Though the vampire legend has successfully seeped into all corners of modern media (from PBS's Sesame Street to prime time's Buffy the Vampire Slayer), few bloodsuckers remain as recognizable or creepy as Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning's Dracula. One of the crown jewels in Universal's marvelous cycle of horror films from the 1930s, this classic stars Lugosi as the dapper vampire from Transylvania biting his way by night to immortality. Having played this role in Hamilton Deane and John Balderston's Broadway stage adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, the Hungarian-born Lugosi was the obvious choice for this 1931 film, especially since Browning's longtime collaborator, Lon Chaney, had recently died. The story is familiar: Dracula and the mad Renfield (Dwight Frye) travel to London and clash with the forces of reason and respectability, especially Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). But despite Browning's exquisite, expressionistic mise-en-scène, Lugosi steals the show. The film made him a huge star, and filmmakers quickly typecast him due to his convincing, trancelike mannerisms.
Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) has made the most lasting impression of all versions of the Bram Stoker classic, although it was neither the first version (there were numerous silent-movie vampire tales) nor, for many viewers, the best version (many aficionados cite F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu). There are at least three reasons for the film's lasting importance. First, the opening sequences in the foothills of the Carpathians, and the subsequent set-up shots in Dracula's castle, are rendered in classic German Expressionist style by cinematographer Karl Freund, establishing a Gothic creepiness and tangibly dark and perverse tone that stick with the audience long after the setting shifts to England. The success of these atmospheric shots would influence horror filmmakers for decades to come. Second, Bela Lugosi's interpretation of Dracula would define the role. His suave, faded gentry style and unusually cadenced line deliveries would become the touchstone for many imitators. Lugosi gives his character just a hint of the sexual carnivore in his pursuit of the pretty maidens of England, themes that Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola would develop more fully several decades later. Freund played a key role in defining Lugosi's sinister character by shining tiny pinpricks of light into his eyes, giving them an eerily otherworldly, penetrating quality. Third, the set designs are outstanding, from Dracula's Transylvanian castle to the London insane asylum housing Renfield, giving the film a perfectly Gothic horror quality. The film's second half deteriorates into a drawing-room drama, with too much chat and not enough horror. However, there is little doubt that the film's opening act, with its brilliant sets and stunning camerawork, together with Lugosi's elegantly sinister performance, make Dracula a memorable and influential classic.