Friday, February 12, 2010

"Bring Me The Head Of Tod Browning...."

During the golden age of The Simpsons there was an episode where Mr. Burns wants Steven Spielberg to direct a film with him in it to win the top prize at a local film festival. When Smithers tells him that Spielberg isn't around Burns asks for his non-union Mexican equivalent. I like to think that that joke came from stories like this. In what is to date an anomaly in film history, the production of Dracula yielded not one version of the film but two. Now filming a movie in a few different languages at the same time wasn't without precedent (or antecedent for that matter) but where this movie differs is that instead of having the actors get through the film in languages they had passing or no familiarity with, Universal decided that the project would be better served if they hired a Spanish cast. This came with a whole new set of challenges to be met. Instead of relying on a team of script doctors to produce a script as lifeless as the one that Tod Browning used for his version of Dracula (which I'll henceforth call The Browning Version. Any Terence Rattigan fans in the house? No? ...I'll move on), directors George Melford and Enrique Tovar Ávalos had a single script, translated by Baltasar Fernández Cué. Cué managed not only to add more action and some actual tension but he also cleared a lot of the holes that wound up in the sister film. The other thing that the crew did differently was to come in onto the same sets and use most of the same material the nights after they had finished shooting the Lugosi version during the day. What this meant is that director George Melford and his crew could see where Browning had fucked up and improve upon his poor choices. As for co-director Ávalos, I assume that because Melford spoke not a word of Spanish, he was brought on to help coach the actors wherever Melford proved unable to do so, but again, that's just a guess. If that is the case it does make a certain kind of sense because the acting is of a totally different character than any other English language film of the time and Melford's technique blows the doors off the Browning Version; with a different director looking out for each aspect, the results would necessarily be a touch more considered and that is indeed the first thing to notice about Drácula.

by George Melford & Enrique Tovar Ávalos

The plot is nearly identical to the Browning Version with a few exceptions. Firstly the names have been Latinized, so now we root for Eva Seward and Juan Harker, the housekeepers are Marta and Martín and the woman in white is one Lucía Weston. Not much, but worth noting; the rest of the names are the same. The other big difference is that the fate of Lucía or Lucy is dealt with explicitly, instead of summarily forgotten. Other than that the stories are harmonious....oh, yeah and this one is made worth a fuck. Let's start just with Baltasar Cué's improved script. This may just be a direct translation but in this film the character's continued referencing of both religion in a general sense and God specifically makes much more sense given Spain's religious tradition. The superstitions of the peasants feel more believable because this is a uniquely Spanish interpretation of the events of Stoker's book. Religion and prayer are such integral parts of Spanish society that the idea of Renfield answering to god or of killing Lucía would be the proper things to do even if there weren't a vampire on the prowl with his own very specific mythology. Hearing this film's Renfield say "I cannot go before God with so much blood on my hands" has ten times the weight of Dwight Frye's shameless delivery of the neutered equivalent. Pablo Álvarez Rubio is not just the better actor but he can sell the line better because coming from him it means something. Furthermore the way in which the peasants deal with Renfield's departure and the filmmakers questioning the accuracy of their beliefs is far less patronizing, though this is more a matter of logic and the efficacy of leaving things open-ended. Cué also has Drácula ask Renfield whether he's burnt his correspondence, presumably because he would have invented a reason to keep his plans private that are really a smokescreen with which he can hide his identity. The conclusion is still a little too uneventful to have the punch it needed, but at the very least the lapses in logic have been taken care of; even Van Helsing's vexing last line is cleared up!

Whether it was Melford and Ávalos's doing or they simply had a better cast, the acting is much better and much more natural. Carlos Villarías has a kind of scary desperation to him (thanks to Melford's zoom lens) though he's kinda goofy looking by modern standards, but he's the exception. The rest of the cast has a modernity and a flow missing from the Browning Version. Eduardo Arozamena's Van Helsing and Pablo Álvarez Rubio's Renfield are two types that still exist today, the mildly comedic rube. Both Rubio and Arozamena have scenes where they're surprised by the supernatural and genuinely seem so, instead of the overwrought ignorance and pomposity of their respective English language counterparts. See this film's Renfield actually get scared of seeing a bat driving his carriage to castle Dracula, and of his host passing through spider webs without breaking them (an excellent touch) and of the doors opening on their own. Marvel as Van Helsing is just as terrified as he is excited by Drácula's invisibility in a vanity mirror. That is how people would actually respond to the supernatural. We aren't immune to things, because we aren't characters in fucking pictures, are we? Van Helsing is just a doctor out to prove a wildly improbable hypothesis, not a priggish superhero. He's just as susceptible to the fantastic idea of their actually being a vampire and so his fishing for answers from Renfield and Eva makes sense: he wants credit for a discovery so his colleagues will believe him. Also, Melford's decision to make him fall under Drácula's spell is both wise and in character; it gives him an opportunity to show the villains' one weakness and the hero's cunning without totally deflating both of them and the film in the progress. And moving back to Eva for a moment, Lupita Tovar's posture, indeed the way she carries herself, is...well, people still walk like her today. She wasn't capital A acting, but she manages to be a heroine you can root for and actually picture off a film set. There is also a tenderness between her and José Soriano Viosca's Dr. Seward that is wholly absent from the Browning Version. You believe that he's her father.
Melford went out of his way to give his film life and movement; there are more shots, more angles and more impressive camera work than in Dracula and it makes the scenes feel less like a stage play and more like a film. The conflicting versions of their accounts of the last voyage of the Demeter are good examples. Browning was content to show Dwight Frye raving like an idiot at a box. Melford shows Rubio raving for a time but he then actually lets the crew react to Drácula. Melford utilizes the space of the sanitarium more efficiently and uses darkness in a way that commercial American directors wouldn't have dared to. Look at the two arrivals of Renfield at Castle Dracula; the difference is literally night and day. Then there are the little things, Melford's use of a real(er looking) bat in some scenes, for example. He either had a real animal or knew how fake it looked so he covered his shitty effect with a little panache to the point that I couldn't tell the difference. There's the much-lauded crane shot when Drácula make his entrance and though everyone says it, it bears repeating how impressive this looks. He also cuts out the stupider portion of the spider-coffin scene (I'm not at all certain but I get the feeling there were must have been regulations about percentages of recycled footage for copyright reasons).

The final point I want to mention is Melford's tackling of the sexual subtext of Stoker's novel. But for the plot making the point, Browning was content for his film to have zero sexual tension; Will Hays probably had a hand in that, but still, his film is as sexy as a rerun of Antiques Roadshow. Drácula, on the other hand, does something with its subtext. Well there's the inclusion of the Lucía subplot; the scene where Van Helsing and Juan leave the cemetery just having put a stake in her heart has a definite ring of violation and coming of age to it, as it did in Stoker's novel. And finally there is Lupita Tovar and her cleavage. Melford decides to make Eva Seward's falling under the spell of the vampire and his promise of sex out of wedlock visual as well mental (though I've never understood this about Stoker's novel; the dude has three wives who look bored as shit; is this a critique of divorce or polygamy or...what, exactly? The promise he delivers of loving Mina/Eva forever sounds an awful lot like marriage, so what's everyone so buggered about? That he's a foreigner? He's got money enough to buy Carfax Abbey and he's clearly more interesting than whitebread Jonathan Harker. The argument thus becomes marry the globetrotting romantic with the accent or the boring white kid from down the street? That doesn't sound like something you need to consult a doctor about, let the girl live for Christ's sakes, she's young!) As Eva falls under Drácula's spell she begins to dress in progressively provocative outfits. The dress she wears when Drácula calls her out into the yard shows her nipples and in the scenes preceding her abduction both the angle that Melford shoots from, the dress she wears and her constant heaving and jostling make it possible to see more than you'd get in an American film until the likes of Russ Meyer arrived on the scene more than twenty years later. So as I gazed at her neckline, I kept wondering just how much cleavage they were going to get away with. Granted the Spanish had no production code or anything else I guess and so as I stared I wondered what Melford and the others on set must have been feeling when they shot that scene of her breathless on the balcony. The scene screams as loud as it can, as if the director had just come and said "The movie's about sex, yeah? Well how about some!?" Did Melford know that no one who spoke his language would see his movie intact until some 70 years later when many would fail to grasp the significance of his daring? His understanding of the novel and his disdain for the standards of the time mean that Lupita Tovar's breasts are of the earliest and most enduring 'fuck you's Uncle Sam ever got.
If only things had been different. If only Melford had directed the English version as well. If only someone had thought to drastically alter the second half of the movie: though the film starts strong, it's momentum tapers off at about the half way mark. Not even someone as technically savvy as Melford can do much with the overly talkie second half of Drácula. And so while technically the film isn't the historical marvel that Dracula remains, it is the better film and to my mind the more interesting and faithful adaptation. And I'm raising the grade from what would have been a C+ to a B- because Melford wouldn't cow to the standards of a country because he understood that ultimately, artistically and rationally, sexuality has power only if it's forbidden. Also, the man directed a film in a language he didn't speak, let's see you do that. If only things had been different....

Monday, February 8, 2010

My Favorite Films Volume 15: Vampyr or "In Dreams...."

“I wanted to make a film different from all other films. I wanted to break new ground in cinema.” Carl Theodor Dreyer was a different kind of director and this quote, given in an interview about his 1932 masterpiece Vampyr, proves just that. Dreyer would spend his life making films of a wholly different class than his peers that would be largely ignored upon their release only to be reappraised and hailed as classics years after the fact. His varied career saw him receive the attention and admiration his work deserves but once when, in the event of the premiere of his last film, Gertrud, his many admirers in the film world arrived, among them Henri Langlois, Georges Franju and François Truffaut. I first encountered Vampyr, which would become my favorite of his works and among my favorite films of all time, when I was 16. I watched it on a whim, seeing only its shocking title and bizarre one-sentence description (the plot is difficult to sum up but the action is easy enough: a man meets an old man, his two daughters and a vampire). I was immediately transfixed and watched the rest of the film in dead silence, not daring to turn my attention elsewhere. It was in poor shape but that only added to the sense that the film was somehow forbidden. Its dreamy camera-work supercedes the narrative and I came to see that Vampyr doesn’t obey the logic of the real world. It haunted me for years; I couldn’t get its more absurd images out of my head or for the life of me see where the hand of the filmmaker lay. When I was 18 I decided to try and remake it, a decision which took two years to come to anything like fruition and which would inadvertently land a few of my friends in jail. It was a disaster because I was trying to conquer the movie, trying to see where the enigmatic Dreyer started. I didn’t realize that there is nothing that can be done to improve upon Vampyr; it is the perfect experimental horror film. In refusing to explain anything and by simply thrusting you and its doe-eyed hero into one haunted house after another that Dreyer was not simply making a film with horrors in it but he himself was taking you along, immersing you in the same world as any of his characters. He is god and the devil bringing you in and out of the light in a way that to my reckoning hasn’t been equaled since.

by Carl Th. Dreyer
Allan Grey is a young man with a good deal too many fantastic preoccupations for this world. He arrives at a rundown inn somewhere in the middle of the forest with a strange assortment of tools (a fishing net and frilled satchel among them). He passes a man with a scythe headed toward a ferry and has to rent a room from a girl no older than 16. The walls of his room are covered in macabre paintings of death and he hears strange voices belonging to even stranger men in the other rooms. In the middle of the night a man comes in through his locked door and offers the cryptic plea “She mustn’t die. Do you understand?” before leaving a wrapped parcel on Grey’s desk with the words “to be opened upon my death” and then leaving. Grey dresses himself and gives chase finding first a factory filled with old machinery and the shadows of what could be ghosts dancing. The ghosts all seem in thrall to a mysterious older woman with dead eyes who wanders about the place with the help of a doctor Grey encountered at the inn. The young man eventually finds where the nervous old intruder lives, a sprawling estate in disrepair in the middle of the forest. He arrives just in time to see him assassinated by the shadow of a one-legged gunman. The man’s two daughters and housekeepers are distressed and the carriage driver is dispatched to get the authorities. In the meantime the man’s eldest daughter sleepwalks into the woods where she is beset by the old woman, leaving her drained of blood; apparently a frequent occurrence. When the doctor arrives to give her a blood transfusion and the carriage driver turns up dead with bite marks on his neck, Grey realizes that they’re stranded. He opens the old man’s package and discovers a book on the lore of vampires prompting his realization that something evil is afoot and that old woman and the doctor may just be the cause.

Vampyr’s greatest asset is by far its look. Dreyer set out to make a film that performed the same tricks that the other big horror films of the day (London After Midnight, The Unholy Night) did, but in a wholly unique fashion. His first step was finding locations suitable to such a purpose and he succeeded and then some. Like Nosferatu there is a very important sense of place and I would say that Dreyer has an even better grasp on the possibilities of a given location than F.W. Murnau From the inn to the factory to the chateau and the room with the coffin and finally the woods and mill of the climax, every location is full of musty, claustrophobic charm. Of all the locations only the graveyard was tampered with significantly for effect. Incidentally it would be by legendary designer Hermann Warm, who’d done the set design for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari a decade earlier. The next of Dreyer's uncannily strange element was the performers. Whether it was through inexperience (as in the film’s producer Nicholas De Gunzberg acting under the pseudonym Julian West as Grey or Rena Mandel as Gisèle) or through their bizarre physicality (as in philosopher Jan Hieronimko’s doctor or Georges Boidin’s gunman) everyone in the film has a strange and otherworldly presence. Gunzberg and Mandel seem like children leaving the womb for the first time and everyone else either preternaturally evil or unmoving as if part of the scenery. Everyone walks with the strange stilted mannerism of a toy soldier come to life. Coupled with the film’s ancient buildings, untouched ornate designs and the film’s gauzy photography and you have a film that looks like an antique volume come to life, a horror story that belongs to another time.
The horror of Vampyr is one that is not often carried off effectively. Dreyer spins a strange tale, one that only makes sense after repeat viewings, and refuses to explain any of it. informed not so much by the usual ghouls and goblins or by the vampires of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Through A Glass Darkly (specifically the story Carmilla) where Vampyr's story took its inspiration, but from Dreyer’s own Lutheran upbringing and his obsession with the afterlife. The things that Grey encounters, the fatherless shadows, the bizarre guests of the inn, the unexplainable cries of children and his dream, all lead him toward the conclusion but they follow no logic. In dreams often I make reference to something and then a hitherto non-existent memory will appear to explain it; this is the logic of Vampyr. It’s no coincidence that some of the film’s most terrible images occur while Grey is passed out after his transfusion (in one of these dreams he even learns of a plot that then crosses over into reality). Without the father’s visit, Grey could never make it to the house to save him. Without the book, he would never know that the body of the vampire is buried nearby, yet he isn’t the one who digs her up. Grey encounters the doctor before he enters the story but all that means is that Grey is slightly suspicious of him. All of these precedents are to familiarize us with later elements but none of them have any foundation in the narrative, they are there because they need to be. Even the strange image of the man digging backwards is given a twin late in the film.

Dreyer’s film was actually completed well before Dracula ever started shooting but thanks to its bizarre subject matter and the fact that the director also served as its producer it took him years to get it to an unappreciative public (the film was long the stuff of rumour and bootlegs. You could find it in a terrible print but it wasn't until 2008 when Criterion released their definitive special edition that it became clear exactly what's going on in behind all that mist. As film scholar Casper Tybjerg notes in his video essay, the influence of artists like Goya and Corot is evident of Dreyer's visual style and to finally be able to revel in the lavish painterly visuals is a real delight). It is no wonder at all that the public was unwilling to accept his vision of the horror film. First of all Dreyer must be commended for having his vampire embody feminine fears. The old woman preys on both men and women but her drawn-out attack on Léone posits that it is the girl's youth and beauty that she hopes to steal; men are obstacles to be cut down, women are resources. It's an interesting idea and one that Vampyr often doesn't get credit for, the first female vampire. Beyond even that Dreyer’s film have a scope that transcends simple matters of good and evil and such a heavy exercise is not in keeping with the idea of cinema as escapist fun. Paul Schrader grouped him with Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu in his thesis on the subject of transcendental film and in Vampyr the idea has two edges. There is the obvious heavenly connotation when Grey and Gisèle seem to walk into a heavenly realm after he saves her from bondage and of her sister’s miraculous recovery. Then there is the darker half. Whenever Grey is transported to the dreamworld or when the villains are haunted at the film’s end. Dreyer doesn’t stand nearby and offer an explanation or moralize, he simply shows them what they fear most; in this case their victim’s face. They then walk right from the nightmarish image into their own (accidental) deaths. From the torments of a kind of hell of a waking nightmare into the actual hell. Though they arrive there because of their tampering with dark forces their deaths are not supernatural, perhaps as punishment. And who but Dreyer could think up that most ingenious method of disposing of the doctor; a death scene that is so peculiar yet also very ordinary and remains totally original.
Finally there is a scene that must be talked about if the subject of Vampyr is to be exhausted. Grey’s final dream takes him to the lair of the villains where he discovers their plans but his finding comes at a high-price: he has to watch his own death and burial. Out of body he ceases wandering and is suddenly on his back in an open coffin. The one legged man brings the lid over which has been put a window so his unblinking eyes can see out as the doctor and the vampire prepare to bury him. The one-legged man screws the lid on and everyone looks down at Grey’s face through the glass before they carry him to the cemetery. This most beautiful and terrible of dream sequences gives life to many people’s greatest fears and also illustrates the difference between the inquisitive hero and his murderous foils. Grey’s fears of watching the ground go overhead make him realize that there’s more to life than pursuing the supernatural and following the revelation he is able to get the girl. The housekeeper finds that the vampire’s coffin has been broken as if she had broken from the confines of hell and death. This difference marks the divide between good and evil for Dreyer. Those who attempt to deny death will be punished; those who see the difference and decide to act for the good of others will be rewarded. The doctor’s pursuit of the vampire’s help makes him just as curious about the shadowy underworld as Grey but greed and curiosity are two different things and they turn to death and love and eventually burial and rebirth. The doctor finds himself in place of the old vampire and Grey’s soul literally walks back to him so he can save Gisèle. It takes the experience of death in both cases and so we may believe Dreyer when, after being asked whether or not he achieved his goal in making Vampyr he stated simply “I have broken new grounds”

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"I Am Dreadful and I Bid You Welcome...."

In the year 2001 when Universal cleaned up the prints of their classic monster films Dracula, being the oldest, received special attention. The brass at Universal commissioned genius film composer Philip Glass to write music for the mostly music-less film for the world-renowned Kronos Quartet to record. The work he did is astoundingly good and stands alongside Glass' best scores (Mishima, Candyman, The Hours) today. I remember watching the movie with the new score when I bought the films back in the early part of the decade but I was watching a lot of films and I don't remember it making much of an impression. In the intervening years I bought the score and began listening to it independent of the film or its images; indeed but for the song titles I came to think of it as a separate entity from the film, which reminded me that I had completely forgotten what the film was like with or without Glass' score. Unfortunately the music had become so distinct to me that playing it over the film now seemed strange, as if the dialogue of another film had been placed over it. When I watched it without the music I came to see that sometimes the establishment is just plain wrong. As it happens Tod Browning's Dracula is a rather awful film and I had just never realized it. The reason that it attained classic status I believe has MUCH more to do with the fact that it was the first big vampire movie, indeed the first proper horror film, to be done in sound and in English. This is a problematic criteria: Tod Browning, who had had varied successes as a silent filmmaker but no experience with sound, meaning that he had no idea just how loud silence becomes in a movie with spoken dialogue. Dracula has no soundtrack and the last two thirds of the movie are all about talking aside from two or three soundless attacks from the titular vampire. Because Browning had no clue how to make the words of his many screenwriters come to life, his movie goes to sleep everytime someone opens their mouth and the villain is not scary enough, or for that matter different enough from the heroes, to save his scenes. And with a film as strong as Nosferatu as the movie's only screen precedent, it's almost impossible to see Dracula as anything other than a creaky imitation.

by Tod Browning
Renfield, a real estate agent, is on his way to Transylvania to sell Carfax Abbey to Count Dracula. The natives can't understand why anyone should want to go visit the count, he's obviously a vampire living with three vampire wives! A vampire and a polygamist! He must be evil! Renfield laughs off their ethnic superstitions and proceeds anyway, even after he sees that the carriage the count sent to gather him is for a moment driven only by a rubber bat! Then he meets the count who seems like an affable enough vampire, and once he drinks some drugged wine falls asleep and presumably wakes up a vampire. The next time we see him, in the bowels of the Vesta, a ship bound for London, he's most definitely a vampire. He gives Dracula, hiding in a box of dirt, the ok, and the count comes out and feasts on everyone on board. When the ship docks everyone but Renfield is dead and the proper authorities have him committed.

In a series of truly laughable coincidences Renfield is interred at a sanatorium that happens to be across the yard from Carfax Abbey run by one Dr. Seward who is not only the father of a beautiful young woman called Mina. I've never bought this about Dracula. In Nosferatu we are asked to buy one coincidence only and it's literally the first thing we here that's related to the plot so it's not as though it's a surprise when Count Orlok moves in at the old castle across the canal from our hero. Here we're asked to buy that Renfield will be sent to a sanatorium directly across from Dracula's new home and then that Seward will know the world's only expert on Vampires when the time comes to battle it. But even with both a secret-babbling lunatic upstairs and the world's foremost vampire killer in the living room, these people still need the better part of the movie to figure out what the natives of Transylvania know without ever having seen Dracula face to face. This is beginning to remind me of the first time I read Catcher In The Rye after years of everyone telling me it was a classic only to discover that I hated it. order for that to work, Holden Caulfield would have had to have left a trail of breadcrumbs behind him the whole time and still never gotten caught. 

Anyway, Dracula somehow acquires a suit and top hat (I'd like to know how! I get that he could have willed it from someone, but how could he have done so at night? I have questions a dissolve can't answer!) then somehow finds Dr. Seward on his night off, somehow knowing he would be in the company of two attractive women. He makes a bigger impression on Lucy, Mina Seward's easy friend than Mina herself and that night sucks her blood while she sleeps. Days later Lucy has died and Mina starts receiving visits from the count. It's up to Seward, his friend the vampire expert Dr. Van Helsing, Mina's fiancé Jonathan Harker, the guard at the asylum, the maid, Renfield, Uncle Bill, Jody, Mrs. French, chief, McCloud and a number of other people to thwart Dracula's plan to abscond with the nubile white woman to the abbey where the only thing standing between vampire killers is a door and the lid of a coffin.
Where to begin? Well the biggest problems are that the acting is terrible and the scenario’s nonsensical basis is naked. If the natives believe their neighbor is a motherfucking vampire, why don’t they pack the fuck up and move? Hmm...? The natives in Nosferatu are only suspicious of the count, but don't have reason to fear him beyond superstition and this is probably because Orlok had only just woken from his rest. The book given to Hutter is too eloquent to have been written by any of the natives, but in Dracula they have such specific information that it seems impossible that they haven't seen their behavior with their own eyes. What they describe immediately happens offscreen (including a rather stupid scene where a spider climbs out of a tiny coffin. Did he bite a spider in the throat?) In which case, why the fuck are they still living within spitting distance of the man's haunted castle? Furthermore, just how Renfield can't tell from the count's icy vowel pronunciation that the man is evil is really beyond me. The way he says 'evening' even sounds like 'evil'. "EEE-EEE-VAH-Ning" Ok, moving past that the scenes between Renfield and Dracula are so peculiarly choreographed, each spouting one nonsequitor after another, as if the two are carrying on two completely different conversations. They insert pauses into the conversation like inexperienced theatrical students. Once Renfield passes out what should happen is that the wives come out to suck his blood, Dracula stops them by offering them something small and then bites Renfield himself. Well a Hays Code friendly version of the scene transpires but with no violence and no sense of pacing. The brides walk on....they wait....Dracula appears....they wait....they leave....Dracula kneels down....and scene.

When the ship docks the people who find the bodies comment on the scene in an incongruously wry fashion. "Horrible tragedy, horrible tragedy" says the offscreen commentator, devoid of emotion. He sounds like he's describing something he read in the paper to a friend days after the fact and not at all like he's just wandered into what is clearly the aftermath of mass murder. Waves alone don't kill people. From there the performances run the gamut from scenery chewing to non-existent. Dwight Fry is fucking terrible as Renfield. He starts huge (“I say Dry-Ver?!”) and just gets huger ("YOU KNOW TOO MUCH, Van Helsing!"). David Manners and Herbert Bunston are total non-entities while Joan Standing and Charles K. Gerrard as the hired help are actively bad; watch the scene where the guard reads the headlines aloud to the maids, they're all dreadful! Frances Dade as Mina and Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing are equally hammy. Bela Lugosi is clearly the best of them but he never changes his mood even when trying to charm the girls. Either Browning didn't direct him or Lugosi thought he was charming enough on his own; either way his killin' face makes him appear diarrhetic and his flirtin' face is just plain creepy. Maybe it was enough for English audiences at the time that Lugosi was a foreigner but today I can't really see anyone finding him threatening. What about his calmly telling Van Helsing "You are...too late. my Vlood now flows through her veins!" is all that menacing? Not helping things is that the scenes where he attacks are all silent which might have worked in 32, but today it just makes everything seem hopelessly static. Nothing sucks the tension out of a scene like the crackling of silence. I came to see that Browning does display slightly more directorial panache here than say...William Beaudine on any given film, but not nearly enough to make Dracula a film worthy of your attention.

Granted Browning wasn't alone in fucking up a story that F.W. Murnau managed to get right with half the budget and none of the luxuries afforded his young colleague. No one seemed to want to take credit for writing the script (I don't blame them). There are a total of six writers attached to the story that don't include Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderson, who adapted Bram Stoker's novel into a play (ostensibly the basis for the film's script), or Stoker himself. But no one is credited with writing a complete script so it remains uncertain as to whether Browning had a script at all. The film's failure to move after Dracula arrives in London would make sense if this were the case. Dracula quickly dissolves into the world's most boring game of "He's right behind you" as the film's biggest secret (that Count Motherfucking Dracula Is A Cocksucking Vampire, For Fucking Out Loud) is not a secret at all and Browning knows it but won't address it. He gives the characters chance after chance to do something, ANYTHING about the fact but they fail to. With Van Helsing around Seward and Harker don't do so much as change their attitude even as the evidence stacks up against the Transylvanian. And even with Van Helsing around it still takes countless visits from Renfield, a character who has no reason not to want Mina dead, to show up and divulge all of the count's secrets. Just how the shit does Renfield keep getting out of his room? Are they not paying the guards enough? And why does the sanatorium lead directly to Seward's living room? Isn't that potentially fucking dangerous? So with the cards firmly and perpetually on the table Van Helsing takes his sweet ass time doing anything and when he does it only serves to undermine tension rather than ratchet it up. Van Helsing’s mirror trick, in fact everything he says and does is so blindingly smug it makes him impossible to like. When Dracula tries to put him in a psychic headlock toward the end, for no real reason Van Helsing is able to resist. If a sexagenarian old kook can resist the king of the goddamned vampires, how are we supposed to find him frightening? Nevermind that the scene is just plain ludicrous; not even Bela Lugosi can sell a staring contest as a battle of wits. When the film finally ends with Dracula deciding that a sturdy unlocked door is going to keep Van Helsing and Harker from reclaiming Mina it's tough not to think that Browning just didn't care.
In Dracula's defense the design of the vampire's Transylvanian castle is really quite exquisite and is by far the scariest thing to be found in the movie. It's to me why people falsely attribute any fright or intimidation to Lugosi's entrance and placid "I am Dracula. I Bid You Welcome." Anywhere else and it would just seem slightly out of place but in the castle he does seem like a threat, if a genial one. Of course with Dwight Fry around playing the fool, going to work on the scenery with a fork and a knife, it's hard to maintain a reserved or spooky atmosphere for long. And yet the film remains a part of the canon. It is, I grant you, historically important, but as a film unto itself, I'm stumped. With Nosferatu glaring at viewers from ten years in the past, and Vampyr's hoary hand waiting to be shaken, just how anyone could find this middling drivel to be deserving of classic status is utterly confusing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"In The Beginning There Was Only Darkness...."

How do you approach something like Nosferatu? Just where do you begin? There are points aesthetic and historical to be made about the movie, books to be made about its journey from novel to the eyes of modern viewers (2010 as of this writing), essays to be written on every film it’s influenced since its stifled release in 1922, etc. Shall I say that the film is still, 88 years after shooting wrapped, thought of as among the vanguard of best films? Needless to say it is considered a classic, if not the classic horror film. Based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, on whom more later, the story follows a man and his bride confronted with insurmountable obstacles in the way of their happiness among them the plague, a rather nasty career turn and a loveless vampire called Orlok. All the names from the corresponding story had been changed to avoid the law coming down on the filmmaker's head. It wasn’t the first horror film nor the first art film (Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first Art Film by any reasonable definition and was the most important horror film of its day, though there were precedents) though it was the first important, feature-length vampire movie and also I believe the first terror film, that is, the first film that treated its audience with real savagery. For this reason, and because of its refusal to fall down explaining itself, Nosferatu can not only entertain and captivate, it can still give nightmares to the uninitiated viewer.

by F.W. Murnau
Hutter, a young real estate clerk, is ordered by his maniacal boss Knock to close a deal on the property directly across from the young man’s own. The buyer, one Count Orlok, wants to close the deal in a hurry and in person so Hutter must say goodbye to his beloved Ellen (depending on where you look, they’re married but in Stoker’s novel they are not; her last name is never given, they sleep in separate bedrooms, the year is 1838…I honestly don’t know) and head off to Orlok’s castle. She is less than thrilled when he tells her that he’s off “to the land of thieves and phantoms” looking like a pig in mud. It’s almost touching the readiness with which he runs off to earn money for the two of them and for that I forgive his refusal to see danger a mile off. The land surrounding Orlok’s castle is inhabited by gypsies and peasants who are all too aware and frightened of the count. The owner and staff at the inn where he stays the night before his ride to the castle is the definition of foreshadowing. They advise Hutter to stay away, implore him even, but he won’t hear of it. That night he finds a book on vampires in his room, left there anonymously by someone with access to his room. He flips through it but dismisses it as superstition and goes to bed with no problem. The carriage the next day won’t even take him all the way through the pass as the driver fears what lies beyond. He waits moments only before a creepy carriage arrives with a hideous driver to take him the rest of the way.

Curiously, when Orlok himself shows up, he looks exactly like the driver. The man is…well frightening doesn’t do it. Though Bela Lugosi’s turn as Dracula became what most people picture when vampires are brought up (or he was before 2007), Max Schreck’s heinous appearance better captures the soul and viciousness of the historical vampire. Try though he might to appear a gallant host, Orlok is transparently a monster, which is how it should be. After a most awkward dinner where the real estate is discussed, Hutter passes out drunk and wakes up with what modern audiences will recognize as the bite marks of the vampire but our man has never read Stoker and believes it to be two mosquito bites due to the insect’s abundance on the grounds. He writes a letter to Ellen about his journey and gives it to a passing horseman (who is quite literally the only part of the story I don’t buy. If the natives live in fear of Orlok, why would this fellow ride past so flagrantly, even if he knew that the count slept by day, which presumably no one does) and then waits for nightfall. The count explains to his guest that he sleeps by day and looking at him it’s plain that he had to have some eccentricities and Hutter thinks nothing of this until the following night when they finalize the sale of the home. Between the count’s leaping at the young realtor cutting himself with a bread knife and crying about “the precious blood” and his eye’s bugging out of his head when he gets a look at Ellen’s picture, Hutter has enough reason to fear his host.
At this juncture it becomes clear that though she is miles away from him, Ellen senses that Hutter is in trouble. That night when Orlok makes his last appearance to Hutter, all semblance of humanity is gone. In fact the only thing that stops him from doing any harm to the young man is that in a trance-like state Ellen calls out to him. Her call reaches not Hutter but the vampire, who turns and leaves. He knows now that he’s wasted his time and his true calling is across the sea. The next morning Hutter finds the count asleep in a crate, though he doesn’t know it, the count is preparing himself for a journey. That night Orlok puts himself in a crate of dirt post-marked for his new home and leaves Hutter stranded at his castle. Orlok’s crates are put on the ship Empusa but by the time it reaches port in Orlok’s adopted home, the only living thing on the ship are plague rats; stowaways from Orlok’s boxes of dirt. When Hutter finally reaches his home, he arrives to a paranoid wife, a town dying of the plague, a maniacal Knock causing pandemonium under the sway of the vampire, and of course Orlok himself who seems to be orchestrating all the death and chaos from the vampire’s new home right across from his own.

It really is a shame that so much of American society has such a vehement aversion to all things antique and strange. I mean the internet alone is evidence that there are freaks who do things differently and appreciate the macabre, sure, but the overwhelming majority do things like vote republican, buy Scarface t-shirts and watch shows about vacuous twenty-somethings living engineered lives. My point is its hard to get the-man-on-the-street™ to appraise a silent movie. And don’t tell me I can’t make judgments like that because I hasten to remind you that I’m in film school and kids in classes dedicated to the very thing they’re paying to learn about (film production, theatre, screenwriting) still bitch about films being in black & white, having subtitles or being even faintly avant-garde. The reason that this judgment figures into Nosferatu is that vampires will probably always belong to the romantic heels that populate big screen adaptations of famous novels on the subject. Beyond the obvious superiority of Schreck’s performance over Lugosi’s in Dracula, Nosferatu is far and away the more interesting and better made of the two films. And Murnau’s movie becomes even more impressive when you consider that it was made on the cheap.

Murnau had started his production company Prana Film, and they were looking to start off with something that Murnau could do justice too that wouldn’t break the bank. When his producer Albin Grau couldn’t get the rites to Dracula from Bram Stoker’s widow, Murnau decided he could do it anyway but had to be quiet about it. He either changed the names himself or had screenwriter Henrik Galeen do it, but by the time Nosferatu premiered, there was only the outline of Stoker’s novel left and consequently the things that weighed it down and which would cause filmmakers future headaches were all excised; if it wasn’t necessary or couldn’t be done cheaply, it got the axe. Murnau was an amazingly efficient storyteller (Faust being his one indulgence) and he manages to use the barest of Stoker’s element to make a film that is at once minimalist and effective. Despite the occasionally dry patches and the inevitable watch-tapping that comes with as many tangents as he throws into the last act separating us from the last confrontation with Orlok, he still wrings an awful lot out of very little. Knowing he had no budget for sets or effects (Schreck’s make-up wasn’t even all that extensive), Murnau made heavy use of landscapes and existing locations instead of building his own. In order to illustrate the strange movements of both Orlok and the carriage that brings Hutter to the castle, he simply did his best approximation of stop motion animation and what I believe is the earliest example of a negative reversal in mainstream cinema. Intriguingly, the villagers claim that the werewolf is out tonight (a carry-over from Stoker’s story) but Murnau cuts away to a shot of a Tasmanian Dog as if in explanation. Little tricks like this, which don’t necessarily add to the story, definitely add to our growing sense of displacement and they’re tricks that no-budget directors would use well into the 70s (some are still in use today). Werner Herzog, a disciple of Murnau who even remade the film in 1979, was clearly influenced by his use of location shooting as images like the two gypsies paddling Orlok’s coffin down river or of the Empusa would appear in evolved forms in films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Heart of Glass. Indeed I would go so far as to say that Schreck’s performance had a great impact on Herzog’s direction of actors. It’s not hard to see why: it's inspired.
Orson Welles used to talk about his part in The Third Man as being a star part, someone who's talked about for the whole movie and only appears for a few minutes to great acclaim - Max Schreck’s Orlok is one of those parts. With barely ten minutes of screen time not only does Schreck own the movie, but his is the iconic monster performance of foreign cinema. His face is instantly recognizable, his posture, dead eyes and clawed hands unmistakable, his intensity unrivaled even by the great Conrad Veidt. From the moment we see him, his rat-like countenance overcoming his attempts at geniality, he is the very soul of Nosferatu. His hand gestures and the way he carries himself suggests a rodent transformed into a human being trying and failing to hide his true form and though he’s a sight with his finery on, there is a difference between his trying to pass and his being the vampire. I’ve seen Nosferatu no fewer than a dozen times and though the film has lost a touch of its charm for me Schreck is still just as awesome as he was in the few stills I had seen before watching one minute of the movie. To be fair better monsters had been wasted before, so Murnau must be given credit for the man’s minimalist make-up and for the considerable gravity he lends the character. Take the scenes on the Empusa: this is my favorite rendering of the voyage of the Demeter from Stoker's novel, not just because of Schreck’s haunting appearance in the brig, though that is most excellent. No, what impresses me is the sense of despair that Murnau creates in a scene lasting about thirty seconds. The crew of the ship has taken ill thanks to the plague rats and to Orlok’s either biting or simply driving the men insane. We only see the first man hallucinate the vampire sitting atop a crate of earth and then we cut to the captain and first-mate throwing the bodies of the crew overboard (after an impressive shot of the full body of the ship). The mate looks to the captain and says, “I’m going below deck. If I’m not back in ten minutes…” and then he exits with a hatchet in his hand. They both know he’s not coming back but the man isn’t about to take the death of his crewmates lying down. Those few seconds they share between throwing the last man over and the mate going below are wonderfully somber and communicate so much of their journey and their characters and these two are by all means unnecessary characters. Yet we know more about them than Dr. Bulwer, the Van Helsing stand-in. Murnau handles the scenes at sea quite impressively and it’s why I believe there is still a good movie to be made about the Demeter. Oh, and a word about Bulwer. We're introduced to him as he shows a class a venus fly trap eating a fly and says "Like a vampire, no?" Venus fly traps eat bugs because they grow in bogs and wet areas; insects fly in from dry climates with vital minerals and nutrients they can't get from their own soil. Vampires prey on people from all over, their origin has nothing to do with their being prey and it's not like their landlocked or even region-locked. If vampires needed blood just because they were stationary or couldn't ever leave their coffins, that'd be a more apt comparison. I imagine the choice was more to do something clever with no money at all, but still...

Nosferatu is often cited as an example of German expressionism, a school of filmmaking started by Robert Wiene and continued by the likes of Paul Leni and Fritz Lang until the end of the 30s when most of its proponents either died or immigrated to the states. Here’s where I think people get their definitions crossed. Caligari and other later films (Metropolis, The Hands of Orlac or even Murnau’s Faust) all achieved their expressionist look through their incredibly produced look. Caligari’s sets are all brilliant paintings and at no time do the designers even attempt realism. Nosferatu on the other hand was all about naturalistic elements and finding normalcy and transforming it into something haunting. Thus Murnau and Wiene, both deserving of credit for their ingenuity and craft, were clearly at work at two different ends. Caligari is a dream, a phantasmagoria; Nosferatu brings the nightmare to life and has it walk through city streets. It’s only through editing and creating tension can something like the images of the waves, the under-developed graveyard on the beach or the stream beneath Hutter’s window seem menacing. Indeed the only scenes that have any of the expressionist touch to them are those last shots of the bedroom as Orlok stalks up to claim Ellen; his shadow on the wall, later echoed by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M, are pure expressionism but by then the vampire’s horrific capability has been firmly established. In fact the expressionist angles accompany the end of the movie as if to point out that Murnau didn’t need artifice to create tension, that he could do the work of a Robert Wiene or Paul Leni with just people and real places (many of which stand untouched even now). Murnau makes a whole world seem frightening with only one openly horrific element, one overly strange one and one that is dreadful but hardly a horror convention.

The plague makes for an interesting addition to the story as its one that Stoker himself never touched on. Henrik Galeen’s script is full of inversions and I would say improvements on the quality of Stoker’s story, which was a kind of gory melodrama. By making his vampire seem a more evil force and having it prey only on Hutter and Ellen instead of the whole cast of the rogue’s gallery he bothers in the novel, his effects are felt more quickly and more sinisterly. We don’t have the sluttish Lucy or the eccentric Van Helsing to spar with and so his effect is on their relationship alone. Aware that the plague and the vampire arrived at once, they are connected and after reading the book on vampires that Hutter brought back, Ellen decides to save her husband (to be?) and by extension the city she lives in. Murnau’s movie, as indeed many of his best were, is thus not focused on the repressed eroticism of Stoker’s characters but on a love for people (funnily enough, his first American feature Sunrise would be about the triumph of marriage over temptation, a much more flagrant stab at eroticism's damning effects than his adapation of Stoker's great sex scare of a book). Hutter only seems concerned when he thinks that Orlok is after his bride and his mood improves considerably when he is at home with her, even though people are dying of the plague all around them. Hutter thus becomes a tribute to a kind of unshakable love, one that doesn’t cow and in fact seems content when faced with death – he’s with his bride, what else could he want? Ellen’s sacrifice then is not just in the name of her love for Hutter (who she knows is still tormented by the vampire) but for everyone who will be spared a death by plague when the vampire disappears.
And so we have our villain in the unthinking malice and violence of Orlok and his plague rats and the chaos-loving Knock. Knock is clearly Galeen and Murnau’s Renfield but he’s already a sadistic asshole before he falls under Orlok’s influence. Alexander Granach’s performance starts a touch over-the-top so it’s no great stretch to picture him going nuts, but it’s when he’s in the asylum that he proves himself a tremendous physical performer. Knock is a lovingly created grotesque, a squat torso with incongruously nimble limbs like one of Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s creations for The Nightmare Before Christmas. Before we know anything about the vampire, we know that Knock is a foil to Hutter – all grinning greediness. Knock may or may not sense that Orlok isn’t on the level but he has no problem sending his eager employee into harm’s way and renting the house opposite him to someone like the count. When imprisoned in the nut house he eats insects (a bit of the vampire showing through, as in Renfield) but he also steals from his guards and beats them. He loves violence and disorder, as his stint on the outside proves. He is Orlok’s public face, sewing discord and violence – the vignette with the scarecrow proving both what fear does to people and violence won’t work against such a destructive personality. Orlok and Knock both are incapable of love, only hate, violence and in Orlok’s case lust (Knock’s greed may be read this way, but it doesn’t factor into the third act). People are fuel and they can’t be burnt up quick enough, so Ellen’s altruistic gesture must be her and Orlok’s undoing; he can’t recognize that she would put others before herself and she cannot be spared his cruelty. I find this a much more appealing dynamic than the obsession and let’s-wrap-this-shit-up murder that closes Dracula.

The final point to consider about the script (at least as we know it today) was that someone (Galeen or Murnau) was having a laugh at Stoker’s expense. One thing few people comment on is the sly sense of ribbing its illegitimate source material. Nosferatu takes every opportunity to take the piss out of Stoker and his humourless widow. The first step was taking the charm out of the novel’s hero, then removing all religious symbolism, then poking fun at the ideas Stoker came up with. Galeen had no solution to something like Hutter’s blindness at being set upon by Orlok for so long, so in what I take to be a joke at the late novelist’s expense, he has the poor man write to his fiancé of two small mosquito bites very close together. Galeen goes to great pains to elaborate on the ignorance required of Hutter to not notice that Orlok is bad news. ‘How could no one have been wise to this guy by now?’ he seems to ask. How could anyone take the line “your wife has a lovely neck” from a villain who is obviously a motherfucking vampire, as anything other than a joke, a breaking of the fourth wall? It’s no wonder that Mrs. Stoker had the film pulled from circulation after its bacchanalian premiere (the event apparently saw everyone present, including a young Ernest Lubitsch, dancing and perhaps doing a good deal more in Victorian finery following the screening, something I think I now need to recreate) and ordered the prints burned. It was only through carefully combing collections and private storage that a salvageable print was found and then restored.
Nosferatu existed for years in truncated, black & white prints with improvised title cards and either a clumsy electronic score or a quite effective small orchestral score depending on which version you saw. In the early 2000s the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung supervised a restoration to the version closest to what those drunken revelers saw the night of Nosferatu’s premiere. The new version has benefits and setbacks of its own. The title cards are the most distracting ‘improvement’ as they take much longer than any of the cards from the bastard versions that circulated in the public domain for years. I also miss the rougher language of some of those versions (the difference between ‘neck’ and ‘throat’ in the scene I described above might seem a trifle but the latter makes more sense coming from Orlok). Though of course Murnau’s achievements as director pale in the grainier versions, even if there is a sense of watching something forbidden and forgotten in the black & white public prints. The Stiftung also managed to find a Nitrate tinted film which meant that all the scenes tinted blue to recreate a night sky were restored and the rest of the film alternates between red and yellow. Remarkably, the footage looks as though much of it could be recreated tomorrow, which is simply flooring. Much of it looks so thrillingly alive and crisp that the time difference all but disappears in my estimation of many of the film’s more effective scenes. Indeed I think it’s the pristine quality of the Stiftung print wound up on Kino’s amazing special edition that accounts for my shifting attitude towards the film. Some days I’m more forgiving, others I’m quite harshly inclined. Because it looks so brilliant I often get fed up with the broad performances, forgetting that the film was made in 1922 for the span of ten or twelve minutes. And that, like Nosferatu’s being both one of the first and one of the best vampire films even today, Murnau’s incredible direction and Schreck’s immersive performance, is quite an achievement.