Friday, September 24, 2010

Vampire Films, At the Beginning

The Vampire class I am taking is proceeding nicely, and it seems like time for a post. The class itself is concerned mainly with vampire literature, but I am a film enthusiast, and am only too glad to take this opportunity to write a bit about he films we're seeing. We've started at the beginning, more or less - Nosferatu and the Universal Dracula - which is also starting at the top. It's all downhill after Murnau.

Of course, that's true for most films - there aren't a lot better than Nosferatu, ever, in any genre. It's one of those foundational films - a fully realized masterpiece, hugely influential, and deep and rich, thematically, aesthetically. It's beautiful, innovative and imaginative, terrifically important to film history - a fully realized effort of the mature German style, something of a pivot between expressionism and new sobriety, with its real locations and expressionistic performances and compositions. Obviously one of the foundations of horror films, especially vampire films, and one of the primary sources of art films for the next 40 years. (That is - I think Murnau's style, developed here, in the Last Laugh, and so on, becomes something of the model for art cinema until the 60s, maybe, when other traditions - Eisenstein, say - comes back into vogue. It's an idea, anyway...) Thematically, it stacks up well against Stoker's novel, even, itself a perfect grab bag of themes, imagery, social and cultural commentary. Nosferatu's blend of expressionism and romanticism advances a number of gender concerns, psychological themes (Hutter's lack of potency, vs. Orlock's surfeit), the way Ellen takes control of the story; it contains powerful historical echoes - WWI, the inflation, the anxieties (stressed by Sigfried Kracauer) of the Weimar Republic, developing the theme of chaos vs. tyranny, weak, emasculated men vs. superpotent tyrants; it offers, as well, hints of anti-semitism (and anti-Slavism), the fear of the East, the fear of outsiders (themes certainly shared with Stoker's novel); like Stoker, Murnau's film brings out issues of class - the old aristocracy coming back to haunt the middle class, the importance of money, property, commerce; there are scientific interests tucked in - not as explicitly as in Stoker, but there - as well as consideration of nature, man's place in nature, nature red in tooth and claw. Disease, pestilence, predation, and the finality and pervasiveness of death. Add to this, I suppose, hints of a roman a clef, building on relationships among the artistic circles Murnau moved in - it's dense, dense, dense.

And all of this is put together with exquisite skill. Patterns of imagery (arches, spiders, webs, predators and prey, light, vision, frames - windows, doors and mirrors), careful editing, careful and innovative use of text and manipulation of information (Murnau picks up Stoker's multiplicity of texts - the intertitles feature, if I remember it all - text from the chronicle of the plague; text from the book of vampires; letters; a ship's log; and straight dialogue... all running alongside the imagery) - the different sources of information posed against one another, sometimes in synch, but not always. But always combined with great skill. And finally - the sheer imagination of the film's look - from the extremely effective monster, to the use of simple, but haunting special effects - using negatives, stop motion, step printing, and so on. Like so many early films, it revels in its filmicness - I don't think it's an accident that it introduced one of the fundamental rules for vampires, the fatality of sunlight - the reference to cinema is hard to miss. Vampires, like films, are shadows on the wall, in the dark, and turning on the lights, kills them both...

Not much can live up to that, and certainly Universal's Dracula doesn't. It's an interesting case, anyway. I can't deny, it can be unsatisfying - I'm inclined to think it's the weakest of the early Universal horror films. It lacks the mastery James Whale brought to the Frankenstein pictures (those are as good as it gets, really); The Mummy plays, to me, as an improved remake of Dracula, with Karl Freund having figured out how to make films, and a much more balanced cast. (Zita Johann holds her own, even against one of the truly great Karloff performances - the juveniles in Dracula are decidedly dull.) It's maddeningly uneven - in fact, my opinion of it tends to rise and fall depending on how I watch it. Sitting at home with the DVD remote in hand, I can watch the scenes with Lugosi and Dwight Frye and fast forward through the rest - I love it! whenever I sit through the whole thing, all those long conversations in the second half - Overrated!...

But I am here to praise, not complain... The availability of the Spanish version on the DVD sets is a great boon - watching it back to back with the English version is almost a history lesson in the transition from silent to sound films. It also demonstrates what Browning and company did right. The Spanish version gets a lot of praise, sometimes even being said to be better than the English version - I can't go along with that. It definitely has some advantages - the most obvious is that the source print for the DVD is gorgeous, much better than the source for the English DVD - though that shouldn't fool people into thinking the film itself is better. It is also more consistent, without the strange lapses the English version has - the production itself seems more careful and regulated. (Stories of confusion and indifference on the set between Browning and Freund abound.) It seems more confident in its identity as a sound film, though this has a cost, as it means it tends to be played much more theatrically - more on that later. More on the price paid for that consistency, too.... But the main reason the Spanish version falls well short of the English version is the cast. It's true the Spanish film has better juveniles - but the real stars, Dracula, Renfield and Van Helsing - are far far better in the English version.

Edward Van Sloan is the least of the three, but he gives a first rate character performance as the monsters' foil, giving Lugosi and Frye something to play against. And they are magnificent. Lugosi became an icon for good reasons - he makes remarkable use of his presence, his voice, his body - a grand theatrical performance that is even more powerful on a movie screen. He translates into closeups - very well in fact - and film gives him a frame to use his hands and eyes to great effect. You can watch the exchanges between Dracula and Van Helsing just by watching the performers' hands - a gesture here, a clenched fist there - though who would want to give up Van Sloan's little bows? Lugosi's glances and head tilts?

Though even Lugosi is upstaged by Dwight Frye - Renfield is a great role, and he gets everything he can out of it. This makes another interesting comparison with the Spanish version - there, Pablo Alvarez Rubio plays Renfield as a raving lunatic, all wild laughter and huge gestures, which while arresting in its way, has none of the horror and menace Frye gives him. It's surprising how restrained Frye is - or maybe, how important restraint is in Frye's performance. He plays Renfield as though his body were a straightjacket - he speaks as though forcing the words out at great pain. He builds to it, too, seeming to tighten up in every scene, as his possession becomes more complete, and the enormity of his actions seem to dawn on him. His iconic moments - his mad laughter on the ship is as iconic as anything Lugosi does - are all taut, underplayed, constrained moments, that work better for it. (Or maybe you could say, when he exaggerates, he exaggerates the restraint.) His performance is unsettling, even now - he embodies - and here the word is quite literal - the idea of a man fighting with himself, compelled to act against his better nature. He plays it, he moves it. I could watch Frye's scenes over and over, all by themselves. He's almost Peter Lorre at times....

But meanwhile - the Spanish Dracula's consistency is not always to its benefit. It avoids the dull patches and lazy scenes in the English version - but it has none of the heights of the English version. The English film seems to comes into focus whenever Dracula or Renfield is on screen,and not just because of the performers - the compositions usually get better, the staging gets more imaginative. Best of it, the editing gets crisper and smarter. The editing is wildly uneven, like everything else - but parts of the film are quite brisk, especially the first half. The story certainly whips along. This is especially noticeable compared to the Spanish version. The latter is a good deal longer, partly because there is a lot more there (the English version has been cut down severely), but also because the Spanish version is much slower than the English version. Individual scenes are longer because there is more dialogue (more exposition, usually), because they are played slower - and because they are played out in long takes more often, with more space left between speeches. The English version is cut into shot/countershot more often; there is less of it, and it is played faster. It certainly feels as though the cutting has peeled away all the gaps between the speeches - it feels much snappier than the Spanish version. But beyond all this - the fact is, the editing in the English version (when the editors seem to be engaged by the material) is infinitely better than the Spanish version. Its speed helps - it cuts a lot of the transitions, little shots in the Spanish version clarifying what is happening - you see it during Renfield's arrival at Dracula's castle, where the SPanish version makes sure you know the bats are Dracula, and the English version just cuts from Renfield to three bats to Dracula on the stairs. Things like that are not quite jump cuts, but they aren't far off. There are many examples of this - probably the best being Renfield's slow creep toward a fallen maid - the English version cuts away before revealing the real purpose - the Spanish version finishes the act (he is stalking a fly). These choices do things - they speed the film up - they also give it a sense of mystery, of creepiness - rather like the stop motion effects in Nosferatu.

And then, there is one of the film's great moments - Dracula's appearance at Seward's house - a lovely piece of sound and vision editing. They talk about the marks on Mina's neck - "what could have caused them?" Harker asks. "Count Dracula," the maid answers... It's worth asking about sound - these films were made in late 1930, and show the seams. And again, in many ways, the Spanish version seems more at ease with sound than the English version - it seems quite confident about how to play scenes. There are times - more than one - when it feels as though Browning and Freund were baffled by how to deal with sound. But at the same time, they (and their editor - Milton Carruth, as it happens) end up with a much more modern looking film - where the Spanish film is content to play scenes out as on a stage, the English version looks much more like a film. And it is much more aware of sound as an expressive element - they use it to get in and out of scenes more often - the wolf's howl, a gunshot, off screen screams... Sound moves the story, telling us things that we can't see - the murdered flower seller's scream; the coffin lid dropping when Dracula emerges from his tomb, or his death groans at the end. Offscreen sound is important, and at times, used systematically - Renfield, particularly, always announces his approach with laughter or words. In cold fact, once he goes mad, I think we always hear him before we see him - his appearance is always proceeded by sound... I don't want to make too much of this - it is very uneven in this, as in everything - and compared to some of the truly great early sound pictures, M or Blue Angel or Blonde Venus, it's quite mundane. But like so much about this film - when it's good, it's close to great.

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