Simon Columb attends BFI Southbank’s ‘Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film’ season for a double-bill of Dracula and The Mummy…
Define Gothic and Dracula immediately comes to mind. The high-arches and cobwebs, the creatures that scurry across the floor and the long drapes that falls from the ceilings – blood on the tips of fangs and white-skin like moonlight in the night. Kim Newman goes as far to state that 1931’s Dracula this “was the true beginning of the horror film as a distinct genre and the vampire movie as its most popular sub-genre”. Indeed, only in this month’s Empire magazine, they have noted how 31 actors have portrayed the fanged-villain – and Bela Lugosi’s unforgettable performance surely remains the most defining portrayal. The double bill of Dracula and The Mummy may initially appear to be connected by their supernatural content alone, but the Universal Horror films are joined by their mutual understanding of how to scare the audience, their measured style of writing and the use of recurring character actors.
F.W. Murnau’s silent Nosferatu is an unofficial version of Count Dracula and the stories remain the same. A man, Renford (Dwight Frye), travels to Transylvania to attend a meeting with the Count (Bela Lugosi), to the horror of the native Transylvanians. Renford’s purpose is to sign-off the deeds to Carfax Abbey in England to Dracula, as the night-dweller intends to move to London. Though unafraid by the superstitions, Renford becomes victim to Dracula and his ghostly women and becomes a crazed vampire himself. Now, with the assistance of (blood-sucker of small insects) Renford, Dracula travels to London by ship, killing off the sailors in their journey. Renford almost steals the show as his sinister laugh reveals a complete lack of sanity. Combined with his desperate hissing for appreciation from his “Ma-a-aster”, Renford is under Dracula’s spell. The major bonus in the final act is in Edward Van Sloan’s ‘Van Helsing’. A man of reason and intellect, he clarifies to the audience what needs to be done: Dracula needs to be impaled on a stake, a crucifix to be used as a weapon, note the missing reflection in the mirror. Van Helsing, we know, will take us into the light.
Every classic, Gothic horror trait seems to map its way back to Tod Browning’s version of Dracula. The intonations and voice of Bela Lugosi is what many “know” Dracula sounds like – and considering ‘The Count’ from Sesame Street has been based on Lugosi’s portrayal, even children will recognise whose presence we are in. But influences are further afield too, as Van Helsing’s thick, circular glasses and hunched frame is echoed in Shutter Island in Max Von Sydow’s ‘Dr Naehring’. Special effects are a little out of date and, one would forgive you if you are forced to stifle a chuckle when the puppet bats and mechanical spiders move in jittery, unnatural ways – but the sets hold their own. Used in many more films, the scale of the first act is outstanding – the small size of Renford as he looks up the enormous staircase that Dracula sits atop; the tiny, dinky-car size of the horse and carriage as it rides towards the castle. These are effects that, even now, remain breath-taking.
Contrast Dracula with The Mummy and the tone changes. Mark Cousins celebrates Dracula and Frankenstein as the two films that shaped Hollywood genre filmmaking – and The Mummy appears to primarily repeat the success of Frankenstein by casting Boris Karloff as the unnatural monster in the world. Karloff, iconic and unforgettable, continues to play a large, imposing, gaunt and deeply unsettling monster. Make-up (by Jack Pierce) is impressive as Karloff emerges as ‘The Mummy’ in the opening sequence and – in the final moments – breaks down into a bag of bones on the floor. The Mummy was hugely successful and is considered a “photographers film”, celebrating the director Karl Freund – a director who had working with Browning on Dracula and Fritz Lang on Metropolis.
The Mummy is the first version of the deceased Egyptian whereby he is brought back to life and, crucially, seeks to find his loved one in the modern world (A mummy had been brought back to life in a silent film in 1911). The film begins in 1921, whereby ‘The Mummy’ is raised. Ten years later under the name Ardath Bey, The Mummy advises the expedition to search in a specific location to find the remains of his lost love. In an attempt at raising her from the dead, he requires an Egyptian woman’s body. The Egyptologists and archaeologists (actors from Dracula include David Manners and Edward Van Sloan) realise that Ardath Bey is, in fact, Imhotep, but it is too late as Imhotep kills and controls mortal’s minds as he inches closer to reviving his princess.
Clear parallels can be created between the two films. They both arrive to an alien location (Modern day in The Mummy; London for Dracula) and kill others for the love of a woman they intend to make their own – mummifying and vampiricising (?) respectively.
Considering this, it is strange to imagine how 1999’s The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, is a remake of this horror classic. While The Mummy was turned into a successful million-dollar, CGI-laden blockbuster, Dracula remains amongst the spooky horror sub-genre movies. Unlike The Mummy, Dracula cannot be reinterpreted easily. Dracula has so many iconic, defined elements that cannot be adjusted or erased ensuring that the 1931 original holds its lofty place in the horror canon. The long, static moments as the camera waits silently, observing Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff is a testament to the skill and power of silence – a type of filmmaking that these filmmakers and actors were more than accustomed to. Modern horror is grim and gruesome, explicit and shocking. As Dracula leans into bite his victims, Browning cuts to the next scene. We could learn from these masters of horror. So, it is only apt that we watch these films again – in darkened rooms, with the lights down low, as the crazed laughs of madmen echo down the halls. The old footage, and marks on the film reel, only support the spookiness of these classic horror films.
Find out more about the BFI’s Gothic film season here.