Dracula has been made into so many films of varying quality, but the one that will always endure is Universal’s version by Tod Browning, starring Bela Lugosi.
Hammer and Christopher Lee arguably (ie, in my opinion) did it better a couple of decades later, but there’s a timeless quality to seeing Lugosi welcoming Renfield to his castle and discussing ‘the creatures of the night’ that will always endure.
It’s not all timeless, of course. Some of it is horribly dated, not least the pathetic bats dancing around like they’re on a string attached to a stick (because they are), while some of the acting (particularly Lugosi) is hammy beyond belief.
But the gorgeous sets and atmosphere created by the filming are undimmed and so much more effective than anything a more modern attempt at the story has ever managed to recreate. Dracula’s castle has never again looked so epic and creepy.
There are still problems though. Some of it comes from over-familiarity from years of homages and parodies, not least Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead And Loving It, which has Leslie Nielsen and Peter Macnicol very ably spoofing the performances of Lugosi and Dwight Frye.
And, for a Dracula geek like myself, there’s the deviations from the story and the characters from Bram Stoker’s book, although these were originally done in the stage play that this film is based upon. Renfield going to Transylvania instead of Jonathan Harker? Mina being Dr Seward’s daughter?
But that’s a minor quibble and if you start moaning about Dracula films not playing the story straight, you soon run out of Dracula films. And while Lugosi and Frye may be easily send-up-able in this one, they’re still hugely effective performances that bring so much to the screen.
Dracula is also an incredibly important film, given that it was seen as a risk at the time for Universal to spend a lot of money making and promoting a scary movie in a way that hadn’t really been done before (obviously there was Nosferatu, but that was German and silent). If it had failed, would there even be the horror films we all love today?
There certainly wouldn’t have been the wonderful Frankenstein, Wolf Man and The Mummy films that followed it from the same studio in years to follow, and popular culture would be very different indeed.
Happily it was a big success, helped by reports of people fainting from shock at screenings. That’s not likely to happen when you watch it on TV 80 years later, but it’s a classic for a reason.