Classic film version of the vampire tale, based on Hamilton Deane's theatrical adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. Estate agent Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels to Transylvania to arrange the sale of an English mansion to nobleman Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). When Renfield discovers that his host is a 500-year-old vampire, he is bitten and himself enslaved. After arriving in London, Dracula attempts to get his teeth into Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), an innocent maiden betrothed to Jonathan Harker (David Manners). Vampire expert Professor Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan) attempts to put a stop to the bloodsucking.
When Universal Pictures picked up the movie rights to a Broadway adaptation of Dracula
, they felt secure in handing the property over to the sinister team of actor Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning. But Chaney died of cancer, and Universal hired the Hungarian who had scored a success in the stage play: Béla Lugosi. The resulting film launched both Lugosi's baroque career and the horror-movie cycle of the 1930s. It gets off to an atmospheric start, as we meet Count Dracula in his shadowy castle in Transylvania, superbly captured by the great cinematographer Karl Freund. Eventually Dracula and his blood-sucking devotee (Dwight Frye, in one of the cinema's truly mad performances) meet their match in a vampire-hunter called Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). If the later sections of the film are undeniably stage bound and a tad creaky, Dracula nevertheless casts a spell, thanks to Lugosi's creepily lugubrious manner and the eerie silences of Browning's directing style. (After a mood-enhancing snippet of Swan Lake under the opening titles, there is no music in the film.) Frankenstein
, which was released a few months later, confirmed the horror craze, and Universal has been making money (and countless spin-off projects) from its twin titans of terror ever since. Certainly the role left a lasting impression on the increasingly addled and drug-addicted Lugosi, who was never quite able to distance himself from the part that made him a star. He was buried, at his request, in his black vampire cape. --Robert Horton