An expression in dramatic cinema exists, stating, “There was before Breathless (1960), and there was after Breathless.” The statement refers to Jean Luc Godard’s famous New Wave picture that rewrote the rules of cinema, as they say, and influenced the entire artform moving forward. In the realm of horror, one could arguably attribute that same verbiage to Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) -- there was before Dracula, and after Dracula. Except that before Dracula there was very little in American supernatural cinema -- it helped create an entire genre.
Dracula is an atmospheric, haunting film that offered one of the most imitable performances in the history of cinema. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is the definitive form of the legend -- despite countless reduxes of the monster in the over eight decades since Lugosi, his performance is the one that remains in the lexicon of imitation. Children who have never seen Browning’s film mock the staccato Hungarian-accented phrasing of Lugosi’s speech, and his face is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. Dracula’s crumbling mansion (a matte painting) and much of the film’s aesthetic are equally legendary.
Dracula is also a very choppy production, poorly paced, full of inconsistencies and flat-out moments of neglect, overwhelmingly stagebound in its adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic literature. Somewhere between its iconic elements and its low-grade, B-movie aesthetic it became a legend and a precursor for the horror genre as a whole.
Part of Dracula’s problem is that it is based more specifically on a stage adaptation by John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane than the Bram Stoker novel which birthed it. This results in a number of expository sequences explaining things instead of showing them, the majority of the film post-Dracula arriving in London taking place on just a few simple sets, and a rigid, dragging narrative pace through much of the later acts. But within that, we also find a seductive and macabre story about vampirism, in all of its sexually-charged, beautiful, gothic glory.
Despite his prolific time as Dracula in the stage version upon which the film is based, Universal wanted Lon Chaney for the role. When he died of throat cancer just before production, Lugosi was cast. It went on to be his defining role, for which he would never unearth, although he didn’t seem to mind. (He often wore a cape in public during his remaining years.)
Tod Browning, like many directors of the early 1930s, had just made the shift from silent films not long before Dracula. His cinematographer for the film, Karl Freund, is now cited as an uncredited director on the piece for the amount of work he did. It’s quite possible that his involvement, and his cinematography, made the film what it is. Freund was from the Expressionist camp and had worked on films like The Last Laugh (1924) with F. W. Murnau, the famed director of Nosferatu (1922), the world’s first true vampire picture.
The direction in Dracula varies in originality, suggesting times when Browning may have been at the helm as opposed to Freund. Stable, static cameras shoot some scenes while others are dynamic and clever more akin to the work in The Mummy (1932), a picture directed by Freund the following year.
Dracula’s legacy as a classic and inspiration piece of horror cinema stems from a few key points: Lugosi’s performance as Dracula, Dwight Frye’s performance as Renfield (the crazed bug-eating man-turned-servant of Dracula), the film’s Expressionist aesthetic, and its gloriously adult subtext.
Dwight Frye and Lugosi both manage to make marks on the psyche through their relative expressions, no doubt a leftover of the face-based acting of the silent era. Frye’s psychotic Renfield is revolutionary, boasting a maniacal laugh that can hardly be replicated. He pops in and out of scenes with the right amount of insanity to keep his character perpetually interesting and ever-maddening. Likewise, Lugosi’s Dracula repeatedly stares at the camera with an empty, hollow gaze for which the actor would become known. It must have been tremendously haunting in 1931, as it still carries weight today. The way Freund highlighted his eyes and attributes with perfectly-controlled lighting accentuates the horror of his face in expertly functional fashion. Coupled with his awkward, phonetic pronunciation of every line, the complete package of awkwardness makes him a sight to fear.
On the other hand, Dracula is a figure of some affluence. He wears tuxedoes and meets with high society, drawing people in with his eccentric mannerisms and appearance. He has an easy control over the women in the film, and the men exist to try and save these females from Dracula’s impure actions which take place at night. The sexuality of vampirism is as old as the myth itself, and modern shows like True Blood and franchises like Twilight have capitalized on that classic element of the lore. There is a sexual terror in being bitten by a vampire, particularly for a female victim of a male ghoul, that permeates Dracula and finds exploitation in modern stories. The censors of 1931 were careful to ensure Dracula was never actually seen biting anyone, nor many of the nefarious deeds committed by he or his progyny. This results in many gruesome details being explained through dialogue.
Supernatural horror was still new when Dracula was released in 1931. Famed director James Whale made tremendous strides in the upcoming months and years with Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and effectively birthed the creature feature, but Browning and Freund’s flawed-but-remarkable Dracula, with the help of Lugosi, Frye, and Expressionist styling, kicked everything off.