Mystery and Imagination: Dracula (ITV, 18 November 1968, Patrick Dromgoole)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The late Victorian era. The action all takes place in a town near the sea. There’s mention of a headland and it’s fair to assume it’s meant to be Whitby. In flashbacks, we also see Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? The British horror anthology show Mystery and Imagination began on the ITV network in 1966. Each episode was an adaptation of a classic story by gothic authors such as MR James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Sheridan Le Fanu and Mary Shelley. Initially, a recurring character – David Buck’s Richard Beckett – was shoehorned into the adaptations, but this conceit had been dropped by the time they got round to doing Dracula. It was the final episode of the show’s fourth series and is essentially a shuffled retelling of the novel.
* As we begin, Count Dracula (Denholm Elliott) is already in London, mixing in polite society. He wears sunglasses, can’t cope with daylight, and has an eastern-European accent.
* The count has befriended a young couple, Dr John Seward (James Maxwell) and Lucy Weston (Susan George); he also seems to know one of Seward’s patients, a mentally unbalanced man (Corin Redgrave) who’s known as 34 after his room number.
* Lucy’s other suitors from the novel – Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Morris – have been dropped. But her mother is still around, played by Joan Hickson.
* John says that 34 was recovered from a local shipwreck, the Demeter. Lucy points out that it’s the same ship that brought Dracula from Varna, a coastal city in Bulgaria.
* John’s old tutor Dr Van Helsing will soon be visiting to examine 34 – Dracula has clearly heard of him and wants to meet him.
* Van Helsing (Bernard Archer) turns up – much earlier than in the novel – and sees 34. The man has been babbling about his ‘master’ and catching flies (as the lunatic Renfield does in the book).
* We learn through filmed flashbacks that 34 once visited Dracula in Transylvania on business. He encountered three vampire Brides (one of whom is played by Carry On dolly bird Margaret Nolan) but Dracula saved him…
* Back in the present day, Dracula tells Lucy that he’s descended from Attila the Hun. Then Lucy’s friend Mina Harker (Suzanne Neve) arrives for a visit. She’s shocked to meet Dracula because her husband, Jonathan, went to see him overseas and never returned. Dracula says Jonathan left the castle safe and well, but then Mina discovers that her hubby is locked up in Seward’s sanitorium: he’s 34! What are the chances?!
* Lucy, who has developed a fascination with Count Dracula, and Mina get a version of the book’s scene where an old duffer ridicules the headstones in the local churchyard. In the novel, the scene takes place before the count arrives in England. Now, after they head home, we see him rise from one of the tombs. He turns into a bat, visits Lucy while she sleeps, turns back into a man, and feeds from her.
* The next day, Lucy is ill so Van Helsing is called in. He clocks the bite marks on her neck and arranges a blood transfusion. He also brings in what John haughtily calls a ‘popish affront to Christian conscious’ – ie, a crucifix – to ward off her attacker. However, in her sleep Lucy knocks the defence away and Dracula attacks her once again.
* Van Helsing tells John about vampires. John reckons they were mythical beings that were supposed to exist in a bygone age and drank the blood of others. Van Helsing says, “Well, Lucy has been attacked by one!” He shows John his research of vampire history – they appear in many cultures’ legends, he says, under a variety of names. When Van Helsing mentions Transylvania, John realises that’s where Dracula comes from. He also twigs that Dracula pretended not to recognise 34 yet we now know he’d met Jonathan Harker.
* John finds Lucy dead – drained of blood. But then she wakes and attempts to attack him. Then she seems dead again. Van Helsing says she’s under Dracula’s thrawl.
* Mina sees the undead Lucy wandering the graveyard. Lucy is now vampiric and ever-so Sapphic: she bites Mina, who enjoys the experience. Dracula then finds and tries to seduce a confused Mina.
* Van Helsing and John open Lucy’s coffin, which is empty. Later, Lucy shows up, wafting around in a white nightgown, and tries to bite John. So Van Helsing wards her off with a crucifix. They find her again in her coffin and Van Helsing stakes her.
* Van Helsing and Mina then ask Jonathan where Dracula is. Harker goes potty, though, when he senses that his wife has been bitten by his master. She can’t remember how she got the bite marks… but then hisses and shrieks and breaks down. She admits that it was Lucy who bit her.
* Van Helsing and John follow the manic Jonathan to the graveyard and realise Dracula is using the unconsecrated grave of a suicide victim as his daytime lair. The count shows up, but the men distract him until the sun rises and destroys him. His demise is done in a gruesome series of crossfades between increasingly burnt and decayed heads.

Best performance: Susan George as Lucy.

Best bit: There’s a lovely rejig of the novel’s plotline going on here. Combining Jonathan Harker and Refield into the same character is a really smart move: he’s in an asylum because of his experiences in Transylvania. The idea is not unique to this version but this sells it best.

Review: This is a very contained piece of television, mostly taking place in just two buildings (plus some minor location filming), and the cast is good and the script tight. It’s an economical idea to only see Transylvania in flashback, for example, while the Whitby-based climax betters the book’s ending in both conception and execution. The dialogue can sometimes be stilted and on-the-nose, but overall this is an enjoyable 80 minutes.

Seven smashed windows out of 10

 

The Return of Dracula (1958, Paul Landres)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Mostly the fictional town of Carleton, California, but there’s also a brief sequence in eastern Europe (we spy a Berlin newspaper in one scene). It’s the 1950s.

Faithful to the novel? This 1958 B-movie horror begins with a portentous voiceover telling us all about Count Dracula, the infamous vampire who terrorises innocent people and spreads his dominion around the world. We’re told that various attempts to destroy him have been unsuccessful and then see a group of men break into a tomb only to find the coffin empty… Then we cut to an artist called Bellac Gordal, who’s about to travel from Europe to California and stay with his cousin. On the train, however, he’s killed and replaced by Dracula (Francis Lederer). In the US, Cora (Greta Granstedt) hasn’t seen her cousin for a long time so doesn’t notice it’s an imposter. She welcomes Dracula into her home but he soon focuses on Cora’s grown-up daughter, the wholesome Rachel (Norma Eberhardt). He also turns Rachel’s friend Jennie (Virginia Vincent) into a vampire. (If we think of this as a loose remake of the book’s plot, Rachel is the Mina equivalent; Jennie is Lucy.) But when people start to suspect he’s not Gordal, the Count has to start killing. Meanwhile, Rachel’s finding it difficult to resist him…

Best performance: Francis Lederer plays Dracula as a man rather than a monster. There’s no Bela Lugosi cape (instead he wears a suit) and you almost feel sorry for him. The actor had the distinction of living in three different centuries: he was born in Prague in 1899 and lived until 2000. As well as a successful film and theatre career, he fought for the Austrian-Hungarian Army in the First World War. Lederer later played Dracula again, in a 1971 episode of TV show Night Gallery. Incidentally, while we’re on the topic of actors’ backgrounds, Cora actress Greta Granstedt had a notorious incident in her past. In 1922, when she was 14, she shot her 17-year-old boyfriend with a pistol. She claimed it was accidental, though newspapers said she’d stalked him from some bushes and wanted to hurt him because he’d been with another girl. The boyfriend eventually recovered and Granstedt was sentenced to time in a reform school.

Best bit: A few neat tricks are used to show off Dracula’s vampirism: when he first arrives in Carleton he appears out of thin air; we later get the clichéd no-reflection-in-a-mirror shot; and there’s also a great moment when he forms from a cloud of smoke. In the latter, the actor speaks dialogue as the smoke dissipates around him. The effect was achieved by having Lederer talk backwards as smoke is blown around him and then reversing the shot.

Review: For a horror film, this is incredibly safe material. We’re in a pre-rock’n’roll, small-town America where Cora bakes cakes, Rachel has a child-like enthusiasm for life and her boyfriend drives around in an enormous convertible. There’s no sense of danger to anything, and the whole film falls very flat. It’s directed with no attitude, there’s a bland cast, and lots of night-time scenes are shot in broad daylight. One notable – and very effective – aspect of the film is that it’s in black and white… aside from the shot of gushing red blood when Jennie is staked!

Four dull and useless worlds out of 10

Frankenweenie (2012, Tim Burton)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s the modern day, albeit a stylised version that’s stuck in the 1960s. The story takes place in the town of New Holland.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all. This black-and-white, stop-motion animated film is a parody of Universal Pictures’ pre-war horror films, especially Frankenstein (1931). A young boy called Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is distraught when his dog Sparky is run over and killed. So, inspired by a science teacher called Mr Rzykruski (Martin Landau), he resurrects the pooch via the electrical charge of a lightning bolt – ie, in the same way as in the 1931 classic. There are two minor Dracula connections. Victor’s next-door neighbour is a girl called Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder, coincidentally one of the stars of 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula). And in one scene Mr and Mrs Frankenstein (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) watch 1958’s Dracula on TV.

Best performance: The stop-motion animators and cinematographer Peter Sorg. The high-contrast, black-and-white photography is very Universal Horror, and the physical puppets and sets really are quite beautiful.

Best bit: The newly resurrected Sparky wags his tail so furiously it falls off. “I can fix that,” says Victor.

Review: A fairly routine animated film, in that there’s plenty of whimsy, a lot of visual humour, and flashes of sweetness and sadness. With the story predictable enough for kids to follow, you start counting off the nods and winks. A character who looks like Vincent Price? A corpse resurrected during a lightning storm? A haircut like Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein? A climax in a burning windmill? Check, check, check, check.

Six robotic buckets out of 10

Boo! (1932, Albert DeMond)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: N/A

Faithful to the novel? This is a 10-minute comedy short produced by Universal Studios, who in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were behind some very successful monster movies. Boo! is an affectionate parody of the genre, using sarcastic narration over repurposed clips from The Cat Creeps (1930), Frankenstein (1931) and, slightly oddly, the German film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922). Why writer/director Albert DeMond didn’t – or couldn’t – use excerpts from the studio’s recent Dracula (1931) is unknown. Other than the title sequence (see pic above), the only new footage in Boo! is of actor Morton Lowry. We first see him reading a copy of the novel Dracula that strangely has its title printed on the wrong side of the cover. A narrator (DeMond) then explains the premise of the film: to explore how nightmares can be entertaining. The man falls asleep and dreams a surreal episode made up of clips from old movies… Firstly, Dracula (actually Count Orlok from Nosferatu) wakes up in his coffin and spooks someone. Next, Frankenstein’s monster wakes up on the operating table, kills a doctor, and then bumps into Dracula and is scared. This historic on-screen meeting – the first ever in cinema – is achieved by cutting together clips from different films. We then meet actress Helen Twelvetrees in footage from The Cat Creeps – “Maybe the nightmare is going to become a pleasant dream!” trills the narrator. The monster approaches her (again, via some cross-cutting) and then Dracula’s hand reaches in and attacks Helen’s male friend. Being a scene from The Cat Creeps, the hand actually belongs to the bad guy from that film. Scared, Helen later goes to bed, where again the monster watches on as Dracula attacks her and another male friend. Then, inspired by Dracula’s actions, the monster heads off to spook actress Mae Clarke (in footage from Frankenstein). We then end on the man from the start of the short, who’s woken up while hanging from a chandelier.

Best performance: N/A

Best bit: The clips used from The Cat Creeps are the only surviving footage from that film. It seems to have been an unsettling horror with a villain not unlike Lon Chaney in the similarly missing London After Midnight. It was a remake of a silent film called The Cat and the Canary (1927).

Review: What a bizarre little thing this is. The clips are mostly silent, with narration commenting on the action and sometimes providing silly voices and groans, while some footage has been reversed or repeated for comedic effect. The continuity isn’t especially convincing or important. The narrator sometimes assumes different characters are the same person, for example, and there’s even a joke about it: “So the caretaker comes downstairs with a hatchet. I don’t know how he got upstairs [because in the previous clip he was in a cellar], but anything can happen in a nightmare.” Some gags work, some don’t. But at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Six woman automobile drivers out of 10

Dracula’s Daughter (1936, Lambert Hillyer)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This film picks up directly from the end of Dracula (1931), so we start in Whitby. The bulk of the story is then set in London, with a diversion to the Scottish countryside and a climax set in Transylvania. From people’s outfits and the presence of both airline travel and automobiles, it seems to be the 1930s, which is more modern than the first film.

Faithful to the novel? This direct sequel to Dracula is nominally an adaptation of the Bram Stoker short story Dracula’s Guest, though the similarities are vanishingly few. (Published posthumously, Dracula’s Guest was actually a chapter cut from the original book before its release.) As the story starts, we see the corpse of Count Dracula (played by a wax model of Bela Lugosi), and Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) has been arrested for murder. Yes, that’s right: *Von* Helsing. They’ve changed his name for some reason. He admits to killing Dracula but is determined to tell the truth about vampirism at his trial, so hires an old psychologist friend to defend him in court. Dr Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) is soon on the case with the help of his American assistant, Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill). Meanwhile, a strange, mysterious, dark-haired woman (Gloria Holden) hypnotises the police guarding Dracula’s remains. You see, she’s the count’s daughter and thinks that by burning his corpse she will finally be free of the vampire curse. It doesn’t work, though, so she must continue to feed in London while posing as a Hungarian artist called Countess Marya Zaleska. With the help of manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), she drains the blood of both men and women. She then meets Garth at a soirée (hosted by a lady played by infamous right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) and sees her chance for redemption. Without spilling that she’s a vamp, she asks Garth to help her through her psychological issues. Later, however, Garth attends to one of Marya’s victims and recognises the signs of vampirism, so asks Von Helsing for his opinion. When Marya then recoils at the sight of a hypnosis machine (because it uses a mirror), Garth’s suspicions are sealed and he knows she’s the vampire they’re looking for. So Marya kidnaps Janet and flees home to Transylvania. Garth, Von Helsing and the very laissez-faire boss of Scotland Yard, Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), give chase. Marya is at Castle Dracula and says she’ll release Janet if Garth agrees to stay, but then Sandor kills his mistress because he’s grown jealous of her wandering loyalties…

Best performance: Marguerite Churchill is fun, flirty, cute and sarcastic as Janet, who’s kinda in love with Garth and he’s kinda in love with her but they act like they’re not.

Best bit: As has been noted by many people – and indeed, as was hinted at in some of the film’s release publicity – there’s a definite lesbian vibe about Marya. She wants to rid herself of her vampire impulses, and has heard that alcoholics are sometimes told to sit with a bottle and simply use freewill to stop taking a drink. So she gets Sandor to procure a beautiful – I mean, really quite remarkably beautiful – young woman to act as an artist’s model. The subtext of the scene where Marya asks Lili (Nan Grey) to undress, all the while trying to resist biting her, is not so sub.

Review: Helpfully, an early scene has a quick verbal recap of the first film and an explanation of what vampires are. Well, it had been five years since the Bela Lugosi classic. And you know what? Whisper it quietly, but this sequel is the better movie. Free of the shackles of the original’s stageplay plot, Dracula’s Daughter is able to tell a fun and very watchable story. It has more life and energy to it than the first film, still has plenty of spooky fog-bound scenes and Universal Monsters lighting, but also adds some likeable humour (bumbling coppers, a running gag about a bowtie). It’s quick too – just 68 minutes. And in Marya, it has cinema’s first great female vampire. Holden reportedly didn’t think much of the project and only did it because she was under contract. If anything this seems to have helped, because her frustration drove a detached and dangerous performance. There’s a great sense of Marya being a victim too. She’s trapped by her vampiric curse and longs to be ‘normal’. You can’t help but feel for her during the scene where she happily plays a piano and recites flowery poetry – only for the more cynical Sandor to chip in with comments about darkness and death.

Eight vacillating women out of 10

Climax!: Casino Royale (William H Brown Jr, 21 October 1954)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

“Live!” a dramatic voiceover declares at the start. “From Television City in Hollywood!” This adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first novel was the third episode of Climax!, an anthology series shown on American TV network CBS. Without its advert breaks, the surviving copy runs for about 50 minutes – so let’s see how it measures up… It begins with a short introduction by host William Lundigan, who explains what a shoe is in a game of baccarat. It’s nice of him, but I’m not sure why we need an intro. We’re then into an abbreviated version of the book’s plot. The episode is entirely shot on interior sets, a necessity because it was broadcast live, while the script is dialogue-heavy. It’s melodrama, essentially, and not especially engaging. We don’t get to the crucial card game until about 25 minutes in, and when it arrives it’s a drab seven minutes, lacking any tension. Sadly, the stakes don’t feel especially high. Better is the final act set in a hotel room – events turn surprisingly nasty, though it’s a shame that Bond wins by simply nabbing a gun and killing the bad guy. Five razor blades (for slashing purposes) out of 10

Bond: Barry Nelson became the first actor to play 007 on screen, though this is not the character as later defined in the film series. This guy’s American, works for a nebulous ‘combined intelligence’ agency, and people call him Jimmy. It’s not an especially good performance, but to his credit Nelson seems genuinely in pain during the torture scene.

Villains: Peter Lorre plays the bad guy, Le Chiffre, who has bodyguards called Basil, Zoltan and Zuroff. (Basil!) He’s oddly watchable in the classic Lorre style, though the performance lacks the sparkle the actor used in, say, The Maltese Falcon. He seems to be going through the motions. (Presumably the script was tailored once Lorre was cast: Le Chiffre is called a ‘toad-like creature’.) After losing all his money to Bond in the card game, Le Chiffre threatens to torture him to ‘a point beyond madness’. He then brandishes a pair of pliers and does something with them to Bond’s foot. (This is 1950s American telly, so of course there’s none of the novel’s testicle-bashing.)

Girls: Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian) is like a film-noir dame – all tortured and haunted. She’s an ex of Bond’s who now works for the French secret service, but is being coerced by Le Chiffre. She’s basically taking book character Vesper Lynd’s role in the narrative, though she doesn’t suffer Vesper’s fate.

Regulars: Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate) is a combination of two characters from the novel: Felix Leiter and Rene Mathis. After a fun bit of coded business with matchsticks, he and Bond confirm who the other is and team up. Leiter works for British intelligence and gives Bond his mission.

Action: A smattering of gunfire at the start. Bond is seemingly knocked out by a goon, but the key hit comes *during an advert break*. Later, there are a couple of minor scuffles.

Comedy: There’s an amusing bit where Bond and Leiter discuss the case, but have to switch to a jovial chat about baccarat if anyone walks up to them. Later, there are funny cutaways to Le Chiffre listening to the bug he’s placed in Jimmy’s room (Bond has turned the music up loud).

Music: There are a few short bursts of dramatic incidental music, which sound like library cues.

Personal connection: Viewing the episode in order to write this review was the first time I’d ever watched the whole thing through. It was thought lost for many years, but then an incomplete copy was found in 1981. Most of the remaining footage has turned up since.

King Kong (1933, Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack)

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A section-by-section review of the 1933 classic. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!

New York City: Film director Carl Denham is about to leave for a distant location to make his new movie. He needs an actress at short notice and finds Ann Darrow destitute on the streets…
* The script for King Kong was rewritten by Ruth Rose after a number of writers had contributed to purple-prose drafts. The directors, one of whom was married to Rose, were pleased with her punchy dialogue and economic storytelling. To modern ears, though, the relentlessly unsubtle exposition takes some getting used to. These opening scenes consist largely of actors barking information at each other. To be fair, this was 1933 and talkies were still new – it would take a while for Hollywood dialogue to calm down.
* Elsewhere, this opening sequence does have a shining light. Fay Wray is pretty, plucky and likeable as down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow. It’s a paper-thin character, but Wray makes her so watchable. (Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow were also considered for the role.)
* Meanwhile, Robert Armstrong is good enough as Carl Denham. His character seems to be a ‘Mary Sue’ for King Kong’s director Merian C Cooper. There are references to a track record for jungle movies and gags about how he’s being forced to include a love story in his new production. Actually, King Kong gets very postmodern on this point. The movie that Denham wants to make – something spectacular, based on a creature audiences haven’t seen before, featuring a pretty leading lady – is basically the film we’re watching in real life.

On board the Venture: Denham, Darrow and the crew of a ship called the Venture set sail for the filming location – an obscure island somewhere west of Sumatra…
* It’s here that a love story heats up – or at least is put on a low simmer. Ann meets and flirts with the ship’s first officer, Jack Driscoll. He’s played rather woodenly by Bruce Cabot (who 38 years later cropped up in Diamonds Are Forever).
* We also meet some of the other crewmembers, including cook Charlie (who moans in Chinese-accented English about having to peel potatoes) and the ship’s pet monkey. But the film doesn’t seem especially interested in anyone other than Denham, Ann and Jack.
* Near the end of this segment, a really nice special-effects shot reveals Skull Island for the first time… There’s a great sense of scale and foreboding here.

Skull Island: Going ashore, the crew encounter natives who live near a massive wall. The tribe soon kidnap Ann and offer her as a sacrifice to an enormous ape…
* The island’s tribe is, let’s face it, a fairly racist bit of cinema history. The locals been cast with black actors, which doesn’t make sense for an isolated atoll near Indonesia, and they’re just homogenous extras. Having turned a blind eye to that, we can say that their scenes show off some glorious old-Hollywood grandeur. The set is *huge*, while there are dozens of people on screen. To save money, the wall was actually a set reused from an earlier film and was later seen burning to the ground in Gone With The Wind (1939).
* In the 41st minute, Kong finally enters the story. We hear his roars then he walks out of the forest. This is where special-effects genius Willis O’Brien really starts to earn his money. There’d been some cute rear-projection shots during the Venture voyage – actors performing in front of cinema screens showing pre-filmed footage of an elaborate background – but now the variety of movie tricks shoots through the roof. As Kong snatches Ann and takes her deep into the jungle, Denham, Driscoll and others give chase. It’s an extended action sequence with little dialogue…
* This film is now 83 years old. It’s easy to forget how early it came in cinema history: there’d only been synchronised sound for four years; many of the people who worked on this film were *older than the medium itself*. But this was the Jurassic Park of its day, presenting astonishing special effects that are all the more impressive because they tell story so well. There’s rear-projection, stop-motion animation, matte shots, composites, double-exposures, life-size models, some how-did-they-do-THAT?! moments where Kong and actors interact in the same frame… It takes your breath away, and the fact you know it’s fake doesn’t matter at all.
* This segment also features some shocking deaths: men fall into a deep ravine and we see their bodies hit the floor, while Kong eats and stamps on natives! He also, in one strange scene, tenderly removes Ann’s clothes. Both the carnage and the perviness were cut out by censors when the film was rereleased from 1938 onwards. Thankfully a full version survived and became the default cut again from 1969.
* A scene deleted in post-production saw crewmembers of the Venture eaten alive by large insects and spiders. The directors thought it slowed the pace down. Sadly the footage was then lost.

New York City (again): Denham has captured Kong and is showing him off to an audience in a theatre…
* What a fantastic storytelling shortcut we get at the end of the Skull Island sequence. Denham tells the other survivors that they can make a fortune by taking Kong back to America. Then we cut to the flappers and jazz music of NYC, 1933… and the ape is on a Broadway stage! The fun time-jump masks the issues of how the blinking bejesus they got Kong onto the boat, how he fit into the hold, and what they fed him on for the weeks of sailing to get home.
* At the theatre, there are cute lines of dialogue from various audience members – all are cynical about what they’re about to see and are getting ready to be disappointed. Nothing changes, eh?
* This final act is all about the hubris of Carl Denham. He’s tried to tame Kong and it’s clearly not going to end well. When the creature inevitably breaks loose and goes on the rampage, he mistakes a woman for Ann and snatches her from her bedroom window. When he realises his mistake he drops her to the ground – more cruelty and another scene later cut out by censors. There’s also more very impressive action, including a terrific train crash, then Kong climbs up the then-new Empire State Building. The model work here is ace. After the ape is attacked from the air by biplanes, he falls 1,250 feet to the ground. A crowd gathers round the corpse, and a policeman says the planes got him. Denham disagrees: “It was beauty killed the beast.” (It’s nice of the surrounding people not to correct his grammar.)

Review: It’s easy to see why this was such a sensation. Even now, it’s exciting and gripping and full of scale and ambition. There’s no depth, but it’s a great ride. It must have seemed otherworldly in 1933. Even before the monsters appear there’s a building sense of dread for the opening 40 minutes, which must have worked so well when the reveal would have been more of a surprise. Most of the characters don’t know what they’re going to find on Skull Island, while en route Carl Denham gets Ann to rehearse screaming – clearly he’s hoping she’ll be scared by *something*. This tension is eked out brilliantly. As the characters approach the island dense fog hits the boat and distant drums are heard… Terrific stuff. It must also be said that Max Steiner’s incidental music is tremendous. It was revolutionary too, being the first purpose-written score for a full-length talkie and the first to use themes and motifs. All this good stuff almost makes up for the flat, risible dialogue you’ve been sitting through before the action begins. In short, the film excels when driven by tension or action (the scenes generally directed by Cooper), but is pretty ropey when focusing on actual drama (the stuff overseen by Schoedsack).

Eight chains of chrome steel out of 10

Next: The 1976 remake…

Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The same locations as the book, though the only scene set in Whitby is the shipwreck. Noisy traffic in London tells us it’s the 20th century.

Faithful to the novel? After a fashion. The screenplay is based on a stage adaptation of Dracula that had been successful in both the UK and America. The story is therefore a slim-line take on the book’s plot. A major change is that it’s Renfield, rather than Johnathan Harker, who visits Transylvania. He falls under the vampire’s thrall after a brief encounter with Dracula’s Brides, then helps the Count travel to England on a ship called the Vesta. Once in the UK, the troubled Renfield is looked after by Dr Seward, who runs the sanatorium next to the house Dracula has bought. Meanwhile, Dracula specifically seeks out his new neighbour and learns that he has a daughter called Mina; she has friends called John Harker and Lucy Weston. (Rejigging the core characters’ relationships will happen a lot in future films too.) Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood have been dropped from the story – as has the climax where the good guys chase Dracula back to his castle.

Best performance: Dwight Frye as Renfield goes from dapper and slightly camp to wide-eyed and batshit crazy. Elsewhere, Bela Lugosi is building a cliché in front of your eyes. From this point on, people will think of Count Dracula in evening dress with a cape, holding a candle and speaking in a stilted accent. (In the novel, the character is said to have perfect English.) Lugosi had actually already played Dracula – in the Broadway production of the play. He’d taken over from future Upstairs Downstairs actor Raymond Huntley, who’d been in the West End cast. Appropriately enough, Lugosi was Hungarian: in 1897, when the original novel had been published, Transylvania was in Austro-Hungary. The film’s cast also has another apt connection: Dr Seward is played by Herbert Bunston, who had actually worked with Bram Stoker at London’s Lyceum Theatre at the turn of the century.

Best bit: In one of the scenes that highlights this is based on a theatre play, Dracula is visiting Seward in his sitting room. Van Helsing spots that the count doesn’t appear in a mirror so confronts him – and Dracula smashes the mirror. (Vampire attacks, by the way, come after fades to black. This might be a pre-Code film, but they still weren’t going to get too violent in 1931.)

Alternative versions: A silent version with intertitles was also prepared for cinemas that had yet to convert their equipment to sound. Sadly it seems that cut is now lost. But what does survive is the Spanish-language Dracula that was made concurrently with this movie. Rather than a badly dubbed copy, this was an entirely separate endeavour filmed by a different cast and crew but using the same script and sets. They filmed overnight while the main unit was sleeping. By some accounts it’s the much better movie of the two.

Review: This movie is only 70 minutes and it doesn’t hang about. It’s a brisk telling of the essential Dracula story. So brisk, in fact, that drama gets left by the wayside. As soon as Renfield arrives in Transylvania, the Count tells him they’re leaving for England. Lucy is killed after just one encounter with Dracula. Van Helsing rumbles him on their first meeting. It’s hardly nuanced stuff. Thankfully, for the first half at least, the film is very creepy. We meet Dracula via a terrifying shot of him in crypt, while his castle has vast, shadowy interiors like a cathedral. But there’s no getting away from the feeling that this is a lacklustre movie. Director Tod Browning made his name in silent film and it shows: dialogue scenes are lethargic and stilted. There’s also an unwelcome debt to the stage play. Characters actually stand at the French windows and describe what’s happening off-screen! Director of photography Karl Freund also shot Metropolis (1927) – one of the most visually ambitious movies of the silent era – but you can sense him wrestling with Browning’s static style. When the camera moves it impresses. But too many scenes play out with no tension, and sadly the story feels flat. Is this a classic despite its director? That would be apt, I suppose: the novel is a classic despite being a poorly written potboiler.

Eight crumbling castles of a bygone age out of 10

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922, FW Murnau)

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Aka: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The main character’s hometown has been moved from London to the fictional German city of Wisborg. The film therefore has to ignore the fact that a journey from Transylvania to Germany by sea doesn’t make sense. Oh, and for some reason it’s 1838 rather than the 1890s of the book.

Faithful to the novel? Kind of. It’s an adaptation of the novel, yet the makers neglected to pay for the rights (the book was still in copyright, of course). In a fairly half-arsed attempt to muddy the waters, the characters’ names have all been changed. Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and the courts ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed. Luckily for us, some survived. It’s still the same essential plot as the book, though things deviate from the source material once Count Orlok (the Dracula equivalent) arrives in the town that Hutter (ie, Harker) comes from. Meanwhile, Van Helsing is rewritten as a minor, bumbling local called Professor Bulwer, and other characters such as Lucy, Seward and Quincey are missing all together. (By the way, Orlok’s arrival comes after two-thirds of the movie; in the book it happens after a fifth of the text.)

Best performance: Max Schreck looks absolutely terrifying as Count Orlok. Bald head, big eyes, sharp teeth, demonic ears, long fingers – it’s a primal, creepy, awful image.

Best bit: The stuff on the ship is the most unsettling, especially a shot of Orlok springing up from his coffin as if by magic.

Review: There’s a lot to admire, there really is. For a start, the adaptation makes some economic trims to the book’s plot: this is Dracula striped down to its core elements. So while we lose subtext and complexity, the story rattles along. And for a movie made almost a century ago, there’s a lot of fun to be had on a technical level. Rather than black-and-white, the film is tinted in different colours to suit each scene. There are innovative uses of double exposures and negative images. The sets are in the style of the then-cutting-edge German Expressionist movement. And we see some fantastic locations – in Berlin, northern Germany, Slovakia and the island of Sylt – which may have been used to save money but give the whole thing a grand scale. It’s dated, of course, like any silent-era movie. The overwrought acting styles take some getting used to, while the characters are bland and shallow. But it’s still easy to see why the film has had such an impact.

Seven Venus flytraps out of 10

Next time: Shadow of the Vampire, a 2000 movie set behind the scenes on Nosferatu…

Blood of Dracula (1957, Herbert L Strock)

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An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting? Sherwood School for Girls, somewhere in America, 1957.

Faithful to the novel? The connection is slim. It’s the story of a teenage girl packed off to a boarding school by her newly remarried father. Nancy Perkins is targeted by the science teacher, who performs an experiment on her. Miss Branding wants to let loose a primeval force (or something) so doses Nancy with a chemical then hypnotises her with an ancient amulet from Carpathia. Nancy loosens up, joining in with the cool kids as they have a party, but then a student is brutally murdered. The police find two puncture marks on the victim’s neck. Nancy then strikes again, and we see her this time: she morphs into a rodent-faced vampire. Tired of being used, however, Nancy rebels against the teacher and both are killed during a fight.

Best performance: Sandra Harrison is suitably dour and uptight as Nancy.

Best moment: There’s a ridiculous bit where a dorm full of girls and three visiting boys perform a song-and-dance routine. They mime to Puppy Love on a record player, but have clearly worked on their choreography.

Review: A melodramatic B-movie, which was churned out by the production company as more or less a remake of their earlier hit I Was a Teenage Werewolf. A copper uses the term ‘Draculas’ to mean ‘vampires’. The fact the MacGuffin is from Carpathia suggests a link to the novel, but none is spelt out.

Five rock’n’roll parties out of 10