Monday, January 30, 2017

"It Might Even Horrify You": A Retrospective on Universal Horror, Part 1 (Dracula)

In my looks at trash films from the '30s and '40s, I've made references to the Universal Horror movies, namely to kick them around a lot. But as I get older in this world and feel a need for literary integrity, even on a forlorn blog such as Ye Humble A-List, I feel like I should start making more connections in my writing and displaying more honesty with my work as a whole. As a result, I should probably stop kicking around movies that I haven't seen in a long time, or haven't seen in their entirety, especially when it's a relatively broad franchise as Universal Monsters. In fact, starting today and continuing over the next four days, I'll be taking a look no less than 24 films--no easy feat, even while being six shy of the 30 I looked at in last year's Godzilla Retrospective. Many of these films I haven't seen since I was a kid--others I haven't seen at all. Hopefully we'll find some gems among what largely consists of bad memories for me. So without any further ado, let's start with the first of the first: Dracula.

Dracula (1931):

I always hated Dracula, ever since I was a child. I think I hated Frankenstein more simply because I found the monster to be completely uninteresting. He lacked the admittedly-thin charisma of Count Dracula and so that film was just a little better. Watching Dracula again now confirms that I wasn't entirely wrong in that hatred: at the very least I can't understand why people would rank this higher than, well, most of the later adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel, including and especially Dracula vs. Frankenstein. While the film spends a lot more time, money, and effort on establishing setting and atmosphere compared to the films that followed, it can't escape the fact that it is a flat and dull thing even compared to Stoker's original tome. A lot of the mechanisms used to film it are stodgy and tired by today's standards, and there is little artistic merit to the film outside of visual spectacle.

We open with a real estate agent named Renfield making the knee-knocking journey up Borgo Pass, Transylvania to Castle Dracula. In an atmospheric scene reminiscent in some ways of the shots of isolated peasantry in The Witches' Mountain, we see the villagers express their hammy horror over the prospect of voyage there. Once he is there we learn that its inhabitant, the sinister Count Dracula, has bought Carfax Abbey in England, and once Renfield signs over the paperwork to him to complete the transaction Dracula's partially vampirizes him, turning him into his human agent. Once in England Renfield is placed in the asylum of Dr. Seward, coincidentally Dracula's neighbor at Carfax. Dracula soon meets Seward and his daughter Mina, as well as Mina's fiance Jonathan Harker, and their friend, Lucy Weston. After this establishment the movie begins to sort of suck, with scenes happening honestly sort of at random. We see Dracula feed on Lucy! Then we see Dracula ask Renfield to do something for him! Then...we see him feed on Lucy some more! Eventually, we meet the extremely dull Professor van Helsing just as Lucy is vampirized and staked, leaving Mina next on Dracula's menu. It leads to a final confrontation with Dracula and Renfield in the spooky old crypt...and a stake in the heart.

I started talking about how this film thrives largely on spectacle, and that in turn is tied to the fact that this movie shot down any hopes I had of the early Universal movies escaping the cheap, crass commercialism I usually associate with their later entries. Yet Dracula, for indulging spectacle to the degree it does, is one of the many reasons why it feels like a commercial film of today--a Transformers for the 1930s. I say that because everything is too flat, too arranged, to be as artsy as it seems to think it. Dracula's emergence from his coffin is legitimately chilling, but it is so unlike the cramped shots that comprise the rest of the film that it seems like nothing but a trailer moment. In fact the shot I'm referencing is in the original trailer for the film! In addition to trying to dazzle us with eye candy, the film cheats on its suspense at times. Notably there is a scare when Dracula sneaks up on Renfield, who is walking backwards through the expansive entrance to Castle Dracula. Why is he walking backwards? I'm sure he's supposed to be taking in the admittedly impressive space behind him (even I have trouble believing it's a movie set), but that's communicated poorly by both Frye's performance and the staging of the shot.

Like a lot of modern blockbuster stinkers it also assumes too much idiocy on behalf of the viewer: for example, they have to explain that Renfield has gone insane, as if him clutching a coffin and calling Dracula "Master" weren't enough. Also, I am far from the first person to comment on this, but Dracula's castle has fucking armadillos in it. One of my middle school teachers, who screened the film in a science class because I live in the United States, tried (somewhat vehemently) to justify that in the '30s few people had seen armadillos and they were frequently used in '30s horror films as a placeholder for what was tantamount to Freud-uncanny horror--maybe what it would be like to come face-to-face with a goblin shark or some other monstrosity of the deep that we've pseudo-popularized today as the poster child for "strange animals." Well, let me tell you, I have seen a lot of fucking 1930s horror movies at this point, and I have never seen a single one of them try to pass off armadillos as the National Vermin of Transylvania--sadly, that explanation makes more sense that the suggestion that they're supposed to stand in for rats, which the studio "couldn't afford" for some reason. (Write me a novel on the Rat Crisis of '31 where there were so few rats available that it was cheaper to get armadillos.) Call me prejudiced to the past, but did they really think that showing these dopey, cuddly little creatures wouldn't shatter the mood they were struggling to establish, unless everyone watching the movie was that terrified of mammals they'd maybe occasionally seen before?

Finally, the film is just dull, and I realized why. In the novel, we follow Jonathan Harker to Dracula's castle rather than Renfield, and Harker escapes Renfield's fate. Hence we have a central character to follow even as the novel branches into many subplots as we see the letters and diaries of the various characters linked to Harker. Here, the main hero is van Helsing, and because he clunks through the whole film without any energy, we suddenly realize how weak the rest of the cast is when we try to get one of them to be the hero instead. Harker and Mina get no characterization; Dr. Seward is ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things; leaving our other protagonist to be Renfield. Fortunately, Dwight Frye's performance is involved and has good physicality, even if I was laughing at how cheesy his parts are even as a ten-year-old. Actually, most of my memories of this movie from age ten that are in any way positive come from laughing at the awful acting of the side cast. The main cast is mediocre, generally, but characters who only get a line or two of dialogue are usually evidence enough to make me question the idea of Hollywood ever having standards.

(And yes, even I will admit that van Helsing's verbal and psychic duel with Dracula is very good, and actually reminded me somewhat of the similarly-slow but nonetheless dramatic duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader in A New Hope. But this scene works largely because it's where the writers poured their most effort--it has the best dialogue of the whole film.)

I've also had the distinct pleasure of seeing Universal's other 1931 adaptation of Dracula. Back in the day studios would create non-English versions of their films before the popular practice of dubbing or subtitling took hold, with completely different casts and crews. And so was born the 1931 Spanish version of Dracula, which is a far superior film in almost every way, even though they are virtually identical save for cast and language, being as near to a shot-by-shot recreation as possible. By this I mean the acting is better, although one complaint my theater audience commonly had was that Bela Lugosi was significantly less goofy than Carlos Villarias, who plays the Count here--the Internet seems to agree. But c'mon, it's Bela Lugosi, and he was the epitome of goofy ever since he got his big start here. While Lugosi certainly has very good moments in Dracula (his awkward English often gives him an uncanny, inhuman oddity which later Dracula performers, especially Gary Oldman in my mind, definitely aimed to replicate), he was better in some of his Poverty Row movies. His most compelling performance wouldn't come until years later, in Glen or Glenda. (And as an aside, yes, seeing the 1931 Dracula--either version but especially the Spanish one--on the big screen does make a huge difference in how you watch it. For all its faults: its screen presence, combined with how fresh it must have been in 1931, do make its sizable cinematic impact very believable.)

Dracula's Daughter (1936):

When my family rented the Universal Horror Dracula Collection from Blockbuster back in the day, we watched Dracula and Son of Dracula. I can only suspect that I insisted on skipping Dracula's Daughter because it was about a girl. Well, if I had watched that movie then, I'd probably be one step closer to realizing that I was a girl, for indeed, Countess Marya Zeleska is one groovy lady. Dracula's Daughter is a breath of fresh air after Dracula, showing how Universal mercifully learned how to make movies and not just filmed stage plays in the span of five years. There are still many problems but the general experience makes this probably the best Dracula film of the original three.

We continue right at the end of Dracula, with the police discovering the bodies of Renfield and Dracula. Van Helsing (now "Von Helsing") doesn't disguise his role in the latter's death, and he is arrested. Over the course of ten painful minutes of lame mid-'30s comedy with the bobbies, we are introduced to Marya Zeleska, who steals Dracula's corpse and burns it. She is his daughter, and she views the vampirism he passed onto her as a curse. Yet the destruction of the remains of Dracula do not break the curse, and once more she is forced to feed--a fact her manservant Sandor mocks her over. Along the way Von Helsing recruits Jeffrey Garth, a fellow psychiatrist and one of his former students, to help defend him in his trial for Dracula's murder. His psychiatric methods may be the key to curing Marya's vampirism, as well...yet in trying to cure her obsession, he becomes the subject of it. Soon it's off to the castle in Transylvania--where he must obey her or die.

This movie is instantly more kinetic and lively than Dracula, which is nice for hooking viewers like me. I think I figured out part of the problem: the first film was made in a time when music was not a feature of movies, especially horror movies, since the silent era had only recently ended. This second film was made when movies with sound were cemented as the norm, and as such there is almost constant music in the film. Sadly, the soundtrack is often misplaced, giving weirdly dissonant tones in a movie that already suffers from tonal whiplash. One moment we are out on the foggy moors, watching Marya burn her father's corpse, her eyes bright in a cloud of smoke. Then whacky slapstick music is playing, and the cops are talking about how cowardly they are! What's more is that this kinesis isn't spread through the movie--it has a looong middle, even if there are many scenes throughout that make it worth it. The ending is worth it, too, being well directed. Plus, the acting is generally better, including Von Helsing's, even if he still gives pretentious pseudo-philosophical lectures about how stupid it is for people to disbelieve in vampires. We also get actual characters, with hobbies and motivations, and not just people inserted because they were in the book.

The movie suffers in places from a problem that happens in many sequels, where they have to shout out famous lines or scenes from the first if you're watching a Kevin Smith film, chances are someone's gonna say some variant of "I wasn't even supposed to be here today!" I didn't like it when it happened here but that's just because I still don't like Dracula. The Countess gets to say "I never" and crawl her fingers out from under a coffin lid...just like in the first movie! Except it feels clumsy, and oftentimes these shoutouts are rushed or delivered poorly, almost as if they were studio mandates that the director wanted to gloss over. Dracula's Daughter feels much less commercialized than its forebear, and ironically that's probably why it's comparatively forgotten. Which is too bad, because there's actually some interesting thematic stuff here.

The first is the more obviously touted concept of magic vs. science. Ultimately science wins, but there's still an interesting scene where Marya warns Jeffrey that her powers of mesmerism are not hypnosis, as he's been calling it, but something "far older...far greater." Magic still has power even if science has now reached the point where it can conquer it. Thinking about that in the context of Frankenstein makes this even more interesting, as the Frankenstein series, especially Bride of Frankenstein, have comparisons between old-world powers and the rising new world of machines and chemicals.

The second piece worth noting is the implication that Marya is bisexual. In the scene where she corners her shirtless female art model and says, "I have a jewel--very old, and very beautiful--I'll show it to you," you can't help but wonder if she's going to drop trow, as it were, and reveal something that's not just a hypnotic pendant. This is played for horror, if it is indeed intentional (we the audience already know that this topless girl is on her way to a throat-suckin'). This wasn't unprecedented: Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla, a much better vampire story, was published in 1871, twenty-six years before Dracula. In it there is no question that the titular Carmilla is a lesbian. Audiences would know the codes planted here, and some of them would have even read LeFanu's novella. This is not positive representation--Marya is bisexual only as a predator. In the 1930s it would have been popular belief that bisexuals were monsters, like vampires. Obviously as a queer person I find this uncomfortable, though I know that queer representation amongst vampires got better over time.

Though it makes some questionable choices and drags in places, Dracula's Daughter is well-made enough and complicated enough to reach my bitter old heart. And yet, this was technically the last of the three Dracula movies I sat through, so perhaps time will tell yet that I am merely caught in Stockholm Syndrome. Decide for yourself with my warnings.

Son of Dracula (1943):

Son of Dracula kind of surprised me because I was expected a much more coherent link to Dracula--wouldn't you? Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention but as far as I saw it wasn't so much about the Son of Dracula and more like Dracula in disguise whose identity is partially divined by historical knowledge of the vampiric history of the Dracula family. That may sound like picking nits, but one of the key revelations of this film is that the villain is none other than Dracula himself! Surely that rules out the possibility that he is Dracula's son, right? (Unless squicky time-travel is involved?) And yet by merit of the title, most of us seem to go with the idea that the family relationship is specified in this movie when I don't feel like it is. This may be one of just a few flaws of Son of Dracula, but sadly, these few flaws generally sink what should be a decent film, one which surpasses its source material.

At the Louisiana plantation of Dark Oaks lives Katherine Caldwell, who is in some sort of cahoots with the mysterious Count Alucard. Alucard's presence causes the sudden death of Katherine's elderly father, but despite that (and perhaps more alarmingly), Katherine blows off her fiancee to take up with Alucard instead. Frank, the jaded man in question, tries to shoot Alucard but bullets are as effective on him as they'd be on a ghost--Katherine, standing behind the immaterial Alucard, is shot instead, but her death proves to be temporary. After all, Alucard is the same man as he whose name is his spelled backwards, and Katherine originally contacted Alucard with the hopes of becoming a vampire and gaining eternal youth. Katherine's family has already contacted Professor Laszlo, our merciful replacement for dusty old Professor van Helsing, and it will take a confrontation of the ages to destroy both vampires.

First the good, which crops up in an unlikely place You may be wondering how Lon Chaney Jr. fares as a European vampire. I mean, look at him! I chose the poster I used for a reason: Lon Chaney Jr. shares acting schools with Alan "The Skipper" Hale, not Bela Lugosi, and it's predictable that any attempt of being actually creepy is beyond him. As we'll get to in The Wolf Man, Chaney did best when he was playing sympathetically innocent losers who got wrapped up in something awful. And his elder sister had taken the angsty vampire gig already in 1936, so there's little room for him to beg to be freed of his curse. Yet he does his best to play an aristocrat, albeit one with an American accent; he keeps the movie afloat, and that he has actual chemistry with lover/victim Katherine helps too. Katherine herself is an engaging character, because she represents the promise that Dracula makes to van Helsing in the 1931 film, concerning Mina: "She will live through the centuries to come, just as I have." It's intriguing to see someone--especially a woman in the 1940s--be shown with the ambition to become immortal even at the cost of becoming a monster, while still being somewhat sympathetic. There had to have been some reason why Katherine's family and fiance find her sudden turn to darkness odd--she was evidently a person they wholeheartedly loved. Yes, she's largely unconcerned with her father's demise, but if she becomes eternally young she'll outlive her entire family anyway. She seems to truly love Alucard, and he probably excites her not merely because he'll give her eternal life, but because he is another immortal to spend eternity with. She doesn't know the full extent of his evil until it begins to corrupt her soul as well--a natural consequence of vampirism.

And yet there is also bad...and it is bad. Son of Dracula introduces racism to the franchise: while the Dracula story was largely based on British fears and biases against Eastern Europeans in the first place, this movie has an American touch and as such we get lots and lots of voiceless, objectified, "happy in servitude" butlers and maids of color wandering in the background. There is one named black person whom we focus on, and she is a voodoo queen named Madame Queen Zimba. Yep. And she drops dead in foreboding of Alucard's approach soon after she is introduced, which, when reported by Katherine to the other white characters, is met with one some of the sickeningly heartless apathy I've ever seen. I don't recall if a character actually says, "Who cares? She was just a Negro," but they come close to it. I shouldn't be surprised: this is four years after Gone with the Wind, arguably the second most famous adaptation of a Klan apologist novel. (Oh sorry did I offend GwtW fans again whoops I don't care)

On a lesser note, it's also odd that the film at its conclusion chooses to frame Frank as the hero of the story, when all that he did was go into a berserk rage and accidentally kill his girlfriend (before later purposefully killing his girlfriend). The movie frames it as his loss even though he was still wildly irresponsible around Katherine. Even if Alucard hadn't been a vampire and his body was affected by bullets, at close range, the bullets probably would have pierced Alucard and struck Katherine anyway! The weird "it's sad that this man must now go through life single" ending contrasts this recklessness as well as the fact that I don't buy his grief as much as the movie wants me to.

And then there's the thing about the title. Ignoring the question of whether Alucard is the Son of Dracula or Dracula himself, the reference to the Dracula family mentions the last one dying in the late 19th Century. Dracula's Daughter, set literally moments after the end of Dracula, features 1930s cars, even if Dracula seems to generally preserve the Victorian setting of the novel. Universal Horror continuity is famously broken but I still want to chart it out nonetheless, because it's fun. I love bad continuity. I'll do an X-Men Retrospective sometime. Kidding.

Again: if it weren't so racially offensive, Son of Dracula would be quite enjoyable, and I would consider it an unsung classic among the Universal sequels. Unfortunately, in today's world, I can't take the film's treatment of black people lightly, even if "it was another time."

By the way, this part of the review contains a hypnotic code-phrase that causes all fans of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to now see Castlevania's Alucard as Lon Chaney. You're welcome!

Next time, we see lightning strike with the coming of Frankenstein!


Image Source: Classic Horror Posters, Wikipedia, Universal Horror Wiki

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