Renfield (Dwight Frye) has travelled from the United Kingdom to Transylvania to collect the signature of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) so that he may emigrate to England. However, on the coach journey he hears sinister tales of the otherworldly at work in these lands, and when he asks to be taken to a predetermined point along the mountain pass he is met with a fearful reaction from the locals. He is perturbed, but has a job to do so does not take these myths of vampires too seriously, although he does wear a cross one of the old women has given him, supposedly for protection. So he eventually reaches the area where he is to be picked up, little knowing the meeting will change his life...
The first true sound horror film, Dracula was not the first to bring Bram Stoker's celebrated novel to the screen as Nosferatu had beaten them to it the previous decade (interestingly, those characters in the know here refer to the Count as "Nosferatu" as well). But if any actor was to be forever associated with the role, it was Lugosi who had played it hundreds of times on the stage and whose Eastern European tones are inseperable from the image many have of the famous villain. However, as this was adapted from the play by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston, not much effort had been made to open out the material for the screen.
Which is why this Dracula is often described as "stagy", as there's no getting away from it, once the Count reaches London the atmosphere of the first twenty minutes is drained from the film and what you're left with is a lot of stilted conversation and very little action. It's as if the director Tod Browning lost interest once he got the good stuff out of the way, although it is understandable he might not have been fully engaged with the material when you are aware that his first choice for the starring role, Lon Chaney, had died before production got underway.
Nevertheless, that opening sequence is what placed this film in cinema history, and hearing Lugosi's much-imitated accent telling us that he is Dracula and he bids us welcome will forever be a joy. It's also noteworthy that it's there we see the only blood in the film: for a story preoccupied with the stuff, there's a disappointing lack of it. That blood is a pinprick on Renfield's finger, and if there is another performance that provides entertainment it is Frye's as he descends from a reasonable estate agent into a wild-eyed maniac with a taste for eating flies, then spiders as he falls under his new master's spell.
Fortunately, in spite of the other characters testing the patience, Lugosi and Frye are consistently commanding, and when Van Helsing turns up, played by Edward Van Sloan, he is an amusing opponent to these two. The film might have been better if they had emphasised the battle of wills between Van Helsing and Dracula for the souls of the women, but they hardly meet, and Dracula is too often represented by a large bat or an unseen but talked about wolf. What this production does set out is the battle between the rational and the supernatural which became the staple of horror movies for decades to come, with Van Helsing bridging the gap for us, but Lugosi's suave but menacing Count apart, the feeling of a narrative winding down cannot be denied. The climax is inescapably a letdown, though the sense of watching some eerie dream never quite leaves the film.