My only real issue with this film is that Bela Lugosi has to speak at all. The film is at it’s best in near silence when the screen is filled by Dracula who is making only small controlled movements. His victims succumb as if any intention of resisting was wiped away the second they saw him. With this effect, director Tod Browning effectively creates a version of Dracula that is only cheesy for the first few minutes. Then we reach the scene pictured above.
An establishing shot of Dracula’s crypt proceeds to zoom in on one of the coffins. It cracks open and a hand begins to reach out. A rat who is watching from a hole in the wall hears the coffin open and scurries away. Another hand reaches out from a coffin while a bug crawls out of a miniature. A sound is followed by a partially opened coffin containing a woman and a rat dives back into a coffin containing a skeleton. Then the squeak of a rat and Dracula standing tall as we zoom in on his face. In the rest of the crypt, three women in white are walking towards him. Then Dracula goes to the steps to leave the crypt and meet Renfield.
Thanks to Browning’s direction, any cheese that may have been picked up in the opening scenes is melted away during the sequence described above. The silences speak volumes and they allow the sounds of the environment to control the atmosphere. The absence of Dracula’s immersion from a coffin on screen in this scene helps maintain his stature by allowing us only a view of him where he is in full control. Later in the film, he transforms from a bat into a human, but we do not see the transformation. The bat is flying, we cut to something or someone, and we cut back to Dracula in all his glory.
I’ve heard people say that this is the film where vampires became romantic figures and I’m not going to argue with that. This Dracula isn’t a romantic figure, but not the rotting death of Nosferatu. He is old evil. The darkest object in every room and when focused upon an individual, an all-consuming death. A death that also takes place off-screen as does every vulgar action he performs. His horrors appear in our minds and we see their consequences, but they never reach us through direct observation. Our thoughts work with the sights and sounds to imbue him with a terror we cannot walk away from.
The film is short at a little over an hour so it wastes no time on anything extraneous. We hit the major plot points and are always moving right ahead. This works well because it limits the amount of Lugosi’s dialog and rids the film of filler. We are griped with his rise from sleep and follow him to his death. Assuming you can keep from falling prey to seeing and hearing Lugosi as campy, you will get the full experience and understand why I am highly recommending this film.