Watch it at night, with the lights out
The M.O.W. - wrote on 08/02/08
"Renfield" (Dwight Frey) has traveled from London to Transylvania on business at "Castle Dracula," a run-down castle owned by the mysterious "Count Dracula" (Bela Lugosi in his most famous role which he first performed on stage). The "Count" has decided to leave his native country for London, where he has rented property, to which "Renfield" is bringing him the lease to sign, despite being warned not to go to the castle by fellow passengers on the coach he is riding to the village "Castle Dracula" looks over, and the villagers -- all of which believe that Castle Dracula is home to vampires.
The "Count," who indeed is a vampire, quick;y gains "Renfield's" trust and offers him something to eat. He then places "Renfield" under his power. "Renfield" becomes "Dracula's" maniacal servant who craves the blood of small insects.
"Dracula," with "Renfield" in tow, then travels on the "Schooner Vesta" to London. The ship drifts into Whitby Harbor following a violent storm -- with the crew dead, and the captain tied to the wheel. Those who come on board to investigate, heard only in voice-over, then discover "Renfield" down in in the ship's hold. A newspaper report, written after the ship drifted into the harbor, then reports that "Renfield," the reported sole survivor, has been admitted to "Seward Sanitarium," run by "Dr. Jack Seward" (Herbert Bunston).
"Dr. Seward," who lives at the sanitarium with his daughter "Mina" (Helen Chandler), calls upon "Prof. Van Helsing" (Edward Van Sloan) to consult on the "Renfield" case and study "Mina's" friend "Lucy" (Frances Dade), who has become one of the vampire's first British victims.
Now, "Van Helsing," "Dr. Seward," and "Mina's" fiance, "John Harker (David Manners) must race to save "Mina," whom "Dracula" has targeted as his next victim, from the world of the undead.
Based on the Broadway play, which itself was based on Bram Stoker's famed novel, the movie has wonderful sets, eerie lighting, a few good performances and some really campy performances.
Two performances which really stand out from the rest are Frey and Lugosi himself. Both make their characters really freaky which really helps set the tone of the film. Van Sloan also brings a pretty strong performance. On the other hand, most of the minor supporting cast bring laughable performances, which I do not think was intended.
Light and shadow help set the mood of this film. When "Dracula" is hypnotizing his intended victim, everything except his eyes are in shadow. Because of the topic of the film, which was released on Valentine's Day 1931, many of the outdoor scenes, which are obviously on a soundstage, are foggy nights. With dim light, and fog, this also helps set the tone of the film.
Because of the time of the movie's release, there is absolutely no blood, nor is "Dracula's" attacks violent. However, in your mind, you will know what happens -- and that helps make this movie scary. Another thing that helps make this film scary is that there is no music, except from a music box in one scene and an orchestra in another.
One problem with this movie is sound. In a few scenes, it is painfully obvious that there is only one microphone recording the sound. In these scenes, the performers are far from the microphone and are barely audible. Another problem is that some subplots are not resolved, and leaves some questions.
The special effects are very cheap compared to today's standards. It is very obvious that some animals, including the bat which "Dracula" turns into, are fake. Another special effect is the distant sound of a howling wolf, that is established by the dialogue as one of the creatures "Dracula" turns into.
Much of the dialogue, like many of the performances, are pretty laughable. However, these lines are forgettable. There are also some scenes which will drag a little.
One thing I suggest you do when watching the original print, which has no soundtrack, unlike a special 1999 print that has a soundtrack added in, is watch this movie at night, with the lights off and either nobody else in the house or asleep. This situation will help play the mind games you will need to help scare you.