I am not referring only to the “easy” dichotomies of living vs. dead or good vs. evil; there are deeper dichotomies on display in this brilliant, special film. Of course, the film that Universal Studios originally envisioned was quite a bit different than the film that was ultimately released on Valentine’s Day, 1931.
Universal expected their reigning horror superstar, Lon Chaney, to play the title role after his triumphs in both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. When Chaney died of throat cancer in the fall of 1930, Universal briefly considered a host of other actors, including Paul Muni, Chester Morris, John Wray, and William Courtenay, before going with unknown Bela Lugosi, who at that time was essaying the title role onstage in Los Angeles. One big reason that Universal chose Lugosi was that his asking price was low. Lugosi gave the performance of his life… for a little over $3500.
Dracula meets the lovely Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) and her engaged-to-be-married friends, Mina Seward (Helen Chandler) and Jonathan Harker (David Manners). Dracula takes a liking to both women, but attacks Lucy later that night, draining her of her blood. Dracula then sets his sights on Mina. Can anything be done to save Mina’s mortal soul? Can Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) help our heroes vanquish this unspeakable evil?
"Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen! A word before you go. We hope the memories of Dracula and Renfield won't give you bad dreams, so just a word of reassurance. When you get home tonight, and the lights have been turned out, and you are afraid to look behind the curtains—and you dread to see a face appear at the window—why, just pull yourself together and remember that, after all, THERE ARE SUCH THINGS…"
Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye seem to be on a different wavelength than anyone else in the picture, most of whom are giving very standard, “stage-y” performances. Lugosi, as in every other role he ever played, seems to channel the very spirit of acting, and risks going completely over the top to create a character. The fact that he allegedly learned the part phonetically when first playing the role on stage (because of his poor English) lends a subtle “otherness” to many of his line readings. Of course, it helps that Lugosi is given practically every memorable line in the film:
“Listen to them. Children of the night… what music they make!
“The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly... the blood is the life, eh, Mr. Renfield?”
“I never drink... wine.”
“For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you're a wise man, Van Helsing.”
“To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious […]
There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Dwight Frye too gives a tour-de-force performance, transforming from a meek, unmemorable little clerk to the human embodiment of a rabid hyena. His drawn-out, sickening laugh when he is found in the hold of the ship is one of the most memorably scary things in the whole picture. Lugosi and Frye give remarkably modern, one would almost say “Method,” performances in a film where every other actor seems to be stage-bound and conventional.
Happy Scary Movie Month, everybody!