Vintage Viewings: Dracula (1931)


Emma Wise, artist

Self-deemed as “the story of the strangest passion the world has ever known”; the tale of Dracula has transfixed people for decades, while the fascination of vampires in general transcends centuries. There are countless vampire stories & Dracula adaptations in all kinds of media today but Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) is dubbed as the birth of the cinematic horror genre, Far Out Magazine even accredits the birth of the Goth subculture to Lugosi’s classic Dracula (with help from the Bauhaus song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” from ‘79), and of course he stands as the frontman of the Universal Monsters franchise. Inspired by Bram Stoker’s classic novel of the same name, ‘31 Dracula wasn’t the first cinematic adaptation of the story- and by no means the last- but it holds a special place in cinematic history and the hearts of fans, geeks, and weirdos of all kinds.

The 1931 film follows a plot slightly altered from the original book- I believe altered for the better, but it does come with the loss of some details which could be expected. It begins with the real estate agent R.M. Renfield- instead of Jonathan Harker- traveling to Transylvania to aid his client Count Dracula on his voyage to Britain, but as the local superstitions predicted, Dracula is a vampire in search of souls to corrupt and lives to devour- he takes control of Renfield’s mind making him his servant. Once in London, the deranged Renfield is sent to Dr. Seward’s sanitarium and Dracula continues on his path of havoc- now on Seward’s family, preying on the doctor’s daughter Mina, which calls for her fiance Jonathan to face the monster with the help from Dr. Van Helsing. I say this story was altered for the better because the simplification of the book’s character relationships makes them come across more cohesively in film and also because I find Jonathan really boring and much prefer seeing the tenuous relationship of Renfield and Dracula develop and give Renfield a more developed character- and making him the film’s element of sympathy. The format of the book does justify itself because of the interesting way information is revealed to the reader (it’s written completely in chronological diary entries of multiple characters and news articles from the setting) but Browning had the right idea to alter it for the film. But to be fair if you know me at all in person you may know this film, especially Renfield’s character, is a bit of an obsession of mine, so I’m biased.

Van Helsing confronts Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, 1931. IMDB

Bela Lugosi is Dracula, to many he is the definitive Dracula, but reprising his stage role for film was not director Todd Browning’s first choice- initially, he wanted the “man of 1,000 faces” Lon Chaney (Phantom of the Opera, London after Midnight) to be the count but he passed away before production began. After having fought for the role and settled for $500 a week, ¼ of what costar David Manners (Jonathan Harker) earned, Lugosi was a devilishly perfect cast in the end, his Vaudevillian presence and authentic accent entranced the audience. The actor was born in Lugos Austria-Hungary (now Lugoj România) 50 miles from Vlad Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, he supported the Hungarian Communist party and was a leading founder in what became the National Trade Union of Actors. But when the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic was overthrown Bela had to flee to Vienna, then the US, to save his own life among the pillaging of communists and Jewish people in his home country. During the 40s in LA he continued to be politically vocal, demanding the states aid refugees affected by the war, he is remembered that “[while] he may have portrayed savage villains on the silver screen, in real life Béla Lugosi raised his voice in protest against the savage persecution of the Jews in his native Hungary.” (Jewish Ledger, Jan. 3, 2011). Following his massive Hollywood success of Dracula and other Universal horror movies, he was forever typecast as a subsequent Dracula or wacky cameo and he faded into obscurity and borderline poverty before his death- in which he rests buried in one of his classic vampiric capes. While Bela went down in history as a master of the macabre, unorthodox sex symbol, and anti-fascist icon, he was not the only star of Dracula to fall under its curse. Dracula’s counterpart, the lawyer turned lunatic, Renfield is played by the criminally underrated actor Dwight Frye. Frye was an American actor who got his break on Broadway, despite his Christian Scientist mother believing it was a sin to perform on a stage. Throughout his entire career his cast mates had thought was a strange presence, a kind person- but when he was in costume/makeup he never broke character. Similarly to Bela, they both lurked around their sets frightening co-stars and keeping in their characters’ mindsets, -after his death, Frye had been attributed with being an original “method” actor. Dwight earned an eerie rock song in his honor as well, Alice Cooper’s “Ballad of Dwight Fry”, Cooper says “He was always, to me, by far the most psychotic of any character in all those old horror movies”. Renfield has this beautifully terrifying wide-eyed stare, an insatiable desire to eat insects- or any lives he can get his hands on, and a horrifying stuttery laugh, a performance that is fascinatingly out of place for the time and a nice addition to the Universal Monster movies’ charm. Fangoria says it’s like Frye “took satanic possession of the role [of Renfield]… or did the role take satanic possession of him?” because despite his genius performance in Dracula, and similarly in Frankenstein (1931) and other Universal Pictures, Dwight was never as revered as Bela was/is, so unhappily fell into the typecast of “half-wits and lunatics” for the rest of his life (Greg Mank, April. 2023). In the midst of the great depression and lack of jobs that showed his versatility- or employment at all-, he succumbed to underlying heart problems, untreated due to his Christian Scientist belief, and died from a heart attack at 43 years old.

a haunting shot of Dwight Frye as the crazed Renfield exhibiting his own thousand-yard stare and menacing giggle, 1931. IMDB

A prominent feature of this film, and most of the time, is the lack of music. In the transition from silent films to talkies there was an odd lack of score, in Dracula’s case the budget didn’t allow for it and the only music used was Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the opening credits which became a staple in the character’s mythology (a score was composed in 1998 to be included in DVD releases). The stark silences are an effect of the crew’s unfamiliarity of working in a non-silent film, the transition of style was a major stress on many directors and actors back then, while these abrupt silences can come off weirdly, even comedically at times given our modern expectations, I think the silences work in Dracula’s favor more often than not. The film’s most frightening moments come hand in hand with the verbal & visual ambiance. With Karl Freund’s cinematography, an eerily personal tone is created for the audience, especially in scenes when Lugosi’s glowing eyes peer through a cloud of fog or when the mad Renfield crawls toward the camera. In the sense of horror, Lugosi’s Dracula is interesting because the count’s appearance doesn’t change as he takes lives, he is handsome and charming throughout the entire film which creates a sense of reality- his evil nature hidden under the guise of a gentleman. PopMatters explained that “While [the film] clearly takes advantage of its audience’s xenophobia, Dracula isn’t seen, at least not physically, as a monster- like communism and radicalism, he’s outwardly appealing but dangerous in actuality” (Meredith Wade, Oct. 23, 2013).

Upon its release, making $700,000 & receiving good critical reviews, Dracula was Universal’s most successful film yet. Despite a few negative reviews wishing it were scarier and more like the stage version that also starred Lugosi, the film was chilling enough to test Hollywood’s standards. The transition between silent films & talkies (1926-1930) was a time before the “Hays Code”- guidelines on what to censor in movies like profanity, sex, & violence- even in a “pre-code” climate Dracula flagged the industry resulting in the censorship of especially spooky scenes, like muting the screams of dying characters and deleting an epilogue scene of Van Helsing’s actor telling the audience to be afraid of vampires existing in the real world.

While Dracula was not the first vampire story, and not even the first adaptation of Stoker’s novel, the 1931 Dracula’s place in history is undeniable, forefronting the horror genre in film, having multiple remakes/reimaginations and being a direct inspiration for every non-drac-vampire story since. The most recent adaptation of the character is in the sequel- 90 years later- Renfield directed by Chris McKay (The Lego Movie, Moral Orel). This film is a continuation of Lugosi and Frye’s performances as the immortal master/servant duo, but catching up with the modern times, Renfield realizes that he is in a vicious codependent relationship and deserves a better life than what the count has forced onto him. This film is bonkers-ridiculous and perfect, the horror comedy stars Nicholas Hoult as the titular disturbed servant. Hoult has said that he analyzed the Stoker novel and the ‘31 film to prepare for the role and his research shows in his performance, without taking away Hoult’s individuality and his new perspective on the character. He directly cites Frye’s performance as inspiration for his mannerisms, dress, and even mimicking his iconic laugh. Hoult is joined by Nicolas Cage as Dracula, which is the most Nic Cage thing you could possibly imagine, he embodies the role referring to the previous Draculas- Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, etc.- while maintaining the Nic Cage-ness of himself. You know what I mean. Renfield pays direct homage to its predecessor Dracula by recreating multiple fragments of the 31 film shot for shot, with Nic Cage in Bela Lugosi’s place and Nicholas Hoult in Dwight Frye’s. The attention to detail in this black & white scene and many other elements like makeup and dress show how revered the original material is even now, 92 years after Dracula’s release. While Renfield is intentionally comedic and gratuitously violent (something the Hays Code would not appreciate at all) I think the film represents something sweet and timely about cinema and the horror genre’s undying love for the strange, and how stories and people are immortalized in fan culture continuing to love films almost a century after their creation and artists adapting classic stories to forever be enjoyed. I especially appreciate Renfield’s reverence to its namesake originator, Dwight Frye, the film and its actors shine light on him for a modern/younger audience and give him the respect he deserved in his time.