Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Since last October I've posted on this blog almost every single day, sometimes twice a day. Up till March, I wrote 7 days a week until I realized it was possibly unreasonable to never take a break. This week and next week I'm doing something I haven't done in awhile: TAKING A VACATION.
You'll still see a few reviews and articles - I'm almost finished with reviews of the new Divine documentary, I Am Divine, the new Grapes of the Death and Night of the Hunted Blu-rays from Kino Lorber/Redemption, a few new Mario Bava and Tinto Brass Blu-rays from Arrow, and my on-going Universal series. I'm also hard at work on a Kenneth Anger retrospective for the next issue of Paracinema. But I'm tossing my schedule aside for the next two weeks, because the end of May means lots of friends and loved ones are visiting from out of town for Maryland Deathfest in Baltimore. (The picture above is from the middle of the crowd during Autopsy in 2010. The guy in front of me threw up devil horns at exactly the right moment, just before he stomped on my foot.)
If you're in the area and like metal, you probably know about the fest already. If not, watch a lot of movies in my absence or try to get out and enjoy the weather before it gets disgustingly hot. Hail Satan.
Friday, May 10, 2013
Erle C. Kenton, 1945
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr, John Carradine, Martha O’Driscoll, Lionel Atwill, Onslow Stevens
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr, John Carradine, Martha O’Driscoll, Lionel Atwill, Onslow Stevens
This weird, campy film should probably be retitled Monsterpalooza, as it’s chock full of classic Universal beasties. And then some. It is actually unrelated to Dracula or any of its sequels. House of Dracula is really part of Universal’s “Monster rally” films, which began with Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), continued with House of Frankenstein (1944), and was concluded with House of Dracula. All these films include a mash up of Universal’s classic monsters facing off against one another, as well as handful of Universal’s popular horror themes like evil scientists and mad doctors. House of Dracula concerns the adventures of Dr. Edelman and his encounters with the supernatural.
Dracula (a sadly dull John Carradine) is incognito as the Baron Latos and knocks on Dr. Edelman’s door and begs for help. OK, he doesn’t really knock. At five in the morning he flies into the good doctor’s house as a bat, transforms and demands to be taken down the basement. The doctor doesn’t believe the supernatural elements of his story, but agrees to help him with his “curse.” While he is helping Dracula, Curse #2, in the Lon Chaney, Jr. sized form of Larry Talbot, also demands help for his furry problem. Dr. Edelman agrees to help him too, but is convinced, as he was with Dracula, that Talbot’s ailment has to do with psychiatry rather than the supernatural.
Eventually the doctor saves Talbot with a medicine made from spores that he has been cultivating to save his beautiful, but unfortunately hunchbacked assistant(?!?). Meanwhile, Dracula gets out of hand and tries to seduce and transform his other assistant, Miliza. Dr. Edelman destroys him... almost in time. Though Dracula doesn’t harm anyone, the blood transfusions the doctor has given Dracula have infected the doctor’s blood. But instead of turning into a vampire, Edelman randomly transforms into a cross between mad doctor and murderous ghoul.
Oh, did I mention that earlier in the film they found the undead corpse of Frankenstein’s monster? When the doctor makes his maniacal transformation, he manages to reignite the spark in the monster’s brain. Can Dr. Edelman survive his mad creation, murderous visions from a dead Dracula, his growing instincts to kill, good Samaritan Larry Talbot, and a rampaging mass of angry townspeople? I guess you’re just going to have to watch it to find out.
Unsurprisingly, this film has a connection with a lot of other Universal horror films from the period. Director Erle C. Kenton also helmed House of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and horror classic Island of Lost Souls (1932). John Carradine appeared (although uncredited) in early Universal films like The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and in later movies such as Captive Wild Woman (1943), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and House of Frankenstein. Onslow Stevens is great as Dr. Edelman and also appeared in Secret of the Blue Room (1933), Paramount’s The Monster and the Girl (1941), and Them! (1954).
Lionel Atwill basically reprises his role as the police inspector from Son of Frankenstein (1939) and he appeared in many other horror films from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Glenn Strange reprised his role as Frankenstein’s monster from House of Frankenstein. He would don the make up once more for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), where he again acted alongside Lon Chaney, Jr. House of Dracula also contains clips of Frankenstein’s monster from Bride of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein.
If you want to watch it, you’re going to have to buy, borrow or steal Dracula: The Legacy Collection. It also contains Dracula, the Spanish-language Drácula, Dracula’s Daughter, and Son of Dracula. There are two discs, though one is annoyingly double-sided. There are a fair amount of special features, though they all only deal with the original Dracula. The inclusion of House of Dracula makes The Legacy Collection well worth purchasing, though it would be nice to see all three of the “Monster Rally” films in one collection. As of now, House of Dracula is only available in the Legacy Collection. Though it is an obscure entry in Universal’s horror canon, it is campy, bizarre, and entertaining enough to grab your attention for its short, 67 minute run time. Highly recommended.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
Robert Siodmak, 1943
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr, Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers, Robert Paige, and Frank Craven
What a bizarre film. The Caldwell sisters, Kay and Claire, await the arrival of Kay’s European visitor, Count Alucard, to their plantation home in Louisiana. To put it mildly, Kay is a very strange girl. She is obsessed with the occult and the supernatural and has apparently brought a gypsy woman back from her travels to Europe, and given an open invitation to the mysterious Count Alucard to pay her an extended visit. The Count doesn't arrive when expected and though everyone thinks he missed his train and will be late, he has actually arrived on schedule, secretly, to kill the girls’ father.
Oddly, this is not mentioned again or further explored and is indicative of the film’s reliance on rapidly jumping from scene to scene, often with the result of leaving behind some major plot holes. Did Kay (Louise Allbritton) intend for this to happen? The will is read and dear old dad has left all the money to Claire (played by Evelyn Ankers who starred in a number of Universal horror films, many with Lon Chaney, Jr.), but the house, Dark Oaks, to Kay. Kay begins seeing Alucard in secret, eventually renouncing her long-time fiancé Frank to marry the Count. It seems he has promised her a different kind of life, one where death will not part them. But Kay has a plan. She admits that she doesn’t love the Count, she merely wants his undead gift. She plans to bestow this on Frank, who she will then spend eternity with. Will Frank go with the plan, kill the Count, and receive Kay’s kiss? Will he have a choice in the matter?
Oddly, this film has echoes of the first Dracula sequel, Dracula’s Daughter. Like the protagonist of that film, the vampire Countess Zaleska, Kay is a beautiful, independent, and strange female villain. In an odd mirror image of Zaleska, who seeks out normality and humanity, Kay becomes obsessed with the idea of escaping normal life for immortality, despite the risk and cost. Her plan is, actually, quite perverse. She seduces and marries a non-human, lets him kill her and turn her into a member of the undead and then plans to kill him. She is also so convinced she should share this with her fiancé regardless of his feelings on the matter. Though Alucard is kind of a dud, Kay is a compelling, though completely unsympathetic villain.
Alucard, the "Son of Dracula," is another bizarre character. He is supposedly foreign, but Lon Chaney, Jr. could not speak in a more American accent if he tried. He is not sexy or suave and fortunately doesn’t have much dialogue. Chaney, Jr. is much more effectively used in a film like The Wolfman, where he plays a totally different kind of monster. Most of the time in Son of Dracula he speaks slowly and politely and seems to be a well mannered man with the barest hint of violence underneath. His relationship with Kay is never explained and the attraction is somewhat baffling. It is odd that a human woman should be both the willing victim of a vampire as well as his seducer, betrayer, and killer, but Son of Dracula just goes for it. The vampire angle is discovered by, of course, the local doctor, who realizes for some reason that Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards. He calls a Hungarian (in this film the Dracula family is from Hungary) professor and vampire expert to Louisiana to help with the case. The two men guess/figure out that Alucard is not the original Dracula, but is most likely a descendant.
This was the first Universal film from German director Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase, The Killers) and it was written by his brother, celebrated horror screenwriter Curt Siodmak (The Wolfman, The Invisible Man Returns, Earth vs. the Flying Saucer, and many more). This is notable in vampire film mythology for being the first film to depict a vampire transforming into a bat on screen.
Son of Dracula absolutely boggles my mind. Though it is entertaining, the bizarre plot elements are kind of confusing and the ending is completely unexpected. In fact, while watching Son of Dracula, I had no idea what was going to happen next, which is both a strength and weakness. Compared to the contemporary idea of a sequel - reviving the same monster or villain to rehash the same plot again and again - it is somewhat refreshing and contains a surprising number of new ideas. If you have a hard-on for classic monster films, it comes recommended. If not, I'm not sure why you're reading this blog.
The film is available from Universal as a split-DVD with Dracula’s Daughter or in the Dracula: The Legacy Collection box set. The set is a must have in any collection and also contains the original Dracula, the Spanish-language Drácula, Dracula’s Daughter, and House of Dracula. There are two discs, though one is annoyingly double-sided and some issues have been reported. There are a fair amount of special features, though they all only deal with the original Dracula.
Born Charles Albert Browning, Jr., director Tod Browning left behind a grotesque, carnivalesque film legacy that helped spawn the American horror genre. Though he was also an actor and a screenwriter with a lengthy, diverse career that spanned silent film and early talkies, Browning is primarily known for Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), and an ten film collaboration with actor Lon Chaney that culminated in The Unknown (1927).
Browning’s career in the performing arts began when he ran away from home as a teenager, changed his name to Tod, and joined a traveling carnival. Though he did stints as a barker, clown, actor, dancer, and magician, among other things, his first act was a popular scam known as the Living Hypnotic Corpse, where he would be buried alive for a day (sometimes two) inside a secretly ventilated coffin. In addition to sideshows, carnivals, and circuses, he also did some work in vaudeville and became familiar with a number of acts, including magician’s escape tricks. The circus was also a major player in his films, beginning as early as 1916 with Puppets, a film where Browning used actors to stand in for harlequin puppets.
Browning got his start as an actor working with D.W. Griffith, in some of Griffith's silent films including his masterpiece Intolerance, and Browning soon followed Griffith to California. Here he began directing, primarily churning out short films, in addition to acting in almost fifty movies. During this period, in 1915, Browning was in a serious car crash where he suffered numerous injuries and killed one of his passengers, the actor Elmer Booth. Alcohol abuse and related depression was a lifelong issue for the director. Because of the accident, Browning was out of work for two years other than script writing until his feature length debut with Jim Bludso (1917), a melodrama about a heroic riverboat captain.
After his directorial career took off, he soon joined forced with Universal and one of their young producers, Irving Thalberg, who introduced him to Lon Chaney. The first film they made together was The Wicked Darling (1919), where Chaney plays a criminal who brings a young girl into his life of crime, establishing his pattern of starring as a villain and/or antihero. Together Browning and Chaney made ten films together, including The Unholy Three (1925) about criminal circus performers executing a jewel heist, which they remade five years later as Chaney’s only sound film, as well as The Black Bird (1926), The Road to Mandalay (1926), London After Midnight (1927), and The Unknown (1927). This is their finest film together and here Chaney plays an armless knife thrower who falls in love with a young circus performer (Joan Crawford). In nearly all of these, he plays characters who are deformed, handicapped, or mutilated.
Browning and Chaney were a sort of grotesque dream team and the incredibly versatile and protean character actor is likely the only person who could have brought Browning’s characters to life so enthusiastically and realistically. Chaney played characters that were armless (The Unknown), legless (West of Zanzibar), scarred (Road to Mandalay), and monstrous (the now lost London After Midnight).
Universal allegedly intended them to worth together for Dracula, but Chaney passed away from cancer. At the last minute Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi was hired to play the titular Count, a role he had already performed hundreds of times for the stage. Though Dracula is Browning’s most famous, successful, and iconic film, it is also one of his most controversial due to rumors that Browning didn’t inhabit the director’s chair very often. Allegedly he received assistance from talented cinematographer Karl Freund, who would go on to direct The Mummy (1932) and Peter Lorre-vehicle Mad Love (1935). Though Dracula lacks the elements of revenge, deformity, and criminality in many of Browning’s other films, it still bears his morbid style and, in typical Browning fashion, the primary antagonist is a more fascinating character than any of the protagonists.
Browning’s masterpiece and the film that lost him his career was Freaks (1932). Olga Baclanova stars as a beautiful but manipulative trapeze artist who marries a circus midget for his money and plans to kill him and run off with the strongman. Though the other circus freaks initially accept her, they soon learn of her devious plan to poison the unwitting midget. They hideously mutilate her, turning her into one of them, the half-woman, half-bird duck girl. Universal was horrified by the film and effectively took away Browning’s creative freedom after this and he retired a few years later.
He directed a number of other films in addition to Dracula and Freaks that fit in the horror genre or will be of interest to genre fans, such as The Thirteen Chair (1929). Mark of the Vampire (1935) is loose remake of the lost silent film he made with Chaney, London After Midnight, and though it involves Bela Lugosi as part of a creepy vampire couple, it is more mystery than horror. Revenge film The Devil Doll (1936), starring Lionel Barrymore, involves a man who escapes a prison island and gets revenge on those who framed him by shrinking them down to doll-size figures that he controls and manipulates. Browning’s films often have revenge or horror at their core, though he filmed a wide range of genres, including adventure, mystery, melodrama, and crime. He often focused on outsiders and many of his films are set in enclosed communities, such as a gypsy camp, a traveling circus, or the criminal underworld.
Tod Browning’s influence on early horror cinema is often overlooked - along with gangster and noir films - though he directed the granddaddy of American horror movies, Dracula, which is also the first major studio film in the U.S. to introduce truly supernatural horror. Earlier mystery-horror films, such as Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, often began with a potentially supernatural premise, but explained the plot elements as being the result of human action. Browning’s obvious interest in and exploration of the grotesque was another, perhaps quieter influence on the developing horror genre. Most of Browning’s main characters are freaks, monsters, criminals, the deformed, and the mutilated. Villains were the stars of his films and were often the most charismatic and developed characters. All his films with Chaney exemplify this, and Dracula is another perfect case. Where Jonathan Harker is one of the primary protagonists in the novel, his role in Browning's film is milquetoast and effectively castrated. If you want to learn more about Browning, I highly recommend the biography Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning by Dracula scholar David Skal and Elias Savada, as well as his creative catalogue. Though many of his silent films are believed to be lost, check out as many of his Chaney collaborations as possible. And obviously, if you've neglected to see Freaks, this is the ideal place to start.
"One of us... one of us... one of us!"
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Lambert Hillyer, 1936
Starring: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan, Gilbert Emery
Starring: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan, Gilbert Emery
In the early ‘30s, Universal studios explored a series of undead monsters with Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, resulting in critical and financial acclaim. After a series of mad scientist films - Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Man, and The Raven - they produced the unexpectedly successful Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, introducing a gruesome yet sympathetic female monster. Though Frankenstein’s monster and Dr. Pretorius, the diabolical scientist, are the true villains of the film, the Monster’s bride paved the way for a more malicious female ghoul. Essentially an attempt to cash in on Bride of Frankenstein’s success, Universal conjured up Dracula’s Daughter, a sequel to Tod Browning’s 1931 classic. Though less critically acclaimed than its sire, the follow up re-imagined vampire genre tropes and blended a variety of cinematic and literary influences.
Released in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter picks up immediately where its predecessor left off. Discovered in a crypt with the recently staked Count, Von Helsing is arrested for murder. Edward Van Sloan reprises his role as Van Helsing from Dracula and is the only actor from the original film to return. Scotland Yard obviously doesn’t believe he killed a vampire, so he asks his friend, an acclaimed psychiatrist, to be a character witness. Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) was once his student and prepares to defend him, despite many misgivings. Enter Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who steals Dracula’s body with the help of her sinister servant Sandor (Irving Pichel). Claiming to be Dracula’s daughter, she burns his corpse in an elaborate ritual with the intention of breaking the vampiric curse on her soul.
Unfortunately this proves ineffective and Zaleska resumes her nightly hunt for blood. Soon she meets Garth and convinces him she suffers from a powerful affliction. He agrees to help her and is certain her malady is only psychological. Despite Garth’s help, her blood lust continues and she gives up on a cure. In a last, desperate attempt, Zaleska kidnaps Garth’s assistant, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), and brings her to Transylvania. She lures Garth there and intends to turn him into a vampire. He reluctantly agrees if she will set Janet free, but Sandor shoots Zaleska through the heart with an arrow because she neglected an old promise to transform him. He is shot by the police and Garth and Janet are freed.
Because Dracula’s Daughter was spawned by the success of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, Whale was originally hired as director with much of Dracula’s cast slated to return. In 1936 legendary producers Carl Laemmle and his son Carl Laemmle, Jr., responsible for much of Universal’s early horror output, were removed from Universal for financial issues and the overburdened studio scrapped the original plan for Dracula’s Daughter. Script duties were still given to Garrett Fort (Dracula and Frankenstein), though the role of director passed to Lambert Hillyer (The Invisible Ray and the 1943 Batman). Allegedly Dracula’s Daughter is based on “Dracula’s Guest,” a short story by Bram Stoker that was believed to be the excised prologue from Dracula, though Stoker scholars are now skeptical of this claim. David O. Selznick purchased the rights for MGM, but later sold them to Universal. The plot similarities between Dracula’s Daughter and “Dracula’s Guest” are merely thematic, both revolving around a female vampire subordinate to Dracula.
Dracula’s Daughter is emotionally bleak, steeped in Gothic atmosphere and full of melancholy in a way its predecessor failed to be. Holden carries the film with a mesmerizing, sympathetic performance, at once alluring and repulsive. The lack of genre cliches provides a fresh take on vampire cinema, one that would resurface later in horror history. This minor masterpiece seems to have had an influence on ‘60s and ‘70s Gothic horror in the British and Italian canons, such as Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil) and Bava’s satanic witchcraft masterpiece Black Sunday. There are a number of elements in these later films that were presented for the first time in Dracula’s Daughter. Zaleska’s vampirism is portrayed as a blend of madness, female hysteria, sexual dysfunction, and addiction. She is a reluctant vampire, desperate to regain her mortality at any cost. More importantly, this is the cinematic introduction to lesbian vampiric activity. Though she takes both male and female victims, Zaleska prefers young, attractive female victims.
Dracula’s Daughter is not a perfect film and suffers from large plot holes and ill-placed comedy. The bumbling police officers from the opening are poorly placed and mar the gloomy atmosphere. There is a complete lack of chemistry between Holden and Kruger, complicated by the fact that Kruger was normally cast as a villain and is ill-suited for the role. The chemistry between Kruger and Churchill is even worse, playing out like a failed “battle of the sexes” comedy. Despite its flaws, Dracula’s Daughter is representative of an interesting blend of influences.
Though there are many deviations, Dracula’s Daughter has a number of similarities to its parent film and source novel. Like Lugosi’s Dracula, Zaleska is an attractive, charming aristocrat from Eastern Europe. She sleeps in a coffin, “never drinks... wine,” and abhors mirrors. She also has a penchant for wearing flowing, dark capes, staring intently and speaking little. Lugosi and Holden both possess the camera, overwhelming the frames with facial close ups, showing a close resemblance between their hypnotic eyes, raven hair and aquiline noses. Though Zaleska’s vampirism is less overt than Dracula’s, she is clearly a blood sucker, leaving puncture wounds on her dead or comatose victims. With the aid of a large moonstone ring, she uses hypnotism to get what she wants. The most obvious inspiration for Zaleska’s character derives from the three vampire women who are commonly referred to as Dracula’s brides, though their role in the novel is more nebulous and they are called sisters. Two of them are dark-haired and bear a close physical resemblance to Dracula. It is inferred that the third, a blonde, is their leader. In conversation with Jonathan Harker, Dracula claims to have loved these women in the past, though whether this is familial or romantic love is unclear. They are attractive, yet repulsive, due to their sexual exuberance and their voracious appetites for blood. In his journal, Jonathan Harker writes that, “There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.”
The female vampire in Stoker’s story “Dracula Guest” is another obvious inspiration for Zaleska, though no other plot elements are shared between the film and its supposed source material. “Dracula’s Guest” opens with an unidentified Englishman visiting Germany on his way to Transylvania. Ignoring warnings from the locals, he explores an abandoned village on Walpurgis Night. The horse pulling his carriage is scared off and he is forced to walk the long distance back to the hotel alone in heavily falling snow. He takes shelter in some trees, but realizes he is in the middle of a cemetery, near a great tomb. There is a stake driven through the tomb, which belongs to Countess Dolingen of Gratz from Styria. Because of the impending storm, he is forced to take shelter in the mouth of the tomb, where he encounters a beautiful woman with red lips. A storm saves him from this mysteriously threatening woman and he wakes with a wolf on his chest, presumably protecting him from further dangers.
Though the original novel and filmic version of Dracula play an important formative role in the sequel, there are a number of other, earlier literary influences. Stoker’s fellow Irishman Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla is an obvious inspiration, as are several texts from European fin de siecle literature and horror fiction from the early 1900s. Carmillia is set in the Styrian countryside (the home place of Stoker’s Countess Dolingen). A young lady named Laura meets Carmilla, who comes to stay with Laura and her father due to a carriage accident. The beautiful Carmilla is nocturnal, deeply secretive, possessive of Laura and makes occasional romantic advances towards her friend. Laura begins to have terrible nightmares of a cat-creature biting her chest and her health takes a turn for the worse. It is revealed that Carmilla is responsible and is actually a several hundred year old vampire, Countess Mircalla Karnstein. A small band of men join together to hunt down her tomb and destroy her in the hope that they can save Laura’s life in time.
Carmilla was the first lesbian vampire and actually pre-dates Dracula by about twenty-five years. Like Stoker’s Lucy, Dolingen, and Zaleska, Carmilla is aristocratic, tall and thin with large, entrancing eyes and full, seductive lips. Carmilla, Lucy, and Dolingen have nocturnal habits and hunt at night. Both Carmilla and Dracula present a subversive, fluid sexuality where gender is distorted and there are links between monstrosity, homosexuality, hypersexuality, and hysteria.
In addition to Carmilla, Zaleska is likely shaped by several horror stories in the early 1900s that depict tales of sexually aggressive, vampiric female characters that were undoubtedly also inspired by Carmilla, such as the works of women writers like Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mary Wilkins Freeman. The demonic, sexualized vamp was a relatively popular trope in fin de siecle art and literature. A particular concern at the time was the concept of the New Woman, a financially, sexually, and emotionally independent being. This type of woman rejected concepts of motherhood and family values, which resulted in a number of literary works showing monstrous, sexually motivated female characters. There are French novels from the late 1800s and early 1900s like Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus and The Marquise de Sade and Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Salammbô. Artwork from the period also depicts pale, dark-haired female vampires, such as work from Edvard Munch, Henri Martin, Georges de Feure, and Philip Burne-Jones.
Zaleska’s unhappy plight is suggested to be a combination of disease, addiction and madness, all themes reflect in fin de siecleart. Vampirism was initially linked with depictions of disease in the nineteenth century, namely anemia, porphyria, tuberculosis, plague, and sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis. The latter in particular connects vampirism with the moral and physical decline feared by Victorian society. This subtext was revisited in the late 1980s when a connection between HIV and vampirism was explored in numerous films and books. One of the first authors to do this, Anne Rice, has stated that some of her most important female vampires, such as the villainous Akasha in Queen of the Damned, were inspired by Dracula’s Daughter.
Zaleska also has much in common with several of Oscar Wilde’s literary inventions. Like the titular character of his Salomé, she is “like a woman rising from a tomb... She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.” She is also similar to literary male libertines like the titular character of Wilde’s Dorian Gray, following the sort of “double life” associated with amoral but privileged young men. She keeps a separate apartment as a painting salon in a questionable neighborhood and under an assumed name, which is also where she seduces and feeds on vulnerable young women of lower classes.
Finally, it is necessary to consider the influence that The Bride of Frankenstein had on Dracula’s Daughter. There are a number of plot similarities between these two female-centric sequels. Frankenstein’s monster strives to be a normal human, which he seeks to do by attaining a mate and gaining social acceptance. Zaleska also seeks to reject her monstrosity and become a normal woman, reinstating family values. Frankenstein’s monster has a diabolical father, Pretorius, who controls and molds him, just as Dracula controls Zaleska from beyond the grave, “possessing” her consciousness. The Monster is ultimately rejected by his potential mate, who has been turned into an undead creature on his behalf. Zaleska nearly persuades Garth to accept her vampiric curse, but fate prevents this. The Bride of Frankenstein includes a gay subtext in the troubled relationship between Pretorius and Henry Frankenstein, while Dracula’s Daughter is much more overt with its homosexual subplot.
Dracula’s Daughter is a unique combination of influences that represent the best of horror in turn of the century art and literature. The film is an important, but sadly neglected part of the Dracula film canon and helped shaped depictions of future female vampires and vampirism as a symbol for addiction, disease, or psychosis. Fortunately Dracula’s Daughter was made available to horror fans with the release of Dracula: the Legacy Collection set that includes Dracula, the Spanish version of Drácula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula.
Even after more than seventy years, she still “gives you that weird feeling!”
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
George Melford, 1931
Starring: Carlos Villarias, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Pablo Alvarez Rubio
When I first saw Drácula, I was fascinated by the film’s production history and wondered how many times in cinema a film had been simultaneously shot in two languages with two different directors and two separate casts, but on the same set? It turns out this happens more than you would think. Universal practiced this a few times in the ‘30s, including on a remake of The Cat and the Canary, The Cat Creeps, where a duplicate Spanish-language version was filmed at night as La Voluntad del muerto with the same director as Drácula, George Melford, and star Lupita Tovar. (It also happened in the ‘60s occasionally with German krimi films, but dual language movies these tended to have overlapping casts and the same director.)
This somewhat complicated history makes the Spanish-language version of Drácula an interesting experiment and worthy of at least one careful viewing, particularly by fans of Dracula. Shot at night on the same set as Browning’s Dracula, the Spanish Drácula is generally considered to be a sexier and more emotional version of its English language counterpart, supposedly due to its Latin flavor and the advantage of looking at Browning’s film every day. This is an opinion shared by many fans and critics since the film was rediscovered in the ‘70s.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I agree with this. The film is, unavoidably, very similar, so similar that I'm not going to bother providing a synopsis. There is the same plot, almost the same dialogue, the same set and the same cues for the actors. In a way, the fact that this was replicated so closely is kind of astounding. It is an interesting experiment in cinema, but undoubtedly suffers from some glaring flaws. While many films have remakes and sequels, Drácula is one of the few that is almost exactly the same film as its predecessor, if it isn’t fair to refer to Dracula that way.
So how is it actually different? There are four major things. First of all, we have the Count. In her introduction to the film, Lupita Tovar, who plays Eva, the Spanish-language version of Mina, notes how similar Bela Lugosi and Carlos Villarias were. I completely disagree. While they are somewhat alike in appearance, they play completely different Draculas. Villarias has hypnotic, captivating eyes, and he is a much more physically expressive, theatrical Dracula. So physically expressive, that most of the time it comes across as ridiculous and hammy. One of my favorite scenes is in the beginning of the film when Renfield accidentally cuts himself during dinner. Excited by the sight of blood, Dracula leans in for the kill, but sees the crucifix around Renfield’s neck. Instead of recoiling with a look of demonic terror/fury on his face, he simply looks like he’s eating something that tastes TERRIBLE.
The second difference in Drácula is that this physical exaggeration is mirrored by everyone, particularly when it comes to their facial expressions. Sometimes it almost seems like we're watching a pantomime or a silent film, which is likely to be distracting to modern film viewers who have little familiarity with early cinema and its unique acting techniques. On the other hand, this may delight viewers who find Dracula too talkie and static. The third, very welcome difference is the heightened level of eroticism. There are sexier costumes and more beautiful women, particularly the gorgeous Lupita Tovar. She is at once alluring and innocent and waves away some of the parlor room dust that settled over the English-language Dracula and it female lead, Helen Chandler. Tovar is a fascinating figure. This Mexican actress and beauty wound up marrying Paul Kohner, a producer at Universal and starred in a number of films directed by George Melford, such as East of Borneo (1931), as well as Mexico’s first talkie, Santa (1931), and in a strange crossover she appeared in The Veiled Lady (1929, now lost) with Bela Lugosi. At 102, she is one of the oldest actresses still alive from the silent film era. Director Melford was known for a number of films, including To Have and To Hold (1916), The Sea Wolf (1920), and Rudolf Valentino vehicle The Sheik (1921), in addition to an acting career.
The final difference, which doesn't seem possible if you watch the original Dracula first, is that Spanish-language version has much more exuberant rubber bats. For example, if you were to play a rubber bat drinking game, I feel certain that it would impossible to get through the entire film without alcohol poisoning. The major reason I don’t like this film as much as the English language Dracula is because it is so over the top in parts. I don’t want to give the impression that it is a bad film. Really, it is nearly the same film, but minus the element (Lugosi) that makes Dracula stand the test of time.
The Spanish-language Drácula is available in Dracula: The Legacy Collection boxset, which also contains the original Dracula and its three sequels, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula. There are two discs, though one is annoyingly double-sided. There are a fair amount of special features, though they all only deal with the original Dracula. There is an original documentary, The Road to Dracula, which is narrated by Carla Laemmle, niece of the great producer. It discusses both the original film and the Spanish version. Not a terribly exciting documentary, but I guess it would be interesting if you are new to Dracula. An introduction by Tovar that provides a quick run down of Drácula’s history is the only extra specifically for the Spanish-language version.
Though there have been many since - Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, etc. - there will only be one original Count. Bela Lugosi is known the world over for his dark, mesmerizing stare, thick accent, and velvety black cape, Lugosi played the role many times throughout his life and will forever be remembered as the bloodthirsty gentleman from Transylvania, even though he was really from the neighboring Hungary.
Born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó in Lugos, Austria-Hungary, the iconic actor took his stage name from his hometown, which is now known as Lugoj, Romania. He got his professional start with small parts on the Hungarian stage, though he later claimed to be a major star in his home country. Lugosi was a decorated infantry lieutenant and later captain in the Austro-Hungarian Army during WWI, though shortly after the war he was forced to flee Hungary due to the Hungarian Revolution in 1919. He moved across Europe and finally traveled to his new home in the U.S. He continued acting on stage in Hungarian, German, and phonetic English and in a handful of silent films until he was cast in Horace Liveright, Hamilton Deane, and John Balderston’s stage adaptation of Dracula on Broadway in 1927. He soon traveled with the production and acted in other plays around the same period. Lugosi got his start in various silent films throughout the ‘20s, both in Germany and the U.S., though he mostly had bit parts.
Despite his successful run in the stage play, Lugosi was not initially slated to play Dracula. It is rumored that Universal first intended this to be a collaboration between German Expressionist director Paul Leni and silent film star Lon Chaney. But after both Leni and Chaney passed away from illnesses, Tod Browning was put in the director’s chair and there was a rush to cast the film before shooting began. Lugosi was given the part at the last minute simply because he was cheap, but the role would quickly become unanimous with his brooding stare and unmistakable (and often imitated) accent.
Though Lugosi played Dracula well over a thousand times on stage, beginning in 1927, only two of his performances as the iconic Count were captured on screen, the first time in Dracula and again almost two decades later in the horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Dracula (1931) was his first major film, though he went on to make a series of interesting and acclaimed horror and sci-fi films in the ‘30s: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), the first of many movies where Lugosi played a mad scientist working with a homicidal, mutated ape, White Zombie (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1934), The Black Cat (1934), one of the few films where he received equal billing with Boris Karloff and their best work together, Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), and many more. In addition to Dracula, he had parts in some of the other Universal classic monster series, such as the role of the demented and deformed Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and the lycanthropic gypsy in The Wolf Man (1941).
His career began to take a down turn in the ‘40s, when he was typecast in cheaper and flimsier films, most of which were produced by Monogram Pictures, nicknamed “poverty row” in Hollywood. Some of these films will delight fans of early Universal horror, but many of them were not acclaimed upon release or outright ignored, such as Black Friday (1940), The Devil Bat (1940), Invisible Ghost (1940), The Black Cat (1941), The Corpse Vanishes (1942), The Ape Man (1943) and Return of the Ape Man (1944, which features nary an ape), and Zombies on Broadway (1945). He also appeared in Val Lewton’s excellent Boris Karloff-vehicle The Body Snatcher (1945) as a humble, elderly servant who is killed by Karloff when he attempts to blackmail him. This is a sad, very visual example of how far he had fallen since Dracula. The ‘50s saw a career revival for Lugosi in the form of schlockmeister Ed Wood, who adored Lugosi and cast him in a number of films, including Glen or Glenda (1953) and Bride of the Monster (1955). Some footage of Lugosi was included in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), but Lugosi passed away before filming was complete and Wood’s wife’s chiropractor had to stand in for the remainder of the film.
Lugosi had a romantic, but difficult life. In addition to his five marriages, one of which was broken up by a semi-long term affair with famous silent film actress Clara Bow, he struggled with drug addiction and a series of poor financial decisions. His morphine addiction was caused by a painful back problem that is believed to have come from his time in the war and worsened later in life. His poor financial decisions began when he was cast in Dracula as a last resort and paid $500 per week. He made less money than some of the side actors, a trend that would continue throughout his career in genre films with Universal. He also turned down the role of the monster in Frankenstein, allegedly because he thought the make up would make him unrecognizable. After Boris Karloff rose to fame because of this role, Lugosi was forced to play second fiddle to him for nearly the rest of his career. Somewhat sadly, he did eventually play the role of Frankenstein’s monster in the almost comic sequel and monster mash movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943). His strong accent and refusal to don monster make up typecast him and he was stuck in horror films, horror-themed sci-fi movies, and horror comedies.
Lugosi was and is undoubtedly beloved by horror fans of all generations. Towards the end of his life, Lugosi was supported by a number of fans, some of them celebrities (such as Frank Sinatra, who allegedly paid one of his rehab bills). He became good friends with the then young Forrest J. Ackerman (Famous Monsters of Filmland), who wound up with a lot of Dracula and Lugosi-related props, except, of course, the Dracula cape that Lugosi was buried in. After his heart attack in 1956, he was buried in this cape at the request of his wife and son and, at his funeral, friend and horror actor Peter Lorre famously joked that maybe they should put a stake in his heart just to be on the safe side.
There are, unsurprisingly, dozens of Lugosi resources. Though there are a number of biographies, I don't believe any of them are definitive. Dracula scholar David J. Skal's Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen is a good place to start. For further online information about Lugosi, I recommend this blog and this heartfelt article from Lost Magazine about Lugosi’s relationship with Forrest Ackerman, though there are tons of sites. Obviously watch as many of his films as you can. This set is a great place to start and this site has a lot of Lugosi movies streaming for free.