Thursday, April 2, 2009

How “Dracula” invented the modern horror film


My life changed at 10 pm on Saturday 9th July 1983.

I was what generation upon generation, separated in all other matters by unbridgeable chasms of social change, would have unanimously deemed an odd boy, simultaneously morbid and extrovert, and affecting a worldly-wise cynicism considered precociously endearing in a small child, less so as I reached double figures and downright obnoxious in later teenage. (Oddly enough, now that I am beginning to lose my hair it has gone back to being endearing.)
Outdoorsy things interested me not at all. I am perhaps the only boy in history who never finished Treasure Island on the grounds that, fascinated though I was by all the comings and goings at the inn in the beginning, my attention wandered when they hit the open seas.

I basically had one big interest. My parents tried to get me to acquire a few more; some took, some didn't, but none displaced my one true passion which was always, for some reason I cannot explain since it dates back further than I am able to recall, Dracula. That my mother was not wholly in approval of this obsession did nothing to dampen it. Nothing could. If I could convey to you even a fraction of how obsessive I was you would probably fear for your own sanity on the grounds of contamination.

But not until the age of 10, on Saturday 9th July, 1983, did I actually see a Dracula movie.
That Saturday marked the first time that a late night horror show had coincided with my parents deeming me mature enough to stay up and watch it. And with the good luck that so often accompanies such things, it was a double-bill of the peerless 1931 original Dracula and Frankenstein, week one of a season of Universal classics that ran through the summer. Dracula played at 10pm (which was late in those days: stations shut down at around midnight), with Frankenstein following it at 11.15 (and in those days still lacking the famous scene in which Karloff's Monster throws the little girl in the lake: one of the great holy grails of lost cinema, it was long presumed lost forever, and we felt hugely privileged when it was unexpectedly rediscovered and reinstated a couple of years later. Now we all take it for granted and I find myself feeling oddly privileged that I ever had the chance to see the film while it was still missing.)
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Neither the first nor the last time that a picture of Glenn Strange would be used to represent Karloff - but this page of the Radio Times still gives me goose-pimples.
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I knew as much about them as was possible without actually seeing them. I had read their production histories, knew the plots, stared for hours at the famous stills. Alan Frank's Horror Movies was not so much a book to me as a portal to an enchanted world.
But finally seeing them, seeing those stills move, was an experience that has stayed with me throughout my adult life. And while other films in the season also made a huge impression, especially The Mummy, The Raven and House of Frankenstein, it was that first double-bill that remained my ultimate favourites.
And of the two, Dracula was the clear first choice. It still is, actually, whatever their relative merits as pure cinema.
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Looking back, I can now see that I was discovering (or confirming) a love of two things: Dracula and, more generally, the iconography of American popular culture in the late twenties and early thirties.
For the film is no sober adaptation of a Victorian British novel. It is a spunky rethinking of it, set in the year it was made, and adopting and adapting the milieu of the American society drama. Lugosi’s vampire is not different from the book’s by accident: the character has been radically reconceived.

There’s another 1931 movie, called Secrets of a Secretary, in which Claudette Colbert plays a young woman who marries unwisely, to a conspicuously wasteful and extravagant lounge lizard (Georges Metaxa). Naturally, he turns out to be a parasite, who refuses to work, spends all her money and angrily insults and abandons her when her funds run dry.
It took me most of the movie to think who he reminded me of, but once the penny dropped it was astonishing. Here were the exotic East European accent (Metaxa was, in fact, Romanian), the shiny black skullcap of hair, the opera clothes: all the standard uniform of the society gigolo and European romantic mystery man.
And what was his narrative function? He is a bloodsucker, who gains the control of a beautiful young woman, drains and abandons her, and all with a cheerful, amoral selfishness. Variations on this character recur throughout pre-Code cinema, and conform in almost every degree to Browning and Lugosi’s conception of Dracula!
What Lugosi had done then, was to turn a fictional character that is old, isolated from modernity, physically unpleasant and pitted against British nineteenth century Victorian society, into a modern sexual predator, suave and foreign and mysterious, whose prey is the new, high-kicking, easily-led American gal of the Roaring Twenties.
The classic image of Lugosi’s vampire in his evening dress and cape, looming over a reclining female is an exact parody of the typical attitudes of high society lovers in contemporary drama.

In particular, there’s an oft reproduced still from Grand Hotel (1932) showing John Barrymore’s Baron looming over Garbo’s ballerina in exactly corresponding postures. I remember seeing it when I was young and wondering at first if it might be a still from a vampire movie. Everything is in place for it to be so: the woman reclining in loose, flowing white in an attitude of surrender, passivity and hypnotic languor, and above her the male, vigorous, swooping and in command, clad in black with slicked back hair.
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It is remarkable how many pre-Code society dramas feature a central female figure with a best friend who doesn’t make it to the fade-out, a casualty of one or other of the perils and excesses that await the youthful citizens of (to quote the title of a great Joan Crawford movie of 1931) This Modern Age. They suffered the consequences of unrestrained desire on behalf of audiences with little chance of following their example, but a keen desire to see the illicit pleasures they encountered on the way down.
The characters of Mina and Lucy, their relationship, attitudes (and fates), could have sprung straight from this formula. The scene in which Mina mocks Dracula’s accent and pretentious speech (after he meets them at the opera) and Lucy defends him (“I think he’s fascinating!”) plays like a moment from any one of a dozen other movies of their time. Lugosi is the threat not of the supernatural, which Browning does not emphasise, but of decadence and loose living, and the pursuit of sensation.

Then think of those three lovely undead girls that keep Lugosi company in his cellar.

By Hammer’s standards (still more by Coppola’s) they are demurely clad, their high-necked billowing shroud-dresses trailing in the dust behind them, with no hint of cleavage or even so much as an ankle on display, but my, are they gorgeous all the same!
With their dark, stylish make-up, their hair gelled and gleaming, one blonde, two brunette, they are the epitome of twenties glamour gone bad. They are the bad sister, the one that dated the bootleggers and went to the nightclubs, while Joan Crawford or Claudette Colbert worked hard as a secretary and made something of themselves. And this is where they have ended up: in the basement of a vampire’s castle, their beauty, and the ephemerality of their bobs and bangs, preserved forever in living death.
The very word 'vampire', in fact, was far more likely to conjur up images of Theda Bara than of Dracula to 1931 audiences, as revealed by Photoplay Magazine's review of the film: "... before it’s over you’re pretty confused about this vampire (a bat-like demon, not a lady in black negligee) business."
So, the famous Hollywood On Parade short, in which Lugosi bites Mae Questel mid-song, intoning, “You have booped your last boop!” is not so far from the world of Browning’s film as it may now seem!

This raises two points about Lugosi. First, it clarifies a fact that some film writers consider faintly ludicrous: that he received sacks full of passionate fan letters, and was considered, albeit briefly, a sex symbol. This matinee idol type (the tall, dark, foreign and mysterious) may have disappeared today, but Lugosi is by no means untypical of the breed. If Valentino is sexy, so is Lugosi.
Second, it renders similarly less ludicrous the actor’s own pleas, which became more plaintive the further they receded from likelihood, to be cast in romantic or light comic roles. Had he been launched in any other way than as Dracula this would have been a distinct possibility. He must have considered himself a Valentino or Paul Lukas type, frustrated by his accidental identification with a single role, but not as a horrifying or sinister personality per se. (Close your eyes next time you see a Paul Lukas movie and tell me who you see…)
Of course, his fame may have been short lived, as the Latin lover archetype retreated from visibility and with the thick accent that would always have conspired against general casting. But had he come to Hollywood ten years earlier than he did, there is every chance he could have been a huge sex symbol of the silent screen. (And if he had died as tragically and as young, there is no reason why the name Lugosi would not linger iconically as the name Valentino does today.)
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This is why, even now I am older and more critically objective, I continue to find Dracula a more interesting film than Frankenstein. The latter, like all of James Whale’s films, adopts entirely its own fairy book style rooted in English theatrical traditions. But Dracula is an American movie, made by Americans for Americans, and to the social historian of cinema it is more evocative and resonant. It was Dracula re-imagined for its own times, a time that also just happened to be the most stylish and vibrant – and visually distinctive – of modern American history. This was Dracula in the Jazz Age, vamping the vamps; it was Gothic filtered through the iconography and preoccupations of pre-Code.
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The film disguises its true intentions for about twenty seconds. In the first shot we are, just, in the realm of literary gothic. Beautiful glass-painted Transylvania skylines, the small inn, the nervous peasants, the horse drawn carriage… all seem to have come straight from the pages of Bram Stoker.
But almost instantly this spell is broken: “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass, are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.”
These lines are the first heard in the film, spoken by an American tourist in cloche hat and glasses, reading aloud from a travel guide. (The squeaky flapper voice, Helen Kane by way of Jean Arthur, belongs to Carla Laemmle, aka Rebekah Laemmle, Uncle Carl’s beautiful, bob-haired, dancing niece.)
Instantly, then, we realise that this is today, that is to say 1931. And Dracula, though clearly a product of this pre-industrial wilderness, has somehow survived (and kept up with the fashions, more or less) into a time when pre-industrial wildernesses start turning up on the summer travel itineraries of American college girls.
There’s something delightful about the fact that this place is both a land of wolves and vampires and dark powers and terrified villagers, and an international tourist stop. But this is exactly the world of Universal horror; a no man’s land between the present and the past, with the freedom to pick and choose the best of each: that modern sassiness of speech, the idiom of the wisecrack, by which thirties sophisticates identified each other, the latest fashions for the ladies, and the chance that our slumbers might be violated by some frightful fantasy of the pre-scientific imagination.
It’s a heady brew, because it brings horror home. The Gothic had traditionally been set in the past, this time the past is coming back to haunt the present. It was Hammer in the fifties that fetishised the Victoriana, even opting, with the utmost perversity, to set their version of The Mummy in the eighteen-nineties. Universal horror is almost always modern, sometimes even modernist, as in The Black Cat (1934 version).
The stage version of Dracula, on which the film is in fact based, was the first to modernise the story and update the Count, and as such was set entirely in modern London. But the film opts to retain the beginning of the novel, where we see Dracula in his Transylvanian castle - but he's still the drawing room vampire of the play!
It is sheer absurdity, just plain silly, yet so potent that today it doesn't even bother us or strike us as odd in the least. This complete discrepancy, this mad and lazy convenience, blithely codifies the fundamental visual language of talking horror cinema.
Here, for centuries, in a country of gibbering peasants, has dwelled a vampire who is sleek, charming, dinner-jacketed, elegant to the point of immaculate with the little medallion and the hair slicked back, yet lives in ornate filth, in conditions of stately, picturesque but absolute decay, among cobwebs, wild armadillos and loose dirt on the floor of his reception hall.
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Clearly, the risk of the whole edifice crashing down amidst gales of audience laughter was a distinct possibility. So, what Browning has done is to downplay the supernatural parts, get the spooky stuff at the start out of the way in one reel, and leave the real frights off screen for the characters to describe. (“What’s that running across the lawn? Looks like a huge dog!”)
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Not that he's above moments of extreme weirdness in that first reel, however. The armadillos in Dracula's cellar, certainly, are weird. The giant wasp crawling out of the coffin is weird. Or is it meant to be what it clearly is: a normal-sized wasp with its own little coffin? And wouldn’t that be even weirder?
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One side-effect of this scraping away of supernatural barnacles, and of centralising the action in London society, is that John Harker, robbed already of his participation in the Transylvanian prologue and of two thirds of the syllables of his first name, is rendered a peripheral, faintly ludicrous figure. (He's played by David Manners, now remembered chiefly for his roles in Universal horrors but very nearly a big star in the early thirties.) His girlfriend is talking in an eerie monotone to a bat flapping above her, and he’s slapping at it and saying, “Look out, it’ll get in your hair!” When she tells him of her hallucinatory nightmares, his considered response is, “Darling, we’re going to forget about these dreams, think about something cheerful, aren’t we?”
With almost nothing to do and little chance to appear heroic, if ever there was a truly redundant male it is he, with all the vampire-hunting know-how going to Van Helsing, and all the sexy mysteriousness coming from the chap who thinks being really dead must be glorious.
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Stalking London in top hat and cape, Dracula becomes a Jack the Ripper figure, closing menacingly on a flower seller in another superbly staged near-silent sequence, and reserving his wit and table manners for the upper class girls he desires for reasons above mere sustenance. These most eligible of young English ladies are Helen Chandler as Mina and Frances Dade as Lucy..

There are so many posed publicity stills of Lugosi carrying Helen Chandler on various bits of the set, him glaring at the camera, her in a swoon; they must have been taking them all day. No fun for either, I’d have thought. Chandler, pilfered from Broadway when the talkies came in, seems to have been quite the eccentric, as this account from the book ‘Hollywood Players: The Thirties’ suggests:
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Once, after reading a book on the life of Gauguin, she rushed out and bought huge supplies of paint tubes, several oversized canvases, and “an inspiring easel plus a bouquet of lovely little brushes.” However, oils took too long to dry and this annoying fact destroyed her impressionist period. She had an aversion to banks because they bounced her checks due to her forgetfulness about making deposits. She disliked anything governmental, especially since she was being constantly besieged with income tax “nonsense”. She hated opening letters, theorizing, “If you don’t open and read something, you can prove you didn’t know a thing about it.”
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She once said in an interview: “They have problems with me in pictures. With this sharp profile, when they turn me sideways to the camera, I look just like the edge of a Bible.”
Actually, her life, quirky wit aside, seems to have been that all-too predictable one of great promise and wooing words being converted into disinterest and dismissal when plans do not immediately run as predicted. She did a few more movies, putting her gift for sardonic asides to good use in The Last Flight (1931), John Monk Saunders’s Sun Also Rises among the airmen, where she was a welcomely feminine distraction from David Manners and the other angry young men. But already disenchanted, she opined in an interview:
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Hang me for heresy if you like, but sounding the screen robbed it of glamour. I used to love the silent movies, their beauty the enchanting lighting, the slow gestures. Just try to open your mouth and look soulful. The voice reveals, ah, it does!
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A few trips back to Broadway seemed disloyal, and Hollywood more or less gave up on her; the rest is bad films, dwindling offers, mental breakdowns, near-deaths unconscious in a burning room, committal to mental hospitals… the typical spiral.
But one from which she was, thankfully, rescued, and best of all, by Lillian Roth. Roth, who had been through the mill a few times herself, invited her to stay at her house and get better. This was at the end of the fifties, for Helen and Lillian several lifetimes away from that time, on Broadway and then, just for a moment, in Hollywood, when there really was nothing to do but enjoy yourself. How often do you think they discussed those days, the fun times and the absent friends and the people that screwed them over, as the evenings drew in, around the kitchen table?
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Frances Dade had been doing okay for herself in exactly these sorts of socialite roles, with Manners in He Knew Women, with Ronald Colman and Kay Francis in Raffles and female lead in Cukor’s Grumpy, all in 1930. She’d come to Hollywood via the lead in a touring production of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (She billed herself as Lorelei Lee for a time.) But for some reason she didn’t go much further than Dracula; we will cross paths with her again, however, when she appears with Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon (1931) over at Paramount.
Dracula’s defining sequence is Lugosi’s nocturnal assault upon Dade, the ultimate demonstration of pre-Code vampirism. We see her undressing by her window while Dracula watches outside, then getting into bed and finally lying prone in her satin sheets as a bat flaps excitedly at the window. Then Lugosi is there in the room (we see nothing so absurd as an actual transformation), his hand outstretched, closing in on her as she sleeps… It was at this moment, I suggest, that Dracula became the smash hit movie of the year.
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Once the girls are bitten, and we’ve had the shots of the undead Dade on the prowl, the film is inevitably anti-climactic. Dracula is exposed for the cad he is with a clever trick at a dinner party, having already crossed swords with a peevish John Harker:
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Dracula – In my humble effort to amuse your fiancĂ©e, Mr Harker, I was telling her some rather grim tales of my far-off country.
Harker (indignant) – I can imagine!

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Thus, the dramatic exposure scene over and done with, and with little chance of a chase back to Transylvania, all that remains is to get the men up to speed, track the Count back to his London lair – cobwebs, windows smashed in, filthy cellar: a real home from home - and drive a stake through his heart. (Off-camera, of course.)
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I thought I'd never enjoy myself so much again.