Lugosi is the epitome of urbane menace and Victorian repression-melting sensuality in this classic chiller. He exudes class and sophistication - his much imitated/never bettered accent is essential to this movie's success. An aristocratic old-world psychopath and blood-rapist segues charmingly into the brash, modern, technocratic and meritocratic USA (supposedly a fog-ridden London) of the thirties like some metaphysical terrorist. Dracula prefers the ladies, but his use of Renfield as a blood host and slave indicates a bisexuality that moves beyond the need to feed. He's not just a one-dimensional ham-villain - listen the wistfulness with which he delivers 'to die, to be truly dead, that must be glorious' - a Shakespearian consummation devoutly to be wished. He's victim of an existential nightmare, elegantly clad in evening attire, trapped by darkness, superstitious villagers and his compulsion for blood, a parable of narcotics addiction to which, ironically, Lugosi succumbed towards the end of his life. Surrounded by three sepulchre-clad blood courtesans (who outlive him), his origins are never explained beyond the 'evil of the vampire' rhetoric preached by right-on man of science Van Helsing, who wields his crucifix like an AK 47.
The castle is beautifully done - watch Lugosi glide through automatically opening doors as we wonder what lies beyond. His dramatic exchanges with Van Helsing (Van Sloan) are electric, even now. You hardly ever got this exchange between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, more's the pity. The sparing use of music helps immeasurably; the use of silence adds a nightmarish quality. Karl Freund's black and white photography is the height of Caligariesque unease. The latter scenes would benefit from a more fluid directorial approach (watch the Spanish version, made at the same time on the same sets to see how this film could have been improved), but Renfield's description of the sea of rats with their red eyes is chilling and beyond criticism. The ending is disappointing - a powerful villain like Dracula needs a better send-off. The underrated and excellent movie with Frank Langella and a hammy Laurence Olivier, made from the same script, shows how this can be done. But the preceding moments with Helen Chandler on the staircase (where he kills his acolyte Renfield, who begs for torture - anything but soulless oblivion) compensate for this.