Dracula (1931): The Eye of the Storm

drac1Nobody’s been able to kill Tod Browning’s Dracula, but that sure hasn’t stopped critics from beating a dead… um, vampire.

Sadly, it’s become rather fashionable to dismiss the original Dracula as an overrated relic, lauded mostly because of its status as the first sound horror film.

Why, last week even I noted that the camerawork in the Spanish-language Dracula makes Browning’s movie, shot simultaneously, seem anemic by comparison. And I do stand by that statement; Spanish Drácula is a more technically accomplished film.

However, today I come not to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart, but to praise it as a brilliant piece of cinema. It’s time for me to reveal my undying (though not undead) devotion to the Lugosi version.

Are other adaptations of Stoker’s classic more faithful? More dynamic? More emotionally involving? Certainly. But I don’t think Browning wanted to shock us or take us on a thrill ride, although he could have. (Watch The Unknown if you don’t believe me!)

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Dracula may appear primitive, but therein lies its uncanny beauty. Sometimes sophistication isn’t half as convincing as simplicity. Eschewing ostentatious special effects and action sequences, the director chose to chill his audience with the silence and stillness of the grave.

As the documentary Universal Horror pointed out, audiences were accustomed to music during the silent era, so Browning wisely deployed the hissing nothingness of Dracula’s early talkie soundtrack to spook viewers. Similarly, the somnambulistic staging and acting reflect the emptiness of Dracula himself, a walking, talking corpse. Why do we wonder at film’s inertia? Its deadly title character freezes all that surrounds him, transforming every space into a tomb.

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And there’s something elemental and profound about how those famously Gothic visuals unfold. We watch the coffins open, the rodents and insects crawling around them, the dead brides rising. And then, the camera tracks into the Master, slowly, as though our desire to see, our curiosity, were an irresistible gravitational pull.

This iconic scene doesn’t serve character or narrative—we’ve already been told who and what the Count is. The images urge us to feast our eyes on decaying, eerie splendor, the ultimate in decadence. Everything about Dracula’s introduction calls out to us, tempting us just to look and be caught in looking by a creature that controls humans through their eyes.

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By regressing to an archaic, almost presentational style of filmmaking, this adaptation seeks to regress the audience back to the receptivity of childhood or perhaps to the superstitious dread of our ancestors. Dracula is no mere movie. It is a ritual, a summoning, almost a séance.

Lest we forget, in 1931, a movie character who turns out to be a vampire, not a criminal masquerading as one, was a revolutionary—and risky—proposition. The original Dracula trailer marketed the film not so much with promises of shudders, but rather with disturbing questions: “Do vampires really exist? Do they leave their prisons in the dark hours—reaching out for new victims?”

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For over 80 years since, we spectators have been training our suspension of disbelief, but we must remember that Dracula was a key film in setting up our credulity in the face of the impossible. Without Browning and Lugosi’s success in presenting a bloodsucking demon as stark reality, horror as a talkie genre might not have developed to the extent it has… or not at all.

The need to establish credibility explains the film’s apparently unimaginative style. Innovative editing or florid tracking shots might’ve startled us out of the hypnotic spell that Lugosi casts with his penlight-enhanced eyes. We accept the vampire as a threat because he doesn’t seem like a trick of the camera—or a product of hours spent in the makeup chair. His dark glamour locks right into our schema for dangerous melodrama seducers, gaining audiences’ acceptance because he modifies a type of villain they recognize. Lugosi created a vampire that suited Hollywood perfectly, luring victims and viewers alike with his imposing charm.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m26s110But, in the end, what makes Lugosi’s performance immortal, frightening, yet charismatic? What pushes his performance over the edge from bad guy to pure, ageless evil?

In my opinion, the throw-away shots of Lugosi—the ones that almost get lost among the jack-o’-lantern close-ups and those erotic bite scenes—often reveal most about his definitive interpretation of the Count.

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For instance, after Dracula leans in to bite Renfield at Castle Dracula, the scene shifts to the Vesta, a ship bound for England. Now the Count’s servant, the maddened, hysterical Renfield wakes the Master up while a tempest pummels the ship.

Once he’s risen from his coffin, Dracula glides above deck. As the camera gently rocks to suggest the shifting of the waves, the Count gazes offscreen with detachment and the sounds of the storm swirl on the soundtrack.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m58s172Browning cuts to shots of the ship’s deck, as men in rain slickers desperately struggle against the might of the gale, trying to control the violently thrashing ship. And then he cuts back to the Count, unaffected literally by the storm and figuratively by the misery and imminent doom of the sailors.

This juxtaposition, bordering on a lack of continuity, between the motion of the ship and the comparative stillness of the Count, endows the shots with an unearthly quality. He’s the eye of the storm and everything around him, everything he touches, turns dead calm.

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As I revisited Dracula a few days ago, this overlooked moment reminded me of a passage from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. A bit of a leap, I know, but this is how Marlowe describes the Svengali-esque blackmailer Amthor:

“His eyes were deep… And they were also eyes without expression, without soul, eyes that could watch lions tear a man to pieces and never change, that could watch a man impaled and screaming in the hot sun with his eyelids cut off.”

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-15h06m05s40The allusion to a certain very specific torture leads me to suspect that Chandler had the model for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, specifically in mind when he wrote that. In any case, what Chandler evokes here, the utter lack of compassion for (or even reaction to) suffering, helped me pinpoint the unique attribute that Lugosi conjured as the Count.

The classically-trained 49-year-old actor—who’d ironically won acclaim as Hungary’s foremost Passion Play Jesus once upon a time—brought a diabolic, remorseless disdain to Dracula that remains unmatched. But he didn’t need to express it or emote it. He projects it even when totally motionless, exuding that disdain from every line of his arrogant, mask-like face, communicating it with his aristocratic, rigid posture. And film’s oddly static style parallels the unholy immutability and the frozen contempt of Dracula.

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Which brings me to the part of Dracula that I find most frightening. I’ve probably seen this film a hundred times since childhood, but the flower girl scene never fails to creep me out. To refresh your memory, on a London street corner, a waif is selling violets for gentlemen’s buttonholes. A new prospective client, seen as the a silhouette of a top hat and a sweeping cloak, towering over the tiny girl, steps out of the mist.

If foreboding were an image, it would look like this.

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Still shown in long shot, the flower girl opens her mouth in amazement. In close-up, Dracula bears down on her, his eyes glowing. The girl stares back in stupefied terror. And then he leans in, as though to kiss her, pushing her back behind a column. Her pathetic shriek pierces the air.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h50m07s29Immediately afterwards, the Count strides along the street in his top hat and cape, satiated and puffed up by his latest meal. A whistle shrieks. Bystanders gather around the column and huddle over the flower girl’s dead body.

Meanwhile, Browning shifts to an establishing shot of the theater where the next important scene will take place. That’s the only real narrative purpose for the image, although Karl Freund embellished it with a subtle crane movement. In a slightly closer shot, Dracula arrives, turning around to survey the people coming and going. If you’re watching closely, you’ll see his lips curl into something like a scornful smile. There it is again—that glimmer of arrogance, that immovable conceit.

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The notion that this monster can look at a human being, a vulnerable girl trying to eke out a living, and think of her as a snack, scares the daylights out of me. It scares me more than all the spilled viscera and jump shocks in horror movies since. That brief episode defines Dracula’s depravity, leaving the viewer surprised and mildly disgusted.

The random ruthlessness of the flower girl scene haunts me most, though, because it punctures the romantic aura of the vampire myth. Dracula resembles a hot-blooded lover in the Valentino mold, but the Count’s sangfroid and his icy contempt put him in a freakish category all his own. And yet, we’re still attracted to him, aren’t we? (Speaking for myself, I’ll come out and say it: yes.)

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Lugosi incarnated what I consider the most seductive portrayal of evil captured on film. As he creeps towards the camera, advancing on the audience as well as Mina, his face contorted into a hungry grimace, we’re repulsed, yet spellbound. I suppose that’s partially what I mean when I say that Dracula is a summoning. It calls up some primal region in the human psyche where predatory impulses, which we rationally reject, become desirable—in spite of ourselves.

Whatever its detractors say, Dracula resonates in its unnerving stillness, compelling us to sit uncomfortably with all of the conflicting human feelings that this inhuman creature stirs up.

In 1950, when asked about his most famous role and its impact, Lugosi replied, “Dracula never ends.” And, you know, he was right.

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The Unknown (1927): Body Conscious

unknownThe Unknown is one of those miraculous movies snatched back from the edge of oblivion, presumed lost for decades until a print turned up in France. Amusingly enough, the reels had been marked “Inconnu,” meaning “unknown.” And nobody since the 1920s had interpreted this rather algebraic designation as anything other than the label for an unidentified film, not considering that it might be a title—the title of one of the most bizarre films ever produced by Hollywood.

Watching this potent entry in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m beholding some deep, primordial allegory masquerading as a gritty horror film. Chaney’s character, “Alonzo the Armless,” earns his living by sharpshooting and throwing knives with his feet at a carnival. (A real armless leg double, Paul Desmuke, did these amazing stunts for Chaney.)

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When Alonzo falls in love with the carnival ringmaster’s daughter, Nanon, the good news is that she likes his lack of arms. Coping with a pathological fear of men’s groping hands, Nanon cherishes Alonzo as a safe companion.

The bad news is that Alonzo isn’t what he seems. A violent, wanted criminal with a recognizable genetic defect—double thumbs on one hand—Alonzo hides his arms, strapped to his body by a harness. How can he get close to Nanon without betraying his secret? The answer is every bit as gruesome as you’d might hope.

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The Unknown bristles with an unholy energy, a tingling magnetic field mastered by hungry poles of repulsion and passion, pulling the characters back and forth. While my metaphor might seem a little overwrought, bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. Because The Unknown is a tragedy spiced with movement, a horror story about the way bodies carry themselves and interact.

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Tod Browning specialized in letting a sordid, macabre ambiance—almost a stench—ferment and rise from stagings that seem primitive on the surface, but actually reveal a multitude of complexities on a second look. As you watch the film, notice how frequently somebody walks towards the camera, eventually exiting on one side of the frame. We’re meant to feel these things, the motion of the characters, blurring, rushing past us. The world in general, we understand ,isn’t so very different from Alonzo’s dizzy carnival act, where he tosses blades at the lovely Nanon as they both stand on a rotating platform. The intoxicating, alarming movement of bodies governs the lives of the characters, agitated by crude, unconscious drives.

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In addition to the pluparfait body actor Lon Chaney, the cast offers up a pleasant surprise in the form of a super young Joan Crawford (another actor of powerful physicality) as Nanon. Crawford cited this film as a milestone in her career, the experience that ignited her desire to be a dedicated actress. Starting off as a chorus line hoofer, she initially wanted nothing to do with movies. Only when told that she would get the opportunity to dance in her pictures did she agree to sign a contract. However, working with Chaney changed everything. She later recalled: “I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting. Until then, I had been conscious only of myself. Lon Chaney was my introduction to acting.”

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Although Crawford found Chaney’s dedication to his character somewhat daunting, she strived to keep up. The young contract player pushed herself and transformed a potentially implausible character into a nuanced, vulnerable young woman.

In keeping with the motif of contorted, unnatural bodies, Crawford lends credibility to Nanon’s phobia of men with her ability to suggest physical disgust and horror through body language. Crawford, usually so graceful, frequently swaps her poised posture for the stance of a frightened, cowering child, whenever in the presence of a threatening male.

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She fairly withers in the presence of the amorous strongman Malabar, shrinking into the corners of the frame. Or, unable to avoid a confrontation, she braces herself against a chair or a wall. When her phobia is first introduced to the audience, we get a medium close-up of her mortified face followed by an eloquent long shot, as she pulls herself into her caravan car. That motion, that backwards crawl offscreen, conveys more than words ever could.

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I might be reading too much into this, but I do think the audience is meant to infer that Nanon’s father has prostituted her out in the past or, at the very least, put her in a situation that resulted in some form of trauma. (Otherwise, why should he be so outraged at Alonzo’s advice that she stay away from men? My father and most others, I think, would hug him for such pearls of wisdom.)

Crawford suggests this history of abuse by the way her friendly, upbeat Nanon seems to switch off around the well-muscled Malabar and tries to disappear, to curl up into nothing. She might not totally understand why she acts like this, but, as my psychology professor would say, “The body remembers.”

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This tendency of our bodies to control us, to harbor our darkest secrets and ultimately betray them, returns in one of the most poignant and disturbing moments of the film. When Alonzo realizes that he can never fully possess Nanon’s love as long as he has arms, his foot, agile as his hands, rises to cover his face in despair. Alonzo’s hands are freed from their harness, but he automatically uses the limbs that, in his elaborate guise, substitute for his arms to express his pain.

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The gesture not only affects the audience on a traditional level—as an outward sign of sorrow—but also adds an uncanny overtone to the scene. Chaney covering his face with a foot etches itself on the mind as a surreal image, subliminally depicting the pain of unrequited love as a kind of emotional amputation.

As Alonzo’s accomplice, Cojo, watches from a staircase, the criminal continues to use his foot to light and smoke a cigarette. Suddenly, Cojo laughs, exclaiming, “Alonzo, you are forgetting you have arms!”

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A look of horror crosses Alonzo’s face. His eyes widen as he realizes what he had been unconsciously doing. Alonzo has so altered and fragmented his body that it believes it really is fragmented, incomplete. His charade has taken over. He has partially become what he pretends to be.

He has effectively trained his body to be an other, something unnatural and foreign to himself. Of all Browning outsiders, Alonzo may be the most freakish—because he is a self-created freak, a product of radical self-mutilation.

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But then again, aren’t we all? The Unknown probes the ugly side of human desire and self-perception. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan asserted that the deep fear of a fragmented body festers in all of us from childhood onward. As babies, we experience our bodies as parts. That is, we move each limb, but we never see ourselves in entirety, until we recognize our whole bodies in the mirror.

However, that reflection makes us feel insecure: the image is a powerful, unified being, in contrast to the divided sensations that otherwise combine to form our sense of self. Throughout our lives, we come to identify with the “I,” the ostensibly whole self or the mirror self that represents us… but that other, fragmented body haunts us.

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The Unknown resonates on such a raw level because it activates this underlying dread—not as a mere gore effect, as is too often the case with dismemberment in horror films, but rather as central conflict of the story. Alonzo is hostile to his whole body (just as we resent our mirror images because they seem more unified than we are) but his amputated body frustrates him even more.

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The frenzied cutting of the final sequence amplifies this fragmentation or division. Alonzo disintegrates into raging madness—because he succumbed to his obsession with a mutilated body—as Nanon triumphs, because she managed to stitch her mind and body back together.

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Interestingly enough, Nanon’s fear, her brokenness, her neuroses serve as major attractions for Alonzo. Browning provides some borderline obscene voyeuristic close-ups as the imposter watches Nanon recoil from Malabar. This disturbed individual, a thief and a killer who fragments himself and cuts himself apart in the most horrific of manners, compulsively seeks a similar dysfunction in another person.

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I have always wondered why Browning and company ended up entitling this film The Unknown. Sure, it could refer to Alonzo’s hidden identity, but I believe that it also alludes to something more subtle and psychological. According to Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories, what we desire in other people isn’t really a trait that belongs to them, but rather the missing parts of ourselves that we attribute to them.

Lacan described this thing, this source of desire, in algebraic terms as object a, an unknown that draws humans into their webs of attraction and frustration. Rather like Alonzo mutilates himself in pursuit of the illusory quality that he sees in Nanon.

Perhaps that’s the inconnu, the unknown that’s really at work in this sublimely twisted melodrama.

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Crime Spree: The Wicked Darling (1919)

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The streetwalker sits on the edge of the gutter, rubs her tired feet, then slips them back into her worn shoes. She scans the street with the relaxed resignation of someone accustomed to sizing up meager and often dangerous prospects. A trace of anxiety lines her mouth only as she pauses to size up a dope fiend shambling out of a nearby store. This is a tough part of town for selling anything, much less yourself.

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Then two legs come up behind her, stepping almost daintily into the frame, legs which she seems to sense as much as hear. She turns her head slowly to look at them. We haven’t seen the man’s face yet, but the intertitles inform us that he’s a thief who’s served time—a crook called “Stoop” Conners.

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Stoop’s face fills the screen. It’s a face you might call kind. If you’re used to Easter Island statues, maybe. With a contemptuous glance around, Stoop orders the woman to get up. As he towers over her in a wider shot, the hooker pokes up at the bottom of the frame and steps up on the sidewalk to face this creepy thug. To put it mildly, they know each other.

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And so Lon Chaney made his first appearance in a Tod Browning film, The Wicked Darling, sparking a partnership that would come to define the grotesque in cinema.

Even in this brief character introduction, Browning aptly sculpts Chaney’s potential for menace through cinematic space. The legs ominously enter from the side, the upper half of Conner’s body is only disclosed after the intertitle, and Conner’s presence suddenly places the prostitute in a lower relation to another character. Chaney, in turn, maximizes the value of each shot through his stiletto-sharp focused movements. As Conners proceeds to tell Mary Stevens where she should be plying her trade, his ugly facial contortions, pointing gestures, and invasion of her space all complete the portrait of a swaggering lowlife, the kind of man who really does think he can own a woman.

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The Wicked Darling, recently rediscovered in the Netherlands Filmmuseum after many years among the lost, probably won’t ever receive recognition on a par with Chaney’s later, more horror-inclined films. I myself only dug this one up out of interest about the beginning of the Chaney-Browning collaboration. On the surface, the plot sounds like a sentimental cliché: a prostitute steals some jewels, but falls in love with a decent man and tries to go straight—but her criminal associates won’t let her escape that easily.

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Boy, was I in for a shock! Compared with even an excellent gangster thriller of the time like The Penalty, The Wicked Darling strikes me as a much more modern, uncompromising depiction of crime. The seediness of Browning’s ultra-realist underworld, the ferocity of the acting, and the subtlety of the crescendoing suspense bowled me over.

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In addition to Browning’s brilliantly askew direction, the fierce energy of Priscilla Dean also brought out the best in emerging movie actor Chaney. Though sadly little-remembered nowadays, Dean was a top female star at Universal when The Wicked Darling was made. Neither a flapper nor a glamourpuss, Dean was a fearless actress, willing to look downright sullied and unattractive to boost her credibility in a role. Chaney’s female co-stars tended to play second fiddle to him, but Dean was that rare actress whose spitfire energy and rubber-face range of expression could counterbalance his own. Their antagonistic onscreen chemistry threatens to burn a hole right through your screen.

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Browning’s penchant for all things freakish, Dean’s tough honesty, and Chaney’s vicious intensity synergized to produce an extraordinary crime melodrama. Their pooling of gutsy talent layered on the despair and grime of a celluloid skid-row more sordid and gritty than most of what moviegoers would see for another half-century.

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In this story of love and redemption, Chaney incarnates—surprise, surprise—all the obstacles to Mary’s rise from gutter. Reading between the lines, we understand that Stoop Conners not only helps Mary work her pickpocket routine, but is also one of her regular johns who also works with Uncle Pet, her stringy pawnbroker pimp. In this supporting role, Chaney bravely confronts us with a morally defunct man, lacking in anything we might latch onto as likeable. Devoid of the qualities that make most of Chaney’s characters so charismatic, like Blizzard’s satanic gumption or the Phantom’s creative madness, Stoop would come last even in a scrawny punk competition.

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There’s nothing romantic about his two-bit gangster; he comically turns a 180 whenever he sees a cop coming and gets trounced no less than three times by big burly dudes with whom he tangles. And just because he’s attached to Mary in some way doesn’t mean he’s above slapping her around; actually, his strange brand of affection practically guarantees it.

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Dean and Chaney give us a cringe-worthy duet of scorn when Mary returns from stealing some pearls. Unbeknownst to her, Stoop has been negotiating with her pimp—if he turns over the pearls, he gets her and a nice chunk of cash in exchange. Leaning back, his thumb tucked in the armhole of his vest, he coyly questions her about the whereabouts of the loot that he implies they stole together. “We! Where yuh get that ‘we’ stuff?” She retorts, claiming she lost the pearls. He shrugs, assuming that she doesn’t want to talk about the stash in a public place.

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Then Stoop leans forward with a gesture that could only come from a hustler trying to imitate something he saw in a movie, flopping his hand on Mary’s and leaning in with a goofy grin. Chaney makes this awkward come-on both risible and lewd, like Al Capone trying to ape John Gilbert. When Mary pulls away in disgust, he informs her that he’s “picked out a nice pretty flat” where he plans to install her without delay. Her face modulates from mocking disdain to horror as she realizes how she’s been betrayed by her pimp.

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She jumps up to leave, but Stoop yanks her arm and screams right into her face. Though there are no intertitles, we can read his lips and his aggressive pointing. “You’re gonna move in with me. TONIGHT!!!”

She slaps him, not with the fury of offended honor, but with the anger of a woman who’d rather take her chances as a freelancer than have to put up with one very nasty client full-time. He hauls back, prepared to belt his lady love square in the face when the bartender, built like a tank, grabs his arm in mid swing. Real smooth proposition, Stoop. Real smooth.

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Throughout The Wicked Darling, Browning goes out of his way to depict Stoop as a real-life monster. Chaney, gnashing his teeth and grimacing, basks in almost as many close-ups and medium close-ups as Priscilla Dean! The shots of Chaney are enclosed moments of contemplation. They sometimes run the risk of diverging from the plot, like a mini freak show, as if the director and actor really want the audience to think, “Holy sh*t, do people this awful really exist?”

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For instance, in the midst of the climactic interrogation scene, as Conners pushes Mary around and twists her wrist to extract information, he breaks away after a particularly nasty blow and we get a cut to this medium close-up. Stoop, his teeth bared, draws the back of his balled fist across his mouth, wiping away the spittle he salivated while beating his ex-gal. If there’s a more potent, unpleasant face of male sadism out there, I haven’t seen it.

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In these close shots, Chaney’s mug is also carefully framed for maximum dissonance—he’s usually far off to one side. He also sticks his face quite close to the camera. We recognize a total incomprehension of boundaries and personal space as one of Stoop’s strongest mannerisms. He sidles right up to whomever he’s addressing, even if that means sitting on their desk or edging his chair right up to theirs.

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Most frightening, when he turns up at now-reformed Mary’s workplace, he sneaks up right behind her and doesn’t budge except to smile, immediately crowding her with an air of entitled possession. Through a number of tight close shots, Stoop makes the audience feel like he’s invading their personal space, too.

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Now, Browning as a director tended to focus on outsiders, lost souls living on the margins of ordinary, tax-paying society. While the director often portrayed these living jetsam with tenderness and warmth, Stoop elicits no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather than facing up to his own slum exile from normalcy, he drags Mary downward to have someone he can place below him…. on the food chain, that is.

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Interestingly, though, Stoop manipulates the audience and Mary, knowing that we all want to believe that there’s a glimmer of goodness in everyone. In a key scene toward the conclusion, he lures Mary away from the edge of a pier where she’s about to commit suicide… so that he can get her back to Uncle Pete’s lair and wring information out of her. Stoop’s subtly downcast eyes, his gravely fidgeting hands, and slightly bent stance all convince even wary Mary that he’s solemnly summoning her to her pimp’s deathbed. He tricks her into seeing the decency that she aspires to reflected in him. But whenever Mary isn’t looking, Stoop’s eyes flick over to study her reaction with merciless glee.

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In a lot of prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold sagas, the heroine acts like she wants to flee her immoral existence for rarified philosophical reasons. It’s a life choice for Garbo, Crawford, and co. when they turn the red light off. By contrast, Mary Stevens wants not only to better herself, but also to get the hell away from violent slimeballs like Stoop. Thus Chaney provides the muscle to back up The Wicked Darling’s brutal commentary on the hardship of a woman’s life, once she’s cut off by society and written off as “soiled.”

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Chaney’s true-to-life boogeyman, a sleazy, self-pitying, abject son-of-a-bitch, makes the viewer’s blood boil. In real life, Chaney empathized with criminals but despised bullies and often took it upon himself to protect vulnerable young women when he saw them being mistreated in Hollywood. I think he channeled a lot of his hatred for men like Stoop—and their high-ranking relatives—into one of the few utterly unsympathetic performances of his career.

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With all of his limbs at his command and a face barely touched with makeup, Chaney crafted what might be the most real and horrifying character in his gallery of nightmares.

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This post is part of the Lon Chaney Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Be sure to check out the other posts and explore the thousands of faces of Chaneys Sr. and Jr.!

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Insanely Real: Renfield, Dracula, and World War I

If you don’t like disturbing images and ideas, I advise you not to read this blog post. Seriously.

I realize that, in writing this, I am echoing about a century of horror movie taglines that warned away the “faint of heart” and promised near-fatal excitement. In this case, I am writing about real horrors along with fictional ones. And they are unforgettable, irredeemably awful. Some of you may have read my post on Ulmer’s The Black Cat and how that film processes some of the trauma of World War I. Now, I’d like to write about a movie that takes on the WWI legacy in a much more subtle and, I would argue, poignant, way: Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula.

“Wait a minute, there, sister,” I hear you saying. “Dracula is a Victorian novel so how can it be about a modern total war? The answer revolves around the characterization of the “madman” Renfield. I admit that so-called “lunatics” have permeated popular conceptions of macabre from even before the era of the Gothic novel, but World War I triggered an unprecedented incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, known at the time as neurasthenia or war neurosis (van der Hart et al. 37). “Madness,” once a relatively rare thing, became the subject of mass experience as thousands of young, otherwise healthy men returned from battle acting in ways very removed from acceptable social norms.

And Renfield, as Browning visually portrays him, and as Frye performs him, resembles the shell-shocked veterans of the Great War much more than he does Stoker’s version of the blood-obsessed asylum inmate.

Renfield seems to disappear as he steps into the web at Castle Dracula.

Moments after his arrival at Castle Dracula, Renfield gets caught in a spider’s web and flails his way out. Dracula gently scolds him with a conspiratorial smile, “The blood is the life, Mister Renfield…” This ironic foreshadowing really works, instead of being corny, because it’s quite sad, in retrospect. Renfield goes on to eat spiders and rue his own thirst for blood. Even as a vampire, a predator, he’s still caught in the web, at the bottom of the food chain.

In fact, as he trips into the web, the spider-silk covers him like a shroud and gives him an indistinct, ghostly aspect. It’s as though he dematerialized into the web, as though he’d already been consumed and digested. Browning found a clever way to visually suggest that Renfield’s a pawn in the game and he will suffer horribly. And he does so in a manner very reminiscent of some of the men who returned from WWI trenches.

First, in terms of casting and physical description, the movie makes some major departures from the 19th century source text. The most visually impacting one centers on Renfield’s age. Bram Stoker describes Dracula’s unwilling lackey as a white-haired man of 59, elderly by Victorian standards, yet prone to grotesquely childlike outbursts. Dr. Seward paints this portrait of his patient:

Something seemed to affect his imagination, for he put his fingers to his ears and shut his eyes, screwing them up tightly just as a small boy does when his face is being soaped. There was something pathetic in it that touched me. It also gave me a lesson, for it seemed that before me was a child, only a child, though the features were worn, and the stubble on the jaws was white.

He’s an older gentleman and the disturbing factor is that he does not behave appropriately for his age. Similarly, the first film adaptation of the Dracula story, Murnau’s Nosferatu, depicts Knock, the Renfield character, as middle-aged and paunchy, with wild white locks.

Browning’s Renfield couldn’t contrast more with these grizzled Renfields! Dwight Frye’s screen incarnation strikes the audience with a façade of outward normalcy and borderline matinee idol good looks.

At a youthful 31, Frye, a Broadway star, cut a dapper figure in the film’s early scenes as he travels through the rustic village with his smart suit, hat, and a walking stick in hand. It’s actually a pretty brave choice, adaptation-wise, to make the first character we identify with and come to like descend into utter insanity!

Renfield’s handsome, affable characterization in the first scenes renders his degradation even more stark and disquieting later on. This change, the choice to depict Renfield as young, doesn’t really offer any new advantages in terms of plot. There’s little logical justification, especially given that Renfield has no love interest in the book or in the film. However, emotionally, the sight of a man in his prime succumbing to insanity offers a much more unsettling worldview—and one more congruent with the impact of the Great War.

We might expect senility from a white-haired inmate, but there’s something particularly sad and morbid about a fine specimen of a young man who’s almost totally lost touch with reality. (However, I mean no offense to all of my senior citizen friends who are sharper and stronger than I am at 21!)

Another significant discrepancy between the gothic novel and Tod Browning’s film makes Renfield the protagonist of the first scenes set in the Carpathian Mountains. Stoker casts Johnathan Harker, Mina’s fiancé, as the hapless character who first discovers Dracula’s undead wickedness. We, the readers, are aligned with Harker from the first.

However, in the motion picture, the spectator’s emotional investment in Renfield drives the tension of the meeting between the estate agent and the vampire. I think it’s also interesting that the movie does not spare its likable young man from a fate worse than death. (This sacrifice of the key character who leads us into the story actually foreshadows, in my mind, Hitchcock’s brave, shocking decision to kill off Marion Crane so early in Psycho.)

Whereas the Johnathan Harker of the book eventually escapes from Dracula’s castle, the cinematic Renfield almost immediately falls prey to the forces of evil and is damned simply for carrying out his duty. Just doing his job, he’s doomed to forever lose a part of his humanity and transform into a cackling monster in the eyes of others. Doesn’t this smack of the injustice and tragedy of war here?

There’s something of the between-the-wars cynicism about this plot choice. Bram Stoker suggested that good people will always end up okay—or at the very least, their souls will be saved. No such luck for Renfield. Therefore, as a somewhat average young man who travels to a foreign country and loses his mind and his dignity as a result of his experiences, Renfield closely resembles the thousands of “shell shock” victims of World War I.

The cinematography of Dracula intensifies the sense of disorientation and trauma with respect to Renfield. The first time we see him in the asylum, Browning orchestrates a striking long take, which trails from the clinic gates up to Renfield’s cell. In the Seward Santarium, the zoophagous (animal-eating) madman announces himself by his offstage shouts, amidst a chorus of the wild shrieks and giggles of the other inmates.

The camera, like the eye of a curious visitor, pans and rises in a crane shot towards Renfield’s window, coldly prying to the inside of a world without privacy.

A cut takes us to an unconventionally blurry long shot in the cell, with only the heads and shoulders of Renfield and of his keeper Martin, struggling over Renfield’s fly.

This shot radically departs from the regular, crisp proscenium space frequently defined by Browning; instead, the images convey a sense of unbalanced naturalism, much like the raw documentary quality of the footage taken of WWI shell shock victims—and there was significant documentation.

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Private Eaglefield, one of many WWI veterans who suffered from a form of “war neurosis.” He was treated at the Seale Hayne War Hospital.

Like this clip below. Yes, it’s totally and completely authentic. Even though this editing of footage taken from the Seale Hayne War Hospital does try to put a positive spin on shell shock recovery, it’s not light viewing. The staring, wide eyes of one patient, Private Eaglefield, also above, stand out for me as particularly haunting. My heart goes out to these men. Watch it AT YOUR OWN RISK.

 

In Frye’s performance, the insanity also physically presents itself through jerky gestures, a sallow complexion, exaggerated facial expressions, and braying laughter. All of these “symptoms” recall somatoform disorders and various psychological conditions recorded among WWI veterans in shock, as well as among modern sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Yet, even beyond Frye’s heart-rending portrayal, Browning manipulates light and shadow in the sterile sanatorium room to conjure up the kind of unthinkable angst that we see at work in these documents of real veteran anguish.

For instance, as Renfield sits on his bed at night, weeping at his torment, the window bars cast strangely angled shadows over the walls and partially obscure his face.

Here, the jagged shadows not only stress Renfield’s physical entrapment, but also act as a visual representation of the mental, moral maze that troubles him.

The lurid, crooked look of this scene harkens back to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, another aesthetic product of WWI. However, unlike the extreme abstraction of CaligariDracula takes place in plausible settings. By casting disquieting shadows from a pretty believable sanatorium room, Browning disturbingly melds reality and the harrowing textures of madness.

I’d also point out that of the first times we see Renfield in his “lunatic” state, he’s in a trench-like space: the hold of the wrecked ship, from which he is the sole survivor.

Likewise, I consider it important that Renfield emerges as a deranged, yet lucid and sympathetic figure.

He’s not just a standard movie maniac: his “fits” arise from his profound spiritual and moral fears. Indeed, the bitter contradictions of Renfield’s existence parallel the psychological conditions that drove many WWI soldiers to crippling despair. Both find themselves forced to kill or to become complicit in killing in order to live, according to the will of an unassailable authority.

Renfield, like any soldier, must make a kind of doomed bargain. Consequently, he’s forced to abandon his ethics (his intrinsic goodness and his desire to do no harm) in order to maintain a half-life of slavery and regret. We sense the constant pressure he’s under: if he plays an accomplice to Dracula, he must contend with crippling guilt. If he lets his humanity win, Dracula will kill him. Damned if he does, dead if he doesn’t.

Browning’s camera carefully suggests this awful double-bind. When he enters a scene, Reinfield’s movements often provide a motive for destabilizing camera activity. For instance, when Renfield attempts to warn Van Helsing of Dracula’s plans, the Master, in bat form, flies towards the inmate. The camera implacably tracks in, emphasizing Renfield’s trapped situation. Renfield frantically declares his allegiance to Dracula to avoid punishment and we sense his dark, rankling pain and terror.

Therefore, as a young man tragically struck down by madness, physically trapped, and mentally torn between obligation and conscience, the Renfield of the 1931 version Dracula constitutes a modern creation quite separate from Stoker’s novel. Frye’s Renfield is, I’d argue, a legacy of World War I.

Although one might assume that by the onset of the Great Depression, the prevalence of the “shell shock” phenomenon would have subsided, both in their effects on veterans and in the minds of the public, war neuroses continued to linger on the edges of the society. Stunningly, even in 1942, over a decade after the release of Dracula and over two decades after the Treaty of Versailles, the majority of men living in American veterans’ homes had been afflicted with some kind of “neuropsychiatric” trauma as a result of their service in WWI.

Renfield (bottom center), dwarfed by Dracula’s enormous castle. 

These statistics not only demonstrate the widespread mental cost of the conflict on direct witnesses, but also suggest the extent to which questions of insanity, psychological disorders, and institutionalization intruded into the consciousness of American civilians. I suspect that a fair number of viewers would have thought of a shell shock victim they knew, while watching Dracula.

Whether knowingly or unintentionally, Dracula, acted as an outlet for exploring the incidence of shellshock that continued to threaten and challenge the public.

The pathos that Frye and Browning brought to Renfield deserves to be recognized, for the character’s suffering mirrors the real agony of those many soldiers who attended the ultimate horror show of all time. Like Renfield, they witnessed something so unprecedented that it broke many minds to pieces—and left them all scarred in some form. It’s not a spectacle any of us wants to see, but it is one that we all ought to remember.


Sources and Resources:

Mank, Gregory, James Coughlin, and Dwight D. Frye. Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh. Fredericksburg: Sheridan Books, 1997.

Prawer, Siegbert. Caligari’s Children. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Skal, David. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004.

Universal Horror. Dir. Brownlow, Kevin. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Forest Ackerman, Turhan Bey, and Fay Wray. 1998. Universal, 2006.

Van der Hart, Onno, Annemieke van Dijke, et al. “Somatoform Dissociation in Traumatized World War I Combat Soldiers: A Neglected Clinical Heritage”. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. Vol. I (4), 2000.