"Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make!" so said Bela Lugosi in what was to be the role that cemented him as a pop culture icon of American film. To see director Todd Browning's original 1931 adaptation of Dracula is to see the American horror film at its finest. Dracula is the vampire formula at its purest before it could be diluted by the telling and the retelling. Dracula is a surreal experience as Browning takes us with him on a journey into our fear of death, but also our fear of the filthiness of sex. It is a film that has aged like a good wine which Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula swore to never drink.
If one were to try and dissect Todd Browning's Dracula to find a sole element of success the search would lead us time and time again to Bela Lugosi. Dracula simply is not Dracula without Lugosi's portrayal of the Count. So much credit has to be given to Lugosi and his portrayal of the titular character. It is doubtful this film would have the staying power, or the atmosphere that it has if another actor was portraying Count Dracula. Lugosi's performance and how it succeeds is the marriage of so many factors, but arguably Lugosi's greatest asset to his performance would have to be his rich Hungarian accent. Lugosi surprisingly doesn't get much dialogue in the film as much of the exposition comes from the protagonist Professor Van Helsing played by Edward Van Sloan, and Dracula's slave Renfield played by Dwight Frye. The lines Lugosi does deliver are often extremely concise. It is not the lines themselves, but rather the way Lugosi delivers them that creates this character. How Lugosi delivers the lines offers more insight into this character than any detailed dissection of the character could. Lugosi's lines are read almost phonetically, each word one by one, each little nuance of the language stressed in Lugosi's thick Hungarian dialect. The resulting effect is hypnotic, poetic, frightening, and in many ways very sad. Lugosi's introduction is in my humble opinion one of the strongest scenes in motion picture history almost solely based on the delivery of the line "I am... Dracula". The scene follows Renfield, a solicitor whom Dracula will drive mad, as he ventures through Dracula's dilapidated castle searching for the Count. Dracula appears out of the shadows sucking in whatever air Renfield could muster in these catacombs of death by merely saying "I am?Dracula." Lugosi's delivery is as much a part of the aging castle trapped in time as the cobwebs are. Lugosi was so suave and mysterious as Dracula that the audience became attracted to the vampire.
Dracula is not merely Lugosi's picture though. The film has a strong supporting cast highlighted by actor Edward Van Sloan, and Dwight Frye. One thing that can be said of Dracula's entire cast is that despite the extreme material no one even comes close to going over the top with their role. The amount of sincerity and the absence of any tongue in cheek aspect of performance are to be admired. Sloan and Frye's characters both had the potential to skate towards over the top territory, but both performances are firmly grounded in reality and are very effective in complimenting Lugosi's Dracula.
Dwight Frye is very strong as Renfield. The role is as complex as that of the Count. Renfield is a bipolar madman enslaved to do Dracula's bidding. Frye is asked to exhibit behaviors on all forms of the spectrum. This character and the characterization are unpredictable to the extreme. One constant about Renfield is that he is the predator, and he represents the fear of sexuality within the vampire mythos. Frye's facial expressions are other worldly especially when we see the extent of Renfield's madness. There is a scene where Renfield crawls with vulture eyes towards a housemaid who has fainted by the sight of his very appearance. Frye too is asked to deliver insight into a character despite the fact that the lines don't explicitly offer character exposition or development. Renfield's dialogue mainly consists of nonsensical lunatic ravings. The way Frye delivers the lines and how he builds the intensity is really powerful though. It is these build up of the madness that keeps this character effective.
Technically Dracula isn't all that impressive a picture from a cinematographer's standpoint, but does it really need to be? Browning is very cautious about what he wants to do with his camera. Much of the film is very static and offers little to no movement of the camera. What Browning captures in his shots though are really powerful images. The amount of attention given to the detail of each shot truly is amazing. The fact is there is not one shot of Bela Lugosi blinking in the entire film; that shows an incredible commitment. Browning is more of a still photographer than he is a cinematographer, but the power of the images is unmistakably there. This static dream-like world is perfect for the subject material.It may hurt the pacing a tad, but an argument can be made that the audience are much better able to appreciate Bela Lugosi, and even Dwight Frye's performance due to the way Browning stages his picture. Browning's appreciation for the hypnotic quality of images is one of the strengths of the film, not one of the weaknesses.
Dracula is a masterpiece of film making. The film still offers a hypnotic experience almost 80 years after Bela Lugosi first uttered "I am?Dracula". It is a film that has only gotten better with age. Todd Browning and Bela Lugosi succeeded in creating a surreal picture where vampires do exist.