Last night I finally got around to opening the huge Universal Monster Legacy DVD boxed set. Now, this is a fabulous set containing nearly all the classic Universal horror movies. Note the nearly - though it has all the Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein flicks plus a few other classic such as The Invisible Man, Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Mummy, it doesn't contain the Abbot & Costello last outings for the monsters or any of the various sequels in the Creature, Mummy and Invisible Man series. But hey I can live with that. After all the price tag for this 16 DVD set was big enough anyway and it did come with some beautifully crafted busts of Karloff, Lugosi and Creighton Chaney*.
After much humming and harring, I decided to kick off with Dracula (1931). Now right off the bat, let me say this movie isn't one of my favourite Universal horrors. I first saw it a long time ago in a season of horror double bills on BBC 2...
Quick digression - back in the late '70s and early '80s here in the UK, every summer for several years BBC 2 would screen a season of old horror movie double bills. For a while it was an almost traditional feature in the viewing calendar, much like the wonderful Ghost Story For Christmas strand. Often the format would be an old black and white chiller followed by a colour offering, usually something from Hammer, Amicus or Tigon but also more modern fare such as Romero's The Crazies. And often they themed the seasons so one year we got a selection of Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, and another the complete set of Val Lewton films. Happy days indeed for a budding film buff. And as they showed over the summer school holidays, many a young horror fan could easily persuade the parents to allow them to stay up late and watch these treats.
Anyhow, one year BBC2 announced the season as "Masters of Terror" and the format for that year was to be a Universal picture followed by a Hammer outing. For me, then a morbid kid whose Bible was Alan Frank's Horror Movies (Octopus Books 1974) this was a terrific news. Up to this point, I'd only seen Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (bizarrely at a cub scout camp!) and one of the last gasp Abbott & Costello flicks. I was over the moon - finally a chance to see a coffin load of all the old classics I'd read so much about.
Needless to say that was one great summer. However the only film that disappointed was Dracula. Now don't get me wrong, I thought Lugosi was great and the first section of the movie set in Transylvania was absolutely top notch. However after that I felt it lost pace and became very stagey. It just didn't live up to how I'd imagined this movie to be. Interestingly, in the excellent Bright Darkness (Cassell 1997), Jeremy Dyson tells of a similar reaction (and I suspect given his age, he first saw this movie in the same screening I saw).
So when I popped the disc into the player, I did so thinking to myself "Well I wasn't impressed back then as a callow youth, so I doubt it's going to impress me now, but hey I intend to watch the complete cycle so let's just get through this". However I then noticed that this disc come with the option of watching the movie with a new score, written by Phillip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet (a string ensemble who in my derranged imagination come appropriately fitted with occult gold vampire insect devices).
Now as one of the things that jarred with me on my original viewing was the lacklustre score, I opted for watch with the Glass music. And I have to say, it really transformed the movie. Certainly there are still problems with Browning's directing choices, such as the static camera shots and Dracula dying quietly off screen, but the new score really enliven the film's atmosphere and gave dramatic tension to the aforementioned static scenes.
Phillip Glass said:
"I felt the score needed to evoke the feeling of the world of the 19th century — for that reason I decided a string quartet would be the most evocative and effective. I wanted to stay away from the obvious effects associated with horror films. With [the Kronos Quartet] we were able to add depth to the emotional layers of the film."
And for this viewer at least, he has succeeded admirably. The new music gives the movie's second half a more dynamic pace and lends a wonderfully eerie air to many scenes. In his amusingly rambling Danse Macabre, Stephen King notes that one of the problems with this film is "Bela Lugosi's corny Valentino imitation ... which even hardened horror afficionados and cinema buffs cannot help giggling over". Now, I related completely to this on my original viewing, but now with the Glass music playing even those scenes of Dracula fixing his victims with a smouldering stare work appearing weirdly hypnotic and menacing rather melodramatic.
I am amazed how different this film becomes with a new score, and my rating of this movie has improved greatly. I heartily recommend anyone who has had a similar reaction to mine to watch this film again with the new score.
Next stop - the other Dracula made by Universal in 1931. The other Dracula? I hear you ask. Yes, the Spainish version they shot on the same sets at the same time. Now I've not seen this before but I've heard it claimed this is a superior production. Should be interesting!
*Better known to the world as Lon Chaney Jr - a name foisted on him by the powers that be, and something the man himself was never happy with. Hence I'm crediting him with his proper moniker.
Jim Moon, 23rd August 2008