Friday, November 5, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #72: Dracula (1931)

Since it's the season for witchery and other assorted evil delights, I decided to check out the Dracula Legacy Collection, which collects the classic Dracula films done by Universal Studios, the set of films that laid out the iconography of the vampire. Empty castles, long candles, winding staircases, cobwebs, capes, heavy accents. All the campy Count Dracula signifiers we now pick up from saturday morning cartoons came from that first Bela Lugosi hit.

And it's cool. It has some really memorable moments - great lines, great visuals, and some pretty engrossing scenes; my favourite being a scene where an aged Dr. Vanhelsing is visited by Dracula and told to leave. Their battle of wills is timeless, and most of it comes through in their almost archetypal posturing, a posturing that has the ring of the silent film era.

Since Hollywood really started flexing their sound film muscle in 1927 (The Jazz Singer being among a host of big '27 releases), in 1931 'talkies' were still a new art. Dracula director Tod Browning, also of Freaks fame, was pretty uneasy with sound and was one of those silent directors that kind of petered out after sound came into the picture. He had thrown in the towel by 1936.

His Dracula seems to forget that it's a sound film at times. I say his, but allegedly Browning's set presence was at near zero and most of the directing was done by the cinematographer, which might also account for the persistence of silent image over sound in the film. There are long stretches of dialogueless silence, and an insistence on capturing strong facial expression and holding the shot for emphasis. The make-up work is pure silent film, with its heavy whites and dark lips. Also, apart from the brief and orchestral 'come out to the movies' style opening credits sequence, there's no soundtrack. Not one shred, not a hot lick of music to be found in this film. While it gives the film the sensation I imagine the fish that chokingly set a first flipper on land had, it's a strangeness that works. It creates pools of tension and atmosphere that might have been ruined otherwise with unnecessary dialogue or the emotional imposition that music carries.

So: A classic treat and a fascinating look at a silent film probing into the world of sound.

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