Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saturday, August 22, 1970: Dracula (1931) / The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932)


Synopsis: Renfield (Dwight Frye), a young attorney from London, arrives at a small Carpathian village. His fellow travelers are staying in the village overnight but he insists on continuing on to the castle of a local nobleman, Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi).

The villagers turn pale at the very mention of the name, and beg him not to go. But Renfield is there on business, and insists on completing his journey.

After an unnerving trip to the castle, Renfield finally meets the count, who signs documents to complete his purchase of Carfax Abbey in England. It is to England, Dracula says, that he will go the very next morning.

Later, a ship drifts into an English harbor, all aboard her dead -- save for Renfield, who is now a stark, raving lunatic.

Several crates from the ship are delivered to Carfax Abbey. From one of them emerges Count Dracula, who soon insinuates himself into London society, befriending Dr. Seward, owner of the Seward Asylum where Renfield is confined. The asylum is, we learn, next door to Carfax Abbey. Dracula meets Dr. Seward's daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler); her fiancee Jonathan Harker (David Manners), and their friend Lucy (Frances Dade).

Meanwhile, a string of bizarre murders has caught the interest of Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), an unorthodox scientist and student of the occult. Two small puncture wounds, he finds, were on the necks of each victim, including young Lucy.

When Mina relates a dream of a man coming into her bedroom and biting her neck, Seward is surprised to see that Mina has been hiding two small puncture wounds herself. But Van Helsing is not surprised. He insists that a vampire is attempting to make Mina its slave by visiting her over a series of subsequent nights.

Mina can only be protected, he says, by locking her in her room, and sealing the windows with wolfbane and crucifixes, which vampires find repellent.

Meanwhile, Count Dracula pays a visit to the Seward home, and Van Helsing quickly realizes that Dracula himself is the vampire they seek. A battle of wits ensues, with Van Helsing battling Count Dracula for Mina's very soul....

Comments: Last week marked Horror Incorporated's first journey into the realm of the double feature. This week we have the first movie to be broadcast a second time. Or the show's first journey into the realm of the rerun, if you want to be that way about it.

So we get a second look at Todd Browning's 1931 masterpiece. I talked about the film itself when it was first broadcast in November, but as long as we are revisiting it, perhaps we should take a moment to talk about the film's music.

Dracula, famously, doesn't have a music score. In the early days of talkies it was widely believed that a score would distract and confuse audiences, since they wouldn't be able to tell if the music they were hearing was supposed to be ambient sound. So Dracula only has two music cues: we hear a bit of Swan Lake during the opening credits, and some ambient music from the opera that Dracula attends.

(That cue from Swan Lake, by the way, was used in a lot of these Universal Pictures from the early 1930s. In fact we hear it over the credits of tonight's second feature, The Murders In the Rue Morgue).

In 2000 composer Philip Glass wrote a complete score for Dracula, which was recorded by the Kronos Quartet. I was lucky enough to see a screening of the film with a live performance of the new music. It was an interesting experience; while I'd seen the movie a number of times, I'd never seen it with a score or with an audience.

Ironically enough, I found Glass' cues to be rather intrusive and distracting, though I had no complaint about the music itself. Seeing it with an audience, though, was a terrific experience. I suspect many of the people at Northrop Auditorium had never seen the movie before; or, at least, hadn't seen it for a very long time.

The audience was pretty good-natured, but poor old Bela Lugosi's stagey mannerisms came in for some derisive laughter and snickering. The biggest laugh of the night came from the rubber bat appearing outside the window of the Seward house, clearly jouncing up and down on the end of a wire. And I'm willing to bet that there was not a single member of the audience who found a single moment of the movie frightening.

When I get my time machine finished, I'll be sure to stop off in 1931 and see Dracula in a movie theater there (I'll try to find one of the lavish movie palaces of the era; I've always wanted to visit one). Seeing it with a less-jaded audience, I figure, will be a wholly different experience. Apparently, it was considered quite horrifying in those days.

Watching these old movies on television diminishes their impact somewhat, but I still like to think that watching them late at night, with the wind howling outside and the rain pelting against the windows, is as atmospheric as anything you'd experience in the theater. So the broadcast TV era afforded a different experience from the cinematic era, though -- at times -- it could be a deliciously spooky one.

Dracula can be found on the Universal DVD set Dracula: The Legacy Collection. But you may also want to check out the first digitally restored DVD release, which included the new Philip Glass score. You can find it here.

The Murders In the Rue Morgue

Synopsis: Medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff) is at a carnival with his beloved Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox). They enter the exhibit of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) who has a gorilla named Erik. Mirakle claims to be able to speak Erik's ancient simian language, then goes on to talk about his personal theories about evolution. At the end of his presentation he urges Camille to come closer to Erik, but when she does so Erik lunges at her, grabbing her and stealing her bonnet. Dr. Mirakle apologizes and tells her that if she gives him her address, he'll send her a new one. Pierre is suspicious and tells her not to do so.

But Mirakle will not be deterred. He has Camille followed and gets her address anyway.

Meanwhile, the police are baffled by a series of prostitute killings, and we learn Dr. Mirakle is the culprit. Picking up streetwalkers and bringing them home, Mirakle injects them with gorilla's blood, with the stated intention of finding out the "true connection" between humans and apes. But the blood of prostitutes is "dirty", according to Mirakle; he needs a woman with pure blood. And so he plots to kidnap Camille and use her to prove his theory of human - ape kinship....

Comments: The stories of Edgar Allan Poe are justifiably famous, but they tend to be long on atmosphere and short on plot. For this reason, films based upon them take plenty of liberties. We’ve already seen what Hollywood did with The Raven and The Black Cat; and tonight we get to see what they make of “The Murders In the Rue Morgue”.

Like a lot of adaptations this one comes off better if you’ve never read the story it’s based upon. Understandably, a lot of changes had to be made in translation. But this adaptation is particularly distressing because it throws out everything that made the short story interesting and memorable.

That story – widely credited as the first detective tale – was published in 1841. It describes how a brilliant, penniless young man named C. Auguste Dupin solves a sensational double homicide that has baffled the Paris police department. The circumstances surrounding the murders are what we would describe today as a classic “locked-room” mystery: two women are found dead in their home, one nearly decapitated and the other beaten and strangled, her body pushed up the chimney by an enormously strong assailant. The door is locked from the inside, and the only windows the killer could have escaped from are nailed shut, also from the inside.

Dupin solves the mystery simply by applying his keen, disciplined mind to the problem, identifying and rejecting irrelevant clues and logically working his way through the facts until he arrives at the correct solution. That an amateur easily, almost effortlessly, solves this “insoluble” mystery is one thing. That he does so basically as a lark is quite another, and it makes C. August Dupin one of the most fascinating and enigmatic characters in literature.

But for the screen adaptation, the writers felt it was necessary to dismantle the elaborate puzzle-box that Poe had constructed and sand down the rough edges from their protagonist. Camille L’Espanayle is no longer one of the two murder victims. She has been pulled from the chimney, brought back to life, and transformed into Dupin’s girlfriend. Dupin (inexplicably renamed Pierre) is now a poor medical student, rather than an eccentric bohemian.

And the screenwriters, needing an antagonist, dreamed up a character named Dr. Mirakle, played with scenery-chewing zest by Bela Lugosi, an actor who was still basking in the success of the previous year's Dracula. Mirakle's motivations are shaky throughout -- he seems to find Camille herself alluring, yet also wants her blood for his experiments proving human-ape kinship. This all figures (or is supposed to figure, somehow) into his theories of evolution. That Darwin's On the Origin of Species would not be published until 1859 is apparently ignored. And why not? Mirakle's motive doesn't make sense anyway.

Lugosi is at least amusing as Dr. Mirakle; the same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the other principles. Leon Waycoff's Dupin is an insufferable and ineffectual dullard, only a pale shadow of Poe's creation. Diminutive leading lady Sidney Fox is certainly cute, but sweetness seems to be the only quality she can project.

As for Erik the gorilla, we get a man in a suit for the distant shots, and a chimpanzee for the close-ups. Movie audiences in 1932 were apparently much more forgiving in those days.

The Murders In the Rue Morgue can be found on the Universal DVD set The Bela Lugosi Collection. It's available on Amazon.


kochillt said...

Great review of an interesting pairing. These are Universal's only starring horror films tailored for Bela Lugosi, who would not be called back until 1934, to co-star with Karloff. DRACULA aired 12 times on CHILLER THEATER, while MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE popped up an additional 10. Inexplicably top billed for an insipid supporting part, ingenue Sidney Fox gained favor at the studio for her "close" relationship with producer Carl Laemmle Jr. Alas, it didn't help her unspectacular career, which ended long before her mysterious death in 1942, at age 31 (it's a scream that the casting couch would be responsible for her earning her lone remembered movie role, playing a virgin!) This was the film debut of Leon Ames (billed under his real name, Waycoff), and while his own opinion of the film was negative, I rather enjoyed his performance. The Dupin character would reappear in Universal's MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET, played by Patric Knowles in 1942. Lastly, Lugosi's relish is quite entertaining, but his character comes off as a real creep, making absurd statements regarding the ape's feelings that are just laughable. By the way, I recorded this film off Turner Classic Movies, beginning with the carriage driving through the fog, the fight over the streetwalker, the scene in the scientist's lab, the victim's entry into the morgue (naked), and Dupin's first visit to the amusing morgue keeper. From there, we go to the carnival, up until Mirakle discovering the girl's address. It really does make better sense in its original order, but it's clearly not a good job of directing by Robert Florey, despite Karl Freund's camera.

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