“Bela Lugosi’s dead
The bats have left the bell tower
The victims have been bled
Red velvet lines the black box”
Bela Lugosi’s Dead– Bauhaus
“He’ll do press-ups and chin-ups
Do the snatch, clean, and jerk
He thinks dynamic tension
Must be hard work
Such strenuous living
I just don’t understand
When in just seven days
I can make you a man”
– I Can Make You a Man /Rocky Horror Picture Show
The year 1931 gave birth to Hollywood’s most enduring monsters, Dracula and Frankenstein (yes, the latter is billed as ‘the Monster’, but in deference to popular parlance, let’s go with Frankenstein).
How that happened is an evergreen topic in The History of Cinema Studies – thought it doesn’t take much effort to see the films are remarkably similar, not only in plot, acting, cinematography and set design, but as oddities of Christian apologia. It’s no coincidence that Dracula himself goes batshit at the sight of non-secular collectibles. And Dr. Frankenstein has the seminal line, “Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” Of course, he’s slapped down like a three-legged mule for such sloppy arrogance.
Both films are essentially from the silent era, replete with plodding Chaplin-esque if-he-exits-stage-right-he-must-enter-stage-left direction, prolonged, frozen close-ups, and theatrical, very pre-Brando eruptions of over-the-top emoting.
In fact, Dracula director Tod Browning was a silent film director. Following his Dracula success, he completed the film ‘Freaks’, perhaps the most unintentionally unwholesome and exploitative work ever issued by a major studio (MGM). And then his career crashed and burned. Requiescat in pace.
It’s been said that Bela Lugosi wasn’t the first choice to play Count Dracula. The studio thought audiences might have trouble with his Hungarian accent – but it proved an incredibly fortuitous accident – becoming culturally iconic in itself. Well, as screenwriter William Goldman repeats ad nauseam,nobody knows anything. Lugosi’s lugubrious, slow-motion delivery is an isolated achievement: his timing is honed to the syllabic.
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein delivers far beyond the call of duty, to the point where he transmogrifies his disparate body parts into a leaden-footed Quasimodo, deserving of the same empathy. How this was accomplished wearing several pounds of makeup and asphalt shoes remains a formidable achievement. And he doesn’t speak one single word. It has been called one of the greatest performances in film.
No blood. No disembowelments. No chainsaws. No CGI. How odd these films have lasted so long. It makes one consider the importance of character development, of structured story-telling, of delving into the collective unconscious where we have all, at one time or more, confronted our own Draculas and Frankensteins and somehow lived to tell about it.
Dracula and Frankenstein have achieved immortality, and perhaps each evening retire to their respective crypt and castle, humbly repeating Nietzsche’s fervent prayer, “What doesn’t destroy me only makes me stronger.”