Posts Tagged ‘Tod Browning’

There have been many notable and occasionally great one-and-done Draculas in screen history: Klaus Kinski, Denholm Elliott, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella. The list is extensive. What’s perhaps a surprising is how close Bela Lugosi comes to appearing on it. But it’s true: while the actor racked up a long list of genre and horror movie roles (including playing Frankenstein’s creature, one of Dr Moreau’s creations, several other lookalike vampires and appearing in a very early picture from Hammer Films), he only played Dracula twice – and one of those films was a spoof (1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). And yet he remains Christopher Lee’s only credible rival for the title of One True Dracula (Lee played the character in nine movies).

Maybe it’s because he originated the role – or perhaps the original 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, is just that good? Certainly it establishes the ground rules for anglophone versions of Bram Stoker’s novel, mainly by taking a very flexible approach to the text. Several characters are dropped entirely, others have their roles switched around, and the end result is that in this film it’s Renfield (Dwight Frye) who’s on his way to Castle Dracula to finalise the sale of a house.

It almost feels a bit redundant to summarise the plot of Dracula, but I suppose every version is a little bit different and – in any case – it’s just possible some people may not be familiar with it. The locals are appalled to learn Renfield will be visiting Dracula, giving him a crucifix for protection. Renfield, poor sod, wanders up to the gloomy old pile anyway, finding it to be oddly infested with what look like possums and armadillos (some very odd choices from the art department here). Dracula (Lugosi) issues his usual warm welcome and they conclude the sale of a ruined abbey near London before the brides of Dracula descend on Renfield. (As usual, the film doesn’t address the real question of why Dracula has decided to up stakes – ho, ho – and relocate to England. He hardly fits the usual profile of an economic migrant.)

After a brief interlude depicting the not-exactly-untroubled voyage of the ship Dracula takes from Romania to England – the crazed Renfield has now become his servant – we’re into the main part of the film. After a brief but strikingly effective interlude of a top-hatted Dracula stalking through the metropolis’ fog, pausing only to snack on the occasional match girl, this primarily concerns Dracula’s dealings with Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), owner of the asylum next door to the ruined abbey, and his nearest and dearest: his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).

Best not to get too attached to Lucy, for she is soon no more: her plot function is basically to be a sort of demonstrative victim of Dracula’s M.O. (The subplot from the novel about Lucy rising as a vampire and preying on children is mentioned, but not really developed.) From this point on the film is about the battle to stop Mina from going the same way – luckily, Dr Seward is able to call in his old friend and expert on all things peculiar, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who very quickly realises just what’s going on here.

The status of Dracula as an important and iconic film is indisputable by anyone with a passing knowledge of and interest in modern culture, but in recent years a sort of critical push-back against it has developed, suggesting it is simply not a very good movie (and the Spanish-language version made on the same sets at the same time, starring Carlos Villarias, is often cited to be a much more effective take on the story).

Well, I can see where critics of Dracula are coming from, because nine decades on this iconic piece of cinema often feels barely cinematic at all. The reason for this is, in a sense, very straightforward: it’s not quite a direct adaptation of the novel, but rather a filmed version of the 1924 stage version (with occasional moments lifted from Murnau’s unauthorised adaptation, which genuinely is a classic movie). This explains the talky and largely static nature of the piece, although given the film is only about 75 minutes long, probably not its sluggish pace – I get a sense that the stage play may have been a gruelling ordeal, just not in the way that its makers may have intended. Certainly, as a horror movie this film is seriously restricted by the censorship of the period: this is a wholly bloodless vampire movie, some might say in more senses than one.

Then again, neither sensationalist spectacle nor studied naturalism were really in the toolbox of American cinema in the 1930s; many films were basically just filmed theatre, with an accordingly theatrical and camp air to them. There’s something very theatrical, and indeed practically Shakespearean, about the way most of the major roles are played dead straight, while the supporting parts are often comic grotesques (apart from Frye’s wildly over-the-top turn as Renfield, I’m thinking of Charles Gerrard as the asylum attendant, who seems fond of telling his charges they are ‘loonies’).

On the other hand, there is Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Again, this is a very theatrical performance, with a lot of rather studied posing going on, not to mention some stilted line readings. But there’s something else here too – particularly in close-up, where he brings a real intensity and charisma to the part. It’s just a shame that Tod Browning elects to shoot most of the movie in rather static long- and medium-shot. You can perceive, perhaps, why this performance effectively set the template for screen Draculas – virtually every other take on the character is a reaction to it, either an emulation or a modulation.

You can say the same about the movie as a whole: it may hardly be a great Dracula movie itself, but you can sense it incubating the seeds of many other Draculas and vampire movies to come. For every scene which is a bit of a dud, there is another which either really lands, or is at least brimming with potential. Perhaps that’s the kindest thing one can say about this movie – it’s almost like an extended sizzle reel for Dracula and the vampire movie genre as a whole. Perhaps the movies weren’t quite ready for Dracula in 1931, but this movie did a fine job of giving them plenty of motivation to revisit this story time and time again.

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My partner and I went out for a browse round the charity shops of a pleasant town in the Midlands on the morning of my most recent birthday: it’s something I tend to do whenever I’m up there, more in hope than expectation to be honest. However, on this occasion, no sooner should we walk through the doors of the British Heart Foundation than I came across a bin full of DVDs at 50p each (three for a quid). This would only really be notable if the DVDs were any good, but on this occasion they were: looking up at me from the top of the pile was The Stone Tape, while not far beneath was A Clockwork Orange. With these two, I basically got a third free, and after a moment’s pause went for – and it did feel very odd to come across this particular film in this particular setting – Tod Browning’s 1932 movie Freaks. It was only when I got it home that I noticed that it was still in the original wrapper.

Now, of course there are many reasons why a film might get bought and never watched – back in my youth I was a sucker for picking up VHS tapes that I thought I might like to watch one day and then never getting back to them – but when it comes to a film like Freaks, you can’t help but wonder. Did the purchaser look at the blurb on the back of the case, and have second thoughts? Did they do some research into the movie and then decide against watching it, or even having it in the house? One will never know. Certainly this remains one of the most problematic and genuinely difficult-to-watch films I have ever come across.

Technically a horror movie, it takes place in and around a travelling circus, somewhere in France (it seems to have been a convention of very early horror films that they should be set in the Old World), and most of the first half of the film concerns the everyday lives of the performers. This includes – and here things start to get tricky – the acts in what one would glibly call the freak show. There is a ‘human skeleton’, a bearded lady, a hermaphrodite, conjoined twins, people missing various limbs, a group of ‘pinheads’, and some midgets. All of them are played by people who genuinely possessed these conditions. We see them going about their daily routines and interacting with the other performers, and the result is a kind of very odd soap opera: the bearded lady has a child, the conjoined twins are contemplating marriage – to two different men – and, most significantly, one of the midgets, Hans (Harry Earles), has developed an infatuation for the circus’ statuesque trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), much to the anguish of Hans’ fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles).

However, what Hans does not realise is that he is being played for a sucker by Cleopatra and her actual lover, Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor). The pair have become aware that Hans has inherited a fortune and are planning that Cleopatra will marry and then slowly poison him. What can possibly go wrong? He’s only a midget, after all. Of course, they have reckoned without the unwritten law of the sideshow freaks, which is that they look out for each other, and an attack on one is considered an offence against all of them…

If nothing else, Freaks is a bracing (to say the least) antidote to the mawkish sentimentality with which circuses of yesteryear tend to be depicted in modern movies – in its own way, I find The Greatest Showman to be every bit as problematic and gruelling to watch as Freaks, but the much older movie is, I suspect, rather closer to the truth. I say that Freaks is technically a horror movie, because – as you can perhaps tell from the brief outline I have provided – the actual plot is much more of a melodrama. Only in the closing stages of the film do things take a different turn.

Prior to this, if there is ‘horror’, it comes from the presence in the film of people with genuine abnormalities. Obviously there is something very off about this in principle: the film seems to be operating as a kind of circus sideshow itself, with the chance to see the ‘freaks’ the main draw to the audience. However, there is a weird tension operating here – there are a number of quite lurid and even prurient moments, such as when the camera dwells on one of the twins being kissed and the other enjoying the sensation as well, but the general tone of the film is much more matter-of-fact and even compassionate towards its subjects.

However, come the end of the story, there is inevitably a shift. Cleopatra and Hercules’ plot is uncovered, and as a thunderstorm lashes the circus wagons, the freaks close in to exact vengeance on the attempted murderers. There is something genuinely chilling about this, even in the extant, savagely truncated version of the film: the original climax apparently caused a furore when it was shown to audiences, resulting in the film being cut by nearly a third. As it is, the end of the film does feel abrupt and anticlimactic – we don’t see exactly how Cleopatra goes from being a beautiful amazon to the quacking, legless, bird-like thing she has been transformed to in the frame story, and the suggestion that the freaks have emasculated Hercules is completely absent. An epilogue intended to ensure Hans remains a sympathetic character has also been added.

This is a film from the 1930s, pretty much the dawn of cinema, and as such it inevitably feels a bit primitive by modern standards – the characterisations are broad, the plot basic, and so on. It does suffer from some pacing issues, too, probably because of the recutting the film underwent – most of the incident happens in the last quarter, giving the uneasy impression that for most of the film we’re just being invited to gawp. One significant problem is that – for obvious reasons – many parts are played by people who were not professional actors, resulting in some slightly wince-worthy performances. Even worse, not all of them had English as a first language – Harry Earles’ birth name was Kurt Schneider, and his thick German accent renders some of his dialogue unintelligible, which is obviously an issue given he’s playing one of the main characters.

Is Freaks genuinely a horror movie? I would like to think not. Perhaps it is one of those films from so long ago that it is a losing game to try and assess it by modern standards. There are certainly some chilling and powerful moments, but every frame of it radiates an awkward ambiguity, about just how we are expected to respond to the characters. One thing is certain: a film like this could never be made today, and perhaps that’s just as well.

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