Penny Dreadful episodes come in two major types, and these episodes illustrate each type. “Demimonde” is what we might call the Ensemble Hangout and “Closer than Sisters” is a Vanessa Spotlight.
Pretty much everything up to this point has been an Ensemble Hangout. Each of the characters gets some screen time, with one or two getting a little extra focus. For example, “Resurrection” gave Frankenstein’s creature, Caliban, the opportunity to catch us up on what he’d been doing between his creation and his bloody appearance at the end of “Séance.” In the case of “Demimonde,” it’s Dorian Gray who gets the extra attention. Along the way, we see each of the show’s main ideas and plotlines advance a bit, plus we get to watch these characters bounce off each other in interesting and sometimes unexpected combinations.
While each Ensemble Hangout tends to have a focal character or two, the Vanessa Spotlight episodes keep the attention on Vanessa Ives. A given season may have only a couple Vanessa Spotlights, and they often stand out from the rest in tone and structure.
“Demimonde” and the Core Elements of Penny Dreadful
I’ve always been tall and big, and when I was growing up, I tended to identify with the large characters in teams or ensembles. To this day, I often find myself being self-conscious about how much space I’m taking up and whose view I might be obstructing. I was also very much a math and science nerd growing up, and even though I no longer do much with those subjects, I’ll get excited at the possibility of having an idea that could change the world. The part of me that is still eight years old, in applying that emotional logic to the Universal monsters, leads me to identify with both Frankenstein and his monster.
Acts of Varying Immorality
Of course, I don’t have anyone’s deaths on my conscience. Frankenstein’s monster, on the other hand, kills three people over the course of Universal’s Frankenstein, and attacks a few others. The extent to which he is aware of the moral consequences of his actions is up for debate, though.
(Oh, I’m skipping plot recap for this one – you almost certainly know the key details of the Frankenstein story already.)
The connection between the “abnormal” nature of the monster’s brain and his actions is fuzzy. Does he show so little remorse about killing Fritz the assistant and Dr. Frankenstein’s old professor because his physical brain used to belong to a criminal, who potentially had a skewed or nonexistent moral compass himself? Or are his actions more those of an animal reacting in self-defense to Fritz’s torment and the professor’s impending dissection?
The amount of brutality the creature displays certainly varies. The three deaths he causes – those of Fritz, the professor, and Maria, the little girl – follow a decreasing arc of murderousness. The monster straight up hangs Fritz, presumably with the whip the assistant used to torture the monster. The professor’s murder seems more of an act of self-defense. Despite having plenty of potential weapons at hand, the monster settles for strangling the old man. Maria’s death is the least intentional; it appears to be a misunderstood extension of the let’s-throw-pretty-things-in-the-water game (and it’s honestly a little surprising that she died of being tossed a few feet into the water). There’s no apparent ill will motivating the monster when he kills her.
However unintentional the monster’s killing of Maria may have been, there’s no question that his assault of Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth, is no fault of hers. She’s simply a tool of the monster’s quest for vengeance against Frankenstein. His later near-murder of Frankenstein comes in a moment of self-defense after his attempts to flee the angry villagers fail and is thus easier to defend. The attack on Elizabeth, though, makes the monster’s morality in the last act of the movie complicated. As sympathetic as he sometimes is, and no matter how much he may misjudge his own strength, he is not a blameless innocent.
The Monstrous Questions
This leads us to a pair of enduring questions in many monster stories, questions that Dracula didn’t raise. The simpler of the questions is, “Who is the real monster of this story?” The second is, “What makes someone (or something) a monster?”
We’ll jump straight to the point with episode 2: Eva Green makes this show. Plenty of the other actors turn in great performances to be sure, but Penny Dreadful owes at least 85% of its total existence to Eva Green and her ability to say anything with just her face.
The writing emphasizes her character, Vanessa Ives, early on, and as the series moves on, it’s clear that the writers understand that hers is one of the central stories that weaves together the different strands of the series. She begins in the Dracula strand of the story, recruits Ethan Chandler, winds up being a confidante of both Frankenstein and his monster, and draws Dorian Gray out of his self-obsessed torpor. Writing alone, however, rarely makes a character memorable.
What makes Vanessa Ives truly essential to the show is Green’s performance. The first episode gave us a sense of her ability to convey poise, amusement, discernment, and intrigue, among other moods. The second episode goes further and cements her as the critical member of the ensemble.
First, though, the rest of the story. Around the scenes of Vanessa and Sir Malcolm pursuing their lead from the first episode, we are introduced to new characters. Billie Piper’s Brona Croft is a sex worker holed up at the same seaside inn of questionable character where Ethan Chandler has decided to hang his hat. In addition to meeting our charming American gunslinger, she also calls on Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray to serve as a model for increasingly extreme photographs that wind up mixing sex and blood in the way you can really only get away with in a show that includes the occasional vampire (even if no vampires were involved in that particular scene). Meanwhile, Victor Frankenstein reintroduces his creation from last episode to the realm of the living, first through literature and then through actual experience.
The true heart of the episode, of course, comes in its eponymous scene. Back in the first episode, Mr. Lyle of the British Museum refused to complete his translation of the hieroglyphics inside a vampire’s skin until Vanessa and Sir Malcolm attended a party at his house. At the party, Vanessa trades unnecessary banter with the unnecessary Dorian Gray before the main event: a séance conducted by “Madame Kali” (who will eventually be revealed to be far less exotic than her name suggests).
The séance draws skeptical looks from both Vanessa and, especially, Sir Malcolm. Who can blame them? Having already trucked in the realm of the supernatural, the pair can hardly be begrudged a certain jaded affect when confronted with the theatrical charlatanism they believe to be the stock in trade of “Madame Kali.”
And then the spirit of Sir Malcolm’s dead son manifests through Vanessa.
In an epic speech that involves contorting limbs, speaking in tongues, and channeling the spirit of a dead boy, Eva Green commands the screen while building both her character and Sir Malcolm’s. She provides backstory, deepens the emotional tone of the show, and shows off a truly impressive formative range. I do not have the words to fully capture the effect she has, either in this scene or in the show as a whole. The whole series is streaming on Netflix right now; if you have the ability to watch the first two episodes and haven’t yet done so, I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch them.
If Vanessa is the backbone of the series and of “Séance,” Frankenstein’s first creation is the heart of “Resurrection.” While the end of the first episode and nearly all of the second gave us a resurrected man played by Alex Price, that poor man’s torso was ripped apart at the end of “Séance.” Sticking his head through the blood and viscera was Frankenstein’s “firstborn,” played by Rory Kinnear.
“Resurrection” devotes significant screen time to the creature’s backstory. He tells Frankenstein (and the audience) about his life after Frankenstein created and then abandoned him. Through misadventure, maltreatment, and the eventual kindness of a stranger, Frankenstein’s creature winds up a theatrical stage hand who’s distrustful of much of humanity and something of a creeper when it comes to women. Where the man we saw Frankenstein resurrect in the first episode wound up with the name “Proteus” from Twelfth Night, Frankenstein’s original creature receives the dubious, if ultimately rather appropriate, pseudonym of “Caliban” from The Tempest. (All of his monologuing about modernity and raging against romanticism aside, Caliban can’t escape the romantic and fanciful flourishes endemic to his creator’s narrative.)
We also get a Dracula-related plot that starts with a vision, leads to a small adventure in the London zoo (containing absolutely zero foreshadowing about Ethan Chandler’s secret nature), and ends with a man named Fenton chained up in Sir Malcolm’s basement. So that’s neat.
By the time we reach the end of “Resurrection,” we already have a strong foundation for some of Penny Dreadful’s recurring themes and ideas. To name a few, we have evidence for:
A) Daddy issues. All the daddy issues.
B) Vanessa Ives is nigh unflappable; only the most powerful of entities can flap her.
C) A woman with agency is the most powerful and/or intimidating creature of all, and most men will fail to realize this until their plans fall apart.
D) Stop trying to make Dorian Gray happen.
Now, seriously, find a way and the time to watch “Séance.”
For quite some time now, vampires have been high on The List of Sexy Monsters. Before Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, we had Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Before those we had Anne Rice’s sexy vamps, and so on all the way back to Bela Lugosi’s belief in Dracula’s sex appeal. And yet, nothing about blood-sucking monsters requires sexiness.
After all, we also have Guillermo Del Toro’s vampires in The Strain (and before that, his chin-splitting additions to Blade II), and a mishmash of vampire elders from Buffy or the Underworld series. If the Cullens of Twilight and the Salvatore brothers of The Vampire Diaries are the modern-day descendants of Lugosi’s Dracula, their more obviously creepy cousins can trace their lineage back to Nosferatu.
F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film was originally intended as an adaptation of the novel Dracula, which had been published 25 years earlier. However, Murnau and his fellow German filmmakers could not secure the rights from Bram Stoker’s family. They went to the extraordinary length of changing all the characters’ names, but otherwise charged ahead with their production. Thus, instead of portraying Count Dracula, actor Max Schreck gave us Count Orlok. The Harkers became the Hutters, Van Helsing became Bulmer, and Renfield became Knock. Instead of London, the count moved to the made-up German town of Wisborg.
Shockingly, this renaming did not satisfy the Stoker estate, who ended up winning a court battle that led to nearly all prints of the fim being destroyed. A few managed to escape destruction, however, meaning we’re still able to enjoy this alternative vision of vampirism.
The basic outlines of the story are similar to Universal’s Dracula nine years later, with both movies’ plots deviating from Stoker’s novel to roughly similar degrees, but the differences in pacing and production stand out. (And, of course, Nosferatu is silent while Dracula was a relatively early talkie.)
Nosferatu manages to move both faster and slower than Universal’s Dracula. Where the Universal movie uses fairly lengthy takes in each scene, Nosferatu uses cuts more frequently, with the effect of making scenes feel like they’re moving faster than the scenes in Dracula. However, the pacing of the story itself is much slower in Nosferatu. It takes the movie longer to get to Orlok’s castle and to get back to the city, leaving the characters much less time between the count’s arrival in the city and the final confrontation. By contrast, Universal’s movie got to Lugosi announcing, “I am Dracula” by about six minutes into the movie, and most of its time is spent with the characters in London trying to figure out what’s going on.
The German film also spends more time building up parallels between Orlok and other threats from the natural world. We get meditations on Venus flytraps and microscopically vampiric organisms. Schreck’s makeup is also decidedly more animalistic than Lugosi’s. Orlok’s mouth is ratlike, his ears are pointed, and his fingernails are so long they evoke claws. He looks and acts far less human than Lugosi’s Dracula, who is at least able to put on a façade of charm and manners when it suits his purposes.
In other words, Orlok’s predatory nature is less social and more biological than Dracula’s. If both vampires were diseases, Dracula would be an STD and Orlok would be a plague carried by rats. Orlok falls into an uncanny valley where he is almost-but-not-quite human in his appearance and behavior. If he ever was human, he clearly isn’t anymore.
In fact, Schreck’s appearance and performance were so uncanny, they spawned an urban legend that he actually was a vampire. That provided the inspiration for 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, which tells a fictionalized version of the production of Nosferatu where the star is in fact a vampire who has cut a deal with Murnau. The film stars John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck, with supporting work from Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Udo Kier, and Catherine McCormack.
The two main draws (to me) of Shadow of the Vampire are Dafoe’s truly creepy performance and the depictions of the movie-making process. Dafoe’s performance is better seen than described, but he does a fantastic job of recreating Schreck’s movements and general aura. On the process side, the movie recreates some of the iconic moments of Nosferatu and shows some of how they were done. Watching men crank cameras while Murnau delivers real-time instructions to the actors (with no concern about competing with sounds or dialogue since this is a silent movie), and hearing Cary Elwes as a replacement photographer describe how slow-motion effects can be created, reinforce some points from my earlier post on sound in the movies. At the time these people were creating this film, they were engaging in what was essentially an enormous experiment in storytelling using a new form of photography.
Ultimately, Nosferatu has had less impact on the way we think about vampires than Universal’s Dracula did, but it did quite a bit to advance the horror movie as a general concept. From unearthly special effects – including Orlok’s straight-backed pivot up from his casket and his eventual fade-away when exposed to sunlight – to the way locations, lighting, and shot composisition created a mood, Nosferatu showed us a monster in a way that hadn’t ever been possible before.
Seeing as how we’re between the Dracula post and the upcoming Nosferatu / Shadow of the Vampire post, let’s talk about talking.
Something I didn’t realize until I started preparing for these posts was how close we came to not having the silent film era. For as much as the silent era is disregarded in most current discussions of movies, I want to explore an alternate history with you.
(The extrapolations I’m making here have their root in the history of movie technology from the fourth edition of James Monaco’s How to Read a Film. That book provides the factual basis for where I’m about to go.)
Why didn’t we have talking movies in the first place? Sound recording was possible through phonographs and other techniques by the 1870’s. In fact, phonograph-based recording was so popularized by the 1890’s that Dr. Seward in the Dracula novel keeps his diary by phonograph. Motion picture cameras had also been developed by the 1890’s. However, among other issues, keeping a phonograph – with its playback based on a mechanism and disc unconnected from the film reel – synchronized with the picture proved very difficult.
The eventual solution depended on the shift away from mechanical recording devices like the phonograph to electrical audio recording that could be more easily synchronized with film and more easily amplified. Monaco suggests that, had electrical recording received the early attention that mechanical recording did, the “talkies” might have arrived much earlier, or perhaps simultaneously, in the history of commercial movie production.
This is not an outlandish possibility, either. After all, audio transmission by electrical means was spreading after the work of Alexander Graham Bell and others in the mid-1870’s. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that, had mechanical recording via phonographs and similar techniques not emerged at the same time, the energy that went into further developing mechanical techniques may have instead gone into electrical recording.
This is where the real extrapolation begins.
In our timeline, we get a generation of silent films, including significant work on the non-textual parts of movies. Movie production is essentially a new development in photography, and the people making movies put lots of energy into adapting existing photographic techniques and developing new ones. The influences of other arts, including the production elements of the stage, are brought in as well, but the art of performing on a silent screen is by necessity very different from the art of performing on stage.
Particularly notable for our purposes is the work of the German expressionists on films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, which drove huge advances in production design, effects work, and cinematography. Many of the people who worked on those films wound up in Hollywood in time for the early days of the talkies, and they brought the knowledge they’d gained from the silent era with them.
Now imagine a timeline where audio recording keeps pace with motion picture development. Rather than being an art form that requires the development of entirely new visual storytelling techniques, film now allows us to replicate the world’s best stage performances and bring them to any community with a movie theater. Movies allow for the democratization of the stage.
A parallel from our real timeline, also described by Monaco, becomes relevant here. Once still photography became practical, one of its dominant uses became portraiture. Where personal portraits had historically been almost entirely exclusive to the wealthy, who could afford to commission a painter to spend hours on the piece, now they became much more affordable. Experimentation with photography was possible, but much of its commercial use went into replicating and democratizing an existing art form.
Or think of the primary commercial uses of audio recording, which allowed anyone a modest income a chance to hear the world’s greatest music performed by the world’s best musicians.
The same logic could have led to a world where the primary focus of movies was to record stage performances and bring them to the masses. No longer would access to the best theater be limited to those with money living in a handful of large cities. Instead, the greatest plays, musicals, and operas of New York, London, Paris, Vienna, and Venice could come to a theater near you.
In that timeline, developments in cinematography, lighting, and makeup would be those that best served the recording of a stage play. Direction for the camera would still happen primarily in the context of the stage. Actors’ performances would remain calibrated for a live audience.
Sure, eventually someone would probably get around to staging productions without an actual audience, the better to allow for close-ups and more nuanced performances that often come across as faintly ridiculous when the actor is performing for the balcony rather than the camera. People might experiment with compositing performances, taking the best renditions of key moments or songs from multiple stagings (as is sometimes done with stand-up specials in our timeline).
Yes, in our actual timeline, some great stage performances are recorded and brought to movie theaters. However, movie production as an art form today differs greatly from theatrical production. I would argue that a key factor contributing to our reality is that movies had to spend a couple decades having to figure out how to tell stories in an entirely new way. Then, once sound became a real possibility, it was integrated into the existing framework built during the silent era.
Dracula illustrates this well. Bela Lugosi had been a stage performer, and had in fact performed the Dracula play from which the movie was adapted. A stage performer’s skill set was very valuable in the early days of the talkies, when most screen actors were not used to delivering their lines for a listening audience. Lugosi’s nonverbal performance remains very broad, reflecting years of performing for a stage audience, but there’s no question that his line delivery and embodiment of the character are distinctive, and indeed, definitive of the character in the popular imagination.
Beyond the actual performances, the movie takes nearly full advantage of the fact that it is in fact a film rather than a stage show. The cinematography, by Karl Freund, was clearly informed by his formative work in Germany, where he had done cinematography for Fritz Lang’s tour de force, Metropolis, among other films. For example, Dracula features several instances where the camera moves toward a character or around the set, an area where Freund had worked to develop not just techniques, but also the necessary physical tools.
(The previous paragraph uses “nearly full advantage,” as there are still some areas where the movie Dracula steers clear of the full potential of a talkie. Notably, it does not have a real score, using music only over the credits and as diegetic sound at a symphony performance. You can read more about music, movies, and studios’ concern that audiences would be distracted if music played “from nowhere” while actors spoke in this article.)
In our alternate timeline, one can still imagine a version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, but there’s a good chance it would have been a recording of a stage performance rather than the more original work we have in our timeline.
Just some interesting thoughts to ponder before we dive into Nosferatu and Shadow of the Vampire in a couple days….
I decided to pair the monster movie watch with some monster television, starting with the relatively recently departed, and much mourned in my household, Penny Dreadful. The show got three seasons on Showtime, and included in its ensemble Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, Reeve Carney Harry Treadaway, Rory Kinnear, and (for two seasons) Danny Sapani. If there could be said to be a single star of the show, however, it would have to be the incomparable Eva Green as Vanessa Ives.
The show’s pilot episode, “Night Work,” introduces us to a Victorian England populated with some familiar archetypes. We have the retired explorer and his manservant in the form of Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray and Sapani’s Sembene. We have the brash American gunslinger in Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler. We have the prostitute with the heart of gold in Piper’s Brona Croft. We have our straight-up characters from literature in Carney’s Dorian Gray and Treadaway’s Victor Frankenstein. And we have our psychic connected to the uncanny in Green’s Ives.
In terms of the classic monster stories, this first episode starts us off with the same two that really kicked off Universal’s monster movies, Dracula and Frankenstein.
Penny Dreadful brings an alternative take on how Dracula’s story turned out. Sir Malcolm and Vanessa begin the series with a clear bond, rooted in their shared love of Mina (a.ka. Mina Harker nee Murray in Stoker’s Dracula and Mina Seward in Universal’s). In this version, however, Mina appears to have succumbed to Dracula, with Sir Malcolm and Vanessa now trying to find her.
This is an intriguing approach that lets the show use new characters to explore its Dracula storyline while maintaining obvious roots in the original tale. Rather than be shackled to the familiar beats of Jonathan Harker, Dr. Seward, Renfield, Van Helsing, etc., the show carves out fresh space for itself and, by establishing a fate for Mina decidedly different from the novel’s, leaves us uncertain as to how this story might play out.
At the outset, the primary updates to Frankenstein are placing Dr. Frankenstein in Victorian Britain and making him apparently English. These changes are largely matters of convenience for the story. As discussed in the Dracula post, the actual novels for Frankenstein and Dracula were separated by nearly eighty years. Moving Frankenstein’s story up to Victorian times allows him to be a contemporary of our other characters, and making him English facilitates his connection to the other characters.
That contemporaneousness allows Dr. Frankenstein to be roped into the Dracula plot when Sir Malcolm and Vanessa ask him to examine the body of a vampire they’ve killed. His enthusiasm puts him on their radar for further recruitment.
As will be seen in future episodes, there are some additional deviations from the original story, but those are for a future post….
The show opens with an attack in the night that leaves a mother and her daughter gruesomely dead. While the newspapers speculate about a return of Jack the Ripper, we’ve seen that the culprit was something of a more supernatural bent.
If the show can be said to give us a viewpoint character for this episode, that character would be Ethan Chandler. A performer in a cowboy-themed traveling show, Ethan is revealed to have a harder edge than that of a simple showman with a pistol. He is recruited by Vanessa to help her and Sir Malcolm as they investigate a lead, culminating in a fight in a vampire nest and leaving Ethan with the very reasonable question, “Who the fuck are you people?” Nevertheless, there’s something about the adventure – or perhaps just Vanessa – that keeps Ethan around. And so it is with us, the audience. We, like Ethan, are trying to figure out what exactly Sir Malcolm and Vanessa are up to, and while the better part of judgement might recommend fleeing, there’s something magnetic about Vanessa in particular to keep us coming back.
Preparing for the Road Ahead
This post was mostly character description and brief plot summary. There’s much more to be said about so many aspects of this show, from production design to recurring themes to some truly great performances. For now, though, best to leave with a sense of promise for what is to come, as the show itself does.
Not the beginning. Dracula wasn’t the first horror movie made by Universal, nor the first vampire movie based on Bram Stoker’s novel. It was adapted from a play, which was based on the book, which was the crystallization of folk tales and lurid history.
And yet it is still a beginning. The first of the Universal horror movies with spoken dialogue, and the first made under the leadership of Carl Laemmle, Jr., rather than that of his father. The first authorized adaptation of Dracula for film. The first of the iconic monster performances that would define an archetype.
Renfield, an Englishman with little regard for the warnings of the townsfolk in Ye Olde Eastern European Village, travels to Castle Dracula to help Count Dracula finish taking ownership of and moving to Carfax Abbey in Britain. In return for his help, he is transformed into a manic slave who will spend the rest of the movie hungering for bugs and rats, staring wild-eyed at everyone he meets, and occasionally trying to resist Dracula’s commands for brief episodes before ultimately succumbing to his master’s will.
In London, Dracula takes in dinner and a show. Dinner comes in the form of a young woman selling flowers, and the show is a symphony performance that puts Dracula into conversation with his new neighbor. Dr. Seward runs a sanitarium (where Renfield has conveniently been confined) next to Carfax Abbey. Also in Seward’s box at the symphony are his daughter, Mina, her fiancee John Harker, and their friend Lucy Weston, who is quite taken with the exotic count.
Dracula preys on Lucy, who dies of symptoms that perplex the British medical establishment while the Count moves on to Mina. Thankfully, the more open-minded Van Helsing shows up and accurately diagnoses the problem as caused by vampires. When he and Harker note that Dracula doesn’t have a reflection in mirrors, Van Helsing confirms that the count is the vampire in question. Attempts to keep Mina safe fail, and she ends up falling victim to Dracula.
When Van Helsing and Harker head to Carfax Abbey just before dawn in a final effort to save Mina, they are quickly discovered. Dracula kills Renfield before fleeing deeper into the abbey with Mina. He is just able to make it to his box of native soil to sleep before the sun rises, which leaves him vulnerable to Van Helsing’s stake. Once Dracula is dead, Mina appears released from his thrall, and she and Harker walk up the long stairs leading out of the abbey.
Predation and Vulnerability
Watching Dracula in our current climate, I found myself drawing comparisons to the ongoing series of revelations about sexual harassment and abuse across contemporary U.S. society.
Dracula himself appears incapable of having a one-on-one conversation with another person without trying to control their mind, feed on them, or both. Even when it’s not necessary – for example, his hypnosis of a ticket-taker at the symphony to tell Seward he has a call just to give Dracula a pretext for introducing himself – he winds up wielding his power over others.
Along the way, Dracula ends up making many others complicit in his predation. Renfield is the most prominent of these, but many other bit and supporting characters are turned into tools of Dracula’s larger designs.
And yet, Dracula is in many ways a pathetic and insecure creature. When Renfield arrives at Castle Dracula, there is no sign of any staff. Dracula is the one driving the coach to pick up Renfield, and is most likely the one to take Renfield’s luggage to his room and prepare Renfield’s meal. (These last two may have been accomplished by Dracula’s “wives,” but in any case, there’s no evidence of any servants.)
Wolfbane, crosses, and mirrors are among Dracula’s weaknesses, and he tends to recoil from them with a pronounced lack of chill. His suave affect is easily disrupted, although he’s also quick to put his composed front back up. Ultimately, he’s not clever or powerful enough to save himself. Van Helsing knows how to take advantage of this predator’s weaknesses, and does so after besting Dracula in a one-on-one contest of wills.
The use and abuse of power, in part to cover for insecurity, all while putting up a socially acceptable – at times, even enticing – front…the parallels to the Harvey Weinsteins of the world strike me as pretty clear.
One of the features of storytelling in genres like horror, fantasy, or science fiction, of course, is the versatility of the metaphors. Dracula is not just a parallel to sexual predators; he’s a parallel to predators of all types. For example, an audience member in 1931 and the years that followed might easily have drawn parallels to a different sort of predator on the world stage. Hitler, after all, was a man who used his power and the charisma he cultivated to prey on others, and was also a man of deep insecurities.
The Monster as Villain
While many of the coming months’ monsters will balance destructive acts with sympathy-inspiring vulnerabilities, Dracula is the unambiguous villain of his own movie. He preys on others literally and figuratively, violates consent left and right, and appears motivated by nothing more than a desire for more power. What led him to decide it was time to abandon Transylvania for Britain is left unsaid. When he arrives, however, he appears to have an elaborate plan already laid out. If he had managed to overcome Van Helsing, who knows how far his evil could have spread? (Those interested in this question who haven’t already done so might be interested in reading Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, which explores this scenario.)
I don’t know if this will play out, but something I’ll be keeping an eye on in the coming films is the degree to which a monster’s unambiguous villainy is connected with their status in society. Dracula, while a foreigner in Britain, is still an aristocrat. His social status is quite high, and his monstrousness is never tempered with anything that would leave us sympathetic to him. We’ll see how social status and sympathetic elements of character development relate in future films.
It’s fascinating watching movies made shortly after sound became an option. The performances are very different from those in silent films, and it’s interesting to see the influences of live theater interact with the cinematic techniques established during the silent era.
This movie also comes before the Hays Code was an aggressively-deployed tool of censorship in cinematic storytelling and technique. I’ll be interested in seeing what, if anything, is different about the movies from later in the Code’s existence.
Trying to watch Bela Lugosi’s performance with fresh eyes, discarding the decades of copycats, parodies, and counter-performances, is challenging, but makes for an enhanced viewing experience.
Just a quick reminder that the time between the source material and the movie is shorter than I, at least, first realized. The book came out in 1897 and the movie in 1931, which is about the same length of time as if there was a movie of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman coming out this February.
This was a great movie to use as a beginning. I may post other thoughts as they come along between now and next Wednesday; goodness knows there’s plenty more to say.