Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: DRACULA (1931)

at 2:30 PM
We finish off our run through Dracula stories with the movie that solidified the character mythos for the past 85 years.

DRACULA (1931)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Garrett Fort, based on the novel by Bram Stoker. But see IMDB for how complicated the writing credits get.

DRACULA in one sentence:
Yourself: It's like a Castlevania where you play as the main character's uncle.

Golem: This classic horror villain sure makes for one mildly irritating next-door neighbor.

Here's a story about me and DRACULA:
Yourself: Dracula was one of the few assigned readings in college I was eager to take on. As of ~8 years later it is the last novel I ever read.

Golem: Old movies are cool, so I hoped this would be, too.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: DRACULA is rather faithful to the text. The edits are the kind you would expect out of necessity to make a 75-minute film from a hefty epistolary novel covering years of narrative. The biggest change is the increased focus on Renfield, taking Harker's place as the one who visits Dracula in Metroidvania. The 'caring for Lucy' sequence has become 'caring for Mina' and 'hunting for Lucy in London' has become 'hunting for Dracula in London', although Lucy is still present and still turned. Two of her suitors, Holmwood and Quincey, are snipped entirely, and Seward is now Mina's father instead of a romantic component. This snips out the whole love quadrangle or whatever and makes the movie feel a little less of a sausage party, while retaining the idea of the temptation of a delicate virgin.

The story would best be summarized as "The tale of the living room of Dracula's girlfriend's house, starring the carpet, the bookcase, and the crazy guy living on the couch". The lack of any traits on any characters sorta makes sense (not that that makes it better) in the informative diaries and letters of the novel, but told straight it is that much more obvious how sparse the drama is, such that any tension is purely theoretical. What is holding back Van Helsing from striking at Dracula on the day of his arrival? 45 minutes running time and parlor manners. Or maybe he was waiting to see why Dracula is even in London? I sure was.

Yes, Professor "I Got Stakes But Not Character Stakes" Van Helsing could be replaced with an ancient tome with nothing lost (down to the scene where Dracula fails to suck his blood), so who could be the protagonist? Certainly not Harker, the emasculated cuckold who wants to protect his fiancee and can only impotently whine toward that end. And Mina herself is torn between worlds, but we never hear what she thinks about it. Together none of them can be bothered to do anything to hinder Dracula - or even Renfield, who is ordered back into his cell so frequently you start to wonder if they mean FreeCell. Since the plot only moves when Dracula moves it, I guess we have to say Dracula - who's on screen for like 20 minutes - is the protagonist. And the climactic action, the final turning point for our brave outsider facing constant lifestyle-shaming, is that he takes a nap like he does every day.

Golem: Setting an air of mystery and dread requires careful balance, one that DRACULA fails to strike. While Mina is pulled towards Count Dracula's influence, Harker and Van Helsing argue about what to do. They experience almost comical failure in trying to save her. If they can't keep Renfield locked up in his cell, what hope do they have of safeguarding Mina in her room? Dracula's visits to her feel more casual than dreadful. Her rescue from his clutches is just as comical: Harker accidentally drops a crucifix on her. She isn't rescued by wit or bravery or any kind of skill other than luck.

I kept trying to think of why THE HAUNTED PALACE worked for me while DRACULA didn't. The bottom line is, THE HAUNTED PALACE portrays a struggle within Charles Dexter Ward. And Mina definitely has something going on inside. She wears that scarf, after all, aware that she's got something to hide. But like Yourself says, we never hear what Mina thinks. If there's a conflict there, show it! I personally figured she was secretly under Dracula's influence from their first night together and that she was scheming all along. That made her transformation-under-the-crucifix scene fall flat.

We also get too personal with Dracula. He literally lives next door and drops by for visits. There's something to be said for irony, like when a character faces something dangerous that we can recognize while the character can't. Van Helsing dashes any irony though, and the whole next-door Dracula experience is weird but not unsettling.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: The consuming blackness of Dracula's castle is accentuated by the ancient film's inability to capture low-light settings - the corners of any frame look like an encroaching black fog. The sets themselves dwarf the actors, conveying the expanse of the fortress in just a few rooms.

Once things settle in to the Seward Sanitarium in London, the movie is phrased like a fucking sitcom. The sets aren't bad, but it definitely doesn't deserve to be called an asylum. The narrative is pretty completely attached to the Seward living room and only occasionally shoots off to the office or bedroom down the hall. It certainly seems like we get into a lot more shenanigans since that kooky European fella moved in next door! I bet he's going to poke his head around the corner any minute!

Golem: Immense care goes into the film's opening, where we see rural Transylvania, superstitious villagers, creepy winding roads, and huge, crumbling castles. Then Dracula moves to London. As Lucy notes, the contrast between Dracula and contemporary London is just funny. The Count makes like a socialite and goes to the theater, for instance. Everything in London feels safe and orderly, with none of the creepy or evocative sets and shots you see in Transylvania. That said, the ending gives some time to Dracula's basement, a space made creepy by its sheer expanse. It works well set against London, the city of corridors and crowded rooms. It's a cozy town.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: It's not hard to appreciate how cool Bela Lugosi is, though it's a little hard to grasp what about that appealed so strongly to British teenagers of the 1980s. He seems like a fine modern gentleman that would be great at parties, and it is a shame that his new neighbors are constantly so rude at him. He really does have that weird an accent so it's fun to speculate whether the other actors were as baffled by him as the characters at Dracula.

Golem: Yourself and I both couldn't figure out what Bela Lugosi was going for in some of his close-up biting shots.

Personally, I find myself drawn to Edward Van Sloan, the gentleman who plays Van Helsing. Those spectacles are really cool. More to the point, in a movie full of incompetence, it's easy to get behind someone commanding and knowledgeable like Van Helsing. His staredown with Dracula is the best part of the film. His speech is slow and careful, matching Dracula threat for threat, and he even pauses before getting out his trusty crucifix so that he can surprise Dracula right at the moment of his attack.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Here I get the good one. I dare you not to watch this video 5 times straight:

The Count is delightedly whimsical, smiling at the ominous howling, yet becomes subtly menacing in his intonation of "music", as if he's conscious of his wicked little turn of phrase. All the while there's that arrhythmic pronunciation, of course naturally the result of a non-English speaker adjusting for the language, but here creating an otherworldly aura, as if Dracula is filtering ideas from a totally inhuman perception.

Renfield's Reaction Shot is priceless, perhaps unintentionally, in that it looks less like terror and more like "what the fuck did you just say?"

Golem: Dracula brings his general spookiness everywhere he goes, but it makes its largest impact when he pays Dr. Seward a visit at the theater. The scene opens with a shot of Seward and friends in their box seats, perfectly framed on them. Then it pans over to Dracula, who's entering the show (bear in mind that it's already started). He's off in the distance, beyond an audience who's paying attention to the performance. In DRACULA, Dracula is always outside and alone. Not only is he unnerving because he stalks in the darkness, but also just because he finds a way to be solitary in a sold-out theater - as if he goes out of his way not to belong. The effect hits home for me at 0:55, when he peers at Seward from the back room. Dracula loves standing outside in doorways, whether it's outside Lucy's window or outside Dr. Seward's parlor room. It focuses attention on him by outlining him with a doorway, and it puts him outside of the room everyone else is in.

Icing on the cake: he hypnotizes the usher to gain access to Dr. Seward's company, and later, he says: "There are far worse things waiting man than death." In this scene, Dracula comes off as conniving and threatening.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: The mythology still sucks too. And I don't mean the backstory of vampires and Dracula and the rules, that's all summed up quite nicely in a single line from the Count to the effect of "Hey Van Helsing, you're pretty clever. For a guy who hasn't even lived one lifetime". I'm talkin' 'bout vampires as contemporary myth; the function of a supernatural story to enter cultural discourse and reify social values. The only social angle I can really draw out is something about the co-existence of faith and science. It doesn't seem to push either in a clear way: crucifixes, a symbol of faith, drive off Dracula, but Van Helsing also remarks that Dracula is only deadly to those who believe in him. So, like, believe in God hard enough that you can do science or something.

At least I now get to bring up my impeccable ability to know and say the difference between Catholics and Protestants. The crucifix is a Catholic fetish, but the "salvation through faith" stuff is more Protestant. Additionally, Catholics are the only ones that "drink blood" at mass (transubstantiation). This is a bit more compelling a series of facts set against the novel, where crucifixes don't scare Dracula, they instead banish his bloodlust. On any other day I'd try to stretch something about how Count Dracula represents the Vatican encroaching on Anglican ground, but a.) a 1931 American movie isn't doing that, even if its source material might be b.) I just don't care enough about Dracula or Stupid Protestants to continue.

Golem: Van Helsing says that the faith of yesterday may become the science of tomorrow. DRACULA is one of those works concerned with the death of religion and what we do when the universe stops revolving around God. In DRACULA, characters like Harker that have exchanged their faith for pure science miss the point. Which isn't to say that science itself is evil; instead, Van Helsing argues for a science informed by religion.

Note to future self on watching DRACULA:
Yourself: It is not hard to see DRACULA's historical significance or how it came to be. The novel and play had been popular for 40 years. Bela Lugosi gives the brand new genre of talky horror a definitive personification. But DRACULA is an example of the BIRTH OF A NATION principle: revolutionary and visionary don't always coincide.

It is sort of mind-blowing that the honest to god best version of this incessantly adapted and rewritten premise is none other than a bouncy little pixelated adventure from 1986.

Golem: DRACULA's not great, but it's also easy to underestimate. Moments that genuinely work are like golden nuggets.


Thanks so much for joining us for Movies You Already Should've Seen! Hopefully by now you've seen or already had seen some of these classic or arbitrarily selected films. It's been a bonafide treat setting aside some time each week to share the Great American Culture of Cinema ("gack"). In the off-season, I expect everyone to be honing their game: next time you're trying to prove a movie definitely sucks or definitely doesn't, try running through these prompts. They won't write your term paper for you, but they might at least uncover a thesis. Before we go - one final question:

If I've never seen and never wanted to see any of these movies, which one do I have to reconsider? And if my bucket list is exactly one over capacity, what flick can I safely shave off?
Yourself: PSYCHO will teach you whether you like movies or have just been playing along the entire time. It is mandatory viewing. DRACULA will bring even the most rollicking good time to a screeching halt.

Golem: THE HAUNTED PALACE is my favorite of the bunch. There's plenty on its surface to enjoy with an intriguing structure and enough to chew on. CRIMSON PEAK, on the other hand, is frustratingly abstract.

That's all folks! Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good Happy Christmas!

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