©2019, by M. Keith Booker

The coming of sound to American film in the late 1920s was both an opportunity and a problem for Hollywood. On the one hand, the huge popularity of the new technology brought new audiences to theaters and helped the industry to survive the coming of the Great Depression. On the other hand, studios scrambled to find suitable content for the new form, attempting to determine, on the fly, just what sorts of films could best take advantage of this new technology and best attract these new audiences. Many types of films appeared in the early sound era. The gangster films from Warner Bros and the musicals produced by Warner and MGM were among the most successful of these, but none of these early films had more impact on the ongoing evolution of American film than horror films, especially those produced by the relatively small Universal Pictures. The first of these films is still one of the best remembered: the 1931 film version of Dracula, a movie that, according to David J. Skal, “quietly transformed our imaginative life forever” (128).

The production of Dracula was fraught with a number of difficulties, not the least of which was the simple fact that no one had ever made a horror film with sound before, so the filmmakers were constantly facing unprecedented challenges. In the case of this film, production was also complicated by the fact that the actor who had been tabbed to play Dracula, the silent-film star Lon Chaney, Sr., suddenly died of complications from bronchial lung cancer while the film was still in the planning stages. Luckily, a ready substitute was available in the person of Bela Lugosi, a young actor whose leftist politics had forced him to flee his native Hungary and who had recently starred in the highly successful stage adaptation (by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston) of Stoker’s novel—the adaptation that was, in fact, the immediate source of the film. Actual production though, was complicated by a seriously inadequate budget and by the fact that director Tod Browning (who had worked extensively with Chaney in silent film) was often a non-presence during filming, possibly due to his heavy drinking (though accounts vary). Many scenes were thus apparently directed by cinematographer Karl Freund, a German emigré who barely spoke English[1]. To complicate matters still further, Universal filmed a Spanish-language version of the film in parallel with the English version (typically shooting in English by day, then re-shooting the same scenes with the same sets, but with Spanish-speaking actors, by night). And finally, the studio was reportedly quite unhappy with the first cut of the film, then interfered extensively in the cutting and editing process that produced the version finally released to theaters. Once it was released, meanwhile, the film was denounced by moralists around the world, who saw it as dangerous and depraved, a threat to the moral well-being of any who saw it. The film was banned in a number of countries and criticized heavily throughout the U.S. It was also a big box-office success.

The film is also remarkably effective, despite its troubled history and certain aesthetic shortcomings—though one can speculate that the problems associated with the production of the film actually helped it to achieve its strange, other-worldly feel. For example, inexperience with sound film on the part of most of the principals led to the film being produced with an aesthetic (including both visuals and acting styles) largely derived from silent film[2]; the mixture of this aesthetic with the fact that the film is a “talkie” creates a rather uncanny effect that is perfectly in tune with the nature of the film’s subject matter. Even the musical soundtrack—which simply consists of a few snippets of pre-recorded classical music (including an excerpt from Act II of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which plays over the opening titles)[3]—creates a rather archaic feel that is perfectly in keeping with Dracula’s status as an Old World aristocrat.

Ultimately, this is a film that is largely dominated by budget constraints—as when Dracula’s transformations into a bat or wolf always occur off-screen (eliminating the need to special-effects representations) or when the visual possibilities of the arrival of the schooner Vesta in London with a crew of corpses fail to be fully realized. The same can be said for what might be called the film’s “action” scenes (such as the ultimate killing of Dracula), which in fact contain virtually no action whatsoever—though the elimination of such things as on-screen neck-biting was a matter more of censorship than budget.

Undoubtedly, Dracula has its moments of simple artistic clumsiness. Among other things, it seems, at times, almost like a filmed stage play, with very little in the way of interesting camera placements or movements. Many of the film’s shortcomings are no doubt a pure matter of budget constraints and technological limitations, but it is also the case that the filmmakers were feeling their way, working in unexplored cinematic territory. From this point of view, it is worth pointing out that many film historians have found the simultaneous Spanish version of the film to be artistically superior, probably because the Spanish crew was able to study the dailies of the English version before shooting the same scenes in the evening, giving them a target not only to try to match but to try to exceed. The result is a much more cinematic Dracula, with more (and more fluid) camera movements and a better overall use of the resources of sound film. The Spanish version is also more sensuous, Universal apparently feeling that North American audiences needed to be more protected from suggestions of sexuality than did Latin American ones.[4]

The English-language Dracula, however, demonstrates that action scenes and spectacular visuals are not necessary for a vampire film to succeed. Instead, such films require two things: the effective creation of an atmosphere of mystery and menace and the creation of an interesting vampire or vampires—though the exact nature of what makes the vampire interesting can vary considerably from one film to another. Dracula succeeds brilliantly in both of these categories. Indeed, the filmdevotes a great deal of its screen time (and a large percentage of its financial resources) to the creation of atmosphere, including the long intervals of silence that some have seen as a shortcoming and as a holdover from Browning’s silent-film background. For many, though, these intervals are quite effective at building tension and a sense of eeriness. Meanwhile, one of the best decisions made by the filmmakers was to worry less about logic and more about emotional impact on audiences—though this impact was no doubt more powerful for audiences of the 1930s, who had likely never before seen a horror film, than it is for today’s experienced horror film buffs. For example, while the frequent fogs of the film (one of its few special effects) might still be coded in very much the same way for twenty-first century audiences as they were originally, the attempt to create an atmosphere of strangeness within Dracula’s Transylvanian castle by having it inhabited by opossums and armadillos is cheesy enough to draw chuckles from more knowing audiences in the twenty-first century. Still, Dracula is actually quite successful in creating the atmosphere it needs in order to encourage audiences to suspend their disbelief and just go with the story.

The real secret to the success of Dracula is its vampire, and Lugosi’s bizarre performance as the titular count does more to create atmosphere than any other aspect of the film. As the crew of the Spanish version studies the English-language dailies, the Spanish-language actors were generally not encouraged to sit in, for fear that they would lose authenticity by attempting to replicate the  performances of their English-language counterparts. The single exception was Spanish Dracula Carlos Villarías, who was encouraged to view (and to attempt to duplicate) Lugosi’s odd mannerisms in the role, because they were clearly so effective. That attempt was less than entirely successful, and it is ultimately the superiority of Lugosi’s performance that makes the English Dracula a more entrancing film than the Spanish Drácula, for all but the pickiest film technique buffs.

Lugosi’s Dracula is an original creation, inspired by Stoker’s portrayal of the vampire but definitely not dominated by that legacy. In many ways, Stoker’s Dracula is a repulsive figure, much more in line with Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok in Nosferatu than with Lugosi’s presentation. Sexuality is a large component of the portrayal of both Orlok and Stoker’s Dracula. However, these two figures are able to seduce their prey through the use of inhuman supernatural powers that have nothing to do with ordinary sexual attraction. They are, in fact, extremely unattractive in human terms. Lugosi’s Dracula uses magic as well, but he is a much more attractive figure, a man with much of the social grace that one would expect of an aristocrat and even with a sort of zany sexual charisma. As Peter Hutchings puts it, Lugosi’s performance “marked a first step in the cinematic domestication of the Count, transforming him from the wild thing envisaged by Stoker into something more dapper and civilised” (45). Moreover, Lugosi’s trademark accent (copied by other actors so often since) enhances both his air of sophistication and his air of Otherness. His physical movements do much the same. He generally moves slowly and carefully, almost as if he is sleepwalking, yet he can leap into action at any moment, moving with the sudden quickness of a cat—as when he knocks the mirror away from Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), just as the professor is about to demonstrate that the count has no reflection and is thus a vampire.

All in all, Lugosi’s Dracula is a complex figure. On the surface, he is a suave and sophisticated count, a figure of Old World manners who is somewhat out of place amid the hustle and bustle of modern London. Beneath that genteel surface, however, lurks an even older force, an ancient and primeval beast whose only motivation is to feed (in this case, to feed on human blood). Stoker’s original Dracula story encompasses much of this same combination (though with more emphasis on the ravening beast than on the urbane aristocrat). As such, it encapsulates many of the anxieties of late Victorian English society, a society driven by a sense that it was more modern, more advanced, and more civilized (in terms of the Enlightenment definition of civilization) than any other. Indeed, much of the late-Victorian fascination with Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution can be explained by the fact that the Victorians believed that these theories somehow explained (metaphorically, if nothing else) how their society had evolved to its current position of global pre-eminence. At the same time, this very notion also led to widespread anxieties over what came to be known as “degeneration”: the fear that humanity’s savage form still lay buried beneath the surface of the cultured, modern Victorian, who might revert to this ancestral savagery at any moment.[5] This fear was particularly spurred by the rapid expansion of the British Empire in the late nineteenth century, an expansion that brought the British into contact with “primitive” people in Africa and elsewhere, people in whom the savage impulses of primal humanity were presumably still very much active and near the surface. Contact with such people, the British feared, might re-activate their own submerged savage impulses.

In Victorian literature, this latter fear of contamination by contact with primitive people is most famously embodied in the figure of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), while the fear of degeneration in general is most directly represented in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). But both of these fears are contained, in more subtle ways, in the figure of Stoker’s Draculaas well, who comes both from the East and from the past, threatening to contaminate any modern Westerners with whom he comes into contact, bringing them down to his savage level.

Such fears still lingered at the beginning of the 1930s in weakened form, but Browning’s Dracula in general addresses rather different anxieties than those addressed by Stoker’s. The first three decades of the twentieth century were, as a whole, the single period of most rapid change in all of human history, especially in America, which vaulted from being rather backward in relation to Britain in the 1890s to a position that placed America side-by-side with Britain as the world’s most modern nations by the end of the 1920s. George Gamow, for example, appropriately titled his study of the revolutionary changes in physics during this period (including quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theories of evolution) Thirty Years that Shook Physics. These changes led to fundamental changes in our perception of the nature of the universe, which emerged as something far more complex and strange than we had previously imagined. Ordinary Americans, of course, were probably affected more directly during this period by the rise of consumer capitalism, which (as usefully described by William Leach) transformed virtually all aspects of day to day existence. During this period, American experienced a rapid growth in the availability of consumer goods, massive movements of population from the country to the city, a dramatic wave of immigration to provide labor to the emerging factory system, and a vast expansion in the operations of the U.S. government, largely in support of the burgeoning corporate machine.

Numerous technological developments also changed the texture of daily life in the period 1900–1930, including the widespread use of electricity, telephones, radio, air conditioning, and so on. One of the technological advances most relevant to Dracula, of course, was the rise of sound film in the late 1920s. Indeed, it is difficultfor us today to fully realize how much the thrilling newness of sound film technology contributed to the impact of Dracula on its original audiences. On the other hand, as exciting as this new technology might have been, the dizzying changes of the first thirty years of the twentieth century also brought with them a sense of instability and uncertainty, which was dramatically exacerbated with the collapse of most Western capitalist economies with the coming of the Great Depression, beginning in 1929.

Emphasizing how horror films were perfect for the psychic landscape of early-Depression America, David Skal notes that

Horror films served as a kind of populist surrealism, rearranging the human body and its processes, blurring the boundaries between Homo sapiens and other species, responding easily to new and almost incomprehensible developments in science and the anxious challenges they posed to the familiar structures of society, religion, psychology, and perception. (114)

In the case of Dracula, we can be more specific. For one thing, Dracula, as a looming threat from pre-capitalist times, suggests the precariousness of consumerist prosperity in ways that had great relevance to the America of 1931. For another, Dracula himself, as a figure of unrestrained consumption, suggests the potential for abuse that lies within the consumerist ethos.

At the same time, Dracula himself is a somewhat romantic figure and the existence of supernatural elements in the film provided a glimpse of a world (like the land of Oz) far more exciting than the world of Depression-era America. As Hutchings puts it, films such as Dracula “offered an escape into an unreal world away from the depredations of a grim economic reality” (21). In addition, one could argue that Dracula, like horror films in general, offered a more general and fundamental kind of escapism, a fantasy fulfillment of the desire to live in a world that is richer than the strictly materialist, rationalist world of capitalism—even when the economy is going well. In this sense, horror films offer a form of utopian compensation very much like that discussed by Fredric Jameson in relation to the ongoing popularity of romance narratives in our modern, routinized world. According to Jameson, such nonrealist genres remained popular as modern capitalism tightened its grip on American society not despite the capitalist routinization of daily life, but because of it. In the imaginatively impoverished world of consumer capitalism, individuals naturally desire something different and less impoverished, making the otherworldliness of romance popular as a sign of other possible ways of living in and viewing the world. “Romance,” Jameson concludes, “now again seems to offer the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms, and of demonic or Utopian transformations of a real now unshakably set in place” (Political Unconscious 104).

That the 1931 Dracula is very much a story about capitalist modernization and its potential dangers is indicated in the very first scene, in which a British land agent named Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels through Transylvania in an old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage (very much like a stagecoach from American Westerns[6]), accompanied by fellow travelers who include two apparently Western women, one of whom (played by Carla Laemmle, the cousin of Carl Laemmle, Jr., Universal’s Head of Production at the time) begins the film by reading aloud from a tourist guide to the region—until the speeding carriage hits a bump in the road, tossing her into the lap of man (apparently a local) who sits across from her. Renfield yells to the driver to slow down, but the local insists that they must continue to their destination at top speed so that they will reach the inn before sundown. Asked by the other Western woman why this is so, he explains, “It is Walpurgis Night, the night of evil … Nosferatu!” The woman accompanying the man covers his mouth to hush him as he utters this dreaded word. Nevertheless, he continues, “On this night, madam, the doors, they are barred and to the Virgin we pray.” He and his companion cross themselves in the Catholic fashion.

The ominous scene is thus set within the first two minutes of the film, with the added touch that Renfield has arrived on Walpurgis Night, which is not mentioned at all in Stoker’s novel. Walpurgis Night is the night of a traditional Christian festival held in honor of Saint Walpurgis, but—in German folklore (and in Goethe’s Faust)—it is also the night when witches meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with the Devil. The fact that this is apparently Walpurgis Night plays no further role in the film other than this initial suggestion, which creates a sense of foreboding. The mention of “Nosferatu” also helps to set an ominous tone—the name sounds sinister even if some in the 1931 American audience might be unfamiliar with the term (which occurs twice in Stoker’s novel, which explains that the term is used in Eastern Europe to designate vampires) or with Murnau’s classic film based on it. One could, however, see this as a nod to Murnau’s film and a suggestion (to the initiated) of the kinds of things for which they might be in store.

An immediate cut to the inn helps to establish the archaic, Old World setting as we see a room filled with persons in peasant dress, while an old woman prays aloud in Hungarian. Then the carriage arrives, causing much excitement. Renfield, meanwhile, causes alarm when he refuses to stay at the inn but insists on being taken on to Borgo Pass, where he is to be met at midnight by another carriage that will take him to Dracula’s castle. When he mentions the name of Count Dracula, everyone seems shocked, and an old woman crosses herself. He is warned that “we people of the mountains” believe that Castle Dracula is inhabited by vampires. Modern man that he is, Renfield is not impressed. Business is business, and he has to get to the castle to seal the deal on Dracula’s lease of Carfax Abbey for use as lodgings on his upcoming trip to England. The old woman at least gives him a crucifix to wear around his neck, and he takes it, just to humor her[7]. Surprisingly, the driver takes him on to Borgo Pass, despite his fears, but it seems pretty clear by this time that Renfield is in for big trouble and that he has come to an ancient land where the rationalist rules of modern capitalist England do not apply.

Indeed, it’s all downhill from here for Renfield. Just in case we didn’t believe the superstitious peasants, we are now treated to a look at Dracula and his wives awakening for their night of evil, climbing from their coffins, frightening an opossum, er, giant rat, that lurks in the dilapidated part of the castle where they sleep. Renfield, meanwhile, is met at the pass by a carriage driven by Dracula himself (though in disguise); on the way, it is obvious to all in the audience that the driver turns into a bat, though the rationalist Renfield is unable to recognize what has happened. We’re only a few minutes in as Renfield arrives at the mysterious, rundown castle, and the rest of the film is edited at much the same breakneck pace, sometimes giving it a rather fragmented feel—as opposed to the much more leisurely Spanish version, which runs nearly half an hour longer than Browning’s 75-minute version.

Once he arrives in England, Dracula quickly gets down to business by heading out into the foggy London streets (which are reminiscent of the late nineteenth-century streets stalked by Jack the Ripper, except that they also have 1930s-style automobiles and traffic noises, making the setting historically indeterminate). He then snacks on a flower girl before setting up his headquarters in the derelict abbey, which he likes because it reminds him of his own crumbling castle back in Transylvania. (In fact, the sets for the interior of the abbey are clearly just redressed versions of the some of the sets for the interior of the castle.) He then quickly continues his spree by attacking and killing (though she will later be resurrected as a vampire) Lucy Weston (Frances Dade). He then proceeds to her friend Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), though he drains her blood at a slower pace, apparently planning to make her his latest bride—a fact that is made clear when he also has her drink of his blood. And the pained expressions that inhabit Dracula’s face whenever he looks on Mina suggests that he feels some genuine emotions where she is concerned, however complex those emotions might be.

The plot of Dracula is really rather rudimentary; as much as anything, it is a series of character sketches, with most of the Victorian characters providing a somewhat bland background to the colorful count. There are exceptions, however, the most important of which (at least in terms of plot) is the stern Professor Van Helsing, stipulated to be a renowned scientist (and thus a figure of modernity) but one who does not entirely reject the wisdom of the past. “The superstition of yesterday can become the scientific reality of today,” he advises some of his scientific colleagues, embodying Jameson’s argument that nonrealist narratives can contain echoes of past social realities even within the routinized present. Indeed, Van Helsing is in many ways as much a figure of Old World Europe as is Dracula; when the two face off they both seem like continental Others who have ways and means that go beyond those of the strictly modern British characters in the film. They know things that the other characters do not, and in a sense they operate on a completely different wavelength than the others. When Van Helsing, shortly past the midpoint of the film, outs Dracula as a vampire, Dracula essentially admits the diagnosis, noting to the others in the room that Van Helsing will explain everything to them. Then he admits his grudging admiration to the professor: “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing.” Indeed, Van Helsing seems to be the only human of whom Dracula is at all wary or feels any respect: he treats the others as being beneath contempt but treats Van Helsing as a worthy adversary.

Another key figure who adds texture to Dracula is the comic orderly Martin (Charles K. Gerrard), who is typical of the way in which working-class characters (in a motif that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare) were often employed to provide comic relief in the horror films of the 1930s, though such characters (including Martin) sometimes provide an earthy sort of wisdom, as well. Indeed, though Martin is clearly treated as a figure we are supposed to find amusing (and perhaps a bit slow), he also provides an anchor of sanity amid all the madness that is going on. As he tells his maid/sidekick (in his comic cockney accent) at one point, “They’re all crazy, except you and me. Sometimes I have me doubts about you.”

The most striking performance in Dracula, other than Lugosi’s, is providedby Frye as Renfield, who, after being turned into a sort of junior vampire by Dracula, goes stark raving mad by the time he reaches England on the Vesta and is immediately incarcerated in Dr. Seward’s sanitarium for treatment. Renfield is driven by a belief that he must constantly consume “little lives” (such as those of flies or spiders) in order to remain alive himself, which the doctors think is a sign of insanity. And Renfield’s unhinged behavior seems to back up their diagnosis, though it is clear that a fragment of the original Renfield still remains, as when he occasionally attempts to subvert Dracula’s activities, despite his professed loyalty to his “master.” Frye’s performance in the role was itself so delightfully unhinged that it became a benchmark for future performers in the role, leading to a whole string of interesting Renfields—the most bizarre of whom is probably Roland Topor’s over-the-top Renfield in Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), though Tom Waits is also a highlight as Renfield in Coppola’s 1992 Dracula.

Memorable performances by the actors playing such characters as Renfield, Martin, Van Helsing, and (especially) Dracula are clearly one of the chief reasons why this film remains a highly watchable vampire classic even today, despite its inherent flaws and despite the immense strides taken by vampire films since its release in 1931. Indeed, this is the one film more than any other that has established the visual, thematic, and mythological conditions with which subsequent vampire films have had to deal (whether they adhere to those conditions or attempt creatively to break free of them). Even those who have never actually seen the film are likely to have some familiarity with the way Lugosi looks and sounds as Dracula, because Lugosi’s Dracula has become one of the foundation stones on which subsequent American popular culture was built.


Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. London: Pearson/Longman, 2004.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1993.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Rev. ed. New York: Faber and Faber, 2001.


[1] Freund, who had already established himself in Germany as one of the world’s great cinematographers (in films such as the 1927 Expressionist classic Metropolis), would go on to have an extensive career in America as well. His films as a director included two horror classics, The Mummy (1932, with Boris Karloff) and Mad Love (1935, with Peter Lorre). He was also the cinematographer on a number of films, including the noir classic Key Largo (147, with Humphrey Bogart). But perhaps his most important contribution to American popular culture was as the cinematographer for the pioneering sitcom I Love Lucy, beginning in 1951. Few television programs had ever been filmed before, and Freund is credited with the development of a number of innovative techniques that would be used by future cinematographers in television.

[2] In order to cut costs (always a problem in the production of this film), some scenes were literally lifted from pre-existing silent-film footage. For example, the scenes aboard the ship that carries Dracula and Renfield to England were clearly taken from such footage, probably, as identified by Skal, outtakes from Universal’s 1925 silent seafaring melodrama The Storm Breaker (124).

[3] This practice was not unusual in early sound films. For example, this same Tchaikovsky music was reused in Universal’s The Mummy. The music in Dracula seems particularly crude and tacked-on, however.

[4] Rick Worland argues for the superiority of the Spanish version as a “technically smoother, often more engaging production.” He also suggests that the Spanish version borrowed some of its visual style from Nosferatu (57).

[5] On the widespread fascination with degeneration around the beginning of the twentieth century, see Kershner.

[6] The carriage was, in fact, almost certainly a recycled stagecoach that had been used in earlier Universal silent Westerns.

[7] Later, the cross apparently saves him. When Renfield accidentally cuts his finger, Dracula is driven into an almost uncontrollable frenzy of blood lust, but is warded off at the last moment by the sight of the cross. Renfield’s salvation will, of course, be temporary.