It’s October, which means it’s time for Hollywood Monster Marathons.
I don’t like newfangled Monsters, which are really just psychotic serial killers wearing cheap, flimsy disguises (or none at all), and who may or may not have psychotherapists aiding them in their journey towards or away from Monsterhood. I do like cartoon Monsters, Mike Wyzowski in particular.
But what I really like are the old-fashioned deep-down supernatural Monsters, especially the ones that come in black and white. Wolfmen. Mummies. Vampires. I prefer Monsters that stay safely up on the silver screen, not ones that take aim through a sniper rifle at pedestrians, or who cruise the schools looking for girls to kidnap and hold hostage for decades.
Which means I was thrilled when I discovered, last night, that I could request on-demand delivery of the 1931 “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi. Everyone’s heard of this film, of course, but how many have actually seen it? I hadn’t, and so I settled down on the sofa for some Cultural Education. And Monsters.
A number of things struck me about this film, the first being the amazing resemblance between Count Dracula and John Travolta.
And I will confess, the similarity occurred to me every time I watched Bela deliver his Brooding and Hypnotic Stare.
It’s also remarkable the way that this film and its imagery have percolated through the American cultural awareness. Flash a big crucifix at another person, and they’re as likely to melodramatically recoil as they are to drop to their knees in prayer. Everyone knows – Twilight notwithstanding – that the Proper Attire for a vampire is a tux. Terry Pratchett thoroughly lampoons this image in his Discworld books…all the while hewing to it as something that is acknowledged as right and proper. Then we get to this guy.
It turns out I knew Bela Lugosi and Dracula before I had ever heard the words. Vun! Vun bat in my belfry! Two! Two bats in my belfry! Thrrree! Thrreee bats in my belfry! Mwahahahahahahahaha!!!
What I never realized was how much John Travolta thus looks like Count von Count. That’s one degree of separation, there.
Then I considered the subject of Special Effects. People gripe about the crummy special effects on SyFy tv series, and in some of our newer movies, but less than a hundred years ago, what we had was this:
That’s a big flapping rubber bat. It’s presumably Dracula (see below). I am pretty sure it has been attached to a piece of elastic and that this is what is delivering the rather bouncy flapping effect. I know this because one time I pulled a big prank on my youngest brother with one of these rubber bats. I attached it to a piece of elastic string, and tacked it inside his doorframe where it would slap him in the face if he ran out of the room. Then, because older sisters are basically Evil, I got the idea to coat the bat with vaseline to make it slimy and cause it to stick to him when it hit him in the face if he ran out of the room. Then I waited until everything was dark, and caused him to run out of the room. I still fall over laughing when I think about it. Mwahahahahahahaha. Anyway, I obtained a very similar Special Effect to the one I saw in this film last night, with that rubber bat.
But the one thing that emerged as the strongest response to this film is the Understanding of just how difficult it must be to create a complete narrative, using nothing but audio-video clips, in a very limited time frame. I haven’t attempted to do this, having no pretensions to the stature of “auteur”. But I also never really thought about it either. You make a movie, you’re pretty much telling a story through short clips all strung together, and your writers are having to construct what is effectively an extended series of short-short-stories, strung together, and you’re hoping that the quality of the acting, and maybe some work on the camera operator’s part, is going to convert the whole mess into something that viewers perceive as a complete and uninterrupted narrative.
Upon reflection, I am thinking, this must be incredibly difficult. And it must have taken a great deal of creative work on the part of the filmmakers to sort out how to approach it, and to provide a good toolkit for doing it. This line of thought also makes me wonder if the proliferation of multi-part films (LOTR, The Hobbit, etc.) and excessively long films (2.5 hours, more) isn’t a sign of degeneration. All writers know it’s harder to write a short-story than it is to write a long novel. It occurs to me it might be harder to make a film that persuasively conveys a complete narrative within 90 minutes than it is to do the same in 3 hours.
What drove this all home was how exceedingly bad the 1931 Dracula is at all of this. It gives the impression of being a series of lightly animated tableaux, rather than a flowing narrative. The editing is supremely choppy and ineffective. The wealth of details to which I am accustomed were absent. Who was this Renfield? How did Dracula contact him? Who were those three women in white gowns, and what did they want with Renfield, and what do they have to do with Dracular? Why is the castle all trashed, with massive spiderwebs, but one single clean room. Did Dracula start that fire and provide the dinner himself? Because I don’t see any sign of human servants. What did Dracula do to him to make Renfield insane? Why did he do that, whatever it was? Why does Dracula decide to kill all the sailors while they’re battling a storm? Is he planning to sail the boat himself? What was his purpose in removing from Transylvania to England? Why rent an Abbey? Did he bring the women in white with him? Why did that one woman turn into a vampire, if she did, and none of the sailors on the boat? How does Renfield keep escaping from a barred room? Why does he want to eat bugs instead of people? Is that a mental hospital, or a country house? What’s up with the wolves howling? Is that Dracula too?
and the questions go on and on and on. The kind of questions I realize i don’t usually have when I finish watching a contemporary film.
None of this is a criticism of the 1931 Dracula. It was – obviously – a brilliant film effort for its time, or it wouldn’t have affected the culture like that, and I wouldn’t be able to get it streaming in to my TV in 2013. It’s more an awareness of just how far that particular art form has come in the last 80 years. Brilliant.