The mother of all vampire movies and my very favorite. Not the first, not the last, but certainly the best. Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
You can rent this on YouTube, if you don’t already own it. If you haven’t seen it, please do!
It has such a delicate, different pace. When it was released, it was not even called a horror film, as the genre had not really developed. It was called a “mystery” film. The New York Times gave it an excellent review.
The actors were experienced stage actors. Many of the actors had also appeared on the silver screen in silent movies. In fact, this movie was shown as a silent movie in theaters that had not yet been updated to sound. So, there is a bit of that “silent movie” quality — with the dramatic pauses and pronounced movements.
The Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, who plays Dracula, had played this role with great success on the stage and managed to convince the producers to hire him by accepting a low rate of pay. He appeared as Dracula in several subsequent films. Every vampire costume, vampire accent, hair — that came from Lugosi in this film. He defined what most people think of when they think of vampire…at least until Twilight and all the vampire TV shows came out.
If you have the opportunity, check out the Spanish language version, which was filmed each night on the same sets, with entirely different casts, and some different approaches.
Aside from Lugosi’s amazing performance, the Spanish language version definitely has high points.
The two Draculas are distinct. In the Spanish language version, Dracula has more ferocity and intensity. He is more beastly, perhaps.
In the English language version, Dracula is definitely a sadistic, serial killer type, alternating between refined artistocrat and mocking, plotting murderer. Although I prefer Lugosi, the Spanish speaking actor did a fine job.
Renfield must be a difficult part to play but both actors handle it expertly. It’s impossible to forget their portrayals of madness. They haunted me. I used to have to skip over that part because it was too intense for me! I can’t say which is better — they are both wonderful in their own way.
The part of Eva is played differently, as well. It’s so interesting to watch both versions. Director Tod Browning sticks with subtlety, while Merton doesn’t hold back. In the English language version, we guess, but do not see what Eva is about to do to her fiancé. Her eyes are really cruel but she plays her part rather coolly. In the Spanish language version, Eva’s intention is more overt. Lupita Tovor is a splendid actress who is delightful to watch, especially in the moonlight scene. You can just sense she is being taken over by the vampirism in her. We see her open her mouth and sink her teeth into her fiancé. The best part — and it is only a second — is this little moment when she recoils then prepares for a second attempt. She looks absolutely animalistic in that moment, like a feral cat getting ready to spring. It’s almost obscured by the next cast members rushing into the scene but it’s priceless. You see it here midway through this clip…
The final line of this film was a mystery to me until I saw the Spanish language version, in which Van Helsing explains that he will remain behind (ostensibly, to administer the final cure to Renfield, to save his soul and prevent him from becoming a vampire, as he promised Renfield he would do, if necessary). In the English version, Van Helsing hurries Mina and Dr. Harker along with a delicate promise to follow “presently.” And… for decades, I really wondered about it! It is such an odd, abrupt ending. But there is real closure in the Spanish language version, with a beautiful closing shot.
Post script: Tubi TV has made the Spanish language version available for a limited time. It’s free to watch and it’s an excellent, restored quality with lovely clarity (and subtitles, too, in case Spanish is not your first language). If you happen to stumble upon this post, with luck, it is still available to view! here is the link. Enjoy!