Friday, October 29, 2010

DRACULA (1931)

In my October 16 post, I repeated the widely-held view that FRANKENSTEIN helped to launch the first "cycle" of horror movies in 1931; similarly, it helped to kick off the second cycle of the Golden Age in 1938 when it was officially re-released by Universal after the collapse of the so-called horror film ban. I added that --if the SHOCK! syndication series did indeed spawn the Monster Culture revolution--- then FRANKENSTEIN also midwifed a third horror cycle: seeing Golden Age horror movies on TV.

King Features syndicated television column,
Salina [KS] Journal, November 17, 1957

DRACULA was FRANKENSTEIN's co-conspirator in initiating these three cycles. In 1931, DRACULA was made and released first, and its success helped to breathe life into the FRANKENSTEIN project. Later, DRACULA was paired with FRANKENSTEIN in 1938 at some independent movie theaters as a "mammoth horror show" double bill that overcame the horror movie ban (I'll talk more about this when I get to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN); Universal saw the money that could be made with these chillers, so they struck new prints of the film and re-released them together. The two movies stayed in re-release circulation for years afterward, first as Universal movies and then as Realart Pictures after 1951. And finally, because of the films' notoriety and box office success, DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN were the two films that almost all stations with the SHOCK! package aired first on TV. In this sense, then, DRACULA, too, helped FRANKENSTEIN to pioneer the three major classic horror movie cycles which were so crucial in the development of mid-century Monster Culture.

Chicago Sun-Times, January 11, 1958

But many contemporary horror fans may find it hard to imagine DRACULA as a landmark film of any kind. After all, aside from the absolutely wonderful first half hour or so, the movie is rather stilted, stagey, and slow-moving. And for some of today's movie-watchers, the performances can be off-putting: Dwight Frye's fabulously over-the-top Renfield, Béla Lugosi's operatic (almost kabuki!) Dracula, and pretty-boy David Manners' mannered moping as John Harker have elicited snickers from a handful of audience-members every time that I've seen this movie within the last twenty years. Is there a way to get today's horror movie watchers to appreciate DRACULA?

DRACULA works for me because every time I watch it I try hard to trick myself into taking seriously the re-release tagline for this motion picture: "A NIGHTMARE OF HORROR!" I'm not saying that the story unfolds in a sort of sideways dream logic-- on the contrary, the narrative is conventionally linear-- but rather that some of the film's visual compositions and its camera movements have a sort of eerie, hypnotic feel to them. In other words, if you can convince yourself to shed your "reality television"-fed idea of what realism is supposed to be and see DRACULA as an attempt to cinematically craft a bad dream, then you may find an easy way into it.

I know that this sounds like I'm making excuses for Tod Browning's sometimes shoddy filmmaking (and I probably am), but look at it this way: previous to DRACULA, most of the spooky talkies made in the US were revealed in the end to be old-school "Scooby-Doo"-style hoaxes rather than supernatural events: there was a very human crook dressed up like a undead monster in order to frighten off interlopers, but then some meddling kids solved the mystery and unmasked the bad guy (or in the case of Browning's own film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT [1927], it's the good guy who comes up with the scheme to use supernaturalism in order to break the case). This is what audience members were accustomed to, but DRACULA was different-- as George E. Turner says in an old American Cinematographer article, "a number of sound pictures of the spine-chilling variety had preceded DRACULA, including such popular numbers as THE TERROR, STARK MAD, THE CAT CREEPS, THE BAT WHISPERS, and THE GORILLA [...] The scary stuff was intermingled with comedy and anything that appeared paranormal was always revealed as the machinations of malevolent human beings. What made DRACULA different was that the audience was expected to accept the villain as a genuine vampire and not another crook in disguise. There was a strong feeling in the industry that the producers were insane to ask moviegoers [...] to suspend disbelief in a medieval superstition."

Maybe Browning (or Karl Freund, depending on which theory you subscribe to about the real director of this picture) recognized that the best way to get people to buy into the movie was to present it as a nightmare. And you have to admit that there are some arresting, unsettling scenes of Hollywood Gothic that seem thoroughly oneiric in DRACULA, even when the various characters aren't talking about their dreams and strange visions.

Take the much-mocked pair of armadillos in DRACULA: really, there's no way in the world that a couple nine-banded long-nosed armadillos that are native to the southern North America could have found their way alive across the Borgo Pass into Dracula's castle in Transylvania. But as freakish-looking nocturnal, bug-eating creatures that you'd hope to never find in a creepy ruined mountain fortress in the middle of the night, the armadillos are perfect... it's just the sort of uncanny thing that a slumbering unconscious mind would conjure up for a scare. And the same goes for the opossums: wouldn't your dreaming brain picture an oversized monster-rat as a possum?

Think, too, about Dracula's and Renfield's multiple appearances at Seward's home. The two of them come and go seemingly at will-- they pop up on terraces and in sitting rooms and hover over the beds of sleeping women, strolling around unannounced as if they've just dematerialized through the walls, like those phantasms of people who wander around in your dreams. And there's really nothing that anyone can do to stop them: Renfield is not at all concerned when an exasperated Seward says that he's going to use a straitjacket to keep him from always slipping away from his cell and turning up in the doctor's house; Van Helsing's expert use of garlands of wolfbane around windows, doors, and Mina's throat are little more than small speed-bumps for Dracula. Renfield and Dracula keep coming at them all with the stubborn persistence of a nightmare.

I'm sure that I'm making too much of this, but I find that watching DRACULA from this "nightmare" viewing position helps me to enjoy it more. Maybe this approach will help new viewers of the film to accept it. As I looked at it again last night, I kept thinking to myself that watching DRACULA for the first time on one of those early postwar American TVs on some late-night SHOCK! showcase in 1957 probably would have added a lot to the dreamlike nature of the whole thing. Forget for a minute your 55" LCD HDTV and Blu-ray player and try to imagine seeing Lugosi's vampire as a fuzzy antenna-reception ghost drifting around in that weird, glowing, blue-gray cathode ray tube flicker... you witness his visitation as you sit alone on a couch, in a living room lit only by a low-wattage TV lamp, listening to the wind outside quietly rustle the fallen leaves on a dark, chilly October night... It must have been a satisfying horror movie experience for many.

NEXT: "A nightmare of mystery takes place on an island of terror in the Shock feature film presentation THE CAT CREEPS. There's a thrill a minute, a shiver a second, in this story of murder on an island! Don't miss THE CAT CREEPS!"


Mirek said...

As with FRANKENSTEIN, I know I saw DRACULA in a film festival, but that predated by years my experience with FRANKENSTEIN. I was certainly fidgeting in my seat after the first twenty minutes or so.

I think, the deficiencies of the film arose through the years as viewers became accustomed to watching films with a quicker pace and editing--and a musical score.

Still this is Lugosi's show, and whenever he's on the screen, one if riveted.

Interesting "head-space" to get into the mood for the film, Creeping Bride. I can't recollect well my TV experience with this film, but I know I needed to watch it--and to the end. For Lugosi and his interpretation of Dracula.

BTW, I'm wondering what the reasoning is for the widely held view that it was FRANKENSTEIN, and not DRACULA, that kicked off Universal's horror cycle. Surely DRACULA started the ball rolling, even as a financial success for Universal in those desperate Depression years.

The Creeping Bride said...

Yes, chronologically, DRACULA was first. But I think that the distinction is that it was marketed so very differently than FRANKENSTEIN was-- it had been a successful play for a long time and Lugosi was a (sort of) sex symbol (for some), so Uni marketed this a kind of dark romance despite its overwhelming supernatural nature. What was the ad-line they used? Something like "The strangest passion ever known!" or whatever...

In contrast, FRANKENSTEIN was marketed as full-on, straight-up horror... unlike Lugosi's proto-TWILIGHT vampire sex appeal, Karloff's makeup certainly wasn't going to arouse anyone to anything other than revulsion. And in retrospect, I think, people regard FRANKENSTEIN as being far more horrific and horror-ific than DRACULA, you know?

But technically speaking, yeah, you're right, DRACULA should be the "first." But in the end, it's really so hard to uncouple the two movies: they're together in 1931, together in 1938, and together in 1957.

kochillt said...

Nothing can compare with the atmospheric twenty minutes that begin DRACULA. We always tried not to miss it because we never knew when it would be shown again! Second only to 1931's FRANKENSTEIN as the number one champion on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, WIIC-TV (now WPXI-TV) hosted by Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille (14 times aired to 12).