It practically goes without saying that the landscape of cinema history would be radically different had the classic, 1931 version of Dracula never been produced, or been as successful as it was. The film that catapulted Bela Lugosi to fame and precipitated Boris Karloff's Frankenstein later that same year was preceeded in the Universal Studios Monsters canon by Lon Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, Conrad Veidt's The Man Who Laughs and the "old dark house" comedy The Cat and the Canary, but Dracula marks the true beginning of the franchise. Because of its overwhelming reception, a 30-year legacy of Horror, Thriller and Science Fiction began at the house of Carl Laemmle.
Given its seminal status, Dracula provides a clinic in what makes those creaky old Universal films so wonderful. What is it hiding in those shadows on monochrome celluloid that resonates so deeply with viewers, now almost 80 years on? In the North American horror tradition pre-1960, the horror and blood isn't necessarily the point of the horror film. The exploits of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., and Vincent Price are not merely a parade of "mixed up faces", as Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher Forrest J. Ackerman summed up the mainstream view of horror. Instead, through these films, we but up against the wonder and mysticism of the sublime in all its overwhelming, humbling, astonishing, horrifying glory.
The core tenets of the sublime are expressed quite clearly throughout Dracula. Darkness and gloominess are par for the course of a central character who is only capable of moving about at night. But in addition to darkness and gloominess, the vampiric Count embodies in his self and his surroundings many of the central motifs of sublime: the ancient, the ruinous, the powerful, the obscure, and natural processes and natural revulsion.
The ancient and ruinous lurch claw-in-claw through the story of Dracula. Not only is the vampire himself an ancient being, the undead corpse of 15th century Wallachian warrior Vlad Tepes, but he occupies his same ancient castle, which has desiccated into a state of external corruption reflecting the internal corruption of its owner. When the visiting clerk Mr. Renfield enters the castle, he is dwarfed in the massive but dilapidated Gothic hall. The structure is draped with cobwebs, crawling with vermin which enter and exit through fallen walls and broken windows, and littered with collapsed columns surrounding the giant staircase on which Bela Lugosi utters his famous line "I bid you... Velcome." When Dracula decides upon a change of hunting grounds, he picks locations remarkably like those which he left in his homeland. The abbey at Carfax is an equally ruinous structure with yet another massive staircase and a Gothic basement littered with debris over a dirt floor.
In the sublime, the ancient and ruinous stand together to impress greatness or vastness upon the spectator. The greatness is seen in the sheer immensity of the edifices that Dracula occupies. But the vastness of time is also implied by the ruined state of these edifices, humbling one in both the temporal and the spatial spheres. This theme of the ancient would appear as a main plot thread in the 1943 sequel Son of Dracula starring Lon Chaney Jr. In it, Count Alucard (Chaney) explains his reason for moving to America by saying that it is a young and virile place, not a dusty and dead one like his homeland.
The powerful and obscure are also enjoined in Dracula, and in all monster movies, by the mysteriousness of these supernatural beings and their unholy abilities. The mystery of the vampire can only be solved by the wise Dr. Van Helsing who has learned from obscure legends and occultic texts. Of his powers, the vampire can turn into any creature of darkness or command them to carry out his will, can physically overpower the strongest men, cannot be killed but by peculiar and risky methods and musters the powers of hypnotic suggestion and greatness of will. But more than this, he is something completely otherworldly which serves as a focal point for supernatural activities. Weird, unnatural things happen when Dracula is present, and his ability to control others with a cold, silent gaze is frightening.
One of these unnatural things is the storms which accompany him on his way to England. Tossed about by waves and pummeled by rain, the motif of the sailing ship at the mercy of nature is a common image of the sublime. This is where we see humanity dwarfed not by monumental architecture and the ancient time from which it came, but from the immensity and power of the natural elements. Another example of this comes from Renfield's approach to Castle Dracula through the measureless chasms of the Borgo Pass, where the ill-fated clerk is rendered insignificant through the grandeur of the mountains and the valley.
Natural revulsion is an extension of the idea of power, but as a power held by the smallest of creatures which are able to frighten us because of the lethal attributes they possess... The spiders, vampire bats, rats, wolves, snakes, and insects which Dracula can both command and transform into.
These contrivances usher the viewer into a world filled with sublime meaning, where the power of Space, Time, Nature and Divinity are are their grandest. Unlike modern horror films which derive their fright from a universe devoid of meaning and higher purpose, where people are interchangable victims waiting to happen and whose gory murders are the subject of delight rather than tragedy, Dracula derives its horror from a universe frightfully full of meaning. Every choice that the characters make can tip the balance in the cosmic struggle between Good and Evil as they react the vampiric personification of darkness and temptation in their midst.
The brilliant thing about Dracula is that it is a character study. One admittedly doesn't get much out of Tod Browning's directoral style, and on that count the co-produced Spanish version of the film is much better. However, the sublime surroundings play wonderfully against the drama unfolding amongst the people surrounding Carfax Abbey. Each one reacts differently in the face of the Count: Renfield goes mad from his surrender to evil, Lucy gives herself over completely, Mina resists but finds herself too weak, Jonathan has no idea what is going on and Van Helsing steels himself with all the powers of will and Heaven against the monster.
The contrast with modern films is incredible. Where most nameless actors sleepwalk through their roles - which they must for the modern horror trope of life's meaninglessness and lack of value to work, for death must be entertainment and cannot afford to be tragic - the actors of Dracula practically leap from the screen. This is especially true of Bela Lugosi in the title role, Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing and Dwight Fry as Renfield. To see how significant their charismatic presence really is, one needs only to watch the Spanish version which is superior in nearly all aspects but for the cast. It is little wonder that all three would become typecast in horror roles, and Van Sloan would end up playing the same or essentially the same character in The Mummy, Frankenstein and Dracula's Daughter.