Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Wondra's World: Dracula (1931) and Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)

Today’s movie is actually Universal’s Dracula (1931) but we agreed to discuss Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922) at the same time. Are you still happy with that?

The two movies are close enough, for the most part, that it’s easy enough to compare them as we go.

I’ve spared you the tedium of watching Nosferatu. Since German Expressionism can be… hard work, we’re actually just going to be watching Universal’s Dracula tonight.

I remember Nosferatu well enough. Let’s do this.

Okay, let’s get started.

To start, the title screen is… cute. I mean adorable. It doesn’t exactly strike fear or build tension.

It is slightly more interesting than the introduction to Nosferatu, though, which was just plain text against organ music. Neither were particularly interesting, but both were of their times.

I suspect we’re going to be using “of their times” a lot tonight…

I’m already noticing painted backdrops. Funny, when I watched Nosferatu this morning, it didn’t seem as obvious.

I don’t think they used a lot of actual sets when they were filming Nosferatu. They would have mostly used what they had, so probably a lot of local sites. The irony is that, although Nosferatu probably had a very low budget, a poster or autograph from the film is worth an absolute fortune to collectors.

Go figure.

The painted backdrops in Dracula are superb, though – for the day, at least. There’s a real talent there. Critics can be unfair when it comes to old movies like this. They don’t take the time, the era that they were filmed into account. They just see the painted backdrops and write it off as cheap or poorly done, which isn’t always the case.

True. I want to go back to the autographs, though.

I can’t let any discussion of Nosferatu go by without mention how cool the name Max Schreck is. Your last name literally means “terror” and you do such a good job of playing a vampire that people believe you are a vampire…

But as powerful and iconic as Max Schreck’s Dracula is, Bela Lugosi’s is a hundred times more iconic – if not as powerful. You see a cheesy vampire costume at Halloween and the first thing you think is, “I am Dracula.” Everyone instantly becomes Bela Lugosi.

True. The fact is, Lugosi sounded that way because he couldn’t speak a word of English when they filmed Dracula. Everything was done phonetically for him, which gave him that odd, stilted sounding voice. It makes him sound vaguely foreign, which just helps the character. And, of course, that halting accent became the Dracula voice – which really annoyed Christopher Lee.

I saw an interview with Christopher Lee once and, in it, he talked about how annoying it was that when you saw a kid pretending to be Dracula in the schoolyard, it was always Lugosi’s voice they were doing. It probably had something to do with the fact that Lee didn’t have a lot of lines in some of his Dracula films, but it’s true.

Another thing that makes Lugosi’s way of speaking interesting is that talkies has only really just started. The fact that his Dracula became so iconic is even more interesting when you know that he was practically an unknown at the time.

It’s weird to think that less than a decade had passed between Nosferatu and this. I mean, culturally, it sounds like forever. It’s such a huge jump from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression.

The thing is, going from German to American, it makes it too different to really make that kind of leap. Remember that Germany at the time was just recovering from a horrific war. It was also just beginning to develop a filming style but Hollywood had these elaborate sets and a full-blown industry already. Yeah, there was the fact time had passed, but they were also half a world apart. 

It was really the Depression that made movies like Dracula. Things were so fucking horrible that they needed that escapism. It was better to face the monsters onscreen than it was to face the monsters in real life. 

The really sad thing is that we're heading that way again. I wonder if we're heading toward another Golden Age of horror?

Anyway, even though they’re two very different cinematic eras, different styles, I love the imagery of both. I love the look of German Expressionism and I love the doe-eyed black & white film starlet.

The super heavy black eye makeup, yeah. I assume, in Nosferatu, it was for expression. In the silent movies, you were watching movies with no sound but the organ that accompanied it, so you had to overdo everything to get your point across. It’s not like you could sigh or scream or say what you meant, after all. A lot of that would have relied on what your eyes were doing, so it makes sense to emphasis them that way.

The thing that struck me about Nosferatu was actually Gustav von Wangenheim, who plays Hutter. He isn’t really what we’d consider the romantic hero today, is he? He isn’t super skinny. He’s a bit on the pudgier side. It’s nice to see.

It really is. It was Knock that I found interesting, though. It kind of threw me at first that they decided to take Harker’s boss and turn him into Renfield. That was weird. Until I realized Knock was meant to be the Renfield character, I just thought he looked more like a villain than Count Orlok did.

I brought up Renfield deliberately because I know you love Dwight Frye’s portrayal of him, and I want to give you a chance to talk about it. I have to say, though, it really threw me at the beginning. I thought we were watching Harker so when you find out that Harker had never left England it was like, wait. What? It knocked the whole timeline out for me.

You’re right. The fact that it starts with Renfield instead of Harker is all wrong. When the movie starts, Renfield should be back in England and Harker should be on his way to the castle. There were some nice moments with Renfield at the castle, it just didn’t match what happened in the book.

Dwight Frye’s portrayal was unique. It was memorable. When you watch things like Love at First Bite, they use that same type of Renfield. He had a distinct look and a wicked laugh. 

The imagery in Dracula is astounding – not as good as Nosferatu, but astounding, with the mist and the band of light across Dracula’s eyes, etc. It’s very effective. Some of the imagery is… weird, though. I mean… why are there armadillos? What's with the possum? And I know I saw a bee in a coffin back at the beginning.

Yeah, I saw that too and… I have no explanation. Maybe they were trying to show his command over animals? It was strange.

Both films were beautifully shot. The Spanish version of Dracula was better than the British one but I know you haven’t seen that one yet, so you’ll have to take my word for it. As for Nosferatu, it’s a hundred years old but the imagery still very powerful and holds up very well.

And there are no bees in coffins.

One of the things that bugged me a little about Nosferatu was the constant mention of the plague, which wasn’t relevant for a Victorian story – but then I remembered the year the movie was filmed. They’d only just gotten over Spanish Flu (at the expense of a third of the world’s population) so of course they’d equate a rash of mysterious deaths with a deadly plague. It was a social commentary I almost missed.

When you consider we're living through Covid and I'm an English Major... 

*sigh*

I can only think of one other Dracula movie that mentions a plague (Dracula Rising) and there’s no deeper meaning there, just bad writing.

I can think of another one, Satanic Rites of Dracula. He’s going to release a more virulent version of the bubonic plague that will wipe out all of humanity. He knows it will kill him too because he’ll starve but you get the idea that he’s okay with that. That he just wants to finally end it all. Less of a social commentary and more of a personal struggle, I guess.

If I can use “struggle” as a segue… I struggled with the music for Nosferatu. It was so loud and obnoxious the whole time and it never really fit the scene. Abrasive is really the best word I can think of for it.

Well, with the silent films, you were at the mercy of organist. I’ve heard a dozen different scores for Nosferatu, some of them modern. Once, I watched it done to a synth score. That was wild. Back then, though, a good organist was vital to the success of the film. It would succeed or fail due to their ability – or lack thereof - of its organist.  

By the time Dracula was being filmed, studios had moved on. Most of the time, they were using stock music. If you listen, the music in this is actually from Swan Lake.

Huh. I didn’t notice that…

Well, we’re coming up on the ending of the film, which means that I need to ask you which of the two films you think is better but, first, I want to talk to you about the very different ways in which Dracula/Orlok dies.

I’m glad you brought it up. You’ve got the two traditional methods of killing a vampire: stake or sunlight. Orlok is killed by the sunlight because he stays too long feeding on Ellen. On the other hand, Dracula gets a stake through the heart from Van Helsing.

I don’t know why the deaths were different. I’m inclined to say that filmmakers thought a stake might be too graphic in 1922 but then you look at the 1931 version and remember that they never actually show Dracula biting anyone. It always pans away. Strange that it’s okay to ram a stake through someone’s chest but not sink your teeth into them…

That’s an interesting point. I think it speaks to the deeper symbolism inherent in vampire mythos. There’s the whole teeth penetrating flesh, loss of blood thing that can be likened to the supposed loss of virginity, blah blah blah…

But that’s a much deeper conversation that I do not have enough alcohol for.

When it comes to killing vampires, which method do you prefer? Stake or sunlight?

Why take chances? Stake ‘em in the heart, cut off their heads, burn the bodies. It looks cool and is extremely effective.

Overkill much?

You’re a little scary, you know…

Okay, Let’s rate some films.

Well, Nosferatu isn’t very faithful to the book, obviously, but it couldn’t be since they were literally trying to rip it off without getting sued. (Which didn’t work.) But the Harker character does meet the Dracula character at his castle and they do come over on the ship, which a lot of other movies don’t have.

You also have to take into account the imagery. The story’s not great, okay, but it’s all in the visuals – and they still work today. The other thing they do well is the shadow play. The scenes with Orlok’s shadow moving along the wall are so powerful and instantly recognisable.

For the imagery and pretty much the imagery alone, I give Nosferatu a 7. It’s hard to give it anything higher because it’s a silent movie. You can’t really compare that to anything you’d see today – but you can’t really give it anything lower for the same reason.

I’m 100% with you on that one. It’s too important, too iconic to rate properly. If you’re watching it the same way you’d watch a modern horror movie, you’d tear it apart. But you can’t because the industry (and the world) were very different places a hundred years ago. Let’s not forget that while we’ve been talking about the 125th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s Dracula being released, it’s also the 100th anniversary of Nosferatu.

Big year for vampires.

Anyway, I’m going to set a dangerous precedent and agree with you again. It’s a 7 from me as well.

Now, let’s talk about Dracula

Well, there’s the acting style – very “Jolly hockey sticks!” – but that was just the time it was filmed. Everything was like that. I also have to take into account the fact that I still watch Dracula though rose-tinted spectacles. It’s such an important memory from my childhood that it’s difficult to watch subjectively.

But it’s not just important to me, it’s essential to the industry, to the world. So much of what we have now in terms of vampires, Dracula, horror, films, etc. is because of the Universal Dracula. We owe it so much that it has to affect any kind of rating.

Yet…

Like Nosferatu, you still have that lack of faithfulness to the book, which lets it down. You have Renfield and Dracula travelling together aboard the Vesta, rather than the Demeter, for instance. There are big changes in the story. There are also the very American-style car horns outside the theatre, which lets it down. We never had those types of horns here, you know. It’s one of the only things that really lets the movie down for me.

Overall, I guess I’m looking at an… 8.

I agree that it does a fairly poor job of sticking to the novel. The cars bothered me as well, but mostly their abundance. I guess it felt more like they didn’t care that was supposed to be Victorian – same with Nosferatu, which didn’t even try not to make it look like 1922. You can’t blame either of those things on the times. What I mean is, there was nothing stopping them from sewing a bloody costume, right?

Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi were a helluva pair, though. Both insanely creepy in their own ways. The enormous sets were impressive too. (I definitely would have fallen down those steps and died.) 

Ugh. These old movies are so hard to rate. I wish I could have watched it in 1931…

Okay, I’m going to make myself the most unpopular Dracula fan ever. I can’t give it any higher than a 6 - and that's at a push. 

It isn’t faithful to the book, the story is super short, the characters are all wrong, and the historical accuracy isn’t there. It’s beautiful, some of the actors are amazing, and the sets are brilliant. If I were basing it on nothing but Lugosi, Frye, the sets, and the cinematography, I could easily give it a 9. But that’s not how this works.

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Wondra’s Rating, Nosferatu: πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡

Wondra’s Rating, Dracula: πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡

Jay’s Rating, Nosferatu: πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡

Jay’s Rating, Dracula: πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡πŸ¦‡

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