Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels to Transylvania on business with Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). The locals in the village warn him that vampires dwell in Castle Dracula, but he refuses to stay in the village and tells his carriage driver to take him to the Borgo Pass. He is picked up by Dracula’s coach. When Renfield sticks his head out to speak to the driver, he finds that there is no driver, and the horses are following a bat.
Renfield enters the castle and is met by the charming Count. They discuss the renting of Carfax Abbey in England, where the count is heading the next day. Dracula’s three wives threaten Renfield, but Dracula warns them off and attacks Renfield himself. By the time they take ship on the schooner Vesta, Renfield is a raving lunatic. Dracula hides in a coffin by day and feeds on the crew by night. When the ship lands, Renfield is the only one on board and is sent to the lunatic asylum.
In a theatre in London, Dracula meets Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston), who introduces his beautiful daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and a family friend named Lucy Weston (Frances Dade), who finds Count Dracula fascinating. That night, he enters her room and feasts on her blood as she sleeps. Discovered to be anemic, she is given blood transfusions but dies anyway.
Renfield is obsessed with eating flies and spiders. Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) studies him and begins to muse about vampires. Dracula calls to Renfield with a wolf’s howl and Van Helsing shows him wolfsbane. Dracula visits Mina next, biting her as she sleeps. When Dracula visits the house the next day, Van Helsing and Harker notice he has no reflection in a mirror. Challenged, Dracula smashes the mirror and leaves. Van Helsing believes he is the cause of the recent deaths.
Dracula attacks Mina in the garden and the maid finds her there. Newspapers report that a woman in white is luring and attacking children in the park. Mina recognizes her as Lucy, risen from the grave. Harker wants to take Mina to London for safety, but leaves her with Van Helsing, who orders Nurse Briggs (Joan Standing) to watch over her and not to remove the wolfsbane from her neck.
Renfield escapes from his cell and tells workers that Dracula has promised him thousands of rats to eat. Dracula talks with Van Helsing and tells him that Mina belongs to him and he should leave the country. Van Helsing swears to destroy him in Carfax Abbey. The Count is unable to hypnotize Van Helsing, who takes a crucifix from his coat and warns him off. Harker visits Mina on the terrace as she admires the night and the fog. A bat squeaks at her and she attacks Harker, but he is saved by Seward and Van Helsing. She confesses to Harker that their love is finished.
Dracula hypnotizes Nurse Briggs into removing the wolfsbane from Mina’s neck and opening the windows. Van Helsing and Harker follow Renfield to Carfax Abbey and see Mina with Dracula. The latter thinks that Renfield led them there and kills him. Van Helsing and Harker hunt for Dracula and find him in his coffin. Van Helsing puts a stake in his heart and Harker finds Mina as she returns to normal.
The film was directed and co-produced by Tod Browning from a screenplay by Garret Ford, based on the 1924 stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, in turn based on the 1877 novel by Bram Stoker. It was the first sound film of Dracula. It was shot on set at Universal Studios in California, and in the evening the Spanish-language version was shot there. It was a roaring success and had a powerful influence on the entire film industry.
Having been impressed in 1922 by the film Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau, who had been sued by Bram Stoker’s widow for copyright infringement, Carl Laemmle Jr. legally acquired the film rights to the story. What was originally supposed to be a grand film faithful to the book was toned down. Lon Chaney Sr. was supposed to play both Dracula and Van Helsing, as he had done in the silents, but he died suddenly. Lugosi had played Dracula on Broadway and talked the studio into hiring him, basically creating his career. Director Tod Browning was a silent film director and many of the actors were silent film stars, and the movie had some of the resulting mannerisms. Browning later directed Freaks, which was yanked from distribution and later became a cult favorite.
The music was from Swan Lake and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. In 1998, the film was released by Universal on VHS with a new score by Philip Glass. The DVD copy allowed one to choose between them. Newspapers reported that people in the audience fainted in shock, but this was probably a lie. An epilogue told audiences not to worry because there are no vampires, but this was thought to encourage belief in the supernatural. What? Screams and groans were cut. The film began the Universal Studio horror series, but Bela Lugosi would only play Dracula one more time—in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Other Dracula offerings from Universal starred John Carradine, who actually resembled the character as described by Bram Stoker. Lugosi played vampires in Mark of the Vampire (1935), Return of the Vampire (1943), and Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), buy these were not Dracula films.
Armadillos appeared in Dracula’s Castle because they are sometimes found in graveyards and were mistakenly believed to eat corpses. One of Lugosi’s tricks in playing Dracula was not to blink. Science-fiction writer Richard Matheson’s story I Am Legend was inspired by Dracula. “If one vampire is scary, what if the world was full of them?” A teenage girl on the Transylvania coach was played by Carla Laemmle, the niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle. She lived to be more than 100 years old. Dwight Frye, who played Renfield, was typecast as a manic character his whole life. The studio would not allow Dracula to suck Renfield’s blood, as it smacked of homosexuality. He was only allowed to do that to women.