Dracula

Last night I went with some friends to the Wales Millennium Centre in sunny Cardiff Bay; not, this time, for an Opera but to see a movie. Well, not just to see a movie but to listen to the soundtrack performed live at the same time. It turned out to be a fascinating and memorable evening, enjoyed by a very large audience.

The film was the classic 1931 version of Bram Stoker’s Draculastarring the great Bela Lugosi as the Count. This version – the first of many variations on the theme – was based very closely on the 1927 Broadway play in which Lugosi also played the title role. The music we heard was specially composed to accompany Dracula by Philip Glass, and the man himself was there to perform it. Philip Glass, I mean, not Count Dracula. The musicians numbered six in total, actually, as Philip Glass was joined by the Kronos Quartet  and together they were directed by Michael Riesman, who sat with his back to the audience watching the film on the big screen.

Although the musicians started a bit ropily, they soon pulled themselves together and it became obvious that the music was going to bring a significant new dimension to this pioneering old horror movie. In fact, as a very early “talkie” the original film had no musical score at all and very few sound effects of any kind. The music composed by Philip Glass brings extra dramatic intensity to some of the movie’s iconic sequences, such as the battle of wills when Dracula tries to mesmerise Professor van Helsing. The insistent repetition which is characteristic of Glass’ minimalist approach adds urgency where needed, but there are also contrasting passages of relaxed beauty. The score is also beautifully understated where it needs to be, simple enough not to distract attention away from the screen.

The passing years have not been particularly kind to the film. The effects are often unconvincing (to say the least), especially the  bats-on-strings, some of the acting very hammy, and the audio quality was so poor that the dialogue was often so muffled as to be barely audible (and not helped by bad mixing with the music).

Once you look past these superficial aspects, however, it’s not difficult to understand why this film is regarded as such a classic, because it is a highly original piece of work. It’s a far cry from a modern gore-fest, of course. The horror is implied rather than made explicit; all the actual blood-sucking happens out of shot. But the unsettlingly disjointed narrative, full of unexpected changes of scene and unexplained goings-on, gives it a dream-like feel and conjures up a unique sense of atmosphere. Although it it is now extremely dated, it doesn’t take that much imagination to understand why it created a sensation way back in 1931, with people apparently fainting in shock in the cinema. It also made a huge amount of money at the box office.

Vampire movies  are replete with their own set of clichés – the crucifixes, the absent reflections, the bats, etc etc – but this is the daddy of them all. The one thing that surprised me was the lack of garlic; the favoured protection against this particular member of the Undead is Wolfsbane (a member of the Aconite family of attractive yet lethally poisonous flowering plants; I used to grow a variety called Monk’s-Hood in my garden when I lived in Nottingham).

In the end, however, Dracula owes it all to the mesmerising screen presence of Bela Lugosi. This film made his name, and he was to spend most of the rest of his career typecast as a horror villain. His later years represented a downward spiral. Trouble with sciatica led doctors to prescribe him with opiates, on which he became hooked.  His drug addiction made him notoriously unreliable and work dried up. His career dwindled away into obscure bit parts in poor quality B-movies.

Although Bela Lugosi had his limitations as an actor, he didn’t deserve his fate. I’ve said before on here that I think people should be judged by their best work rather than by their worst, and so it is with Bela Lugosi. He was, and remains, the  Count Dracula.

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12 Responses to “Dracula”

  1. :( – I wish I could have gone to this – it sounds wonderful!

  2. Peter: perhaps you could say a little more about the music?

    • telescoper Says:

      It was good.
      :)

      But seriously, I added a little bit more about the music just now. I didn’t have time this morning.

  3. I had a great night out! Mr. Glass has been my idol for a while now, and it was thrilling to see him. And isn’t the millenium centre a great venue! Had a great view, even at the back of the circle. Hope he’ll visit these shores again soon!

  4. Michael Kenyon Says:

    I’m not a fan of this version, prefer Nosferatu, but this makes me me want to watch it again. Mark Gatiss discussed it in his recent (and superb) BBC series http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33HwH-AxGHw, the other two parts are well worth watching too.

    Very aptly name musicians too! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgg0s6IL1qA

  5. I’d seen this film many times before, but was surprised by how much difference the music made to the experience. I’d previously felt that the opening scenes in Transylvania were fantastic, but that the rest of the film doesn’t really live up to them, especially compared to the more consistent Frankenstein films. However, the soundtrack considerably increases the tension in the England set scenes, and I hadn’t enjoyed the film that much since the first few times I saw it!

    Going to be controversial and say that Christopher Lee is my favourite Dracula though. And I think we still haven’t had a definitive film adaptation that does the book justice.

    • telescoper Says:

      Coincidentally, it was Sir Christopher Lee’s 90th birthday on Sunday – the day I went to see the film.

      I also enjoyed the Hammer version of Dracula, although by the umpteenth sequel they had become very dull and formulaic. For me those films were also largely made by the extraordinary music by James Bernard, whose wild jarring scores were my first introduction to atonal music!

  6. telescoper Says:

    I should also have mentioned in the original post that not all the acting was “hammy”. I think Dwight Frye’s performance as Renfield, for example, was absolutely marvellous.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    Has Philip Glass evolved beyond the one-trick pony that he was in the 1980s with the score to Koyaanisqatsi and Akhnaten’s funeral Music?

    • telescoper Says:

      There are certainly some striking thematic similarities between parts of the score for Dracula and parts of Akhnaten, especially the prelude.

  8. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    Very interesting, although in some ways, I definitely didn’t need to read this. I was on a trip in Paris a couple of weeks ago and in looking for some evening entertainment ahead of time, I spotted that this film/concert pairing was being played there.

    As a long-time appreciator (rather than fan, I’d say) of Glass’ music, I was keen to go, so opened the online ticket gizmo to order one: tickets were available. Then someone came into my office, distracted me for a bit, then it was lunchtime. By the time I came back to complete the transaction, the online ticket whoosis told me that the concert was sold out.

    Ack …

    To Anton’s question about Glass’ music, I understand the one trick pony concern, but to help alleviate that, I would strongly recommend listening to his 2nd and 3rd symphonies. The Dennis Russell Davies recordings are very good and have a number of other Glass pieces, including the beautiful “The Light”, inspired by the Michelson-Morley experiment, on the 3rd.

    Also, I very much like his quasi-symphonies “Low” and “Heroes”, starting from themes from the Bowie albums of the same names, and in which Brian Eno played a significant role. These Glass works were written at around the same time as the 2nd and 3rd symphonies, and are also very good, in my opinion.

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