The Morbid Imagination » Dracula

Monsters are not Superheroes, Part 2

Posted in Movies on August 10th, 2014 by admin


At the beginning of The Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster climbs up out of the burnt ruins of the windmill, and is greeted by an old woman whose husband he just murdered. She starts screaming, so naturally he picks her up and tosses her into the pit.

What do you think the odds are that Universal Studios will allow an old lady to be hurled to her death in Van Helsing: The New Generation (2016)?

Why Universal Studios Won’t Make Monster Movies

There is a “truism” in circulation among writing circles that you must make your villains understandable and sympathetic. I hate this idea. I don’t disagree that a three-dimensional antagonist with believable motivations and psychology can be compelling or even fascinating, I just object that this is the only way to portray bad guys.

This sort of thinking is prevalent among Hollywood producers and studio execs. Look at the character of Hannibal Lecter. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is a murderous, alien presence who kills anyone who gets in his way – mailmen, ambulance drivers, etc. As the sequels progress, he kills people who “deserve” it. We even get the pointless, inevitable origin story in Hannibal Rising. All calculated to make Hannibal more “likable” or even sympathetic. Boring, boring, boring.

So of course, with this sort of thinking, the eventual result is Van Helsing, where there are “good” werewolves, a Frankenstein Monster that looks and acts like Frankenberry, and only one villain, Dracula. Even then, Dracula is charming and funny and likable.

Superhero movies are built around action; things must blow up, heroes must fly through the air improbably, and the world must be rescued. Horror movies are built around scares; things jump out of the darkness, characters die horribly, and happy endings are optional. Do you remember any scary parts in Van Helsing? I remember a lot of scenes of Hugh Jackman swinging on ropes, so much so that I assumed director Stephen Sommers suffered from some kind of kinky rope fetish.

Monster movies predate comic books, and therefore, superheroes. Superheroes were not invented in a vacuum, but the literary traditions that spawned them are very different than those that spawned Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy. The roots of superheroes lie in classical mythology, the roots of the modern monster lie with the Gothic novel. Recent superhero movies have been successful because they found the universal, timeless qualities that were embodied by classic comic book characters, and stayed true to these proven formulas. Modern monster movies must do the same thing, except in a completely different vein.

You can’t just apply the same formula to a different genre. “Going bigger” is the enemy of a good horror movie. $100 million worth of CGI can’t buy dread, terror, or psychic dislocation. Look at the history of horror films, many of the greatest were low budget productions. Night of the Living Dead, Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Repulsion, Last House on the Left, Halloween,  The Howling, Les Diaboliques, nearly every Hammer Film and Roger Corman Poe movie, Peeping Tom, Black Sunday, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project – the list goes on and on. The blockbuster mentality is completely wrong for horror movies, and by extension monster movies. Good practical effects always make for better monsters than CGI anyway.

Hollywood in general and Universal Studios in particular don’t understand any of this. They think they can hire writers of the Fast and Furious and Transformer movies and just throw money at the project. That’s why we will see Mummy, The First Monster (2016), Dracula Untold (2014) and Frankenstein (2015) full of CGI, likable monsters, and plenty of rope swinging.

Why It May Not Matter.

Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful.

This marvelous, delicious TV show triumphantly demonstrated exactly how to make monsters fun, scary, and engrossing. They did it without scads of expensive CGI, without whiny teenagers, and without portable gatling guns that shoot wooden stakes. What they did use – to great effect – were sumptuous sets, rich period atmosphere, terrific British actors, wicked sex, and dollops of blood and gore.

Does this formula sound familiar? Here’s a hint:


In the 1960s Hammer Studios figured out two things: Universal Studios did not hold copyright on the the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Werewolves, etc. and there was money to be made by updating the stories with plenty of cleavage and technicolor blood. They did it on the cheap, without looking cheap, which is why they succeeded and why many of these films still hold up today.

When the Hammer horror cycle began with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957,  Universal Studios was still producing horror movies but they were C grade, black and white mediocrities like Monster on Campus and The Mole People. They were no match for the colorful, vibrant Hammer films. Hammer went on to dominate the horror genre until the early 1970s; Universal gave up trying.

In 2007, Hammer Films was brought back from the dead, and has since release several creditable horror movies. The same opportunity exists today for the studio; while Universal Studios are fumbling around with lame $100 million tentpole movies, they could counter-program with less expensive, fresher and scarier monster movies. Who wouldn’t want to see a re-imagining of Frankenstein starring Ian McShane as the evil doctor and Rory McCann (the Hound, Game of Thrones) as the hulking monster? How about Lena Headly as a menacing, sexy Countess Dracula? Patrick Stewart as a grizzled Van Helsing?

Whether it’s Hammer or some other smart, enterprising producers, the opportunity is there to do what Hammer once did: show Hollywood how it’s done, and do it better. I’m hoping more for that than I am putting faith in clueless Universal Studios.

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My Favorite Vampire Movie

Posted in Movies on June 23rd, 2009 by admin


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…

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The First Sexy Vampire Film

Posted in Movies on January 10th, 2009 by admin


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.”


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.


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.



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!

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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.”

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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.
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Vampyr (1932) Dracula (1931)

Posted in Movies on November 18th, 2008 by admin


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.

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