Dracula is a film that can come full-circle if you let it. Ostensibly a straightforward chiller upon its 1931 release, it arguably launched decades of horror films - an avalanche which has kept rolling in one form or another to this day. Of course, as the form kept developing, the original monster movie (or at least the original monster talkie) began to seem creakier and creakier. Though Tod Browning had crafted some distinctive work before and after Dracula, much of his most famous film was confined to English drawing rooms; meanwhile, film technology was still adapting to the advent of sound and while the German master cinematographer Karl Freund was able to memorably maneuver his camera from time to time, the film overall is not especially fluid. Furthermore, Bela Lugosi's legendary performance may have frightened people at the time, but now it's become a museum piece, a template for hams throughout the ages (including Lugosi himself). Right?
Well, not quite. Dracula has come full-circle, albeit at a slightly different angle, because its at-times primitive technique and lack of fully self-conscious irony (though there's plenty of offbeat humor on hand) have made it seem distinctively creepy today. The complete lack of a musical score, the slow pacing, the mixture of deadpan sincerity and ghoulish creakiness all add to an eerie atmosphere which makes you chuckle and shudder at the same time. And Lugosi is central to this effect - his Dracula is actually not a hammy performance at all, because he commits entirely to the laconic delivery, haughty bearing, and erotic intensity of the famed Count.
Adding to the impact of the film are the Gothic sets by Charles D. Hall, the indicatively campy yet genuinely unsettling performance of Dwight Frye as insect-eating sidekick Renfield, and some of Browning's fleeting but unforgettable shots (like the boom to the ground as an intensely hungry Renfield, his eyes practically popping out of his head, crawls on hands and knees towards the comatose body of a nurse whose blood he hopes to suck). This is a film whose imagery and story have become such familiar cliches, that it's almost a surprise to go back to the original and discover its primal power, even amidst all the dated elements and labored plot mechanics (and the film does start to sag a bit in the final third, as everyone seems to be struggling to delay the inevitable climax).
What's ultimately so creepy about Lugosi's Count Dracula is that he isn't entirely an inhuman ogre, like Nosferatu. Rather, Dracula is part "us", part "other" - for example, he inhabits the body of a man, yet casts no reflection in a mirror. This uneasy, undefined border zone in which both Dracula and Dracula exist makes the vampire and his film all the more unsettling, even today. It won't make you jump out of your seat, but images and moments might follow you around for the rest of the day and, what's more important, into the night.