Monday, February 14, 2011

Psychobabble’s 80th Anniversary ‘Dracula’ Companion

When I was studying film in college, I took a class on horror movies (there’s nothing like watching The Exorcist at 9:30 in the morning with a roomful of groggy 21-year olds), and was taken aback to see that Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula was not on the syllabus. All of the other major Universal classics were present and accounted for— Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man— but there wasn’t a caped Lugosi in sight. When my professor finally mentioned the film, I was surprised to hear that she was not only highly critical of the movie, but that it had gained a pretty poor reputation over the years for being stagy, slow, and static. I was even more shocked to learn that a great number of film historians think that Bela Lugosi’s performance as the title vampire was hokey and dated. Really? So much bad press for Dracula? The first serious (i.e.: non ‘Abbott and Costello meets…’) horror film I ever saw? Perhaps the most famous film in horror history?

When I next rewatched the movie for the first time in fifteen or so years (I was less obsessive about horror back then), I recognized what the critics had been griping about while rejecting outright that there was anything to gripe about. So it’s a bit stagy. So it’s a bit hokey. So Lugosi’s face is a tad over expressive. So what? Dracula was America’s first significant sound horror film, and by adapting and developing upon the tropes established in the silents—the looming shadows and vermin of Nosferatu, the silent monster of Caligari, the combination of sex and terror of Phantom of the OperaDracula established the monster movie for a new age of cinema, its stupendous success resulting in 1931 being the genre’s most monumental year. James Whale’s Frankenstein and Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde debuted that same year, and those three films gave us our three major monster archetypes: the vampire, the revivified/creation monster, and the transformation monster.

Horror’s class of ’31: Drac, Frank, and Hyde.
Historical significance is fab and all, but Dracula is also tremendously watchable despite what the naysayers say. Lugosi is magnetic and iconic. Dwight Frye as fly-munching Renfield is frightening, comic, and disarmingly tragic. The script encapsulates Stoker better than you think and more faithfully than many successive adaptations. The overall lack of music creates a quiet, consistent air of dread, while the excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake played over the opening credits sets that fey tone beautifully. So memorable are those few moments of music that the ballet’s “Scene 10: Moderato” immediately and far-reachingly became shorthand shorthand for Gothic horror, reappearing the following year during the credits of Karl Freund’s The Mummy and decades later at the climax of Darren Aronofsky’s modern horror masterwork of last year, Black Swan.

Dracula has certainly made its impact on me, even though I don’t rate it as my favorite horror movie (that would be Bride of Frankenstein), or even my favorite of ’31 (Jekyll). Still the Count is the most-mentioned monster on this site. Since I’ve spilled so much type on Dracula since starting Psychobabble in 2008, I’m not sure I have anything of great significance left to say about the film. So, to commemorate the classic’s 80th anniversary, which it celebrates today, I’ve compiled a companion collection of Dracula pieces published here over the past couple of years. Get ready to sink your fangs into Psychobabble’s 80th Anniversary ‘Dracula’ Companion!

The Lost World: John L. Balderston’s ‘Dracula’s Daughter’
Originally Published October 12, 2009

Developing a movie project is such a convoluted process that it’s amazing any films ever get made at all. There are the budgetary problems, and the casting difficulties, and the conflicts between directors and producers that have caused more than a few projects to be aborted before reaching term. In this on-going series I’ve dubbed “The Lost World”, I’ll be looking at some of these sweet abortions.

John L. Balderston’s Dracula’s Daughter

It all starts with Tod Browning’s Dracula, the film that kicked off the golden age of horror, inspired endless pretenders, and became Universal Pictures’ most massive money machine of 1931. Desperate for income during the Great Depression, Universal was hot to capitalize on Dracula’s success, and rapidly followed it with such iconic chillers as Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Old Dark House. Amidst Universal’s initial horror frenzy, producer David O. Selznick bought the rights to the excised opening chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula from Stoker’s widow Florence in 1933.
The chapter introduced Jonathan Harker and detailed his weird encounter with a female vampire he happens across while heading to Dracula’s castle. Stoker’s publisher clipped the sequence from Dracula for fear the novel was growing unwieldy, but it was published as a short story titled “Dracula’s Guest” two years after his death. Selznick, however, decided that Dracula’s Daughter was a snappier title for his film.

John L. Balderston

Selznick recruited John L. Balderston, who’d written the stage play on which the Dracula film was based (as well as the screenplays for Frankenstein and The Mummy) to compose a treatment. This was right before Hollywood really began enforcing the priggish Hays Code that drastically reduced the level of sex and violence permissible in American films, so Balderston packed his treatment with all manner of forbidden delights. With the title vampire left staked and dead (as opposed to “undead”) at the climax of Dracula, Balderston had to explore some of the second-tier characters for a premise. As related in David J. Skal’s indispensable book The Monster Show, Balderston decided to focus on Dracula’s trio of wan brides glimpsed so briefly and tantalizingly in Browning’s film. His treatment revives a most unsavory sequence from Stoker’s novel in which Dracula presents his brides with an infant as a sack lunch. The film was to have the Prince of Darkness’s daughter offering up the bagged baby, as she was left to rule over crumbling Castle Dracula while daddy was out of town. The brides gripe that they’d prefer some young men to feed on, and the daughter expresses her displeasure at their complaints by cracking an S&M whip at her stepmothers and warning that she is their “mistress” while Drac’s away.

Dracula’s peckish Brides

Balderston also intended to explicitly portray the daughter’s attacks as sensual seductions committed by a night creature that is “amorous of her victims.” She was to torture these fellows using the sundry “industrial-strengths whips, straps, and chains” she kept in her arsenal.

Unlike Browning’s Dracula, which started with a bang then gradually relaxed into a drawing-room mystery, Balderston intended his Dracula’s Daughter to build steadily toward a heart-jolting climax more in line with Stoker’s book. The film was to begin with Dr. Van Helsing setting off to Transylvania to do away with Dracula’s brides. Unbeknownst to the vampire hunter, the Daughter follows him to London. While there she snares a handsome aristocrat named Lord Edward Wadhurst in her thrall. Van Helsing and the aristocrat’s fiancée, Helen Swaything, chase the Daughter back to Transylvania, where they put her in her permanent grave. Incidentally, this treatment (as well as all subsequent versions of Dracula’s Daughter) has nothing in common with “Dracula’s Guest” aside from the presence of a female vampire.

Balderston’s Dracula’s Daughter was probably never going to get the green light simply based on its content: the sex, the gruesome violence, the torture, the baby eating. But it was legal matters that sunk the picture officially. According to Selznick’s agreement with Florence Stoker, no character or incident from any of her husband’s work aside from “Dracula’s Guest” was permitted to be included in the film. That means no Van Helsing, no Brides, and no baby in a bag. Selznick parted ways with Balderston and employed R.C. Sherriff, who’d contributed dialogue to The Old Dark House and written The Invisible Man, to rewrite the treatment. But when Universal Pictures sent the treatment to production-code führer Joe Breen, it was again rejected for its sex and violence, which Breen branded “dangerous,” and for Sherriff’s inclusion of Dracula in some flashback sequences.

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) performs her dad’s last rites. 

So Dracula’s Daughter just kept getting limper and limper. The exorcising of kinky sex and violence neutered the film as a truly shocking entity. The loss of the Dracula character devalued its appeal as a sequel to the original film, which hinged so much on the iconic presence of Bela Lugosi (although Van Helsing somehow remained). Hope was in the air when James Whale, horror’s single most original and extraordinary filmmaker, came on board to direct, but his plans to craft a lavish, big-budget picture were nixed by Universal, who were reluctant to dole out the dollars. They settled for a fairly humdrum screenplay by Garrett Fort, who’d worked on the script of the Dracula play, and hired Lambert Hillyer to direct. As released in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter is certainly not without its charms. Gloria Holden brings a spooky grace and possessed intensity to Countess Marya Zaleska, the title vampire. The scene in which she puts her father to rest during an al fresco funeral ritual is among the most atmospheric and unsettling in a Universal horror film. The overt S&M torture of Balderston’s treatment may be gone, but Countess’s seduction of a street girl is still pretty racy by 1930’s standards. Still it would be glorious for a contemporary filmmaker to resurrect the film blueprinted in Balderston’s nasty treatment. Until then, John L. Balderston’s Dracula’s Daughter will continue to be just another pile of bones languishing in the Lost World.

Psychobabble recommends the ‘Count Dracula’ miniseries
Originally Published October 27, 2009

Without question the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is this 1977 miniseries written by Gerald Savory and directed by Philip Saville for the BBC. As the title Count, French heartthrob Louis Jourdan obviously isn’t the repellent creature Stoker described, and Lucy’s suitors Arthur Holmwood and Quincey P. Morris have been distilled into a single character (wisely, on the part of Savory). Otherwise Count Dracula hits
all the beats of the book; it’s extended format allowing them to unfold more naturally than they do in the more famous Cliffs-Notes versions by Tod Browning and Terence Fisher. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Frank Finlay giving the best Van Helsing performance of them all. Here he’s a fully formed character with a fatherly sweetness (he takes time to make cups of hot cocoa for each of his fearless vampire killers!) offset by a subtly mad glint in his eyes. Jack Sheperd’s Renfield certainly isn’t as iconic as Dwight Frye’s, but it’s the most human performance of the madman ever delivered. And finally we get to see Renfield’s interactions with Mina (nicely played by Judy Bowker) instead of merely hearing about them second hand! The scene in which Mina consults Renfield about their budding vampirism enriches two characters coming from vastly different social strata but dealing with the same unique problem.

The film’s one problem—and it’s a significant one—is that most of the interior scenes are shot on video (which is pretty common of BBC productions), and these flat sequences jar with the shadowy, atmospheric exteriors caught on film. Fortunately, most of the film’s two hours and thirty minutes were shot on film, so it’s only an occasional disruption of mood. Saville’s experiments with video (ample use of solarization; primitive fish eye shots) sometimes date the film, although I liked his sparing use of grainy black and white effects, which kind of reminded me of E. Elias Merhige’s experimental film Begotten.

So, the real question is: is Count Dracula a better film than the Browning or Fisher films… or F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu for that matter? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. For visual beauty, Fisher’s 1958 Dracula is without peer. For sheer iconography, Browning’s 1931 film is the champ (there will never be a Dracula as unforgettable as Lugosi or a Renfield as unforgettable as Frye). For terror and gothic atmosphere, Nosferatu is the greatest. But for faithfulness and strong storytelling, Count Dracula has no competition. Since no one will ever make a film that masters all of these elements as well as these four do, let’s say that all are of equal merit and are really the only ones the Dracula dabbler needs.

Excerpt from Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 3
Originally published on October 14, 2010

Dracula (1931- dir. Tod Browning) *****

Dracula gets a bad rap, but I’ll defend it ‘til I’m moldering. The cliché is that the movie’s first twenty minutes is great, but the rest is a static bore. That’s not true. Yes, that opening portion is the movie’s strongest, mostly because Dracula’s castle is such a monumental picture of Gothic gloom, but Tod Browning’s camera is more mobile than I remembered after Dracula gets to London. Plus the film’s later half has some great confrontations between the vampire and Van Helsing and greater ravings from Renfield. It’s also a lot more faithful to Stoker than, say, Whale’s Frankenstein—which is rarely hailed as anything less than a masterpiece—is to Shelley. My only beef is there isn’t enough Lucy. But Lugosi is still the ultimate Dracula, and Frye is the ultimate Renfield. All hail.

Excerpts from 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Bela Lugosi
Originally published on October 20, 2010

4. At the age of 13, future horror movie mogul William Castle stole $1.10 from his sister to purchase a balcony ticket for the Dracula stage play starring Bela Lugosi.

5. Horace Liveright, producer of the stage version of Dracula, was initially skeptical that Lugosi had the necessary presence to play the count. When he took the actor aside to express his concerns, Lugosi’s demeanor turned so sinister that Liveright was convinced he had the right man for the job.

6. In his stage incarnation as Dracula, Lugosi was the first actor to play a vampire as physically attractive rather than monstrous. For better or worse, the sexy vampire remains the prevailing cliché.

7. Fifteen year old Carroll Borland was so aroused by Lugosi’s stage performance as Dracula that she wrote her own sequel to the story, a novel she called Countess Dracula, and personally read it to her favorite actor. The gesture inspired Lugosi to advocate her for the role of his “daughter” Luna Mora, in Mark of the Vampire.

9. Bizarrely, actor Ian Keith was the first choice to play Dracula in the only two movies in which Lugosi played the role: Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

10. Although the “Spanish” version of Dracula, filmed simultaneously with Tod Browning’s film, featured Carlos Villarias in the title role, a short outtake of Lugosi as the vampire arriving at the concert hall was cut into the film.

Excerpt from Assembling the Dracula Bad-Dream Team
Originally published on October 24, 2010

I haven’t done any research to back up this claim, but I’ll still wager that no book has been adapted to film and video more times than Dracula. Well, maybe The Bible, but who cares about that thing? According to imdb, there are some 175 movies and TV shows that feature someone named “Dracula”, and I’ll further wager that few of those characters haven’t at least tasted blood. As many times as Stoker’s tale has been brought to screens large and small, it has never really been staged with a perfect cast. It’s often the case that so much effort is put into making the vampire a formidable presence that the other characters are reduced to cardboard standees. Or certain Dracula portrayers are so iconic that others can’t help but pale in comparison (Pale! Because vampires are pale! Get it?). But what would be the prefect Dracula cast? Who’s the greatest count? Which Renfield was the most memorable fly-eater? And, nearly as important, which Lucy Westenra best embodied Lucy Westenra and which Quincey Morris made all other Quincey Morrises look like hackneyed hacks? We will try to answer these questions and more as Psychobabble assembles the Dracula Bad-Dream Team! “Bad” Dream Team… because Dracula give you bad dreams! Get it?

Here goes...

Dracula : Bela Lugosi

This required no thought at all. And as you read the words “Bela” and “Lugosi” next to the word “Dracula”, you, kind reader, most likely thought the very same thing. Granted, Max Schreck of Nosferatu was the scariest Dracula, Frank Langella of the 1979 version was the sexiest, and Christopher Lee was the actor who played the count more often than anyone else. But everything you think of when you hear the name “Dracula” can be traced directly to Bela: the thick accent, the intense eyes, the cape and medallion. Even the sexiness, although Lugosi may not quite embody contemporary concepts of sexiness the way that teenager in that crappy movie about crappy teenage vampires does. And though modern audiences sometimes accuse his classic performance of being too mannered, it is a great performance. He’s commanding, yet at times, rather genial. And if Dracula was the most unapologetically evil and least conflicted of the classic Universal Monsters, Bela’s affecting delivery of “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious! … There are far worse things awaiting man than death” suggests that even he realizes vampirism is not all it’s cracked up to be. Lugosi is Dracula to the degree that every other serious Dracula film feels lacking simply because the master is not present.

Renfield : Dwight Frye

There have been some memorable Renfields— particularly Tom Waits in the generally shitty 1992 version (more on that below) and Klaus Kinski, who did his own bug-eating stunts in the 1970 one,— but Dwight Frye in Tod Browning’s film is as iconic in his role as Lugosi is as the count. His mad eyes, his inimitable lock-jawed cackle, his hunched posture as he rivetingly describes a vision in which Dracula presented him with a squirming sea of rats. Even before Renfield goes mad, Frye is a colorful presence, expressing freaked fear as he gets Dracula to sign the paperwork on Carfax Abbey. But it’s that image of him peering from the shadows of a ship’s hull, crazy and hungry, that is the most haunting in Browning’s film.

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