Dracula, as you well know, is considered one of the major monsters of the modern world, his rule over the vampires nigh-indisputable and influence over the others strong enough for him to gather about him a coterie of the mightiest monsters to defend castles for him. The question, then, is when did Dracula become such an influential monster? As I had never seen the classic Universal movies, I decided to start there to see where his powers first became apparent.
The original Dracula from 1931 is a close adaption of the stage version, and since this is one of the earliest adaptions of the novel and at the beginning of the popularization of the vampire, most of his powers are left to the imagination. At this point, he can turn into a bat and wolf and mesmerize mortals. He might have super strength, but this is uncertain. While he does have a measure of charm and charisma, this only gets him so far and he’s dispatched when people just walk into his unguarded house and stake him to death. At this point, Dracula is not yet the force he would become later.
The next film in the Universal Dracula canon is Dracula’s Daughter from 1936, a film in which Dracula doesn’t even appear. The titular daughter is actually trying to escape her father’s influence, but rather than being some ghastly curse or Dracula’s spectre taunting her from the afterlife, it’s simply a vampiric taint. She’s undead, we know, and can mesmerize people but she at least tries not to murder too many people. Basically, this film adds nothing to our understanding of Dracula.
It’s uncertain if Dracula appears in 1943’s Son of Dracula, but let’s proceed as if the man masquerading as Alucard is the man himself and not, as the title suggests, his son. The issue is also confused when Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel makes an appearance. In any case, if we treat this character as Dracula, we see more of what would eventually make him the superpower he’d be later on. Mist is added to his list of transformations and he turns someone to further his goals, making him a cunning survivalist and something of a master planner.
It’s a shame, then, that the next year’s House of Frankenstein sort of undoes all of this. Not only does it seem like every other movie has vanished from the Universal canon as a man named Lampini is carting around Dracula’s body in a casket and the count’s part is to be revived and immediately pressed into the service of a mad scientist. Dracula then goes on to some mild murder, and then he mesermerizes a girl and tries to kidnap her during a high-speed carriage chase. He then dies when he can’t reach his coffin in time. This is a very poor showing for Dracula.
We then have the next year’s House of Dracula. Once again, most of his previous appearances seem to be ignored despite the fact that the ending of the last movie ties directly in with this one. He spends most of this one trying to undo a blood condition with the help of another mad scientist who eventually kills him.
If the story ended there, then this article would have decided that Universal’s portrayal of Dracula may have lent a few building blocks that later characterizations could do a lot of building on, but the story doesn’t end there. Instead, it ends with 1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and this Dracula is a breath of fresh air. He’s an active participant in his own plans, arranging the delivery of himself and Frankenstein’s monster to Florida to enlist the aid of another mad scientist. While he doesn’t use any new powers, he does make use of his established toolkit quite effectively. This Dracula is a force to be reckoned with, and he ends the movie battling the Wolfman while Frankenstein’s monster hunts down Abbott and Costello. Granted, the battle is largely him running away and throwing things at the Wolfman, but the concept is still strong.
The question, then, is how did this version of Dracula as a master manipulator and lord of the damned solidify? Universal did little to help with this, as we’ve seen. Based only on the Universal canon, we can assume that it’s because Dracula is one of the monsters to actually want to be a monster and has agency in his fate. The Wolfman only wants to be cured, and poor Frankenstein has no idea what’s going on. There’s others, too, but they have their own things going on. So I suppose that Dracula is the leader because he… wants to be? It’s a lesson we can benefit from. You can be whatever you want, even if it’s the Lord of the Damned.