Starring: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Helen Chandler
Director: Tod Browning
Sound films were in their infancy when this film was released on Valentine’s Day and it’s largely credited as the start of the horror film genre, though it was not the first film about Vampires. The story follows the titular Count as Renfield first comes to his castle, and later as he menaces the vulnerable Mina in London. It’s not a new plot, but it was pulled from the stage play rather than the book, and Bela was happy to get the role after Lon Chaney passed away unexpectedly (according to 1001 Movies), and he sure made his mark. He became incredibly well known for playing this villain.
I actually thought I had already seen this film, because there have been so many vampire films going way back to the start of cinema, and I had it mixed up with another film. But I’m so glad I saw this.
Filmed by Karl Freund, this film has the kind of dreamlike surreal and bold, directional lighting of the German Expressionist films, which I love. But it’s tempered with a more grounded theatrical style, which is closer to Realism. So what you get is some incredible visuals with a dark gothic feel, a storybook look, and dramatic lighting that gives Lugosi an chance to menace with his body and face slashed with light and shadow. The set design is incredible in this film, with massive spider webs and sweeping landscapes, castles and randomly and also wonderfully, there’s armadillo wondering around at once point.
Some critics feel that the film is less dramatic when it reaches London and that the ending is soft, but personally, I loved the whole thing. Bela Lugosi is so great in this role, and I love his accent and seriousness, which is pretty comic by modern standards. I loved the gothic black and white, and was happy to just go with it, as the actors chewed up the scenery. It’s so dramatic, and I loved the style of the whole film. Total gem.
See It If: I know some people don’t like older films, but this one has scenery and style that I think modern viewers will love too. A dark fairytale with an excellent lead.