Bela Lugosi’s Dracula

Bela Lugosi, as Dracula, about to claim a beautiful victim, played by Helen Chandler, in a scene from the famous 1931 movie. (GettyImages)

Long before Twilight, The Lost Boys and Interview with a Vampire, there was the 1931 horror movie, Dracula. Based on Bram Stoker’s gothic novel by the same name and starring Bela Lugosi as the spooky Count Dracula, the film used creative special effects and dramatic music to create suspense and drama. As the first legitimate vampire movie (more on this later), Bela Lugosi set the bar high for the litany of blood-thirsty angels of the night to come. 

Bela Lugosi starred in the Broadway play, Dracula, several years before taking the role to the big screen.

The 1931 Film was Based on the Screenplay, not the Book, of Dracula

Although Bram Stoker is listed in the credits as one of the movie’s writers, in fact, the 1931 film version of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, was actually based off the 1924 stage play that had been written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Deane and Balderston, however, drew heavily from Bram Stoker’s Dracula for their script. But it wasn’t the first movie to be made that was based off Bram Stoker’s acclaimed novel. 

Nosferatu, an unauthorized version of Dracula, was produced in 1922.

A German Film Maker Made an Unlicensed Version in 1922

In 1922, a German experimental filmmaker named F. W. Murnau released a movie called Nosferatu, starring Max Schreck, which drew heavily from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, yet some elements were noticeably changed. Count Dracula was known as Count Orlok in the film and the word ‘vampire’ was replaced with the German word ‘nosferatu’. The similarities to Dracula were still too close for the family of Bram Stoker. Stoker’s heirs sued Murnau, claiming plagiarism and won their case. The judge ordered that every copy of Nosferatu be thrown away. A few copies, however, were preserved. Although many movie experts noted the cinematic greatness of Nosferatu, the film is still considered to be an illegitimate version of the Dracula story.   

Carl Laemmle, Jr.

The 1931 Film was Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.

Carl Laemmle, Jr. envisioned his film rendition of Dracula to be the next huge spectacle horror hit, in the vein of The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923. As a play written by Deane and Balderston, Dracula was already popular on Broadway. Laemmle and his team of screenwriters pulled from the play, as well as Bram Stoker’s original novel, and Murnau’s unauthorized Nosferatu when writing the script for his movie. In fact, there are independent elements from each source that can be found in Laemmle’s 1931 film. 

Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi

Laemmle Wasn’t Convinced that Bela Lugosi was Right for the Role of Count Dracula

Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian-born actor, had appeared in several films in Germany before coming to the United States. Breaking into the film industry in America proved to be more difficult than he had expected. Lugosi was able, however, to land the role of Count Dracula in the Broadway stage play, Dracula in 1927. Despite the rave reviews he received for playing this role, Laemmle wasn’t sure that Lugosi was right for the movie version of Dracula. Instead, Laemmle auditioned other actors, including Ian Keith, John Wray, Arthur Edmund Carewe and Paul Muni. By coincidence, the touring production of Broadway’s Dracula was in California while Laemmle was holding auditions. Lugosi auditioned and negotiated with the film’s producers. So eager was he to break into the movie industry that he offered to portray the Count in the film for the low wage of $500 per week for seven weeks. This was the deciding factor for Laemmle and he awarded Lugosi the part. 

Helen Chandler

Helen Chandler and Dwight Frye Rounded out the Cast

After the lead role of Count Dracula was secured, the producers of Dracula hired Helen Chandler to play to role of Mina Seward, the object of Dracula’s fascination and the daughter of Dr. Seward, who was played by Herbert Bunston. David Manners was cast as Mina’s fiancé, John Harker and Frances Dade were cast as her friend, Lucy Weston. The role of Renfield, Count Dracula’s creepy henchman, was given to Dwight Frye. 

The 1931 Film Mixed Elements for Silent Movies with Modern “Talkies”

When Dracula was made in 1931, it was a period of transition for the movie industry. As silent films were making way for “talkies”, directors had more freedom to tell their cinematic story. Still, there were elements that were common in silent movies that helped the audience follow the storyline that was still popping up in the 1931 Dracula. For example, the camera focused in on a close-up of a newspaper to show the passage of time. Noted film critic, James Berardinelli, wrote a review of Dracula in which he commented that the acting style of the performers was reminiscent of the silent movies that came before. 

Dracula was Well-Received when it Debuted

The movie executives nervously awaited the release of Dracula. They worried that the film would be too intense for some audiences. But the studio decided to use the chilling horror content as a marketing ploy. They falsely reported that the film was so scary that some audience members fainted. This only made people want to see it more than ever. It worked. Dracula garnered the most profits of any of Universal’s movies of 1931. 

Robert Pattinson as a sexy vampire in "Twilight"

Lugosi’s Vampire Became the Benchmark

Vampire movies remain as popular today as they were in 1931. Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula was utterly frightening, with a dash of mystery and romance that people find captivating and mesmerizing. It is this mixture that had been the hallmark of vampires ever since and has crept into the acting styles of other actors who have famously played vampires on the big and small screens, including Robert Pattinson (Twilight), Tom Cruise (Interview with a Vampire) and Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood).