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Dracula’s eternal life

Why did Universal invariably cast somnambulists to play the romantic leads in their horror films?

Nosferatu: A scene of morbid splendor.
Nosferatu: A scene of morbid splendor.

Three things I know about Dracula.

Video:

Nosferatu (1922) trailer

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

It was not the famous bloodsucker’s first screen appearance: that distinction goes to the long lost Hungarian film Dracula’s Death, made a year earlier. Gustav von Wangenheim (Thomas Hutter), however, was the screen’s original “blockbuster,” the first Aryan in his neighborhood to sell to Jews. Don’t blame Dracula’s daddy Bram Stoker; director F.W. Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen adapted the story without acquiring the rights from the novelist’s widow. Changes were made: Germany replaced London, character names differed to protect the plagiarizers, and it was Murnau’s idea to do away with stakes through the heart in exchange for death by daylight. With his giant nose and ratlike claws and incisors, Max Schreck greatly resembles a Jewish caricature made popular in its day. Shot on the cheap in extant locations, it remains a stylishly resourceful shocker even in its quietest moments. One wonders how many takes it took for the locket to land camera-side up on Count Orlok’s table after it fell from Hutter’s pouch. And note the relative ease with which Murnau draws the viewer’s eye to the locket with its photo of Hutter’s bride, and how the size of the object grows with each passing cut. Watch the tinted Kino Video bluray or not at all.

Video:

Dracula (1931) trailer

Dracula (1931)

Max Schreck’s ratty Count Orlok was epicac for the eyes. Tuxedo-clad, and with a medal from the vampire olympics dangling around his neck, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula has a lot more to offer than the blood pumping through his veins. He’s a woman’s dream! Orlok was a serial killer, whereas Dracula offered eternal life. Perhaps that’s why Drac had three wives haunting his castle, compared to Orlok’s cavernous bachelor pad. Charles D. Hall’s art direction is sumptuous to behold — dig those cobweb drapes and walk-in fireplaces — but it pales in comparison to the natural wonders on display in Nosferatu. In terms of pacing, it takes Hutter 24 minutes, or three times as long as Renfield, to arrive at the castle. Murnau develops character and builds suspense, while Dracula director Tod Browning seems in a hurry to bring on Bela. There are no pixelated effects of the coach traveling through Borgo Pass, and the decision to depict the journey without music was a wise one. Horror fans’ lips can be seen moving along with the seven sentences famously spoken by the Count as he escorts Renfield (Dwight Frye) up the spiderwebbed staircase. It’s when the action shifts from Castle Dracula to his new London digs that the film begins creaking along in a manner befitting canned theatre. (Lugosi was reprising his stage triumph, but the repetitious inserts of Dracula’s shadow-masked eyes add more Hoofa! than Ufa.) Browning is no stranger to horror: The Unknown and Freaks rank high among the anomalies and curiosities of American horror. But on his best day, Browning is no match for Murnau. The dolly in on Renfield’s paper cut isn’t half as effective as the sanguinary subtlety that overpowers Nosferatu’s face when first he spies Ellen’s neck in the locket. And why did Universal invariably cast somnambulists to play the romantic leads in their horror films? David Manners is drippier than a bullet-riddled faucet, and Helen Chandler’s Mina is equally as clammy. Frances Dade’s Lucy is more to one’s liking — within four hours of Drac drinking her neck nectar, she becomes the notorious Woman in White, kidnapping small children and putting the bite on them. It must be a matter of a little Lugosi going a long way with me. Even at 75 minutes it begins losing its bite.

Video:

Son of Dracula (1943) trailer

Son of Dracula (1943)

Universal’s third Dracula outing was also their first modern-day vampire saga. His travels from Budapest to the deep south to put the bite on metaphysically-minded Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), finds the luggage of guest of honor Count Alucard (Lon Chaney, Jr.) — that’s Dracula spelled laterally — arriving at the depot without him. Leave it to the fanboys and fangirls to lament the merits of Chaney’s rendering of cinema’s most debonair fanger. It is what it is. (Better Chaney than leading man Robert Paige, another slab of studio sirloin.) I’m in it for Robert Siodmak, a master of German expressionism making his debut as a studio contract director. (He would later go on to direct such notable film noir as Christmas Holiday, Criss-Cross, The Killers, etc.) In an interview with Sight & Sound, Siodmak later expressed apprehension over agreeing to direct a script he called “terrible.” In the end he conceded, “It wasn’t good, but some scenes have a certain quality.” That they do. Technically speaking, the Rorschach inkblot transformation from bat to Count was the first special effect of its kind. Performance wise, Frank Craven’s crime-solving Dr. Harry Brewster brings a touch of down-home horse sense not present in Dracula’s buzzcut know-it-all Abraham Van Helsing. Alucard is absent through most of the third act, and his climactic return and ultimate demise is worth the wait. Siodmak’s horror-noir wraps on a note of pessimism unlike any that exists in the universe of Universal Horror.

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Nosferatu: A scene of morbid splendor.
Nosferatu: A scene of morbid splendor.

Three things I know about Dracula.

Video:

Nosferatu (1922) trailer

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

It was not the famous bloodsucker’s first screen appearance: that distinction goes to the long lost Hungarian film Dracula’s Death, made a year earlier. Gustav von Wangenheim (Thomas Hutter), however, was the screen’s original “blockbuster,” the first Aryan in his neighborhood to sell to Jews. Don’t blame Dracula’s daddy Bram Stoker; director F.W. Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen adapted the story without acquiring the rights from the novelist’s widow. Changes were made: Germany replaced London, character names differed to protect the plagiarizers, and it was Murnau’s idea to do away with stakes through the heart in exchange for death by daylight. With his giant nose and ratlike claws and incisors, Max Schreck greatly resembles a Jewish caricature made popular in its day. Shot on the cheap in extant locations, it remains a stylishly resourceful shocker even in its quietest moments. One wonders how many takes it took for the locket to land camera-side up on Count Orlok’s table after it fell from Hutter’s pouch. And note the relative ease with which Murnau draws the viewer’s eye to the locket with its photo of Hutter’s bride, and how the size of the object grows with each passing cut. Watch the tinted Kino Video bluray or not at all.

Video:

Dracula (1931) trailer

Dracula (1931)

Max Schreck’s ratty Count Orlok was epicac for the eyes. Tuxedo-clad, and with a medal from the vampire olympics dangling around his neck, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula has a lot more to offer than the blood pumping through his veins. He’s a woman’s dream! Orlok was a serial killer, whereas Dracula offered eternal life. Perhaps that’s why Drac had three wives haunting his castle, compared to Orlok’s cavernous bachelor pad. Charles D. Hall’s art direction is sumptuous to behold — dig those cobweb drapes and walk-in fireplaces — but it pales in comparison to the natural wonders on display in Nosferatu. In terms of pacing, it takes Hutter 24 minutes, or three times as long as Renfield, to arrive at the castle. Murnau develops character and builds suspense, while Dracula director Tod Browning seems in a hurry to bring on Bela. There are no pixelated effects of the coach traveling through Borgo Pass, and the decision to depict the journey without music was a wise one. Horror fans’ lips can be seen moving along with the seven sentences famously spoken by the Count as he escorts Renfield (Dwight Frye) up the spiderwebbed staircase. It’s when the action shifts from Castle Dracula to his new London digs that the film begins creaking along in a manner befitting canned theatre. (Lugosi was reprising his stage triumph, but the repetitious inserts of Dracula’s shadow-masked eyes add more Hoofa! than Ufa.) Browning is no stranger to horror: The Unknown and Freaks rank high among the anomalies and curiosities of American horror. But on his best day, Browning is no match for Murnau. The dolly in on Renfield’s paper cut isn’t half as effective as the sanguinary subtlety that overpowers Nosferatu’s face when first he spies Ellen’s neck in the locket. And why did Universal invariably cast somnambulists to play the romantic leads in their horror films? David Manners is drippier than a bullet-riddled faucet, and Helen Chandler’s Mina is equally as clammy. Frances Dade’s Lucy is more to one’s liking — within four hours of Drac drinking her neck nectar, she becomes the notorious Woman in White, kidnapping small children and putting the bite on them. It must be a matter of a little Lugosi going a long way with me. Even at 75 minutes it begins losing its bite.

Video:

Son of Dracula (1943) trailer

Son of Dracula (1943)

Universal’s third Dracula outing was also their first modern-day vampire saga. His travels from Budapest to the deep south to put the bite on metaphysically-minded Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), finds the luggage of guest of honor Count Alucard (Lon Chaney, Jr.) — that’s Dracula spelled laterally — arriving at the depot without him. Leave it to the fanboys and fangirls to lament the merits of Chaney’s rendering of cinema’s most debonair fanger. It is what it is. (Better Chaney than leading man Robert Paige, another slab of studio sirloin.) I’m in it for Robert Siodmak, a master of German expressionism making his debut as a studio contract director. (He would later go on to direct such notable film noir as Christmas Holiday, Criss-Cross, The Killers, etc.) In an interview with Sight & Sound, Siodmak later expressed apprehension over agreeing to direct a script he called “terrible.” In the end he conceded, “It wasn’t good, but some scenes have a certain quality.” That they do. Technically speaking, the Rorschach inkblot transformation from bat to Count was the first special effect of its kind. Performance wise, Frank Craven’s crime-solving Dr. Harry Brewster brings a touch of down-home horse sense not present in Dracula’s buzzcut know-it-all Abraham Van Helsing. Alucard is absent through most of the third act, and his climactic return and ultimate demise is worth the wait. Siodmak’s horror-noir wraps on a note of pessimism unlike any that exists in the universe of Universal Horror.

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