When I first considered doing an examination of my favorite horror movies, I thought that going decade by decade would be sufficient, but I realized that some periods have far more excellent films than others. A simple examination of 2-4 movies from the 1930s will not work, so I am going to look at one film at a time for that decade. I will begin with Dracula, a film I love, and which I have taught in college classes such as Literature and Film and Gothic and Horror at both Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA and Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. I also hold the novel to be an excellent and very important book.
Dracula, made in 1931, and released for Valentine’s Day–a nice touch–was a huge success and established Bela Lugosi as a top box office star. This production was itself based on the very successful theatrical play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and James Balderston. Stoker’s novel did not see great success during his life, but after his death and the success of the play, it became one of the best selling novels of the 20th Century–worldwide.
Carl Laemmle Jr, capitalized on the story’s growing popularity and produced the movie. Tod Browning, who had directed Lon Chaney Sr. in several movies, directed this piece. This film is highly atmospheric with a Gothic set and influenced by German Expressionism. Lugosi was brilliant with his authentic Hungarian accent and menacing presence. His performance and voice set the standard for the image of Dracula and vampires for decades to come. Dracula was a sensation and terrified people; today’s audience would probably find it slow and not at all frightening, but that reflects our jaded views that have been glutted with gore as the staple ingredient of contemporary horror. This film depended on story telling, atmosphere, and acting. The film’s success created an era of classic horror films through the 1930s and part of the 1940s with Universal studios leading the way.
Additionally, Dracula is generally accepted by most film critics as one of the best horror films made. I certainly consider it to be one of the best and most important.
It is an interesting and little known detail of film history that in addition to the English language version, Universal also made a Spanish language film at the same time. The two films shared the same sets, and the same basic scripts, but with different actors and a different director: George Melford directed, and Carlos Villarías stared as Dracula. While not as well known, an argument can be made that this is a better film than the more established English language version. If you ever have the opportunity to see it, I recommend that you do.