Directed by Tod Browning [Other horror films: The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Freaks (1932), Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Devil-Doll (1936)] & Karl Freund [Other horror films: The Mummy (1932), Mad Love (1935)]
So this is one of those movies that I grew up with. My parents owned this on VHS, and I saw it multiple times as a child. Watching it nowadays, it doesn’t really stand out as being an absolute classic as far as the story goes, but I can’t get past just how much I enjoy Bela Lugosi in his role.
Obviously, whether you think the film is overrated or not (and in recent years, it seems that people are veering that way – the review of this film in my copy of Horror!: 333 Films to Scare You to Death is absolutely scathing), the opening is pure greatness. A scared village, an eager young man ignoring warnings being fired at him. That carriage ride. That bat. That music they make. That Dracula.
The opening is just fantastic. As Dracula, Bela Lugosi really gave a fantastic performance which, while certainly corny in some aspects, leads to some great lines (among them, “Listen to them – children of the night. What music they make” and the simpler yet still effective “Come here,” with that fun hand configuration). Nowadays I find Frankenstein a better film, but Lugosi is charming and entertaining in ways that no one in Frankenstein can compete with.
Playing Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan (who also had roles in both Frankenstein and The Mummy) was pretty good, and a solid antagonist for Dracula. Loved his mirror trick (and it was unnecessary too, as by that moment, Dracula didn’t know that Helsing knew, so Helsing lost out on surprising him), and how Dracula just slapped it out of his hands. Sloan was confident throughout and a pleasure to watch.
Otherwise, the best performance goes to Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, The Vampire Bat, and Bride of Frankenstein), who played a crazy guy with endless mirth. He also is rather quotable (though in what situations, I shudder to think), and gives an all-around fun performance. The other central performances, such as David Manners (The Mummy, The Black Cat, and Mystery of Edwin Drood), Herbert Bunston, and Helen Chandler (who had a somewhat weak character, and a pretty sad life post-Dracula) were all reasonable, but without Lugosi here, I doubt any of them would be remembered.
With quality settings (such as the final basement with the coffins spread around, or the initial castle in Hungary), quality music (I’m a fan of Philip Glass’ score), and some really memorable scenes, Dracula is a good late-night movie. It’s not amazing, it’s really not. It is good entertainment, though, and I adore it for that.