Very few will argue that Tod Browning's 1931 version of Dracula is still a frightening movie. In fact, seeing as it was made several years after F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, I would go so far as to say it never once held the honor of being the scariest vampire film. Yet what Browning's Dracula lacks in frights, it more than makes up for in style, the majority which comes courtesy of Count Dracula himself, as played by Bela Lugosi.
Browning's Dracula is based on a combination of both the Bram Stoker novel and a London stage production of the same name. Count Dracula (Lugosi) leaves his Transylvania castle to take up residence in the English countryside. Once in England, Dracula sets his bloodthirsty sights on new neighbor Mina Seward (Helen Chandler) and her friend, Lucy (Frances Dade). When Lucy dies under mysterious circumstances, her body is brought to Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) for examination. Van Helsing, a scientist who specializes in the supernatural, announces that a vampire has landed in England, and warns Mina to stay away from the alluring Count Dracula. But Mina is already under the Count's spell, and Van Helsing must now work quickly to save her.
Browning successfully introduces a surreal atmosphere to Dracula, complete with mysterious fog and enormous, vacant set pieces (found mostly in the early scenes that take place in Dracula's castle). This film, however, owes its legendary status to the panache of its star, Bela Lugosi. While I agree that Lugosi's performance was a bit, shall we say, overly-flamboyant at times (like when he adds the exaggerated pause to his "I am...Dracula"), there's no denying that the Romanian-born actor also brought real charisma to the role. Lugosi's manner, his bearing, his way of speaking, was damned intoxicating; it's as if the good count had figured out a way to exercise his notorious mind control not only on the unsuspecting citizens of London, but this film's audience as well.
Though an actor I personally enjoy watching in anything, Lugosi would, thanks to Dracula, be forever typecast as the bloodythirsty Count. But then, I'm not so sure he minded (seeing as he even took the part to the grave with him: he was reportedly buried wearing his vampire cape). It is the character he was born to play, and, like the children of the night he so adored, Lugosi found a way to create a bit of his own music in this most challenging of roles.
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