Wednesday, November 27, 2019

CANON OF FILM: "DRACULA"

DRACULA (1931)

Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: From the play script by Garrett Fort of the play by Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston based on the novel by Bram Stoker.



Certain films are just great and are really difficult to talk about. I should know, I’ve been trying to post a Canon of Film post on Tod Browning’s classic “Dracula” for years now, and I’ve been regularly putting it off. I think it’s because it’s so ubiquitious to us now that there isn’t much to actually say about it. I can basically just write the words, “Bela Lugosi” and “Tod Browning” and that could be my entire article. I guess I could say more, but it’s the original “Dracula”; I mean, it’s almost 80-years-old now and pretty much every interpretation of Dracula that’s been done on film since has basically lifted something from this movie, mostly some variant on Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula. It's almost impossible to talk about vampires place in modern media without this movie. Most film scholars will that the first great "Dracula" movie is F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu", which is true enough, but honestly "Nosferatu" feels more like a retelling of "Frankenstein" than it does a Dracula story. The antagonist has no personality and doesn't talk, he's just a symbolic representation of death and he's coming after the characters. The silent aspect, couldn't be helped; it was 1922, but it's easy to see why the Browning's first sound adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic character is by far the most influential of the films. 

And I'd still argue it as the best of the films. “Dracula,” still has many creepy scenes that hold up as terrifying even today, and still there’s some good campy old-movie laughs. What really separates the film though, and the reason it’s still the one that’s put on the pedestal over all Dracula films is the performance of Bela Legosi. The part that would forever define him is so memorable, people sometimes don’t realize just how little he actually is in the film. After the beginning sequence with the London real estate owner, Reinfeld (Dwight Frye) much of the film is people talking. Aristocrats, somewhat in awe of the newly-transplanted Transylvanian. When he shows up, there’s bats signaling his presence. He doesn’t speak in long complicated sentences, probably because he is still unfamiliar with English, (Some claim Legosi actually didn’t know English before doing the film, but that’s not true) but the words he uses, he chooses carefully. “I don’t drink… wine,” or “Children of the night, what music they make.”  I can’t even write the lines without them sounding like they have a Transylvanian accent.

The story is too well-known to even bother repeating, but I should note that at certain points in the film, almost every female character seems to fall in lust with Dracula, at least temporarily. 

Basically, this film invented the notion that dangerous humanoid mythological scary murderous characters, can be seen as sexy. (So, yeah, "Twilight" exists 'cause of this film. I'm sure it's sorry for that, but it also is the reason why "True Blood" exists, so, let's call it a draw.) Look, with most of the traditional supernatural villains, zombies, wherewolves, witches, I don't really get the entire appeal of them. Well, okay witches I kinda get, and I do get vampires, but there's- there's better media criticism out there on it to me, perhaps watch some Maven of the Eventide on Youtube if you really want to overindulge in vampires folklore and symbolic analysis. At any rate, it's clearly here in "Dracula" and this is also where it definitely began. 

That said, what seems to attract many people to this series and other similar series is the erotic undertones, not so much I think of Dracula himself, at least not Bela Lugosi, but the female characters almost willing submissiveness towards him, as though the extraction of a victim’s blood to them represent a form of overcoming sexual conservativeness. Yet, this is a horror film. Tod Browning is one of cinema’s most overlooked masters because his films, both silent and in early sound, were horror films. In a movie like “Freaks,” which showed many bizarre people working at a circus sideshow is full of frightening images today, and must have scared the shit out of people in 1932. With Dracula, he’s able to create tension, not just erotic, but pure frightfulness with just the awareness of Dracula’s sudden appearance representing a sudden change in  the mood and air. He’s the biggest, and most obvious elephant in any room we enters, even when he’s a bat, and when his presence is at full effect, he’s able to shift behaviors of people, purposely but not in any apparent obvious way, that immediately causes concern, until that is, he’s met with his own liabilities.

Also observe how this man is able to penetrate the upper levels of society, where as most vampires stories now takes place in the lower depths of it. In many ways, I always find the true villains are those who can move across the boundary line of class easily, especially in film. Without Tod Browning’s “Dracula,” Lecter’s “Silence of the Lambs,” wouldn’t be as intriguing. 

I haven't seen a lot of Browning's films; many of which are actually difficult to find, especially his silent films, many of which are considered lost, most notably, "London After Midnight" which there is a version of out there using stills from the movie that remains a new score and an attempted reconstruction of that film from other notes, but I wouldn't call an adequate replacement for the actual film; just the best we got of what's left. He made movies that weren't just horror or thrillers too, but it's the genre he's known for. He worked extensively with Lon Chaney at the peak of his career, but if there is one thing that distinguishes his best films, it's that he tends to like the idea of having outsiders infiltrate modern society. Often these were criminals, but often they were vampires and other horror creatures. "Freaks" was literally about a group of sideshow freaks, but the main story is basically a love triangle that goes awry when it's revealed that one character is solely interested in another for their wealth and money. It wasn't the first circus film he made either, usually listed as his breakout film was "The Unholy Three" about circus performers who decide to come together and run a con to steal precious jewels, using their circus skills and talents for the job. Browning was actually born into a circus so it's makes sense that he's the director who first finds sympathetic, or even humanistic portrayals of these characters. His biggest achievement is probably that he was the first filmmaker to take monsters and not see them as such.

Originally he wanted an unknown actor for Lugosi, prefereably a European one but Lugosi had been playing Dracula on stage on Broadway. He was a foreigner originally, even though he'd been in America for decades, it still works for the film. They actually shot the movie twice, once in English and once in Spanish, back then they shot the film twice in each language, so the Spanish-language version is around somewhere if you want a curiosity. The current version usually includes a Phillip Glass score that enhances the movie. The original actually didn't have a musical score, which was a bit unusual for a film, even at that time of early sound. It works without it, but I do tend to associate Dracula better with a haunting musical undertone.

I guess the only other note is for other to remembers that this is the barebones original telling. I've seen it with younger audiences who don't quite understand the modern appeal, but honestly, I always get sucked into it whenever I find it on anyway. Even in a culture that's taken this character and the concept of vampires in general and pulled them every which was possible for decades now, I still find the original remains compelling on it's own. It's part of why we keep going through these phases of turning these characters from frightening, to kitsch to sexy to back to frightening and back to kitsch again. Stoker may have invented the character, but it was Browning and Lugosi who have helped it stay around decades after.


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