At the end of the twenties, the arrival of talking pictures opened up new possibilities for scaring audiences. One of the earliest full-length talkies was a horror movie, The Terror, in 1928, although they weren’t actually called “horror movies” until Universal started using the term after the success of Dracula.
The studio had paid $40,000 for the screen rights to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula (unlike German director FW Murnau, who had changed the names to make the silent Nosferatu in 1922 and encountered immediate legal trouble from Stoker’s estate). Now, director Tod Browning hoped to turn silent horror star Lon Chaney into the screen’s first talking vampire.
Sadly, “the man of a thousand faces” died of cancer in 1930, so they turned instead to a very tall Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, who had played the blood-sucking count in John L Balderston’s successful US stage adaptation. (The man who played Professor Van Helsing in that production, Edward Van Sloan, was also cast in the film.) Lugosi’s heavy accent turned out to be his fortune, even though it had once been a handicap – having fled Hungary on his way to New York in 1919, he’d learned the lines for his first English-language stage play, The Red Poppy, phonetically, not actually understanding them. He understood Dracula and gave the definitive performance, with lines such as his now-immortal greeting, “I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.”
Technically, doubt has since been cast on Browning’s direction: he cuts away from many key scenes, such as the stake through Dracula’s heart, and undoubtedly messed up the spooky effect of shining two spotlights directly into Lugosi’s eyes – as one always missed its mark, giving him a squint. But the film’s success was unstoppable. It opened in New York on Valentine’s Day, 1931, with the tagline “The Strangest Passion the World Has Ever Known!”