To say that Dracula is one of pop cultures most famous and iconic villains from literature and film would be a massive understatement. Author Bram Stoker’s fictitious account of the true-life historical figure’s life beyond death has taken a legendary status, and is widely considered to be the ultimate vampire story. The character has been featured in hundreds of different films, all of which, including the few focused on the real man, have been influenced by Stoker’s story. The character’s powerful presence has made its way across several different mediums and genres; he’s the face of horror, populating films from the unofficial adaptation ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), through the 30’s and 40’s via the Universal Films, and then 50-70’s with Hammer Films, and many beyond; he’s been parodied in animation and comedy; he had a long running, and very good, comic book series published by Marvel Comics – Yes, Dracula is by far one of the horror genre’s most iconic and defining figures, and it all began with the loose adaptation from Universal Pictures staring the late, great Bela Lugosi.
But how do the original films stack up against each other? Well, let’s take a look. Below is a ranking of the primary three films in Universal’s Dracula Legacy, and although the character does appear beyond these listed, they are in crossover films, which will be reviewed at a later date.
03) ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ (1936)
– The second film in this original series is one that is frustratingly disappointing, largely because it starts off strong and promising, but fails to live up to its potential as the film progresses into a pretty boring and bland tale. The story begins immediately following the first film, with London Police arriving at the Carfax Abbey and discovering the bodies of Renfield and Dracula; also lurking around is Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who admits to driving a stake through Dracula’s heart because he was a vampire. This confession gets Van Helsing arrested and deemed insane. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), arrives and steals Dracula’s body – later, she burns it, feeling a sense of relief and believing that the spell placed on her is finally broken, and that she can now lead a normal life. But Dracula’s death has no effect on Zaleska’s vampirism, and she turns to Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), a psychiatrist, and colleague of Van Helsing’s, to help recondition her mind and rid her of the curse that has plagued her life, but eventually she yearns to make Garth an immortal vampire like her, to have as a companion, and she kidnaps Garth’s assistant, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), and forcing Garth to make a decision between her and Janet.
While this movie does have its share of strengths, it suffers from having an unlikable protagonist (Dr. Garth) and no atmosphere. It’s a character driven film, but it lacks horror. Gloria Holden does exceptionally well as Zaleska, and her character has an interesting arc that paints her as a character more than just a vampire – her desire and desperation to rid herself of her evil impulses is the driving force behind the story, and is the strongest point of the movie.
02) ‘The Son of Dracula’ (1943)
– The third film in the original series begins with a family awaiting the arrival of Count Alucard (Yes, that’s Dracula spelled backwards, which is mentioned pretty early on in the film) who has been invited to the Dark Oaks plantation in the United States by Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), a young woman whose obsession with the occult and the supernatural has lead to her relationship with Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.) despite her engagement with Frank Stanley (Robert Paige). Soon after Alucard arrives, Katherine’s father, Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), is found dead in his room, presumably from a heart attack. Following Colonel’s death, Katherine inherits the plantation, while her sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers) inherits the family fortune. Suspicious and jealous of Katherine’s relationship with the Count, Frank decides to confront them, and as he attempts to shoot Alucard, the two bullets pass through him and strike Katherine. Consumed with guilt and horror for accidentally killing his love, Frank confesses to the crime to Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven), and then to the police. Brewster, however, has already been suspicious of Alucard after piecing together what the name is backwards, and ventures to the plantation to investigate for himself – after arriving, he is met by Alucard, who takes him to Katherine, who is very much alive, and announces that her and Alucard are going to get hitched. Brewster turns to colleague Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg), the only person who believes that Alucard is a vampire, and a descendant of Count Dracula, in an effort to save Katherine’s soul and Frank’s sanity. Meanwhile, Frank, who’s locked up in Police Custody, gets a visit from the vampiric Katherine, who reveals her true motives and helps him escape his cell so that he can track down Alucard and kill him.
This is a well-made film that is just great all around: story, characters, acting and atmosphere are all present for this fine Dracula sequel. Robert Paige especially stands out with his performance as Frank Stanley, and effectively portrays the characters decent into madness without going over the top. And then there’s the ending – the ending that at first made me feel that I must have missed something, so I went back and watched it again – and then I understood what was happening, and I must say, that it is a very effective and poignant ending that totally works for the story and the characters. I’d say that it’s easily the best ending out of the three films.
01) ‘Dracula’ (1931)
– The original film is the first of these classic Universal films that I’ve seen, and I’ve always held a great admiration for it. From Tod Browning, who also Directed the excellent movie ‘Freaks’ (1932), comes a beautifully shot and atmospheric adaption of the stage play adaption of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel; it may not be faithful to the source, but it has a charm of its own, mostly due to the cast. The movie begins with Renfield (Dwight Frye) travelling through the Carpathian Mountains, on his way to meet Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) with important business papers pertaining to the Count’s purchase of the Carfax Abbey in London. Despite being warned by the locals, Renfield insists on keeping his appointment, and ventures to Borgo Pass where a carriage awaits to take him to Castle Dracula. Along the way, he witnesses some strange happenings, most oddly a bat that leads the horses of the carriage to its destination, and after exiting the carriage, the driver appears to have disappeared. Renfield is then greeted by Dracula, who invites him into the castle. After going over the paperwork, Dracula informs Renfield that they’ll be travelling to London aboard the Vesta the following evening. That night, Renfield faints after being attacked by a bat, and is approached by the three wives of Dracula until the Count himself arrives and chases them away. Later, on board the ship heading to London, Dracula sleeps in a coffin in the lower quarters, and the now insane Renfield guards over his new “Master”; after the ship reaches London, Police discovered the crew members of the Vesta dead, with the Captain tied to the wheel – and below them, Renfield laughs madly. In London, Dracula seeks out Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), whose clinic, where Renfield is incarcerated, neighbors the Carfax Abbey. Dracula is introduced to Seward and his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), along with Mina’s lover Jonathan Harker (David Manners), and best friend Lucy (Frances Dade). Dracula infects Lucy, and as her condition worsens, Seward calls upon his old friend, Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), but they’re unable to prevent Lucy from passing. Van Helsing’s theory of vampirism is confirmed when Lucy later returns from the grave as the Woman in White, and after Mina experiences some of the same symptoms Lucy had, Van Helsing stumbles upon the revelation that Dracula is indeed the vampire responsible. Dracula kidnaps Mina after the discovery that Van Helsing is aware of his secret, and in an effort to save her from becoming Dracula’s next bride, Van Helsing and Dracula break into the Abbey to save her by attempting to kill Dracula himself.
Bela Lugosi gives a legendary performance here as Dracula, and I believe that equally so, Edward Van Sloan gives a great performance as Professor Van Helsing – but the true scene stealer here is Dwight Frye, who goes all in on his performance as Renfield, right down to his cackling laugh and maddening facial expressions.
Although the film was originally released scoreless, I find the best viewing of the movie with composer Phillip Glass’s once newly commissioned score from the 1999 release of the movie. This viewing experience is an available option on the DVD and Blu Ray, and adds to several scenes, particularly the scene in the beginning when Dracula and his wives arise from their slumber, and then later on during the confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula.
Just fantastic stuff.
What do you think? How would you rank this trilogy? Agree? Disagree? Please let us know!