As cosmic timing would have it, today is the 85th anniversary of the release of Universal Studios’ Dracula, directed by Tod Browning. As I write this, I am not quite done revisiting the novel yet (I will finish it today!), but I couldn’t let the stars align like this without paying homage to the movie that really kicked the era of the Universal Monsters into high gear. There had been successful monster films from the studio before during the silent era, but this was a new age for a more sophisticated audience ready to embrace the advances of the film industry.
The task of adapting Dracula for the screen was made easy, as they did what Hollywood has done time and again, before and since: they adapted it from a stage play based on the original source material… loosely based. If you cross your eyes, you can see the similarities, but don’t look for a 1:1 correlation with Stoker’s classic novel. But there’s a big difference between a Broadway play and the silver screen, and filmmakers wanted to make this production as grand as those silent screen horrors starring Lon Chaney, Sr. The solution involved lavish sets, and, of course, an unforgettable talent in the lead role. As luck would have it, the play already had the perfect man for the role: Bela Lugosi. The studios didn’t want him at first, but Lugosi lobbied hard for the role and dramatically underbid his salary requirements.
The silent era had already provided a blueprint for the production in 1922’s Nosferatu, an unauthorized version of the Dracula novel. The Stoker estate had won the lawsuits against its director and studio, the result of which required the destruction of every copy of it in existence. Thankfully, some prints were rescued and preserved, for we can see this film today, and the production team at Universal Studios were able to study it for their endeavor.
As I say, the script doesn’t do the novel justice, and as marvelous as the sets are, the special effects were cheesy then, and they’re cheesy now, consisting mostly of fog, stuffed spiders and bats, and off-screen transformations. So what is it that makes this movie so popular and respected?
The short answer is Lugosi himself. As Count Dracula, Lugosi exudes otherworldly charm and charisma. He is at once refined and reprehensible, suave and savage at the same time. We never see him shapeshift, we never see him physically attack anyone, and we never even so much as see him do anything other than menace with pantomimed hand gestures befitting the stage and silent era. And yet… screen magic happens in his wake. He comes across as absolutely terrifying in the “less is more” category due to his accent, his eyes, his mannerisms, and indeed just the way he carries himself with an air of invulnerability. It’s certainly not something modern films could get away with doing, but say what you will. Bela Lugosi is remembered for this role. When most people think of Count Dracula, this is the image popular culture has stamped indelibly upon our imaginations. When Lugosi passed away, he was buried in that cape!
An interesting bit of trivia that really should be more well-known than it is, especially here in the States, is that there were two versions of Dracula filmed at the same time, on the same sets, thus allowing for reduced production costs. Tod Browning’s production with Lugosi were filmed at night, while an entirely different team of actors and crew filmed during the day for a Spanish production. To look at it, you’d never know there was a blazing California sun outside. In many modern box sets, the Spanish version is included, either as a separate feature or as a bonus feature. Film and horror aficionados really should see this other version. It’s a little different, has a longer run time, and it’s better in nearly every respect. I’ll discuss the Spanish release in another blog sometime. The only reason the English version stands out by comparison is because it had Lugosi. It’s just hard to compete with someone who was born to play the role.
One thing that absolutely is worth noting, because this sort of thing almost never happens, revolves around the soundtrack. You know me, I love me some film scores. Back in 1931, there was no musical score. The title track was taken from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which was also used in 1932’s The Mummy, and there were pieces by Wagner and Schubert added in as well. But that was the limit of musical representation. It wasn’t until 1933’s King Kong that a full-blown orchestral score accompanied films.
I first became aware of the work of “minimalist composer” Philip Glass through his score for 1992’s Candyman. I was intrigued with what I heard, but it wasn’t something in my wheelhouse at the time. Most classical stations just don’t play his music, and I was not yet ready to explore into that end of the pool at that point in my life. And even when I did think I was ready, I didn’t know I was until I found this:
In 1999, Glass released his original score for Dracula, performed by the Kronos Quartet. If you’re not familiar with Glass, it’s probably because his music floats under the radar for those not heavily into modern classical, for the reason I stated above: modern classical just isn’t played much, either on the radio or in the concert hall. It just doesn’t sell. Within that world, he’s a dynamo. And like John Williams or Dmitri Shostakovitch before him, Glass lends his compositional talent to soundtrack music because it’s a way to reach a wider audience who would otherwise have no clue he even exists.
Suffice it to say, if you’re willing to expand your horizons, Glass’ score for Dracula is a rather cool way to become acquainted with his work, as well as that of the Kronos Quartet. This little powerhouse of an ensemble has been around for more than 30 years at this point, and they specialize in modern chamber music. Indeed, they’re about the best in the industry when it comes to that niche. In other words, this was a perfect match. The sound that Glass and Kronos make together… I’m not really sure why it works as it does. As an album to sit back and listen to, it’s excellent atmospheric composition that will challenge you as a listener if you let it. Most who encounter the work of either Glass or the Kronos Quartet for the first time find that they don’t quite know what to make of it. Just a little insider music geekery by way of explanation… You’re no doubt aware that music operates in octaves, with 8 notes per octave and sharps and flats providing half-tones. Glass is a champion of the idea that there is no such thing as a half-tone. These notes get equal weight on the scale, so sharps and flats are the same as “pure” tones, resulting in a 12-note scale with no key signature that can start absolutely anywhere. It opens up the musical language in ways that most find a little bizarre and more than a little disconcerting at first. This system is on full display in the new Dracula score. You will discover new horizons to what music can do, and depending on your expectations, you may be tempted to turn it off before you finish the first listen. Repeat listens, however, something grows, and new levels of understanding form in the subconscious. Overlaid with the film (which is an option on modern releases), it really enhances this classic in a way that’s both surprising and satisfying to my ears. I know I’m not explaining that very well, and I wish I could. It’s just one of those things that has to be experienced, much like the presence of Lugosi himself.