Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dracula (1931)

"Dracula" (Tod Browning, 1931) Filmed version of the stage-play* featuring its matinee-idol, Bela Lugosi. As with "Frankenstein," there had been other versions of Count Dracula's British Invasion, including one ("Nosferatu" by F.W. Murnau) that got around copyright issues by calling its "vampyre" "Count Orlok."** As with Universal Picture's earlier productions of "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Man Who Laughs," the film is heavy on theatrics, but, this time, is a bit lean in the make-up department, although Lugosi did wear painful silvered contact lenses to enhance his seductive glare. Lugosi's elegant monster, with his slash of a mouth, and eyes wide open while balefully squinting with a laser-like intensity manages to still evoke "the creeps" to this day.

Tod Browning's direction is full of subtle touches--the sudden appearance of the Count's "brides," for example--and not-so-subtle--a shot of Jonathan Harker on Dracula's staircase is shot through a spider web, and Dwight Frye's performance as Renfield is babblingly over-the-top, as is required of so many actors in the horror genre.

As we wrote of the primal homosexual aspects of "Frankenstein," "Dracula" is the straighter blood-brother--the heterosexual aspect of humanity gone hysterical. Dracula's attacks start as seductions, but his acts are akin to rape--animalistic and savage--and linked to sexuality--penetrative, taking blood and passing on the disease of vampirism to his victims. sapping life-strength and energy. And it's all under the guise of civility and position, of manners and societal restraint. But underneath throbs the bestial urges--hidden by day, and only alive at night. Sure, it's nice to bask in the glow of celebrity, but make sure the smile isn't hiding fangs.

Count Dracula, then, is one big hard-on, that by light of day, crumbles to dust. That his bane are religious icons and his own lack of reflection (self-knowledge) only reinforces the metaphor. He's never gone out of style, no matter how straight-laced or free-loving the times. Dracula is one popular "playa."

With the times, the incarnations of "Dracula" have become increasingly sexual over the years, *** only making more obvious what Bram Stoker and Tod Browning buried in the sub-text. "Dracula" is, and always has been, the personification of serial criminal sexuality--which can only be curbed by the light of day. Dracula is The Forbidden, and carries the risk of damnation for seeking it. Besides the purifying rays of the sun, the surest way to kill a vampire is a blessed stake...through the heart.

"Frankenstein"-homosexuality. Dracula-heterosexuality. Of course, these haunts were conjured during the repressed Victorian era. But what horrified them, still carried a tingle, just as their stories intrigue us and our children, thrill us, and haunt our dreams. No wonder the Religious Right condemn them, or any aspect of the occult.

Hollywood makes a vain attempt (or stab) at killing them, but these monsters of the Id keep coming back, rising from the grave (or the ashes) to stalk another How do you handle these monsters/urges?

The answer on Friday.

But tomorrow, a horror favorite of mine from a Master Director.

*Adapted from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel by Hamilton Deane and John L. Baderston.

** "Dracula" did not go into the public domain until April, 1962.

*** A guided tour of coffin-dwellers (please, no flash pictures): Christopher Lee's athletic, animal "Dracula" in the heaving Hammer films, Frank Langella oozing Byronesque charm in the 70's stage version and 80's film version, Barnabas Collins, cutting a swath through the ladies of daytime soap-opera on "Dark Shadows," Anne Rice's tortured, damned rock-star vampires, and right on up to current day with the throbbing vampiric (though chaste) teen romances of the "Twilight" series.

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