as well as sucking Renfield’s blood and making him his slave.
Crossing to England in a coffin filled with soil, the Count disembarks and goes about sucking Londoners dry, particularly pretty young ladies. One young lady he’s especially interested in is Mina Seward, daughter of Dr. Seward, warden of the insane asylum next door to Dracula’s new property. Possibly not coincidentally, Dr. Seward’s insane asylum is also the home for Renfield on his return to England, now that his preferred meals consist of rats and spiders and he goes about mumbling about “the master.”
Fortunately, Dr. Seward and Mina are friends with Van Helsing, a vampire hunter from the Continent, who immediately recognizes the two bite marks on Mina’s neck as a sign that a vampire is trying to convert her to the ranks of the undead. He soon encounters Count Dracula and the two vie for control of Mina’s soul. I hardly have to tell you how the movie ends, right? If you don’t know, you should watch it! This is a true classic! But let’s see how it stacks up compared to the other movies I’ve seen.
Story/Plot/Characters— The plot, based on Bram Stoker’s book, is solid, and the pacing is brisk, without any of the dreaded drawing room discussions that slow down so many of these older horror movies. Bela Lugosi defines the role of Dracula to the extent that every actor who’s played him ever since is his competition. Dwight Frye is particularly good as Renfield. Unfortunately, Helen Chandler as Mina comes across as bland. Why does Dracula fall in love with her? (3.5 points)
Special Effects–Groundbreaking at the time, but the effects only partially hold up. Director Tod Browning must have been particularly fond of the way Count Dracula doesn’t show up in mirrors, as he really belabors the point. The scenes where Dracula appears as a bat floating outside Mina’s window, obviously held up with thread, comes across today as laughable, especially on its third or fourth repetition. (1 point)
Scariness— It has its moments, but this is just not a very scary movie, even grading on a curve for older movies. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— Dracula’s castle is the high point, but the whole movie is the very definition of Gothic atmosphere–this is what so many movies since have been striving for. (2 points)
Total=7.5 points (Excellent)
An excellent film, falling just short of the score needed to rate as one of the best horror movies ever in my system.