The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!
To most of us in this day and age, Dracula is a tale as old as time that we all have seen in at least one of its various forms. Probably most known of the various takes is the Bram Stoker's 1992 edition with Gary Oldman , but of all the actor's to have ever played the famous character it is probably none other than Bela Lugosi who a lot of folks see as the Dracula (especially the older crowd who were raised on the old Universal Horror flicks). Imagine my excitement over getting to see a classic such as this using my already existing Netflix streaming subscription - without even having to look for it manually, as it was kind enough to place it in my "Recommended for you" section. The real question, I suppose, that anyone who hasn't been raised on the classics is probably asking is how does it hold up, so I'll stop blathering on here and get to the point.
A man named Renfield (Dwight Frye) goes to Transylvania to meet one Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to finalize some real estate purchase in London. The locals all speak of superstition and evil around not only the night, but Dracula and his many wives. Renfield, however, doesn't believe in the superstitious nonsense and goes anyways - the start of his downfall. After meeting and finalizing the paper work, Renfield is driven insane by Dracula's powerful presence (albeit we aren't so much shown him as a nutty fellow until after he wakes up on the boat ride home) and the duo (along with a couple of boxes of dirt) take the long trip to London. The fellow riders of the boat don't make it - all mysteriously dead - and the authorities find only one strange man who's appeared to have lost his mind (Renfield).
Dracula's time in London isn't going unnoticed however, as mysterious murders crop up where the victims seem to have been drained of their blood through two small bite marks on the neck - which Doctor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) rightly guesses to be the work of a vampire. Around this time, Dracula sets his sight on lovely Mina (Helen Chandler) - a move that ultimately leads to his meeting with Helsing and eventual exposure of his true nature. The movie then crescendos into a race to save Mina from meeting the same fate as Dracula - becoming a member of the undead!
It's a plot we are all familiar with this day and age. The run time keeps things a bit concise and in turn some things feel as though they are indeed missing from the movie - such as anyone dealing with Mina's friend Lucy (Frances Dade) after she has been turned into a vampire and found to be roaming the park feasting on small children. The brevity of things makes the main plot easier to follow, as there isn't nearly as many distractions from the overall set up, discovery, and dealing with of Dracula however, and considering that is the main focus of the movie it is nice to not have to deal with all the extra tidbits at times. That being said, those used to going out and watching live plays should be very much in tune with what the film has to offer, as it has a distinct "recorded play" vibe to it that carries over to more than just it's overall pace.
Actors do a wonderful job here, often being very visual in their character presentation (much like one would expect out of something like a stage performance). Most would expect me to say that Lugosi stole the show with his often hypnotic gaze and demanding presence, and to the average person indeed that could be very true - he has a very serious and theatrical feel about him, and the accent he delivers his lines with (most likely) set the tone for many a Dracula to come. For me however, the show was actually stolen by Renfield, who between manic laughter and overall motion and posture did an amazing job getting across how crazy the character was supposed to be - how obsessed he was over doing his master's bidding and receiving his reward.
It's a good thing then that the actors do such a good job with their on-screen presence, as the audio at this point seems very dated. Lines are generally audible and understandable, but the entire movie plays with the static hiss that anyone who's dealt with older audio equipment will recognize, and particularly loud lines cause a bit of distortion. Outside of the intro plate's Swan Lake , no music is present (again lending it that feel of being a stage production), which for the time it was done was a wonderful choice - it might not be as easy to hear and understand all the actors if it had to compete with another audio track recorded in the background as well. Howls and bats and creaky doors also grace the sound board, adding a bit of depth to the atmosphere without ever overdoing their stay and causing issues for the technology at hand.
Effect work here is also limited - fake bats on wires, noticeably fake spiders, and mostly anything that could have been considered violent taking place off-screen. A backdrop or two are used for some of the scenes, and they do blend in incredibly well, but for the most part it again feels very much like a stage play, as this is the sort of technology that was available at the time - no doubt a boon to the special effects junkies out there who have to have CG everything in their movies to enjoy them. The costumes in turn are done quite nicely, with Helsing's glasses lending the character a bit of a crazed look himself, and Dracula's signature cape and white shirt lending a bit of contrast and strangeness to the count to set him out from all the others.
1931 was a long time ago, most of us will admit that (even though a few might remember it like it was yesterday). The film shows its age in many places, but never so much that those out to enjoy a movie experience should really be too affected. For those looking to see a movie that doesn't rely on most of the "movie magic" of this day and age, scrub up a bit on their movie history, or in general see just how the lack of color and modern day tools impacted acting, this is a good one to check out. By all means, it's up to you if you think you would enjoy the 70-odd minute romp down memory lane, but I feel no worse for the wear and feel that with the information I have given you so far, you can probably determine just how much enjoyment you could get from watching it with relative accuracy.