Universal Studios Classic Monsters: Designing Dracula

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Universal Studios Classic Monsters

Classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, the invisible man, the wolf man, and the creature from the Black Lagoon paved the path for modern horror marvels. Turning terror mainstream, these familiar faces of fear demonstrated that horror has a home in motion pictures.

Several of these favored fright feasts began life a literary horror. Authors like Brahm Stoker, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells. Others rose from the grave as original nightmares created specifically for Universal Pictures.

Horror-ific History

Universal Studios, in 1923, took a gamble with their production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1922). “Hunchback,” which did better than his other film Universal released that year, catapulted Lon Chaney into the spotlight, due to the brilliant star’s passion for perfect make-up (which he did himself). To showcase Cheney’s talents, Gaston Leroux’s “Le Fantome de l’opera” novel became the studios next feature. “Phantom of the Opera,” released in 1925, also gave birth to the horror genre of fear fed films.

Six years later, “Dracula” would add its bite to Universal Studios’ reign of terror. Originally intended to be a big budget production, more closely following Braham Stoker’s 1897 novel, this 85 minute black and white gothic horror was adapted from the 1924 Broadway stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderson.

Universal’s “Dracula” wasn’t the first film to feature the famous vampire of Braham Stoker’s story. “Nosferatu,” (1922), a silent movie starring Max Schreck as Count Orlok, was successfully sued for plagiarism. All copies of the F.W. Murnau directed flick were supposed to have been destroyed. Several scenes in Universal’s version appear to take inspiration from this 1922 unauthorized adaptation.

Creepy Casting

While dashing, 49 year old, Hungarian born Bela Lugosi ultimately earned the Count’s cape, he was not first in line for the fear film. Chester Morris, John Wray, and William Courtenay were considered.  However, Lugosi pushed for the role and won the studio over, accepting a mere $3,500 for the portrayal ($500/week).

Other cast members included Helen Chandler (Mina Seward), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing), Herbert Bunston (Dr. Seward) and Frances Dade (Lucy Weston). Geraldine Dvorak, Cornellia Thaw and Dorothy Tree transformed into Dracula’s wives. Carla Laemmle, the niece of Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle and cousin to the film’s producer, Carl Laemmle Jr., makes a brief appearance in the opening stagecoach scene.

Sinister Sequels and eerie alternatives

Simultaneously shot at the same time of Lugosi’s “Dracula,” a Spanish version filmed overnights. Using the same sets, equipment, and costumes, this Foreign Language Version was conducted by George Melford. Carlos Villarias assumed the vampiric role of Conde Dracula. Many believe that the technical aspects (camera angles, editing, and direction) of this variation to be superior to director Tod Browning’s daytime print.

A pair of sequels, “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936) and “Son of Dracula” (1943) joined three other monstrous productions (“House of Frankenstein”- 1944, “House of Dracula” – 1945, and “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” – 1948) for a total of seven sinister cinema appearance of the Count for Universal Studios.

Fearsome Facts

  • “Dracula” was Universal’s top performing picture in 1931; ultimately earning the studio a net take of $700,000 (the equivalent of $10,718,434.78, today).
  • Infamous line, “I never drink . . . wine,” does not appear in Braham Stoker’s novel or the Broadway play.
  • Bela Lugosi was only cast as Count Dracula twice by Universal, though he did appear as a vampire in three other motion pictures (“Mark of the Vampire” – 1935, “The Return of the Vampire” – 1943, and “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” – 1952
  • “Dracula” arrived in theaters at a time when “talkies” were replacing silent movies. A silent version of Lugosi’s performance was filmed to accommodate theaters not yet wired for sound.
  • Departing from Stoker’s style of a hideous monster, the Count is depicted as a refined gentleman for both the Broadway play, 1931 film and many future remakes.
  • When Universal re-released the fear feature (1936) at least two scenes were trimmed to comply with the Hays Film Code. The Count’s audible demise as well as Renfield’s death screams were significantly trimmed (though reintroduced in later home video versions). Edward Van Sloan’s (Van Helsing) grim “. . . after all, there ARE such as vampires” closing speech was completely removed.
  • Universal updated the Count in 1979 with Frank Langella as the vampire, Donald Pleasence at Dr. Seward and Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing.
  • Intended to kickstart Universal’s “Dark Universe” another update was attempted with “Dracula: Untold” in 2014.

Closing the Coffin

“Dracula” remains one of the most iconic movie monsters. Bela Lugosi’s stoic, sinister version of the Count shines as the monster motion picture’s perfect poster child. Movies, novels, comics, breakfast cereal, video games, toys and countless gallons of fake blood, fang, and cape combinations as Halloween costumes continue to feed this fearsome creature’s fame.

Note: Special thanks to artist Nathan of Luna Moon Gothic for lending the watercolor creations which make up the cover image for this spooky series. Check out their store on Etsy to dig up your own copy of this wickedly wonderful art work (and discover other fiendishly fun finds).

Read more about Universal Studios Classic Monsters:

Universal Studios Classic Monsters: Building Frankenstein

Universal Studios Classic Monsters: Unwrapping “The Mummy”

Universal Studios Classic Monsters: The Wolf Man

Universal Studios Classic Monsters: the Creature from the Black Lagoon

Source and images: Wikipedia, “A Celebration of the Classics from Universal Studios MONSTERS” (book), Luna Moon Gothic

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