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The Revenant Review

Horror Film History, Analysis, and Reviews

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Dracula in Popular Culture

The following was written for episode 26 of The HorrorCast Podcast, where Marknado, Walshy, and I delved into Universal’s first three Dracula films, 1931’s Dracula, 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and 1943’s Son of Dracula. The full episode can be listened to through iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud through the Phantom Podcast Network.

Legends of vampires and their countless variations can be found worldwide and they essentially share the same basic formula: a corpse rises from the grave to drain the blood of the living. Certain beliefs surrounding the vampire are likely the result of a misunderstanding of the decaying process: blood trickling from mouths of a corpse is actually decaying fluid leaving the orifices, drawn back lips emphasize the canines, gases can create a hazy, ghostly-looking fog over recently buried graves. If someone had a dream that the recently deceased returned, should they open the grave they would find ample evidence that the dearly departed has been up to some iron-infused shenanigans. The remedy was generally to stake the body – not to kill it but to nail it to the coffin, and to cut off the head and place it by the feet so the reanimated corpse couldn’t sit up to retrieve it. Sometimes the ribs would be broken to fetch the heart to burn it or a brick was placed in the mouth to keep it from feeding. In movies, and in particular Dracula films, these practices are seen as long forgotten and archaic remnants found only in the remotest reaches of Eastern Europe. However, few realize that these practices happened in America too, including in my own home state of Connecticut (in Griswold and Jewett City) where many bodies have been excavated and found to have been desecrated in a manner consistent with vampire killing. These bodies date from the 1830s and 1850s – hardly ancient history.

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16th century vampire remains, Italy

And of course, blood has always been seen as life-giving, from the Aztecs painting their temples with it to appease the Sun-god so as to make him rise to the Countess Elizabeth Bathory bathing in young women’s blood to attain everlasting youth.

The vampire was conceived in literary form on the same stormy night as Frankenstein’s abomination. While Mary Shelley planted seeds of her masterwork her host Lord Byron conjured up a vampiric tale. His doctor, John Polidori, took the reins and published The Vampyre in 1819. The vampire seemed modeled on the libertine Byron himself and no doubt influenced Stoker in his creation of the Transylvanian aristocrat. Female sexuality of a particularly lesbian variety entered vampire literature in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, published in 1872.

Stoker took inspiration from these earlier works and created one of the single most iconic characters in all of fiction. No other novel has been adapted for the screen than Dracula, published in 1897, on the cusp of the 20th Century, and only Sherlock Holmes has appeared as a character more often. Rather than a backward looking work of fiction, as many adaptations have seemed to characterize it, Dracula was actually a novel that dealt very much with new technology entering contemporary life. Victorians were obsessed with the idea of progress and civilization in opposition to our base humanity and our beastial desires. Robert Louis Stevenson tapped into this in his 1886 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Instead of one man’s struggle, Stoker pits modern civilization and its gadgets against an ancient evil, bred from the shadows of superstition, which has come to prey upon and corrupt good, sensible Englishmen and, of course, English women and their delicate, chaste sensibilities. Unfortunately too few films depict the best parts of Stoker’s novel, such as Lucy Westenra’s transformation into the “Bloofer Lady”, preying upon children.

Dracula, at least in name, first appeared on film in the now lost 1921 Death of Dracula, a Hungarian film which bore little to no resemblance to Stoker’s tale. The first true adaptation was F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, Nosferatu, with Max Schreck playing the iconic, rat-like Count Orlok. Murnau keeps the basic structure and makes Dracula even more animal-like than he is in the novel. Unfortunately for the brilliant filmmaker, the adaptation was unauthorized and he lost a legal battle with Stoker’s widow, and all copies were ordered destroyed. Of course, not all copies were and we can still enjoy this haunting masterpiece today.

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In the 1920s Stoker’s novel was adapted for the stage and became a smash hit. Carl Laemmle Jr., who had recently been given control over productions at Universal, had a love for horror that his father didn’t share. Jr.’s first big project was to put Dracula on the big screen, and soon investors were excited when director Tod Browning and the celebrated Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, both signed on. Unfortunately, Chaney died of a throat hemorrhage before filming could begin, and the studio settled for the very cheap Bela Lugosi to play the Count, a role which he had played to great acclaim on the stage. The film would take its cues from the Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston stage version, stripping the story down to its barest elements. Though certainly not the strongest of Universal’s horror films of the era, 1931’s Dracula is the first talky horror film and gave us so many of the Gothic tropes we’ve come to associate with the genre – elements like spooky castles, cobwebs, and bats which would have been familiar to 19th Century Gothic literature but had yet to make their proper debut in American film. It also marks the first American horror film which plays the supernatural straight – Dracula is not an imposter, and this is not a dream. American films had had a habit of explaining away the supernatural through worldly means, unlike their European counterparts.

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Dracula was an enormous financial success and Bela Lugosi became the defining image – in looks, sound, and manner – of the Count, despite being more suave and debonaire than the literary version. The theme of an aristocrat exploiting and preying upon working class victims struck Depression era audiences, however subliminally. Lugosi’s vampire was a mix of Stoker’s creation and the sexual connotations that the word “vampire” had in film up until that point. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s “vamps” were predatory, seductive women – Lugosi created the predatory, seductive man. It appeared to work, as women fawned over Lugosi, and even the actress Clara Bow initiated a sexual affair with him.

The film would spawn multiple sequels: Dracula’s Daughter (1936), starring Gloria Holden; Son of Dracula (1943), with Lon Chaney, Jr.; House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), both with John Carradine; Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), with Lugosi once again donning the iconic cape.

For a decade after, the character Dracula lay mostly dormant before being resurrected in vivid colors by Hammer films, this time being depicted by Christopher Lee. Adding more blood, fangs, and, thank the dark lords, cleavage, increased the coupling of sexuality and violence – is there really any wonder as to why Dracula has remained so popular?

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The Hammer cycle would last nearly two decades before Universal again returned to the Count for 1979’s Dracula, starring Frank Langella in the Count’s most romantic, reputably sexiest outing – and the farthest cry yet from Stoker’s ugly, almost beastial creation. The same year saw Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu. In between, Dracula would battle everyone from Billy the Kid to Batman, and even receive a blacksploitation counterpart in the form of William Marshall as Blacula (1972). Dracula or his likeness (or at least Bela Lugosi’s likeness) have appeared in every other form of media, from television to comic books. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola produced and directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Gary Oldman, with stunning visuals and an operatic sensibility, it remains one of my personal favorites.

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Dracula is a character that is redefined for every generation – sometimes he’s sympathetic, even attractive, and sometimes he’s a repulsive monster. Vampires reflect different fears at different times, from Victorian fears of damnation through the sinful temptations of the flesh to more modern fears of sexually transmitted diseases or commentaries on class conflict, where a parasitic oligarchy drains the life and resources of the lower classes.

In the 1920s Sigmund Freud introduced two opposing concepts that would come to be called Eros and Thanatos, Eros being the drive for survival, sex, and other creative pursuits and Thanatos being the death drive, which goes against our instinct of self-preservation and leads us to acts that would bring about our demise. Like many of Freud’s ideas, controversy surrounds this concept today, but it nevertheless has a poetic element which at least in part seems to ring true, and perhaps no monster offers a corporeal form to these contrary but nevertheless powerful drives more than the damned, cold-wrapped corpse of the vampire.

Vampires can both repel and attract us. Despite knowing it’s wrong, that hurting people just to perpetuate our own existence or to satisfy our urges is morally reprehensible, there’s that part of us that considers giving into the curiosity, even at the peril of our life, soul, should it exist, or ethical self-worth. Perhaps an undeath outside of God’s salvation is worth the promise of immortality, power, and profound appetites with the abundant resources to satiate them. Light, after all, can be oppressive, exposing, judgmental, whereas the dark can offer freedom, obscurity, and solace. If Milton can make a hero of Satan in Paradise Lost, can we not make a hero of the vampire? What other monster do we regard with as much fear as we do jealousy? Who better embodies these contradictions more than the Count himself, Dracula?

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Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test?

Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test?

An Introduction to the Review Series

The horror genre has been host to many (dis)honors, and one would be remiss to not include among them the recognitions for Worst Movies Ever Made. The genre has more entries than any other due to its ability to consistently churn out profitable films which have little-to-no artistic merit. Certainly, the horror genre is rich with great art and meaningful metaphors and examinations of personal and societal woes, and all those things that attract the intellect and enrich the soul. This is why horror matters. But sometimes, we turn to the genre for baser reasons – blood, beasts, and boobs (what Harley Poe refers to as “them sacred triple-Bs”). This is why horror is fun.

But there’s another reason we turn to horror. We adore the classics and we allow them to become a part of our psyche, but we recognize that those great films are few and far between. Over the years we’ve developed thick skins, enduring countless hours of on-screen disappointments, becoming savvier and more discerning with each viewing. We’ve seen scares done wrong more times than right, but we persevere knowing that the next film might be the one to crawl beneath our skin and latch onto our brain, just like we want it to. Along the way we’ve tasted the bitter salts of bad filmmaking and have developed a tolerance, and sometimes an acquired preference, for it.

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Robot Monster (1953)

Let’s face it, as dedicated horror fans, no matter how shitty a film might be, we tend to take certain joys in reveling in their awfulness. Horror (and to a lesser extent sci-fi) is the only genre that when it fails it crosses over and becomes a comedy, albeit of the unintentional variety. We sift through countless hours of dreck in order to find that glitter of treasure, and to not find humor in what can at times feel like a fruitless endeavor would drive a lesser viewer to insanity. We laugh so as not to cry.

Entertainment can be found in anticipating the tired beats and ogling at the awkward dialogue, hopefully while in the company of some friends and judgment impairing beverages. These palate cleansers allow us to appreciate masterful craft when we see it, keeping us from becoming jaded, pretentious hipsters. Let us take a moment to thank them for that. Lesser films can also serve, as Stephen King has written, as junk food. We know there’s no nutritional value there, but it’s satisfying to indulge the Id over the Superego at times. Junk food has its place in life – the same is true for bad horror movies. Not every film need be a serious work of artistic expression – sometimes it’s enough to just have a good time. We should also remember that filmmaking is a complicated, messy process and that if anything artistic remains in the end product it is a small secular miracle. It’s actually extraordinary that more films don’t turn out as bad as some of the films on this list, but those that do serve to teach us what does work in film by demonstrating what doesn’t.

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Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

Some bad movies transcend the spectrum of good taste and come full circle, becoming genuine entertainment once again, often accidentally, and those are generally the best in the oft-named So-Bad-It’s-Good category. Those are the films made with the best intentions, but they’re like text written by people who don’t speak the language, like those “engrish” signs seen across Asia and photographed by giggling Anglophone tourists – you stare for a moment while your brain tries to process what you’re reading, and you can’t help but laugh at the result (I suppose the same could be said about amateur film blogs, but I digress).

Like all the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes Lenny doesn’t get to tend his rabbits. As a related aside, I recall showing Gary Sinese’s Of Mice and Men (1992), a film I found to be an affecting adaptation of Steinbeck’s classic novel, to a friend, anticipating his reaction to the final scene to be the same as mine – namely, riveted silence. Bang! My friend bowled over on the couch, clutching his stomach –laughing hysterically. It goes to show that one man’s gold is another man’s brass. Humor, like horror, is often subjective. Even bad films, therefore, can have legitimate fan bases; to each his own.

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Troll 2 (1990)

Of course, some movies really are simply, objectively bad, lacking any entertainment value. Their fate is to dwell in that twilight haze of boredom and pain. Some break that taste spectrum mentioned above only to return right back to awfulness. The films listed below represent horror and monster films that have been generally regarded by notable critics as being the worst ever made, beginning with 1953’s Robot Monster. Certainly, the 1940s had many terrible Poverty Row flicks, some starring Bela Lugosi as his career began to tailspin (he’ll be revisited below), but those will be dealt with in some capacity at a later time on this blog. Similarly, two oft-mentioned films will get a more focused treatment elsewhere when the time comes on the website: Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978) (the latter which may deserve more credit than critics have allowed).

We should begin by laying the ground rules: I have chosen to forgo my usual grading system here because, frankly, all these films utterly fail as cinema. It’s accepted that they are replete with incompetent directing, poor acting, sometimes incomprehensible writing, and all the other things that make moving pictures into the cinematic art form. They get F’s, every last one.

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Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008)

So the question then becomes, Can they be considered real entertainment or are they simply masochistic tests of endurance? Is it worth the morbidly curious, rubber-necking genre fan to seek out these non-films so as to participate in some communal movie-watching schadenfreude? In the short reviews below, I will examine just how bad these films are and try to cull something positive from them, if I can. I’ll suggest if any of these are worth seeking out as entertainment (preferably with good-humored friends and a couple of beers), or if you’ll need the company of MST3K, when available, to cope through the experience. Put simply, I’ll judge whether the film at hand is Tasteless Entertainment or simply an Endurance Test.

This series includes the following films (and more will likely be added over time as I come across them):

Robot Monster (1953)
Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956)
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)
The Creeping Terror (1964)
The Horror of Party Beach (1964)
Monster A-Go Go (1965)
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Hobgoblins (1988)
Troll 2 (1990)
Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008)

A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema

A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema

Introduction to the Review Series

Any devotee of horror movies will eventually crawl their way to the classics. A small number will tread through the Universal era of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, finding endearment in their depictions of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. Fewer still will explore further back to the silent era, and those that do generally only watch a meager selection of films, notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). Most conversations about silent horror cinema begin with these films, yet there are over twenty years of macabre movies that precede them, including feature length offerings beginning in 1913.

For eighteen years these silent feature films laid the foundation of horror before audiences would actually be able to hear Lugosi in his signature voice utter the lines, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” It took filmmakers of the 1930s several years to adjust to the advent of talkies, and in many ways some of the films which preceded them were more ambitious and better crafted. This is mainly because silent filmmakers didn’t need to worry about lugging around heavy sound recording equipment or concern themselves with the noises of the sets. They were artists who could focus purely on their visual aesthetic and tell rich tales of nightmares projected upon screen canvases, their only paints being light and shadow.

In this series of reviews I will dedicate myself to watching every feature length silent horror film I can access from 1913’s The Student of Prague to the dawn of the talkies. Where I am able to I will examine the people who made these films and the part they played in horror movie history, the techniques and focuses of the films and their impact, what these stories meant to contemporary audiences, and what, if anything, these films have to offer a modern audience. On this last point a note should be made about my grading system, which is of course subjective: I am someone who enjoys silent films and I assume the audience for my reviews does so as well. Silent films require more attention from viewers. Often scenes are left to interpretation and the person watching must fill in elements of the narrative with their own logic and imagination. Anyone new to watching movies of this era should be aware that it is hardly a passive experience, though it is, in my opinion, a rewarding one.

I hope that readers will find these reviews helpful, whether in pointing them to unknown selections, finding renewed passion for the movies they already love, or in offering reasons to respect and appreciate the movies of this era, all of which we are extremely fortunate to still be able to enjoy after a century.

Reviews can be found on the site’s pages for 1910-1919 and 1920-1929.

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