Bela Lugosi rose to instant fame with his portrayal of Dracula, a part he had been playing on stage for several years. Lugosi's interpretation is that of a suave and sophisticated nobleman with a hypnotic stare and a cultured Hungarian accent. This made the character more appealing to the ladies while at the same time terrifying to the audience when we see the monster revealed beneath.
The story has the tragic Renfield (Dwight Frye) arriving in Transylvania to complete a transaction with the Count which will allow him to lease a English castle. Before they leave for England by ship, Dracula turns Renfield into a quasi-vampire who obeys his master's every command. Upon arriving in England it is discovered that all of the ship's crew have been murdered and only a raving lunatic of a Renfield remain alive.
Renfield is committed to a sanitarium run by Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston). Dracula seeks him out and discovers Seward's comely daughter Mina (Helen Chandler) and her friend Lucy. Dracula quickly "kills" Lucy and sets his sights upon Mina whose fiance Jonathon Harker (David Manners) is baffled by her sudden change in health and personality. Seward consults with a colleague Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) who quickly identifies the source of the problem as a vampire. They soon expose Dracula for what he is and......
The atmospheric sets of this movie set the tone for the story. Dracula's castle is dark, damp and web filled and his cellar is positively scary. So too is his English manor with the classic winding stair case leading to the cellar. The opening theme I found to be equally foreboding and frightening. I wonder how many of those early film goers realized that it was adapted from the classic ballet "Swan Lake".
Bela Lugosi should have become a major star after this film, but did not. His first mistake was the turning down the role of the monster in "Frankenstein" (1931). He did enjoy moderate success in the first half of the 30s playing various mad scientists and criminal masterminds. But he also accepted roles in several "poverty row" quickies which did little to advance his career. He had a brief return to glory in 1939 when he played "Ygor" in "The Son of Frankenstein" and again in 1948 again as Dracula in "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein". With his well documented personal demons, Lugosi wound up his career in cheap "B' movies ultimately becoming the "star" in some of Ed Wood's "classics". Oddly enough, though he was forever identified with the Dracula character, he only played him on screen twice, in 1931 and 1948 as noted. He did play "Dracula like" characters in MGM's "Mark of the Vampire" (1935) and in Columbia's "Return of the Vampire" (1943).
Dwight Frye almost steals "Dracula" from Lugosi with his portrayal of Renfield. He takes him from a young ambitious businessman to a half crazed lunatic and back again. After this and his role of Fritz the hunchback in "Frankenstein", this great character actor never again achieved such heights. A real tragedy. Oddly enough, Stoker's book portrays Renfield as a minor character and it is Jonathon Harker who makes the unfortunate trip to Transylvania.
Also filmed in a Spanish language version.