The first official cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel (the tales of the illegality of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu tickle me), Tod Browning’s Dracula is a handsomely produced gothic romance that manages to capture enough of the novel to retain a semblance of a story while removing any kind of emotional investment. At only 74-minutes long (reportedly cut down after its initial run with footage that’s never been recovered), it covers a lot of story very quickly while putting a surprising amount of focus on Renfield, almost making him the main character of the whole thing. It’s an entertaining adaptation, heavy with atmosphere and held up with some fairly good performances, but it misses any kind of real catharsis.
The movie begins with Renfield (Dwight Frye) heading towards Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to finish up his purchase of Carfax Abbey in London. Why choose to start the film with Renfield on this trip instead of Jonathan Harker (David Manners)? I imagine the play, written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, that the film was based on made this choice, but it really undermines the later sense of romantic adventure that usually fills the back-half of the film. Instead of Harker getting free of Dracula’s wives and making his way back to England, he’s just there, in England, sitting around with Mina (Helen Chandler), waiting for things to go wrong. So, that puts the first twenty-minutes’ focus fully on Renfield, and that has the side effect of giving Renfield so much screentime that, in a film stuffed with characters and events, he becomes the closest the movie has to a main character. He even has an arc.
The main focus, though, is Lugosi’s Dracula, and his performance has just become the standard of what one expects from a Dracula. Elegantly dressed with a thick European accent and a stare to rule the minds of men and women, Lugosi brings his stage role to the screen with a restrained style that fits the character well. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him scary, but he is appropriately unnerving at the right moments.
The film, though, questions no motives of Dracula. Why does he want to buy Carfax and move to England? It is simply unconcerned with the question, accepting it part of the tale and moving forward. Also, Renfield immediate state of madness only has an implied explanation, though I do enjoy Frye’s performances, especially the shot where he’s discovered in the hold of the Vesta (renamed from the Demeter for I’m not sure why) where he simply stares up into the light with a crazed smile on his face.
The action in England follows the story beats from the novel pretty closely (minus the rescue of Harker, of course), and Dracula gains his influence of Mina following his turning of Lucy (Frances Dade). Lucy’s story seems to have been a victim of the Hays Board’s recutting of the film after the imposition of the Hays Code. She turns, becomes the Woman in White, preys on children, and then Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) promises that her torment will come to an end, and then it’s simply never mentioned again. There must be a scene cut where they kill her.
Van Helsing is another of the film’s performative heights. Sloan gives him a quiet wit as he works through the problem of what’s happening to the patient of Dr. Seward (Herbert Brunston). It starts with an examination of the blood and the search for a logical explanation for Renfield obsession with eating living things. It becomes more when he discovers that Dracula doesn’t cast a reflection in a mirror. The showdown is very Victorian as the two stare at each other and explain that pain will come to the other, all in quite polite terms.
Mina’s turn into a vampire holds no real emotional weight since she’s barely a character, and it’s not helped by the fact that Harker is barely a character himself. The pull and tug of Mina’s heart doesn’t really mean anything because we’re not invested in them beyond their roles in a tale of vampires. Oddly, this is where Renfield becomes more interesting. His jump into madness is frustratingly absent, but his effort to claw out and actually deal with a certain amount of guilt for his implied role in the seduction of Mina is surprisingly clear. His ending has a twinge of tragedy, and he’s the only source of real emotion I found in the film.
Still, that ending is all about the grand confrontation between Dracula, Van Helsing, and Harker. Like most of the film, it’s filmed in grandly staged sets with wonderful senses of both depth and height. It makes the sense of grand gothic horror palpable that really helps the film in strong ways.
Dracula is a fun start to the classic Universal horror monsters. It’s not deep or really scary, but it has a surprise focus on Renfield that works and a wonderful visual sense. Browning had been making movies since the 1910s, and his visual experience is well used to give this cinematic adaptation of the Stoker novel real style.