Dracula 1931, header image
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Age RatingPG
DirectorTod Browning
WriterGarrett Fort
Runtime1h 14min
Release Date USA14 February 1931
SynopsisAfter enslaving a solicitor travelling to Transylvania, Count Dracula heads to Carfax Abbey, where numerous tragedies follow.

Review Prologue Dracula 1931


If you are watching Dracula for the first time or are someone who has seen the film before…

‘’I Bid You Welcome’’

America in 1931, Thomas Edison has given his last patent application.  The Star-Spangled Banner is adopted as the United States National Anthem, construction of the Empire State Building is completed.  America’s ‘Great Depression’ has at least another two years to run, and movie studios are transitioning from silent movies to ‘Talkies’.  Having spent several years just watching silent movies accompanied by an organists and orchestras, it must have been a wonderful experience to walk into a movie theatre and see the first talking motion pictures.

The Universal Monsters are Born.

The recently appointed head of Universal Pictures Carl Laemmle Jr. convinced Universal Pictures of the need to spend big on productions, take advantage of innovative technology, and give audiences something they have never seen before – supernatural horror.  Unsure if audiences would respond (and if the censors would let the idea happen), Carl Laemmle Jr pursued his vision.   Turning to Tod Browning who by this time has made his fortune directing silent films (around 50 at this point), they worked on an adaptation of Dracula – the first ‘talkie’ Horror movie.  Dracula became a critical and financial success and kick-started Universal Horror,  a genre that would bring the Universal Monsters to the world.

The Story of Dracula

For those not familiar, Dracula was published in 1897 by Bram Stoker.  The story of a 500-year-old Carpathian nobleman.  An unholy supernatural being, whose survival is dependent on drinking the blood of the living.  Living in his crumbling castle in Transylvania Hungary, (now part of Romania) Dracula hatches a plan to move to London to feed on the local population.  Using the services of estate agent Jonathan Harker, Dracula travels by ship to England.  Arriving in Whitby, Dracula starts his search.  He has help from his human familiar ‘Renfield’ who is under Dracula’s spell and acts out his masters bidding.  Only things do not go to plan.  Renfield descends deeper into lunacy, Dracula picks the wrong victim, and he gains the interest of Vampire Hunter Van Helsing.   It is also a story of class, with Dracula moving in upper social circles and using his powers to dominate woman and lower classes, such as servants.

A Unique Writing Style

Bram Stoker’s story of Dracula is told by accumulated documents.  Rather than a normal story, the reader reads various diary entries and newspaper cuttings that form the story.

This unique writing style didn’t stop the success of the book though, as by the mid 1920’s, people the world over knew the story; no doubt aided by the grotesque German gothic horror film  Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror .  Nosferatu was an unofficial silent movie adaptation of Dracula that drew condemnation form the Stoker estate and all copies were ordered to be destroyed.  Laemmle Jr.  had seen Nosferatu and, as a businessman, must have also been aware that a Broadway play of Dracula had made a massive 2 million dollars at the box office.

Dracula 1931 Script/Screenplay

Script 8 out of 10

Dracula 1931 Script 8 out of 10

Laemmle Jr’s big idea was to make Dracula the world’s first talking Supernatural Horror, the challenge director Tod Browning had was how to move away from the world he knew of ‘silent films.  Novelist Louis Bromfield was brought in to make a first draft of screen play.  Bromfield presented a vison so bold; it was believed too expensive, and he was replaced.  In comes short story writer and playwright Garrett Fort.  His idea was to base the film script on the hugely successful Broadway play – a cut down version of the novel.  The influence the play has on Tod Browning’s finished film is huge.  At the outset, instead of showing a cast of actors, Browning uses the descriptor ‘players’  giving a clue to the films Broadway blueprint.  Browning was a director that stylistically preferred static shoots, most of the Dracula is filmed with the main protagonists standing in large rooms.  These static camera shots reinforce the feeling that you are an audience member watching a play in a Broadway theatre.

The finished film is only 75 minutes in length as the script also takes a lot of liberties with Stoker’s story.  Mr Harker is practically cut out of the story all together, reduced to emotional support for Mina.  Instead Renfield is elevated to a much more significant role.  He becomes both the estate agent and the demented familiar.  Swapping the characters is a clever move.  During Renfield’s conversations with the count he alludes to the fact he is on his own, thus confirming to the count he would not be missed, making the character swap even more plausible.  This enables huge swaths of exposition to be removed, making the first half of the film glide by at some pace.  That said, Fort ensures that all the key Dracula elements are there.  Renfield’s travel, the welcome to the caste, Dracula’s three wives, Renfield succumbing to Dracula, and his travels to England.

This fast pace slows down once the count gets to England.  There is a lot of Stoker’s original story to get on screen.  The adaptation continues to make further cuts to the story.  Lucy’s home Harp recital is replaced by a conversation in a theatre, Lucy dies faster than written but is still seen attacking children so at least the essence of her character is shown.  Dracula’s infatuation with Mina seems to whizz by, and Van Helsing is quicker to get to work than the book suggests.

It would have been easy to make Dracula a farce, Browning’s methodical directorial style resists the urge to add any kind of flamboyancy to screen, save for Bela Lugosi (more on him later) and a few shots of creatures.  Browning pays attention to the smallest of details, references to the German Gothic style are present.  His opening shots of the film show he fully leans into the macabre of it all.    Browning also ensures that Stokers biblical references relating to blood and religious iconography are weaved into the film.  In the now famous scene where Dracula says ‘’I don’t drink…wine. ‘’ Renfield is sat at a table resembling an altar, whilst literally breaking bread and discussing drinking wine, a clear reference to Communion.   It’s also a line that was not in the original adapted play, but subsequently included in the 1970’s revival.

Dracula 1931 Casting

Rating 9 out of 10

9 out of 10

Phil M. Friedman is the uncredited casting director for Dracula. Casting some of the 1930’s well recognised actors: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Bram Stoker wrote:

The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation.
“Welcome to my house!  Enter freely and of your own free will!”’

Bella Lugosi certainly entered the house of Dracula, so much so he lived and breathed the character.  An immigrant to America, Lugosi’s basic grasp of English, somehow became his superpower.  It’s well documented that Lugosi played Dracula on stage and almost never got to play Dracula on the big screen. However fortune prevailed and a few minutes into Dracula 1931 Lugosi speaks.  Lugosi’s Hungarian accent capturing the essence of Stoker’s aforementioned ‘strange intonation.’

‘’I am Dracula…….I bid you …..Welcome’’.

And with that a star was born and became one of the most recognisable actors in the early monster talkie era.

Lugosi portrays Dracula with an ethereal mysterious quality.  His words are spoken at a very  deliberate pace, adding the intrigue.  His movement is as deliberate as his words.  What’s clear on screen is that Lugosi had put great thought into how the character of Dracula would interact, look, move, and speak.   It’s a performance that has been echoed and imitated many times over the years, so much so you may never have watched this original Dracula, but you know exactly how he sounds.

Lugosi breathed life into Stokers words in a way not seen before, and some say, bettered after.

Dwight Frye as Renfield

Whilst Lugosi became the definitive Dracula, Frye was on a different path.  A hard-working touring actor, Frye’s break out role was Renfield and it’s easy to see why.

Renfield is a character who descends further into lunacy and fanaticism, as Dracula’s hold on him worsens.  Somehow Frye managed to capture this insanity giving a very demonic performance that would not be out of place today in a modern horror.  This at a time society was happy putting patients into an asylum, rather than supporting mental illness.  In one famous adlibbed shot, Frye is seen staring with eyes fixated wide open straight at the camera.  This earnt   him the nickname ‘The Man with the Thousand-Watt Stare’, something Frye would come to regret.   As the film moves on, Frye’s performance becomes more erratic and unsettling.  It’s a powerhouse performance of lunacy and must have given 1930’s audiences quite the fright.

Dracula 1931 Sound/Music/Score

Rating 9 out of 10

Dracula Sound 9 out of 10

Browning was a director who struggled with the transition to sound, resulting in Dracula having a lot of silence, which added to the creepy atmosphere of the film.  Early talkies had little to no score, and Dracula is no exception.  Directors such as Browning chose to only bring in music when someone was playing an instrument in the scene or using a piece of stock music to open the film.  Dracula uses a music clip of Swan Lake.

The sound department also struggled with the new sound technology.  One scene took most of the day to shoot, as they had to wait for a crackling log fire to die down before they could get good enough spoken audio.  No technology existed to isolate specific sounds at the time.

Composer Phillip Glass later worked with Universal in the late 90’s and created an orchestrated score that is available on the remastered version which I watched.   Although a fitting and synthetic score, I have to say I prefer the version without it, as it feels that that bit more authentic.  Interestingly, I have some acquaintances that were privileged enough to see a live screening with Phillip Glass and his orchestra, they say that they found themselves ignoring the orchestra altogether, becoming so engrossed in the film on screen.

I watched Dracula on 4K remaster, 2024 release (part of a set I brought myself).  Universal have done a fantastic job restoring the sound.   The latest technology means that dialogue is clearer than it’s ever been.  The mono audio is now presented in Master HD.  There is still some background hiss, giving away the almost 100-year-old origins, but most of the pops crackles and hisses have been removed, making background effect noises more noticeable (howling wolves for example).

Dracula 1931 Video Quality

Rating 9 out of 10

9 out of 10

If camera technology started to advance in the silent era, it regressed at the advent of the talkies.
The cameras were large things that made a very noisy clatter.  The cameras had to be placed in large boxes in an effort to soundproof them.  This made them difficult, but not impossible to move. Visual director Karl Freund was very much a pioneer and constructed unique ways to move the camera, implementing hydraulic cranes for moving shots for example.  He was collaborating with a director who preferred static shots, so he was reduced to only a handful of moving shots between scenes.

As good as Freund was, the technical shortcomings of the day are quite clear.  Shots replicating  London fog are lacking contrast and don’t fully convey the idea of fog.  Stock footage from silent film ‘The Storm Breaker’ is used, as it’s a silent film, the footage is shot at a lower speed, so when played at what is now regular speed for talkies, the footage appears speeded up.

I think Universal have done a fabulous job with its 4K restoration of Dracula.  The video artifacts have been cleared up, the use of HDR darkens the blacks and provides sharp images.   The star of the restoration though is just how balanced the restoration is.  Due to how the early technology worked, each frame is at a different height, meaning the original film has a lot of frame wobble.  It’s a very eye tiring watch. Somehow Universal’s technicians have managed to remove that frame wobble, making the film instantly look more modern.

Dracula 1931 Visual Effects

Rating 9 out of 10

9 out of 10

This is 1930’s film making at its best, it was important to Universal that sets and effects were the best they could produce.  Universal’s Stage 12, which was built for the film, is still in use today and special effects were pushing boundaries at the time.

Effects techniques varied from the obvious bats on strings, through to the tried and tested filming with glass shot (a picture is painted on glass and placed in front of the camera shooting live action).  The spider’s web which Renfield grapples with towards the start of the film is 18 foot wide, constructed on a wire framework, built up with filaments of rubber cement and launched from a rotary gun, rather like candy floss.  Famously Dracula’s ‘bright feverish eyes’  were created using a flashlight shining into Lugosi’s eyes.

Dracula 1931, Overall Thoughts


Universal considers Dracula as its crown in its archive, and it’s easy to understand why. This is a film that pushed boundaries of what audiences would consider acceptable (a lot of horror is actual off the screen, leading audiences to imagine the horror rather than watch it).  It pushed the company’s finances to the brink and created a whole new subgenre in the process.

Although Carl Laemmle Jr oversaw Stoker’s story cut to the bare bones.  Reworking the play into a filmable script, set the standard of how to convert published text into a useable screenplay.  It is a master class of adaptation keeping the essence of the story and taking risks in the process.

Sussing all of this out was a director not at ease with talkies, but his methodical approach works for the ambience of the film.

Ultimately, Dracula became a critical and financial success. Giving us some of the most memorable performances and lines in cinematic history, that still linger in the public consciousness today.

This gave the movie industry the confidence to take risks with well-known published stories and modern-day blockbusters have a lot to thank Universal, Stoker, Carl Laemmle Jr. and Tod Browning for.

The Next Review in our Universal Monsters Collection is Frankenstein

Thanks for reading


The Silver Hedgehog: Rating

The Script/Screenplay - 9
Casting - 9
Visual Effects - 9
Sound Quality - 9
Video Quality - 9


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Ultimately, Dracula became a critical and financial success. Giving us some of the most memorable performances and lines in cinematic history, that still linger in the public consciousness today.

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Credits Words Garry

Editor JJ

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