There’s no musical score in 1931’s Dracula. None at all, other than the title sequence, which plays a brief snippet of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Due to the cost of having an original score composed, it simply wasn’t in the budget. While the lack of music tends to make certain sequences feel long, it also enhances the suspense in other, more crucial scenes.
The legendary vampire, Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) is visited in his castle in Transylvania by Renfield (Dwight Frye), a traveling businessman who is there finalizing the papers for Dracula’s new residence in London. Renfield has been warned about the vampire by the local villagers, but he doesn’t believe any of them. Ultimately, Dracula drugs Renfield and feeds off him, turning him into one of his minions.
After arriving in London, Dracula befriends his neighbor, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), in order to feed off of his daughter to turn her into one of his many wives. Dr. Seward, who has now taken Renfield in as a patient in his mental institute, calls in Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), a specialist in bizarre conditions, to help analyze Renfield’s obsession with eating insects. Van Helsing also happens to be very knowledgeable in vampire lore and begins to uncover Dracula’s secret.
What’s there to say about Legosi here, other than he’s eternally fused to this role? His natural speech inflections are synonymous with any and every rendition of the fictional monster.
Dracula features some truly great shots and excellent use of lighting that could only be achieved this effectively in black-and-white, ultimately enhancing Lugosi’s macabre presence.
Universal’s Dracula is often compared to the studio’s other 1931 monster movie, Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. And rightly so. While Frankenstein is groundbreaking in many ways, Dracula is a much better executed film as a whole. Where the same absence of sound in Frankenstein affects the final product negatively, the sound of silence in Dracula enhances the experience. Frankenstein requires the epicness that would come with a musical score, but Count Dracula moves with such creepiness and intent that his character manifests that epicness himself.
Dracula as a monster is much more terrifying. He’s more sentient, unlike Frankenstein’s monster who always acts on his animalistic instincts. But what makes Dracula so scary is how he’s still driven by those instincts while also being lucid and human at the same time.
Though Dracula does lack the depth of Frankenstein, it has a certain darkness and carefully reserved violence that makes the film much more similar to modern horror films.
Compared to a newer movie, of course, the pacing is really inconsistent, with most of the meandering happening within the 2nd act. Certain plot details are muddled, but that’s just a sign of age. However, what does hold up is the biting dialogue and a script that doesn’t contain any bad lines.
Dracula creates its atmosphere through a slow build-up that ultimately results in a chilling climax. We’re spared the gruesome details of the violent acts because this was the 1930s and the filmmakers didn’t need to show them in order for their movie to be effective as a horror film. Dracula proves that you can create genuine scares through well-placed silence, sinister acting, and brilliant camera work.