October Horror Month
This the last film in the Universal Classic monsters box set and it’s the vampire film that everyone knows about even if they have never sat down and watched it. It is based on a successful stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic horror story and it retains a lot of the feel of the play, including the performance of Bela Lugosi. His performance is so memorable that when people think of vampires in general or Dracula in particular it’s the black-suited figure with widow’s peak that comes to mind and you’ll most of the this image used in many Halloween decorations and costumes.
A group of passengers are on a very rough coach ride in the Transylvanian mountains. Conveniently for he audience an American woman is reading aloud from guide-book about the region. one of the other passengers is a superstitious peasant who worries aloud that it is Walpurgis Night and nosferatu will be abroad. They stop at an inn and everyone gets off
One passenger is an English solicitor called Renfield (Dwight Frye) and he wants the coach to go onto the Borgo Pass as he has to meet a coach there. The innkeeper is astonished at the idea that there will be a coach meeting him there but when Renfield tells them the coach is to take him to Count Dracula’s castle he begs him to not go and tells him very plainly that Dracula and his three brides are vampires that feed on the blood of the living. Renfield explains he has to go as he has important business with Dracula and tries to dismiss vampires as old stories. The locals know different but it’s clear that Renfield will not be dissuaded. Before the coach leaves an old woman presses a cross into his hand for protection.
In Castle Dracula Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and his three brides emerge from their coffins. The coach gets to Borgo Pass and the coach driver throws Renfield’s luggage down onto the ground then rushes off as quickly as he can. Almost immediately a coach arrives and the driver is Dracula himself. He says nothing as he takes Renfield’s luggage and sets off as soon as Renfield has boarded. The coach races along the rough road, throwing Renfield around a bit and he pokes his head through the window to say something to the coach driver but he can’t see him. He does see a large bat flying just above the heads of the horses. Finally they reach the castle and when Renfield goes to have a word with driver there’s no-one there.
The coach drives off before Renfield can unload his luggage. The huge castle door creaks open and Renfield enters hesitantly. Inside the castle is dilapidated and does not look lived-in for many years. Dracula comes down the massive stone staircase and in a slow deliberate tone he introduces himself and welcomes Renfield. He leads Renfield up the stairs they hear the sound of wolves howling and Dracula says appreciatively “Children of the night. What music they make,“ which doesn’t exactly put Renfield at ease. There is a massive spider web across the stairs which Dracula just passes right through but Renfield has to break through, disturbing the massive spider that made it. Dracula makes an even more worrying remark about spiders feeding on flies and that blood is the life.
Dracula has a room prepared for Renfield with a large fire and a desk with a meal ready for him and Renfield is glad that somewhere in this place has been set up for comfort. Renfield is here to make arrangements for Dracula to lease Carfax Abbey in England and to assist him in his move there. All Renfield really needs is Dracula’s signature on the lease. Dracula has arranged a ship to take them to England. Renfield talks about luggage labels and Dracula says he is only taking three boxes. Renfield sits to eat the meal the Dracula has prepared for him. Dracula serves him wine and Renfield asks if he will be drinking too and the Count replies, “I don’t drink – wine,” This line and Lugosi’s delivery has been copied and parodied so much down the decades but his delivery is perfect and the line is a nice little knowing wink to audience. Somehow Renfield cuts his finger and Dracula’s careful control almost breaks at the sight or smell of the fresh blood but he gets control before Renfield notices.
Dracula wishes Renfield a good night and leaves. Moments later the three female vampires appear at his doorway and slowly enter the room totally unseen by Renfield who has gone to open one of the windows. A large bat flies in over him and he passes out. The three women creep to ward their helpless prey but Dracula enter and waves the away from Renfield then he crouches down and feeds on the man himself.
Next night Renfield is in the hold of the Vesta, a schooner headed for England. Stock footage of a ship being battered by storm is cut into the scene. Renfield is talking to one of the three boxes to Dracula who is resting inside and now he’s very changed man full of manic energy and he calls Dracula master. He opens the box and Dracula gets out and leaves the hold followed by the sound of men screaming. Sometime later the ship is being boarded by people who talk about the horror they find such as the ship’s captain found dead tied to the wheel. Renfield cackles in the hold and they hear him. When they open the hatch Renfield is on the steps with a look that just screams madness and he just keeps chuckling as he climbs up.
In London a flower girl is trying to sell flowers to bustling crowds of people out for the night. Dracula appears and he wants much more than flower and he engulfs her in his cloak and feeds then slips quickly away, leaving the girl’s body to be found by the police. Dracula goes to the opera and he mesmerises an usher to deliver a message to Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston) who is in a box enjoying the opera with his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) and her fiancé Jonathan Harker (David Manners). On the pretence of overhearing Seward’s name Dracula introduces himself as their new neighbour as Dr Seward operates a sanatorium in the grounds next to Carfax Abbey. The message was that Dr Seward has got a phone call so he leaves. Mina asks Dracula will be fixing the Abbey up but he says he likes the ruins which reminds him of home. His talk of ruined battlements inspires Lucy to recite a morbid poem about death. Mina stops her continuing and Dracula comments there are worse things than death.
Mina is staying with Lucy that night and as they get ready for bed Mina jokes about Dracula’s strange manner and morbid talk but Lucy seems to have found him fascinating and romantic. Mina is happy with her pretty little idiot Jonathan. Dracula is in the street watching Lucy’s window and when she goes to bed he turns into a bat and flies into her room where he changes back into human form and drinks her blood. Next day a team of surgeons are trying to save her life in an operating theatre but she is suffering chronic blood loss and she dies. There is no apparent wound on her body that could have caused it except two strange raised red marks with white centres on her throat.
In Seward’s sanatorium Renfield is trying to stop Martin the orderly from throwing away his spider collection. Martin thought Renfield was only interested in flies but it seems Renfield has moved up a link in the food chain. Dr Seward has called in an expert Dr Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) to help the investigation of deaths of Lucy and others. Due to Renfield’s obsession with blood Van Helsing decides to test his blood and he seem to confirm the presence of vampire blood in Renfield’s. Seward is deeply sceptical and Van Helsing says that vampires use that scepticism of modern people to operate freely He promise Seward that he will bring him proof that vampires are very real.
Renfield is brought in to see Van Helsing and he seems fairly calm and rational but he gets angry when Van Helsing tries to examine his hands. Renfield pleads with Seward to send him away and when he’s pressed for reason he believes that his screams at night may disturb Miss Mina. We see Dracula rising from his coffin and there’s the sound of a wolf howling and Renfield seems to hear Dracula’s voice in the howling. Van Helsing brings out a bunch of herbs that seems to upset Renfield says Van Helsing knows too much. Van Helsing tells Seward that the herb is wolfbane and that it repels vampires. Renfield is taken back to his room and Van Helsing tells Seward to have a close watch kept on him at night. Back in room Renfield has a talk with unseen person who has plans for Mina that Renfield doesn’t like.
Mina is sleeping in her room and Dracula appears and silently creeps up to her and bites her. Next morning Mina tells Jonathan, Seward and Van Helsing about her terrible dreams and she describes what happened the previous night. Jonathan tries to reassure but Van Helsing is concerned. Mina is dressed slightly different with a high collar concealing her neck and she acts defensive when asks if he can examine it. He finds two marks just like the ones found on Lucy’s neck. Jonathan asks what could cause marks like that and with perfect timing a maid enters and introduces Count Dracula.
Seward introduces Van Helsing who right away seems to suspect right away that there’s something not right about him. When Dracula hears about Mina’s nightmares he apologises in case there’s his morbid tales of the old country have excited her imagination. Van Helsing sees that Dracula has no refection in the mirror of a cigar box and he shows this to Seward. He takes the cigar box to Dracula and asks him if he could explain a strange phenomenon then open the box. Dracula bats the box away. Dracula and Van Helsing stand sizing up each other carefully before Dracula says he has to leave and that Van Helsing will explain why.
When Jonathan looks to see Dracula leaving he only sees a large black dog. Van Helsing explains that Dracula is the vampire and he talks about their ability to change form into a bat of a wolf and their need to sleep in the soil of their grave during the day and he must have brought some with him. Jonathan is sceptical. Renfield has escaped his room again and was listening to them. He comes in and tells Jonathan and Seward they had better listen to Van Helsing and is about to say more when a bat enters and he freaks out knowing Dracula can hear him and begs for mercy. Van Helsing asks him about Dracula and Renfield denies even hearing the name before.
While they were talking Mina went out into the garden to meet Dracula who bites her once more. She is found by a nurse who screams then comes to tell Seward that Mina is dead. Seward, Van Helsing and Jonathan rush out into the garden leaving the nurse with Renfield. She faints when Renfield looks at her with his crazy eyes and we see him creeping up on her but don’t see what happened next.
In the garden they find Mina is not dead but she is very weak. There have been reports of a strange woman in white who has been seen biting children. Van Helsing asks when she last saw Lucy and Mina reveals it was recently, well after Lucy died and was buried.
The following day Mina is in a depressed mood and she thinks that she will die just like Lucy did. Jonathan tries reassuring her and turns to Van Helsing for support but says nothing. He wants Mina to come indoors before the sun sets and stay in her room which has been protected with wolfbane. Jonathan wants to take Mina away but Van Helsing insists that they need to keep her somewhere where they can protect her and Seward agrees.
Van Helsing, Jonathan and Seward are in Seward’s office talking about how they can destroy Dracula when Renfield comes in again laughing at so-called rational men talking about vampires. He speaks of his master and how he can make things happen. He speaks of a red mist and a flame of fire that parted to reveal rats, millions of them, full of blood all for him if he obeys his master. Seward takes him to put him back in his room
Once Van Helsing is alone Dracula confronts him. Van Helsing that will search the whole Abbey and find Dracula’s coffin and put a stake through his heart. Dracula tries his mesmeric powers on him but Van Helsing is too strong for him and Van Helsing brings out a cross which drives Dracula away.
Mina is out on the terrace and Jonathan notices something different about her. She seems to be listening to voice of Dracula in her head and is about to bite Jonathan when Van Helsing comes to the rescue with his cross which seems break Dracula’s spell. Mina tells them about how Dracula made her drink his blood. They put Mina in her room again and leave her alone again to do other things while Dracula mesmerises a nurse to make her open the window in Mina’s room and let him in and he carries Mina back to the Abbey.
Van Helsing and Jonathan go to the Abbey to end Dracula permanently. They see Renfield enter th Abbey in front of them and they follow him. Renfield tries to stop Dracula who throws him down the stairs and kills him for leading Van Helsing to him. Dawn breaks and Dracula is forced to flee with Mina to a cellar.
Van Helsing and Jonathan find the cellar and they find Dracula’s coffin. Van Helsing fully expected Mina to have been turned and be lying in the second coffin but she’s not there. Jonathan goes to look for her while Van Helsing goes about the grisly task of staking Dracula who hear dying noisily off screen. Mina screams as Dracula dies and his is spell over her is broken. Jonathan takes her away while Van Helsing says behind clear up.
This film may seem a bit melodramatic to modern horror tastes but when modern vampires are sparkling in the sunlight it is good to remember how they used to be monsters before they became the lifestyle choice for the angsty and sensitive. Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye are definitely the best things about this film.