Sunday, February 13, 2011
The Blood is Still the Life
The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 80th anniversary of the release of Dracula.
They may be cold to the touch, but right now vampires are pretty hot. Shows such as Vampire Diaries and True Blood, movies such as Let the Right One In and its American remake Let Me In, books such as the Twilight series (and its accompanying movie adaptations) and even a whole subculture of teenage "vampire-wannabes" serve as constant reminders to us that vampires currently are a very popular cultural phenomenon. Yet, in their various literary, movie and TV incarnations, vampires mostly are portrayed as tortured, sensitive souls cursed to continue their earthly existence through the blood sacrifice of others. I'm not entirely sure when this shift toward conceiving of vampires as sympathetic took place but I think it owes a great deal to the novels Anne Rice wrote in the '70s and '80s. Before romantic, melancholy characters like Lestat and Louis came along, vampires were seen (like werewolves, mummies and Frankenstein) primarily as monsters. They were evil, bloodthirsty beings who actually enjoyed taking the lives of others in order to survive. Almost nowhere is this is more apparent than in Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, which celebrates its 80th anniversary today. In looking back at this horror classic, one recognizes many of the very qualities that would come to be rejected by modern-day vampire enthusiasts while simultaneously seeing several of the very aspects that entrance them with that whole dark underworld in the first place.
Browning's was not the first cinematic treatment of Bram Stoker's novel. Despite being unable to secure the rights, the great F.W. Murnau adapted it into his 1922 silent Nosferatu and was subsequently sued by Stoker's widow. Murnau's Count Orlock (sinisterly played by German actor Max Schreck in a lot of make-up) was a repulsive creature whose evil was manifested in his hideous appearance which, incidentally, more closely resembles the character described in the original book. Browning's Dracula, on the other hand, is all too human. Played by the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi (who originated the role in a successful Broadway play written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston), he's handsome, charming, poised, well-dressed, well-groomed and rather sexy. It is this version of the character that most influenced the way the public perceived vampires and Lugosi's Central European elegance and flair played a big part in that.
Though it seems somewhat campy today, Lugosi's performance is iconic and captivated people's imagination at the time. He brought a theatricality to the role that helped to establish vampires as larger-than-life beings who walk, practically glide, untouched through the world of mortals. As Roger Ebert once wrote, "Vampires are always in pose mode... The buried message of many scenes is: Regard me well, for here I am, and I am thus." Speaking in a broken English accent (which, contrary to legend, did not indicate that Lugosi had to learn his lines phonetically; by the time the film was made he spoke English very well), Lugosi welcomes an unsuspecting Renfield — played with equal theatricality by Dwight Frye — into his castle like "a spider spinning his web for the unwary fly." His lines, mostly absent from the original book, are spoken in such a slow, deliberate manner that they have become just as famous for their delivery as for their words: "I never drink... wine," "Listen to them: children of the night. What music they make," and the simple yet hypnotic introduction, "I am... Dracula."
The Deane/Balderston play served as the basis both for the interpretation of the Dracula character and for the structure/aesthetic of the rest of the film. This is why, after a spectacular opening in Dracula's Transylvanian castle, the film takes place mostly in England and takes on the feel of a typical "drawing room" mystery. Browning's approach to the look of the film is appropriately dark and moody but not especially inspired. It has been speculated that the passing of Browning's original choice for the role of Dracula, his friend Lon Chaney, so upset him that he didn't invest as much effort and care into the production as he otherwise would have and in fact left it to cinematographer Karl Freund to do most of he shooting. Interestingly, the crew that filmed the Spanish-language version of Dracula (since it was common practice at that time for studios to make a completely different film utilizing the same sets and costumes rather than simply dub the existing film with foreign languages) created a far more visually interesting product with more camera movement, better staging of certain sequences and even some special effects that made the English version seem a little hokey. What it didn't have, however, was a Dracula with the charisma and screen presence of Bela Lugosi.
There is another element that to modern audiences is noticeably absent from the film. Outside of the opening titles (where Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" can be heard) and a scene in a concert hall, the film is completely devoid of any music. Dracula was one of Browning's first sound pictures and his discomfort with the new technology seems apparent in his use of sound. There are long stretches of silence in the which, though they invoke an atmosphere of suspense and dread, clearly reflect a filmmaker whose training stems from silent cinema. Esteemed minimalist composer Philip Glass attempted to rectify this in 1998 by writing a score for a string quartet that he intended to accompany the film and indeed most DVD versions now have the option of viewing it with a separate audio track that includes Glass' contribution. Although Glass is undeniably talented and the score is itself worth listening to, I personally find it too distracting and intrusive. It transforms Dracula from a piece with perhaps too many silent moments to a film with practically no silent moments. Thus, whenever I sit down to watch it (which usually is every Halloween) I have to do so without Glass' music to really enjoy the experience.
It might be hard now to imagine that anyone ever thought Dracula was scary, but the truth is that people were frightened by what they saw. Decades before newspapers would report that The Exorcist had patrons fainting in the theaters, Dracula had a similar effect on audiences and, to the delight of the studio, it was an enormous box office success. Looked at today a lot of it seems amusing at best and rather silly at worst, but several things save it from being simply a relic of a bygone era: Freund's striking cinematography, some magnificent sets, a few genuinely creepy moments and memorable performances by Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan (as Van Helsing) and, of course, Bela Lugosi (who would become so identified with the role that he would have a lifelong love/hate relationship with it). What also cannot be ignored is the role it played in initiating a whole pantheon of cinematic vampires that would later follow. Just as Bram Stoker's book coalesced and solidified much of the language and imagery that is now associated with the mythology of vampires, Tod Browning's Dracula would establish much of what makes vampires attractive to a moviegoing audience: their mystery, their immortality, their sex appeal. They may have started out as engaging villains and ended up as angst-ridden antiheroes, but regardless of how they got that way, without the work of Browning and Lugosi, we wouldn't have any of the vampire media that we do today... though we shouldn't blame it for that.