What Cinema Is: "Dracula"

At the beginning of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, a man stuck in a traffic jam climbs out of his car and floats away up into the clouds. In the final third of Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, we watch as an Italian nobleman makes his way through an opulent ball, realizing that he, along with everything he believes in and stands for, has become outmoded by history. In P.T. Anderson's The Master we see characters gathered at a party, and then in another shot we see those same characters at the same party, but naked.

In 1952, by his own account, Donald O'Conner bruised nearly every part of his body in the physically punishing and remarkably frenetic dance sequence of "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singin' In The Rain.

In the late 1960s, Sam Peckinpah decided to try to bring the reality of violence to the forefront of his audience's mind by reversing the way it was traditionally shown: instead of using slow motion to depict violent action itself, he would film characters getting shot at regular speed, and then use slow motion to show the lifeless bodies crashing to the ground so that it was death itself, the result of violence, on which his viewers would be forced to ruminate.

In Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino re-shot a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho - in which a character in a car makes eye contact with a person they're trying to avoid, who is crossing the street in front of them - and in Blazing Saddles a character comedically quotes the famous line "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!" from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And in High Noon, Dirty Harry and Point Break the main law enforcement characters all end the film with the same gesture: throwing their badge to the ground as they renounce the way of life the movie has depicted.

Movies are many things. They are stories, fables, entertainments. They are made in vastly different ways, draw their meaning from an enormous range of sources, and intertwine with each other in delicate matrices.

Some, like Alphonso Curaon's Gravity, use the most advanced technology available at the time to convince us of their world; others, like Chris Marker's short film “La Jette,” achieve their enveloping effect almost entirely through rudimentary elements (in this case still photographs); still others, like the work of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, suck us into themselves by rolling the camera on people engaged in breathtaking physical maneuvers.

Some draw meaning from strange filaments of connection to things outside of their fictional world, such as Tarantino's cheeky homage and the repetition of the "Badges?" line. Some use their technique, like O'Conner's in Singin' in the Rain, for the simple and noble purpose of making us smile; others, like Peckinpah's, use it to force us to confront that which we might otherwise want to avoid; still others, like 8 1/2, The Leopard and The Master use it to make visual the mysteries of our interior experience.

But at their heart, all movies involve the same basic attempt: to create something akin to a dream - visual and auditory, redolent with significance and reference and nonsense - into which we are pulled so that something can be communicated.

They are repositories of fear and anxiety, fantasies of escape and frustration and triumph, at once particular to themselves and meaningful because of the way they fasten onto things beyond themselves: older tales, other movies, generalized human experience, and the particulars of our own lives.

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The internet has a way of reducing everything it touches to the level of simple and moronically repeated phrases that manage to take banality for profundity. Consider the use of the word "iconic," which once meant - as is appropriate to its Latin and Greek origins - a likeness, and specifically a likeness of something holy. Now it is a word that means something like "great" or "really cool." Underwear commercials and tweets and people blathering "Guys!..." into their phones are all "iconic" - or perhaps "epic" or "insane" or (my personal favorite) "everything," as in, "Guys, my friend’s TikTok about hair removal is everything."

My point here, which I’m finally managing to the heart of, is that cinema actually does what our internet language mostly only strives to do.

The contemporary boiling down of interchange to idiocy comes, I think, from a sincere desire to make others feel the intensity of one's own experience. The internet inundates us with what is tellingly known as "content." It allows us only minuscule scraps of time, a few words or a funny image looped back onto itself, through which to communicate with one another. And always while we make this attempt we are in competition with the content, hoping to engage one another against the maddening and overwhelming urge to click on something else.

Because of this, language - that basic tool of showing each other who we are - must of necessity take on a greater and greater load. If we simply declare that hair-removal TikTok to be "pretty good," or "kind of funny," no one will pay attention. But if it suddenly becomes epic and iconic and of exactly the same value as breathing itself, then people might acknowledge what we have to say. They will understand us and appreciate us.

Unfortunately, fifteen-second videos and self-righteous social media tantrums are, in reality, not all that good at the communication of shared experience.

Cinema, on the other hand, is. It trades in the older meaning of "iconic," using representations to link to things greater than we are, to things holier and more frightening and more joyous. To things, in other words, that are the most human things there are, because what are feelings of holiness and terror and joy if not pure expressions of our existence?

Where the internet compresses down to nothing, to inorganic meaningless content, cinema deepens and expands, draws us into authentic shared experience.

To put it differently, if you want to see something iconic, go watch Tod Browning's Dracula from 1931.

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Browning's movie articulates the basic moves of the Dracula story we're all familiar with (based on the template of Stoker's 1897 novel, of course, and with the help of several stage productions and the 1922 German film Nosferatu), and also involves several fascinating twists of its own.

An English lawyer named Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels to Transylvania for a meeting with one Count Dracula (the immortal Bela Lugosi). The locals in the area warn him that Dracula is dangerous, but Renfield pushes on with a kind of maniacal faith in goodness and propriety, finally encountering the Count in an ancient, gothic castle. They conduct the legal business Renfield has come for: Dracula has decided to lease an abandoned abbey in London. Renfield cuts his finger and Dracula drifts forward, eyes gleaming, focused on the blood, and we know that things in Transylvania may not be quite what they seem.

That night, Renfield sees a huge bat outside the window of his room. The encounter - or perhaps the wine Dracula served him - causes him to lose consciousness. He is approached by three women in white dresses that Dracula has somehow gained psychic control over, and we sense they are going to do something terrible to him; but then Dracula himself appears and leans over Renfield's insensate form.

We find ourselves on a ship journeying to England. Renfield, mad now, desiring to eat small creatures, lifts the lid of a coffin in the hold and summons out Dracula, who has become his master. Dracula feeds on the men aboard the ship so that by the time it arrives in port Renfield is the only living man aboard.

In London, Renfield is put in a sanitarium under the care of a Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston). At the same time, Dracula, establishing himself in British society as a foreign nobleman, meets Seward's daughter Mina (Helen Chandler) and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade.) That night, Dracula visits Lucy in her sleep, bending over her, mouth extending toward her throat. She dies the next day. And soon, children begin to be killed in London by a mysterious Woman in White.

Disturbed by all of this, Dr. Seward calls in the help of an expert, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Van Helsing is also from Eastern Europe and understands that they are dealing with a vampire. He also realizes that Dracula has also been feeding on Dr. Seward's daughter Mina. Despite the protestations of Mina's fiance John Harker (David Manners) - who is an absolute drip, at they used to say in the days when this movie was made - Van Helsing declares that they must confront this evil.

The two track Dracula to the abbey and watch as he kills Renfield for being disobedient. They then find his coffin after he beds down. Van Helsing tears apart the planks that make up the lid of the coffin and uses one as a stake, which he drives through the vampire's heart. Mina is (presumably) freed from Dracula's spell, free now to marry the dull-as-drying-paint Jonathan.

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There are, as they say in the film criticism business, readings available. Vampire films are often read as being either explicitly or implicitly about sex, and one sees why in Dracula. There's certainly something to be said for the fact that the good Count comes for his victims at night, when they're in bed. And the physical symbolism - the kiss on the neck, the exchange of blood, etc. - reinforces this notion. In Dracula - typical of the psychological complexity that attended many early horror films and which is too often abandoned in today's cinema for leaden social "messages" - this is also complicated by the film's treatment of women and men.

My quips above about Jonathan Harker's stultifying dullness were not only meant for my own amusement: it's a fascinating fact about the film that the young men in it are so doltish. Renfield at the start is bright-faced and absolutely unable to grasp that there might be dark forces in the world which can't be mastered by British good cheer. And Harker, who is at one point costumed in the most inane set of short pants this side of The Little Rascals, is so clearly consumed by the notion that his manliness is the only thing that can save Mina - and the only thing she could possibly want - that he's completely blind to the fact that she already has a nighttime visitor.

That visitor, Dracula, is mysterious, powerful, and strange things happen when he looks at you. "I think he's fascinating," says Lucy after the women meet him, obviously besotted by him. "I think he's alright," replies Mina, "but give me someone a little more normal." At this point, that is, she's still under the impression that the hunky naif Harker is the man for her. But once she experiences Dracula's charms, like all of his female victims, she falls under his spell.

In more academic terms, we might say that the film puts onto the screen a pair of closely connected male social fears. The first is that that mysterious, sexually dangerous, and immoral men really are more attractive than the more morally upstanding types society has valorized; because of this, sooner or later those dangerous men must be executed with a stake through the heart so that the upstanding types can go on keeping control of their women. The second is that it's not simply these men's evil attractiveness that is to blame for women's desires, but also the fact that women might actually like the Dracula type more than the Harker type, that sexual liberation and experience might be attractive to women and thus must be stifled, killed in its coffin so that the social order (male-dominated monogamy) can be preserved.

One could go on for a long time in this, er...vein. And people have.

Or one could take things in a different direction entirely. Of late, there has been much made of the medallion Dracula wears around his neck for the first half of the film, which in outline looks like the Star of David. Readings of this film along those lines have noted that, in 1931, identifying a character in this way seems suspiciously like identifying them as a Jew. They have thus argued that, at least in part, the film should be seen as a portrayal (and perhaps endorsement) of the notion of a Jewish plot to infiltrate and dominate European society - Dracula as a rich bloodsucker who controls people, under this view - that would be used as a justification for the gas chambers a decade later.

Readings like this are important, both for what they illuminate and for what they miss, and I often like to engage in them myself. But I think that in Dracula, readings fall before the majestic force of cinema itself, before the uncanny, the interior, the visualization of feelings we all have but are not quite able to articulate.

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The power of the film, I think, comes not from the particulars of its symbolism but from the entirety of the narrative dream it creates. We open on a stagecoach traveling through craggy mountains; we are journeying with Renfield into a land of the unknown. We are, like him, innocents. Not only do we not know what lies ahead, but we trust in our own safety, our own rationality: we are, after all, only watching a movie. Like the dreams we fall into at night, it can thrill or disturb us, but cannot affect our waking lives. Or so we think.

Because as we proceed, the film works its magic. The atmosphere becomes increasingly surreal, misshapen, eerily shadowed. Small mishaps like a cut on a finger are revealed as holding portents of which we've never been aware. Three ghostly women in white appear and Renfield passes out; as with the predatory Woman in White that Lucy turns into later in the film, the fear adhering in this is not so much analyzable as it is both particular and generalizable. Women and men may be scared here for different reasons, that is, but the experience of passing into a strange land and finding ourselves helpless before some threat with undertones of gendered conflict;– that runs deep.

And it's not just "some threat." It is a thing that comes at night, and that has an insatiable allure. It is a thing from outside our experience, a thing unable to be touched by Dr. Seward's rationality and openly dismissive of Jonathan Harker's short-pants certainty. It is a thing of sexuality, yes, but sexuality as overmastering desire, as loss of the self, as a thing never sated because it always returns.

These are things we all know. They are things we may only experience inchoately until we see them represented in some more or less concrete way...and then we shiver not just from fear but from the shock of recognition, the fact that somewhere down in us, below our ability to articulate, a resonance has been struck.

What Dracula and other early horror films helped open up was the possibility of cinema in this regard. It is iconic in this way: through representation, it offers a connection to something larger, something that undergirds our daily experience but does not much occur in that experience. Something that emerges only at night, when the interior mechanisms that keep us safe during the day seem unable or unwilling to properly do their job.

In this way, the movie is an example of the deepest powers of cinema itself, of exactly the kind of communication that the flooding digital content with which we are assailed day after day assures us it can deliver but does not.

It reveals us to ourselves. We find ourselves in a strange land which it is difficult to comprehend. We are scared and full of desire...

And then the lights go on and we look at each other in relief and realize that the joyous point of it is that we are all in it together.

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