The Drac Pack is Back: The Universal Dracula Sequels

penguinOriginally posted May 8, 2012

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

It occurs to me that it has been nearly a month since my last missive. Believe me, I did not intend to cause you any anguish, or make you rend your garments in despair over my long absence.  Nor am I “pulling a Garbo” and deliberately creating an aura of mystery.  I have simply been cultivating my rich inner life, mostly by perusing my well-thumbed copy of The Penguin Book of Sick Verse.  While sipping some well-aged vin de Gowanus from a goblet I had made from the skull of a nosy paparazzo, I happened upon an eerily appropriate bit of poesy entitled “Lines Inscribed upon a Cup formed from a Skull,” by George Gordon, Lord Byron.  It reads (in part):

Start not – nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull,
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
….
Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine:
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?

Which brings me to the latest outpourings of my own skull, which I trust you will find suitably intoxicating.  Since my last column dealt with Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, I thought I’d tidy up some loose ends by commenting on the three other Dracula pictures released by Universal over the subsequent twelve years.  In effect, I will be discussing sequels in a column which is in itself a sequel.  How very meta of me.

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936)
Although released five years after the Tod Browning / Bela Lugosi Dracula, the first sequel picks up immediately where the previous film left off.  Van Helsing (once again, Edward Van Sloan) surrenders to a couple of comical, lily-livered bobbies after finishing off Count Dracula (briefly portrayed by an unconvincing effigy).  Enter Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), a mysterious black-clad countess who identifies herself as Dracula’s daughter.  Along with her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), an ambiguous ghoul with patent leather hair, she steals and ritualistically burns Dracula’s remains to rid herself of the curse of vampirism.  Sandor is skeptical that such a thing is possible – and indeed, it isn’t long before Marya is hypnotizing potential victims right and left, including a comely artist’s model (Nan Grey) whom Sandor has brought to her studio to pose.

The aforementioned scene has been much commented on by contemporary critics; its Sapphic implications can hardly be missed, but the censors apparently did.  In addition to being the screen’s first lesbian (or, more accurately, bisexual) vampire – a trope that would be exploited to varying degrees of hilarity in later and more permissive decades – Countess Zaleska may be the first instance of the conflicted vampire.  Her dear old dad seemed content enough with his lot, and never appeared to suffer any existential torment, but Zaleska is one of our more reluctant fiends of the night.  She tries to go straight, as it were, but is as helpless to resist her impulses as a junkie in the throes of withdrawal.  The figure of the angst-ridden vampire, and the vampirism-as-addiction metaphor, would both perform yeoman service in such later efforts as Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979) and Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973).

Stately of figure and patrician of chin, Gloria Holden is remembered, if at all, for this film and The Life of Emile Zola (1937).  It’s a pity so few memorable roles came her way; her imposing presence as Countess Zaleska suggests that she was seriously underused, and capable of marvelous things.  Director Lambert Hillyer made over 160 films, almost none of them distinguished – but in Dracula’s Daughter he managed a moody, haunting, adult picture whose reputation has blossomed over the decades.  The best of the series.

Son of Dracula (Robert Siodmak, 1943)
I don’t claim to know if the Count sired any male progeny, but this film offers no clues one way or the other.  Title notwithstanding, the dapper, mustachioed bloodsucker who descends on a New Orleans plantation home is actually Dracula himself, though he makes a fairly lackluster attempt to disguise his identity by presenting himself as Count Alucard.  (His hosts crack the code in about five minutes.)

Lon Chaney (having recently dropped the “Jr.” from his name, to much subsequent confusion) reveals his limitations as the Count.  An ungainly sort with a permanent sad-sack expression, Chaney the Younger proved ideal as the tortured Wolf Man, but he looks desperately uncomfortable here and his line readings lack panache. Siodmak, who helmed many of the most atmospheric films noir of the ‘40s, gives the picture a boost by ladling on the swampy atmospherics, notably in the scene where Alucard drifts across a pond in a semi-blasphemous evocation of “walking on water.”  John P. Fulton’s special effects in the man-into-bat transformation scenes hold up surprisingly well.  Enjoyable matinee fare for the not-too-demanding.

House of Dracula (Erle C. Kenton, 1945)
After Universal’s previous all-star monster jamboree, House of Frankenstein (1944), there was nothing left to do but wring a few more nickels out of the monster-mad populace by rounding up the usual suspects yet again, this time under the increasingly tattered Dracula banner.  (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the next stop.)  The results are best appreciated late at night with a snootful of Old Crow, or perhaps some oriental herbs of dubious legality.

A certain Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) occupies a cliffside castle and conducts experiments not approved by the American Medical Association, along with two female assistants: cutie pie Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) and the hunchbacked but otherwise fetching Nina (Jane Adams).  (I have had numerous lab assistants in my career as an avant-garde surgeon, and only a few of them have been hunchbacks, but said deformity was apparently a prerequisite in earlier epochs.)  Traveling incognito, Count Dracula (the excessively gaunt John Carradine) appears on Edelmann’s doorstep to request a cure for his vampirism.  Word must travel fast, because the doc’s next patient is none other than Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who seeks a remedy for his lycanthropic ways.

Edelmann appears to be making progress, but not before Talbot, with a bad moon rising, turns into the Wolf Man and escapes into a twisting series of caves near the castle.  Giving chase, Edelmann stumbles upon the remains of the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), and figures he might as well revive the old boy. Complicating matters further is that a transfusion Edelmann gave to Dracula has tainted his own blood, turning him into a homicidal maniac.  From there, things really go from pillar to post: the requisite torch-bearing mob makes its appearance, a fire breaks out in the castle, and all concerned are burned to a crisp.  A tad improbable.

Don't call her "Igor."  Jane Adams as a different kind of hunchbacked lab assistant in House of Dracula.

Don’t call her “Igor.” Jane Adams as a different kind of hunchbacked lab assistant in House of Dracula.

Dracula: He’s Hot, He’s Sexy, and He’s Undead

(Courtesy of chicagonow.com

(Courtesy of chicagonow.com)

(Originally posted April 13, 2012)

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

Springtime finds me betwixt and between.  As you might surmise, this is by no means my favorite time of year.  All that bursting into flower irks me to no end.  Sunlight wreaks havoc on my carefully cultivated pallor.  It is not quite cold enough for the brown distilled beverages, but not yet hot enough for the clear. Worst of all, the trees are in an amorous mood, scattering pollen hither and thither.  Although I currently reside deep within the bowels of an undisclosed industrial ruin along the North Brooklyn waterfront, a fair amount of this accursed floral fecundity wafts its way to my sensitive membranes, rendering me an itching, sneezing object of pity.

Small wonder that my thoughts turn toward cool moonlit nights, befanged Transylvanian aristocrats in elegant evening dress, and the pollen-free confines of sealed sarcophagi.  Which is an oblique way of saying that we will now consider Universal Studios’ 1931 Dracula, and its simultaneously produced Spanish-language counterpart.

Not that you will find me showering the first horror talkie with effusive praise.  It grieves me to say it, because of my reverence for star Bela Lugosi and director Tod Browning, but Dracula is what one might call a pig’s breakfast.  An enormous success in its day, and a venerable classic in our own, it has been a fixture in the popular consciousness for generations, despite almost universal acknowledgment that it isn’t very good.  What is even more peculiar is that I have watched this not-very-good picture far more often than a lot of other, “better” films, an eccentricity in which it’s safe to say I am not alone.

Like the book on which it is based—perhaps the most enduring potboiler in literary history—Dracula has something rarer than mere “quality.”  It produced, in Bela Lugosi’s performance as the Count, an archetype that has taken on a complex life of its own, transcending its claptrap origins.

But first, the painful but necessary duty of enumerating its failings. Most fundamental of these was the decision to base the film not on Bram Stoker’s novel, but on the popular 1924 stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston.  It was the Depression, you see—and the play, which has little action and is confined mostly to various drawing-rooms, could be filmed much more cheaply.

Economical it may have been, but cinematic it emphatically was not. It would have taken a heroic effort indeed to make the play’s creaky melodramatics visually arresting.  And to make matters worse, the production was in the hands of a director who was barely there.

We may never know the precise reasons for Browning’s peculiar disengagement from his most commercially successful film—a project he had hotly pursued for many years.  Some combination of studio pressure, discomfort with sound, and roaring alcoholism seems most likely.  But to watch Dracula is to experience a definite sensation that no one was minding the store.  David J. Skal, in his book Hollywood Gothic, quotes David Manners (who played Jonathan Harker):  “To be quite honest, Tod Browning was always off to the side somewhere. I remember being directed by Karl Freund, the photographer who came from Germany and had a great sense for film.  I believe that he is the one who is mainly responsible for Dracula being watchable today.”  (Freund continues to get credit for the film’s most fluid moments, including the famous tracking shot through the tomb beneath Castle Dracula.)

Browning’s reputation as a director is based not on his visual style, which was old-fashioned even at the time.  Nor was he particularly expert at directing actors.  Even though he helmed most of Lon Chaney’s greatest films, Chaney was sui generis, and more or less directed himself.  What draws people back to Browning’s films is their marvelously bizarre, morbid subject matter, and the obsessiveness with which he returned to the figure of the deformed, twisted outsider.  An ex-carny who literally ran away and joined the circus when he was a boy, Browning revealed his thematic preoccupations early, and stuck with them to the end.  Whatever his technical limitations, he was just the kind of intensely personal filmmaker that auteurist critics build careers on.  He also demonstrated, in most of the Chaney films and in later works such as Freaks and The Devil Doll, that he could spin a yarn without the glitches, howlers, and glaring boners we find strewn throughout Dracula.

Continuity errors abound. Long stretches of stagy dialogue, which could have been enlivened by cutaways and reaction shots, remain stubbornly inert.  The fact that the dead Lucy is now poised to become a vampire is raised early in the film, and unceremoniously dropped. When Lugosi first appears to Renfield “disguised” as the coachman, his face is uncovered and easily recognizable as Dracula.  One of the two pinpoint lights, aimed at Lugosi’s eyes and intended to give them an unearthly glow, keeps missing the mark and illuminating his cheek.  Incredibly, a large cardboard shade, set up by a grip to cut the glare from a tabletop lamp, is clearly visible in two scenes.  (In the first of these, it’s by far the most prominent object in the shot.)

Skal shows little mercy for Browning.  “The published shooting script for Dracula reveals vividly the extent to which Browning circumvented and undermined the story’s cinematic possibilities,” he writes.  “ …. In scene after scene the script demonstrates just how much Browning cut, trimmed, ignored, and generally sabotaged the screenplay’s visual potentials, insisting on static camera setups, eliminating reaction shots and special effects, and generally taking the lazy way out at every opportunity.”

Bela Lugosi offered a more sympathetic take:  “The studios were hell-bent on saving money—they even cut rubber erasers in offices in half—everything that Tod Browning wanted to do was queried. Couldn’t it be done cheaper?  Wouldn’t it be just as effective if … ? That sort of thing.  It was most dispiriting.”

And yet … and yet.  Here we are in 2012, discussing an 81-year-old film whose central figure is immediately and universally recognizable, even to the many millions who have never actually seen the picture. In the popular imagination, the Lugosi interpretation is Dracula. Given the manifest flaws of the film as a work of art, and the general perception of Lugosi’s performance as a steaming platter of thickly sliced ham, how can this be?

First, Dracula is a film of unforgettable moments.  There is Lugosi’s superbly witty line reading, “I never drink … wine.”  The interior of Castle Dracula, courtesy of art director Charles D. Hall and designers Hermann Rosse and John Ivan Hoffman, is an oneiric masterpiece of vaulted Gothic ceilings, crumbling staircases, ten-foot spider webs, and scuttling vermin.  (I even like the surreally incongruous armadillos, an eccentric detail that Browning insisted upon.)  Dwight Frye, as Renfield, remains the gold standard for cackling, pop-eyed lunatics, and his famous appearance in the ship’s hold is one of the few images in the film that can still chill the marrow.

Above all, there is the mesmeric presence of Bela Lugosi—and here’s where a look at the Spanish-language Dracula can be revealing.

draculaspanishIn the early days of talkies, it was common practice for studios to shoot foreign-language versions of their films using the same sets and shooting scripts.  Dubbing was technically difficult, and would have detracted from the novelty value of hearing actors speak in their own voices.  In the case of the Spanish Dracula, director George Melford and his cast would arrive on the set after Browning’s crew had packed up, and work through the night.

Professional opinionistas generally maintain that the Spanish Dracula is superior to the Browning version, and in most respects this is true.  Melford and his crew had the advantage of seeing Browning’s rushes before starting the night’s shooting, and they felt driven to make their own version superior in every way.  The film, which is almost twenty minutes longer than its English-language counterpart, has smoother continuity and no odd gaps in the narrative.  There are no obvious technical glitches.  The camera is more mobile, and the shots more imaginatively framed.  And the beautiful Lupita Tovar, dressed in gowns more revealing than U.S. censors would allow, is a far more toothsome morsel than her buttoned-up American equivalent, Helen Chandler.

There’s really only one thing wrong with the Spanish Dracula—and unfortunately, it’s Dracula.  I’m afraid Carlos Villarias simply doesn’t cut it.  A benign-looking fellow with a goofy grin, Villarias was encouraged to study Lugosi’s performance and copy it as closely as possible, resulting in what is perhaps the least convincing Lugosi impersonation on record.  The holding power, the malevolent glare, the long talon-like fingers—it just isn’t there, leaving a black hole of anti-charisma at the center of an otherwise beautiful production.

Dismiss Lugosi as a shameless ham if you will, but just try to take your eyes off him when he enters the frame.  His sheer presence demolishes anyone who shares the screen with him.

I believe Lugosi remains the definitive Count because he is the only actor to embody both the erotic and the repellent aspects of the character.  Most screen Draculas have been either grotesque and vermin-like (Max Schreck in Nosferatu) or suavely handsome (Christopher Lee, Frank Langella).  Lugosi has both ends covered.  He played many a romantic lead on the Hungarian stage, and women perceived him as a swoon-worthy Continental type.  Yet there is that acrid grimace, that baleful glare and batlike physiognomy, which suggest bottomless reserves of menace.  (Tragically, Dracula would also set into motion the hard-luck pattern that dogged Lugosi’s career.  His desperation for the part was so great that the producers knew he could be had for a song.  For his most famous role, Bela Lugosi was paid an unforgivable $500 a week—one quarter of what the insipid David Manners earned.)

My friends, I have done many a grafting experiment in my capacity as an avant-garde surgeon, and have achieved wondrous things too numerous to mention here.  Would that I could find a way to graft Lugosi’s performance onto the body of the Spanish Dracula.  Then we would have a masterpiece for which no excuses need be made.