The Sound of Monsters

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….


Penny Dreadful, S01 E01: Night Work

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….

Other Goings-On

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.

The Versatile Predator: Dracula

Dracula Poster
From the Internet Movie Database

And so we begin at a beginning.

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.

The Story

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.

Creeper Lugosi
From Flickr user Insomnia Cured Here

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.

Random Thoughts

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Why Monsters?

When I was a child, I was easily scared by movies. If a movie sent signals that it was trying to be scary – ominous music, characters looking frightened, and so on – I got scared. To this day, it’s not unheard of for me to close my eyes in anticipation of jump scares during trailers for horror movies.

And yet…

Halloween, with all of its spoooky accoutrements, is my favorite holiday. I’m fascinated by the books that provided the inspiration for many of the classic movie monsters. I own and have read multiple times the first few volumes of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, a boundary-pushing horror comic. I will go to any Guillermo Del Toro movie without hesitation, drenched as they are in the monstrous.

I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing a distinction between the classic horror movies and today’s scare-fests. As foundational and archetype-setting as they are, their horror comes more from creepiness and atmosphere than from something leaping into frame with a musical sting as accompaniment. I appreciate that more methodical, less adrenaline-spiking horror.

Additionally, even with the occasional over-the-top performance or now-underwhelming special effects work, the old movie monsters often did an excellent job revealing the tragedy or other complexities of these monstrous figures. It is now cliché to ask who the real monster is in a given monster tale featuring humans behaving abominably, but these movies made sure to raise the question back when film was still a medium in the process of defining itself. That’s got to count for something.

As consumed as U.S. society (of which I am a part) is with difference and defining the boundary of the “acceptable,” I find it oddly reassuring to look back eighty-five years and see stories grappling with the dimensions of monstrosity. I also think it’s notable that these stories illustrate the distinction between the outward features reflexively associated with monster-hood and the terrible actions that define the worst monsters, regardless of their physical appearance.

Given this, it seems appropriate to revisit (or in a few cases, visit for the first time) these central figures, some of their predecessors, and several of their descendants. Along the way, I hope to grapple with my own inner monsters and shore up my knowledge about one of cinema’s more interesting neighborhoods.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to stock up on garlic and silver bullets…