The Morbid Imagination » Dracula

My Favorite Vampire Movie

Posted in Movies on June 23rd, 2009 by admin

warhol

I won’t go so far as to call Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1974) high art, but it is a more effective and serious vampire movie than most of the high profile vampire movies of the last fifty years.

It may seem a stretch to label a movie featuring over the top acting, in- your-face comical gore effects, and soft core sex serious, but Blood for Dracula has something that movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Horror of Dracula (1958) and Twilight (2008) all lack:  subtext. Additionally, Blood for Dracula deconstructs the sexy vampire stereotype and returns to its creepy, undead origins.

Did you hate Twilight? Blood for Dracula is the anti-Twilight.

Blood for Dracula was filmed as an improvised afterthought when the 3D camp extravaganza Flesh for Frankenstein was finished under budget and ahead of schedule. Dracula exceeds Frankenstein in every aspect including outrageousness and camp.

Udo Kier’s Dracula is a whiny, effete aristocrat who pukes up gallons of blood every time he drinks the blood of non virgins. Driven from Transylvania by the lack of local virgins, he selects Italy for his new feeding ground, based on the theory that the influence of the Catholic church will keep the Italian girls pure. Unfortunately, he settles in with a noble family whose daughters are being plowed regularly by misplaced Brooklyn mook Joe Dallesandro. It seems likely that the producers of the movie recruited the actresses playing the daughters from the nearest disco by promising them mountains of coke.

Blood for Dracula was not made in 3D, but it hardly matters. The last fifteen minutes is a crazed, blood spurting orgy of wonderful dementia, on top of a movie rich in laugh lines. Along the way, Morrissey manages to deconstruct the glamorous, sexy vampire into a wretched, pitiful creep reduced to licking hymeneal blood off the floor. You can also credibly view the movie as a commentary on the parasitic nature of aristocracy.

It’s sad that a movie made on the spur of the moment and intended for distribution as a midnight movie took more time to reflect on the implications and possibilities of the vampire myth than numerous big-budgeted movies made since then.

Besides, I’ll take Udo Kier over Keanu Reeves any day…

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The First Sexy Vampire Film

Posted in Movies on January 10th, 2009 by admin

 conde-dracula52

Since its re-release in 1993 the Spanish version of Drácula (1931) has generated a debate regarding its merits relative to Tod Browning’s Dracula, filmed simultaneously on the same stages. There is no doubt that director George Melford surpassed Browning in many respects, and delivered a somewhat more robust film, but the absence of Lugosi ultimately consigns Drácula to second rank status.

However, Drácula can claim its place in history as the first sexy vampire film, thanks mainly to the female lead, Lupita Tovar and her costumer.

The movies did not introduce sex to Dracula. The novel had plenty of it, just take a taste of this sample:

“The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.”

Whew!

But until Drácula, this aspect of vampirism was neglected. The only real vampire film prior to 1931 was Nosferatu (1922), which featured a repulsive vampire and a female victim who chastely kept her assailant at bay until sunrise destroyed him. Browning’s Dracula had no overt sexuality either, although thousands of women swooned over Lugosi’s commanding glare.

conde-dracula11

In Drácula, the vampire’s kiss unleashes Eva’s (Tovar) libido. She flounces around the house in a diaphanous gown with abundant cleavage, shocking her father and fiance, Juan. Moreover, she seems in a state of high arousal, and winds up pouncing on poor Juan, teeth bared.

In Browning’s Dracula, Helen Chandler’s Mina is safely bundled up in a gown that bares no significant flesh. Compare the two photos below to see what a dramatically different approach the two films took.

dracula

conde-dracula3

And unlike the vivacious Tovar, Chandler’s Mina seems more like  a hungry chipmunk eying a walnut. Her attack isn’t even shown, we are just treated to an off-screen cry of shock from the effeminate David Manners.

It’s tempting to blame the difference in approach to the relative liberality of English-speaking versus Spanish-speaking markets. However, 1931 Hollywood was hardly awash in restraint. This was several years before a whole series of sexually frank films created a backlash that ended in the Production Code finally being seriously enforced.

Rather, I would blame Tod Browning for yet another failure in his execution of Dracula, along with his under-utilization of sound, and his over-reliance on the original stage-play material. David Skal, in The Monster Show, speculates that Browning’s auto accident in 1915 may have left him sexually damaged, which might explain his indifference.

Either way, let’s celebrate Lupita Tovar as the first sexy screen vampiress, worthy of  consideration along side such stalwarts as Ingrid Pitt, Anne Parillaud, and Catherine Deneuve!

Tags: , , , ,

Further Thoughts on Dracula (1931) and Sound

Posted in Movies on January 4th, 2009 by admin

In an earlier post, I criticized the highly regarded Vampyr (1932) because it had failed to utilize sound effectively. I characterized Dracula (1931) as a partial success in this regard and had praised Frankenstein (1931) for demonstrating for the first time just how powerful effective use of sound could be in a horror film.

I recently viewed Dracula with the modern Philip Glass score; I found it annoying and distracting. At times it actually overwhelmed the few scenes where director Tod Browning had effectively used sound effects. It was especially apparent in the initial appearance of Dracula and his brides rising from their coffins in the cellar of his castle.

After that scene and the next, where Renfield arrives at the castle and meets the count, Browning abandons sound as a tool. Once Dracula arrives in London, Browning leans far too heavily on the original stage play, and the remainder of the movie is driven mostly by dialog. As a result, the movie loses steam and drags to the tame end, where Dracula is dispatched offscreen with groan.

But there was one other sound effect that was sucessful in Dracula: Lugosi’s voice. For me, the high point of the movie comes early on, when Lugosi, after welcoming Renfield, stops half way up the cobwebbed, crumbling stairs of his castle as a wolf howls outside. He smiles sardonically and says:

“Listen to them. Children of the Night. What music they make!”

How many movies have become instant classics based on the delivery of a memorable line? I think this was the moment when Dracula became not only a hit but a cultural touchstone.

Lugosi’s performance saved Dracula. Without it, all the faults of the movie would have been magnified and the end result would have mostly tedious. And try picturing Dracula a silent film, even with Lugosi. It could have happened, if Universal had only chosen to produce it a few years earlier. It may have retained some of the power of his performance, but it would have been lacking that one magical ingredient that even people who have never seen the film can imitate. That familiar Hungarian growl…

“I am…Dracula.”

Tags: , , , ,

Universal Horror in the 1940s

Posted in Movies on December 3rd, 2008 by admin

In my last post I referred to Son of Frankenstein (1939) as the “last great Universal Horror movie.” I wrote that assuming someone might say: “But what about The Wolfman?” (I didn’t assume anyone would retort: “But what about “The Son of Dracula?”)

The Wolfman (1941) is a fine film, one that created an icon of horror that has been copied numerous times since. But it is not a great film. I think its impact was due mainly to Jack Pierce’s make up and John Fulton’s lap dissolve transformation scenes.

Beginning with Son of Frankenstein, which launched a new cycle of monster movies, Universal assigned studio functionaries to their monster films, like George Waggner, Curt Siodmak, or Roy William Neill. Contrast this with the impressive list of artists involved in 1930s Horror: James Whale, Robert Florey, Edgar G. Ulmer, Karl Freund, or Tod Browning. In the 1930s, Horror Films were “A” list productions, in the 1940s they were “B” movies churned out for a quick buck along with Sherlock Holmes or Abbott and Costello films. While pre-WW2 films of this cycle, like The Wolfman or The Mummy’s Hand (1940), were clearly better budgeted and crafted than the sequels and team-up films that followed, all of these movies were a step or two down from the sophisticated fare of the previous decade.

That doesn’t mean they weren’t fun or enjoyable, but it’s stretching it to try and hold them up favorably to the ground-breaking, sometimes truly chilling masterpieces that created a whole genre.

Here are few things, however, I loved about the 1940s Universal Horror Movies:

  • The opening scene in Frankenstein vs. The Wolfman (1943) where grave robbers break into Larry Talbot’s crypt and unleash the Wolfman. Genuinely creepy.
  • Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Kharis
  • Evelyn Ankers, Ilona Massey, and Elena Verdugo. Universal made sure it included a hot actress in nearly every film, and either glammed them up with striking gowns or draped them in negligees. A special nod to Virginia Christine, who was exotic and sexy in The Mummy’s Curse (1944) and many years later went on to fame as “Mrs. Olsen” of Folger’s Coffee.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Vampyr (1932) Dracula (1931)

Posted in Movies on November 18th, 2008 by admin

vampyr

Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) carries a hefty artistic repuation, primarily for it’s imaginative use of light and camera tricks to convey an atmosphere of unworldly mystery. After a recent viewing of the Criterion reissue, I have to conclude that is all it has to recommend it.

There are undeniable moments of power and brilliance in the film as shadows literally come to life and events unfold in as if in a trance. Dreyer filmed everything on location and took great care in choosing abandoned chateaus, desolate factories, and fog-shrouded woods for his settings. But one huge failure dooms Vampyr; the failure of Dreyer to appreciate the value of sound in the art of Horror.

Vampyr was filmed silent, with the snippets of dialogue and minimal ambient sounds dubbed in later. This was done partly for economic reasons, to allow the film to be dubbed into German and Danish more easily, but the limp manner in which Dreyer used sound makes it clear that he had no concept of how to utilize sound in film.

The same problem, to a lesser degree, affected Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). Vampyr was actually completed shortly before Dracula began filming, so there is no significant difference in the technology available to both filmakers. Dracula has the disavantage of being a stageplay adaptation filmed on soundstages, which gives it an artificiality and woodeness that contrasts with Vampyr’s naturalistic settings. But even so, Browning still manages to use sound much more effectively than Dreyer, who barely uses it at all. Compare the two films approach to explaining the vampire legend: Vampyr forces the viewer to read pages from a book on vampires like silent film intertitles, while Dracula has Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing explains it in a few lines of dialogue.

The power of sound in Horror films was driven home to me during a viewing of a contemporary of these two films: Frankenstein (1931). I had seen that movie a dozen times or more but had never appreciated how startling and evocative the sounds of shovels hitting coffin lids, chains clanking, or heavy boots dragging could be. It struck me, sitting there in the dark theater, just how terrifying this experience must have been back in 1931, just a few years after the premiere of the The Jazz Singer (1927). If you ever get the chance to see a classic Universal monster movie in a theater, by all means do so.

Tags: , , ,