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.

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