Bloody hell, it's brilliant.
I don't normally go apeshit over these classic films. Something like The Mummy, for instance, has much to recommend it but it's simply not in this kind of league. I liked it, but the comparison makes it look pallid. I'd be astonished if the 1931 Dracula wasn't Universal's finest horror movie by light-years. It's as groundbreaking as the original King Kong, that's how good it is.
The script should be required reading at film schools. As an adaptation, I've never seen its equal. That doesn't necessarily mean "best". There are much more faithful adaptations, but it scores over something like Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility in how completely it reinvents its subject matter for this different medium. Bram Stoker's novel is a powerful piece of work and offers far more to an adapter than, say, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but even so this film cuts out all the novel's famous set-pieces while staying faithful to its spirit and improving on its dramatic structure.
Act One (my favourite) is cut to shreds, with the accumulative horror of Stoker's beautifully paced revelations ditched right from the beginning in favour of penny-dreadful nonsense. Transylvanian peasants utter warnings of vampires and almost the first thing Dracula does is to turn into a bat. Then Act Three is simply gone! Dracula never leaves London. Van Helsing and co. don't have to chase him back to Transylvania, but instead nail him in the crypt. Act Two is the real meat of the film but there are glaring omissions even here, most obviously the staking of Lucy.
Yet it's all great! A novel can be solitary and internal, but this film is a dramatic piece that lives and breathes through the interaction of actors. Losing Act Three was a great decision. No justification needed. I never liked it in the original. Losing Act One is a harder pill to swallow, but think about it. It's just the vampires alone in Castle Dracula with Jonathan Harker... or rather, as in this film, Renfield. That's a brilliant change in itself, turning a cameo into almost the spine of the story. Act One may be stunning and the most powerful part of the original novel, but that's not a sufficient reason to keep it. As they say, kill your babies. If it doesn't advance the story, cut it. Get straight to the real action when Dracula's in England! A few modern filmmakers could do with studying this 75-minute flick (Peter Jackson, cough cough).
As an aside, apparently the original plan had been to do a much more faithful (and expensive) adaptation, but budgets tightened when the Great Depression hit and instead Universal chose the cheaper route of adapting the Hamilton Deane stage play.
Just as striking are the film's performances. Firstly, Bela Lugosi. Wow. He's as good as they say. He and Christopher Lee are the two definitive cinematic Draculas, but Lee played the Count until he was sick of him. Lugosi also built a career out of horror, but on screen he only played Dracula once more... in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). He'd already done a stage version, though. Here he's astonishing, at one point managing to scare me just by pulling a truly horrible face when about to feed. Incidentally the rumour that his English was so bad that he had to learn his lines phonetically is apparently untrue.
It's no one-man show, though. Dwight Frye's Renfield is incredible, a silent film performance that works in a naturalistic context. He goes wildly over the top without pushing you out of the film, which is exactly what the film needed for a vampire-loving insect-eating lunatic. I wouldn't have believed anyone could do what he does. Even the girls can be chilling. This film is playing a dangerous game with its mix of performance styles, blending naturalism (normal folks) with florid theatricalism (the vampires and their world)... and yet it works. It should have probably been unwatchable, but it works. Boy, does it. It works like crazy.
Then there are the visuals. Tod Browning (of Freaks infamy the following year in 1932) gives us a visual tour de force. The sets for Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey are so stunning that Universal left them standing for more than a decade and used them for many other movies. He was suffering from alcoholism and the death of his friend Lon Chaney during 1931, but it seems he could still shoot a good film. James Whale's Frankenstein is more visually innovative, but overall I think Dracula is a more solid, compelling, scary piece of cinema.
My only problems with the film are production nitpicks. The "shine light in the eyes of the villain for his scary closeups" production trick worked better on Karloff in The Mummy, here sometimes making Lugosi look a bit silly. There's a smorgasbord of weird accents, including a Dick Van Dyke-a-like at the asylum. Oh, and the bat's rubbish. However movie bats always look rubbish. They're as bad as werewolves.
The film's still great, though. As in genuinely great, rather than merely important. Go watch it.