Skip to main content

To die, to be really dead. That must be glorious.

Dracula
(1931)

(SPOILERS) The movie that kicked off the Universal horror cycle and thus, pretty much, horror as a (Hollywood) movie genre. Not that you’d know it to look at it now, as the last thing it is is remotely terrifying. Indeed, Garrett Fort’s adaptation – he’d next tackle Frankenstein – of Hamilton Deane’s stage play of Bram Stoker’s novel often plays like unadulterated parody, so ingrained are the tropes and clichés that have accumulated in its wake. Director Tod Browning would make Freaks a year later, a picture that retains the power to disturb, but in the case of Dracula, you’d best not look for Bela Lugosi’s count to give you shivers.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about the picture – or perhaps not, given Freaks – is how little interest it has in the better-known Stoker characters; John Harker (David Manners) barely registers, while the plights of Mina (Helen Chandler) and Lucy (Frances Dade) fail to elicit concern. Instead, Browning seems entirely preoccupied with Dwight Frye’s Renfield and his escalating madness (the line from Frye to Andy Serkis Gollum is surprisingly distinct).

It’s Renfield we follow to Transylvania for a first meeting with the count, much to the consternation of the usual bunch of yokel locals; Frye’s the picture of the vapid silent era lead in these scenes – to send it up, imagine Charles Hawtrey in his stead – making his subsequent derangement all the more effective. Not so effective are the effects themselves, however; you’ll be hard-pressed to keep a straight face when Renfield looks out his carriage to see a bat on a string leading the horses.

Dracula: The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr Renfield.

Lugosi’s now better known for being played by Martin Landau in the tired dogend of his career, when only Ed Wood would give him regular employment, but even here, he’s essentially playing a stiff, an effect – and an affect – underscored by the chiaroscuro lighting on his eyes and eccentric accent; there’s an assumption of his impact that, since it’s underwhelming, immediately invites amusement. He’s closer to a slumming it Bond villain than a fearsome individual, even if he initiated the more popular subsequent portrayals of the count as a debonair gentleman.

Renfield: Isn’t this a strange conversation, for men who aren’t crazy?
Van Helsing: Renfield, you’re compelling me to put you in a straightjacket!

Nevertheless, Dracula is engrossing during the early stages, and only begins to drag when the Count embarks for Blighty. The rather ambivalent tone is subsequently alleviated by the scenes with Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and in the sanatorium. Van Sloan makes for a very modern, open-minded nemesis for Dracula (“The superstitions of yesterday become the scientific reality of today”), and his interactions with the now locked up Renfield are some of the best in the picture. The scene of Renfield crawling across the floor towards a maid, meanwhile, is one of the few that retains potency.

Elsewhere though, lines like “Dracula is in the house. In the house!” and John, oblivious to the implications of Mina announcing “I love the night” while cursing “There’s that bat again!” do nothing to dispel an impulse towards the derisory. It’s been suggested that cinematographer Karl Freund was left to take charge of much of the shoot by Browning, which would explain a lot. If one’s seeking out an early vampire film that evidences what could be done, cast your eyes back nearly a decade earlier and check out FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, a truly uncanny vision (and one that fell duly foul of copyright infringement).


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Duffy. That old tangerine hipster.

Duffy (1968) (SPOILERS) It’s appropriate that James Coburn’s title character is repeatedly referred to as an old hipster in Robert Parrish’s movie, as that seemed to be precisely the niche Coburn was carving out for himself in the mid to late 60s, no sooner had Our Man Flint made him a star. He could be found partaking in jaundiced commentary on sexual liberation in Candy, falling headlong into counter culture in The President’s Analyst , and leading it in Duffy . He might have been two decades older than its primary adherents, but he was, to repeat an oft-used phrase here, very groovy. If only Duffy were too.

Just wait. They’ll start listing side effects like the credits at the end of a movie.

Contagion  (2011) (SPOILERS) The plandemic saw Contagion ’s stock soar, which isn’t something that happens too often to a Steven Soderbergh movie. His ostensibly liberal outlook has hitherto found him on the side of the little people (class action suits) and interrogating the drugs trade while scrupulously avoiding institutional connivance (unless it’s Mexican institutional connivance). More recently, The Laundromat ’s Panama Papers puff piece fell fall flat on its face in attempting broad, knowing satire (in some respects, this is curious, as The Informant! is one of Soderbergh’s better-judged films, perhaps because it makes no bones about its maker’s indifference towards its characters). There’s no dilution involved with Contagion , however. It amounts to a bare-faced propaganda piece, serving to emphasise that the indie-minded director is Hollywood establishment through and through. This is a picture that can comfortably sit alongside any given Tinseltown handwringing over the Wa