English: Shadowplays: Tod Browning's 'Dracula' and Karl Freund's
Af MAXIMILIAN LE
While not as acclaimed as James Whale's Frankenstein movies,
as virtuosic as Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
or as astoundingly modern as Ulmer's masterpiece The Black Cat
(1934), Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) and Karl Freund's
The Mummy (1932) are among the strangest and most fascinating
horror films of their time. They are linked by a basic storyline,
the latter film being essentially a remake of the former, and by
the presence of Freund, cinematographer on Browning's film as well
as director of The Mummy. Although The Mummy emerges
as a more consistently satisfying film, Dracula is endowed
with formal potentialities that have yet to be fully explored, even
if the film as a whole ultimately lacks the rigour necessary for
their fully effective application.
Theatre of Distortions
These 'potentialities' arise from the distortions engendered
by the transposition of a largely theatrical spatiality to the screen,
distortions from which a metaphysical concept of space is created
through the opposition of light and darkness and the implications
of the limited dimensions of the stage. Dracula is still
too often dismissed as 'theatrical', an epithet that remains loaded
with antiquated prejudice in spite of repeated proofs that the theatrical
is as worthy a subject and even a style for the cinema as any other.
The collision between stage and screen that Dracula is witness
to should suffice alone to prove the value of creative intercontamination.
How are Dracula's images theatrical? In the unusual emphasis
on wide shots and a predominantly frontal mise en scene.
In the way actors are integrated into the sets that they people,
seldom dominating the space around them but existing within it.
In the unusual depth of many images, achieved not through a Wellesian
deep focus but rather by a receding arrangement of flat planes.
In the minimisation of close ups.
These stylistic features only become exceptional when examined
in the light of the stage-screen inequalities they so fascinatingly
highlight. An exaggerated example of the sort of distortion that
takes place when film treats theatre in terms of its live effect
without taking into account the modifications necessary for the
lens to convey a similarly vivid impression: an actor stands in
a spotlight on an otherwise dark stage and recites a monologue.
He is able to command the full attention of the audience. The focus
of his presence can render the darkness around him almost neutral.
The most obvious way to create an approximate cinematic analogue
for this hypothetical recitation would be to film the actor in close
up. If, however, he were to be filmed in conditions literally identical
to those of his stage performance, in long shot from the point of
view of a spectator in the auditorium, he would appear distractingly
dwarfed by the volume of darkness surrounding him and indistinctly
proportioned in relation to the film frame. The darkness would acquire
a plastic density and, within the dynamics of the image, vie more
equally with the speaker for control of the screen.
Although deliberately extreme, the situation described above is
only an overemphasis of the film/theatre visual mismatch which Dracula
so intriguingly plays on. Its images often appear as theatrical
compositions shoehorned into the 35mm frame and not quite fitting,
remaining slightly off-kilter by the standards of traditional Hollywood
aesthetics but off-kilter in a way consistently designed to highlight
off screen space. The interplay between the image and the suggestion
of almost invariably dark off screen space is Dracula's central
stylistic feature, one which assumes metaphysical dimensions when
considered (and experienced) in terms of luminosity: the small,
vulnerable 'stage' of light adrift in an indeterminable void of
darkness. This encompassing darkness is far too insistently present
to be considered merely an atmospheric but largely neutral 'frame'
to the action, as one might find in many similarly theatrical films.
The 'stage' becomes reality as understood by those on the side
of light, the cozy version of normality that surrounds Mina (Helen
Chandler), her father and fiancé. Yet the film's visuals make clear
that it is at best a flimsy, minimal 'stage set' of a world adrift
in an unstable and tenebrous 'offstage' that almost constantly pierces
the fragile and porous fabric of luminous human environments. And
it is from this 'offstage', this abstract space ceaselessly generating
surprise and enchantment, that darkness seeps in. Yet 'offstage'
is, of course, not identical to 'offscreen' and the difference is
crucial: the offstage, although possessing an enormous potential
for suggesting action occurring outside the realms of immediate
visibility, retains the literal dimensions of the theatre whereas
off screen space can seem limitless in its indeterminability.
Off Screen Anxieties
Off screen space in Dracula calls attention to itself
visually by making the spectator's eye constantly aware of it. As
mentioned earlier, it is frequently dark, but its darkness is not
necessarily confined to the screen's peripheries. It is also present
as background. Many of the sets are designed as a receding arrangement
of flat planes and often the last of these is simply darkness, the
darkness of impenetrable shadow or a window open onto the night. Of
course there are exceptions- sometimes a shot's background plane is
pure light, but this light is almost invariably set in contrast with
oppressive planes of darkness closer to the foreground. On the few
occasions when the framing is not frontal, these planes of darkness
frequently find an equivalent in prominent concentrations of shadow
in corners. The most extreme examples occur when 'off screen space'
dominates the frame, that is, in exterior images which are almost
completely dark, save for small patches of light, mainly in the background.
The presence of darkness is consistent enough to give Dracula
a sense of visual unity.
The compositions and the sets often draw the spectator's gaze
past the actor, deeper into the frame. Sometimes this use of open
compositions is overt, more often it is subtle, but an unsettling
awareness of a spatial void opening up behind the action is ever
present. On a stage, this actor/set balance would be perfectly gauged
to focus the viewer's whole attention on the action. But there is
just a little too much darkness here for it to work in the same
way on screen. This is what is meant in describing Dracula's
visuals as being, by ordinary standards, off-kilter. The cumulative
power of image after image with just a little 'too much' darkness
or, at least, 'too much' emphasis on darkness, soon creates an impressive
vertigo. This 'spatial void' gaping behind the actors is pregnant
with mystery and incident- people and monsters come out of the darkness
and vanish back into it. Again, one thinks of movements on a stage,
but the limits of Dracula's 'stage' border an ontological
matrix of darkness.
Searching the Darkness
If darkness is the fabric of Dracula's universe, then
it is only logical that disorientation should play a part in the film's
style. It is present both visually and in the film's awkwardly elliptical
construction, especially in the second half. Spatial disorientation
might seem contradictory to a work that largely respects the rigid
dimensions of the stage but space in Dracula has an existence
that is unusually independent of the camera. The 'stage' of events
is not fixed and neither is the camera fixed to it. On the contrary,
the camera seems forever seeking the action out, standing at a tentative
distance from the actors, as if unsure of what events might be about
to confront it, or dollying tentatively forward into the darkness,
as if exploring the space before it. Sometimes there is even the impression
of having arrived at an event too late and missed it, as in the cryptically
staged attack on a little girl in a nocturnal graveyard. Such jarringly
elliptical exposition is at least partially due to the juxtaposition
of long, theatrical dialogue scenes with abrupt attempts to 'open
up' the play Dracula is adapted from for cinema. This results
in a fragmentary, sometimes almost apparently random narrative structure
that frequently calls upon viewers to re-orient themselves with regard
to the developing plot at the start of scenes.
From this perspective,
common ground between Dracula and cinema verite becomes
discernable- an assemblage of events apparently seized in the heat
of the moment in which what takes place off screen is frequently
as crucial as what is filmed. The camera's distance and hesitancy
before the action resembles that of a documentary crew unable to
predict exactly what is about to happen. This is the paradox of
Dracula: a patently artificial universe predicated on abstracted
theatricality is filmed with a Bazinian respect for 'reality' and
put together like a documentary. Not the documentary record of a
stage production as the 'stage' is enveloped in and destabilised
by the broader context of an unstable void of darkness which is
at least as much the 'reality' before the camera as the performances.
Yet the tangibility of this 'void' arises from the very fact of
theatrical space being filmed as if it were an organic reality with
its fantastical events unfolding independently of the camera's attempts
to capture them. The perverse power suggested by this radical marriage
of high artifice and documentary humility still awaits satisfactory
elaboration in modern cinema.
Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in Tod Brownings
film from 1931.
The fascination of Dracula stems from its sense
of immanent chaos and confusion, an unstable universe almost randomly
manifesting evil forces; The Mummy, on the other hand, is
focused and precise, its supernatural energies operating along determinedly
interpersonal channels. This shift in emphasis is echoed in the
camerawork. Both films share the same probing dolly shots that cover
a space in medium close up before alighting on a character. In Dracula
these shots are exploratory and full of trepidation, as if unsure
as to what they will discover in the dark; in The Mummy they
are assertive, drawing the viewer towards the action with a relentless
The fundamental difference between the movies is that The Mummy
is a tragic love story, the vampire's naked appetite for blood
having been supplanted by the exigencies of an undying love. Both
films climax with the monsters being prevented from killing the
heroine in order to revive her as a living dead being. But undead
ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep's (Boris Karloff) motive is a desire
to resurrect the woman he loved 3,700 years before, the Princess
Anckesenamon, rather than to wreak destruction for its own sake.
Imhotep is arrogant, ruthless and chilling; he kills those who stand
in his way. But, unlike Dracula, his evil deeds are a means rather
than an end. His pursuit of the heroine, Helen (Zita Johann) is
due to her status as a reincarnation of Anckesenamon, rather than
to unbridled (blood)lust.
The conflict in The Mummy doesn't occur at the level of
light and space so much as in clashing narratives mismatched in
time: Ancient, 'exotic' Egypt plaguing then-modern English colonialism.
In this respect, it is most appropriate that the heroes are archeologists
who have inadvertently excavated the narratives attached to the
artifacts they discover. The 'mummy', Imhotep, is only seen as such
in the opening scene. His unbandaged appearance ten years later
reveals a walking antiquity, frail and wizened, with parchment-like
skin and an aversion to being touched. Yet this apparent frailty
is offset by a tremendously commanding, often literally hypnotic
presence conveyed through a gaze of exceptional intensity. Exquisite
manners and a steely, patrician understatement in voice and action
complete the image of this very singular horror film creation. Rather
than being overtly frightening or monstrous, Karloff's character
radiates a severe and uncanny beauty.
Girls from Graves
The locus of the conflicting narratives is the character
of Helen or, rather, the two characters that inhabit her body. Born
of an English father and an Egyptian mother from a family "with a
tree a mile long", Helen is at once a modern, western woman and the
reincarnation of princess and priestess Anckesenamon. In the battle
for her identity that the film dramatises, it refuses to take sides
as unequivocally as one might expect. Although much is made of Imhotep's
relationship with the afterlife, there is no explanation as to how
Anckesenamon's soul ended up in Helen's body- a vague allusion to
heredity hardly sufficing to explain a reincarnation. Reincarnation
is never conceptualised in the dialogue with the result that the audience
is never certain which, if either, of the two women has greater right
to Helen's body. Nor is this duality ever really resolved.
chief agents of these two narratives, Anckesenamon's and Helen's,
are the two men fighting to possess her: Imhotep and young archeologist
Frank (David Manners). With Imhopep, she somnambulistically reverts
to her ancient character. To help achieve this he creates for her
an ancient Egyptian costume and mise en scene at his home.
Just as his soul occupies a dead body, everything connected with
the narrative he is attempting to accomplish needs a prop to manifest
Frank, on the other hand, represents the pull of physical reality.
The Mummy is again surprising in its ambiguity over what
would in most films be a clear-cut struggle between the forces of
life and death. It does this by making Frank's courtship of Helen
almost as troubling in its implications as Imhotep's. Both of them
pursue her with a brutal relentlessness born of amour fou.
The hitherto prosaic and insensitive Frank falls insanely in love
with her as soon as he sees her. In the course of their first conversation,
he astonishingly confesses that in opening Anckesenamon's tomb,
in handling her personal belongings and seeing her in her sarcophagus,
he fell in love with her and his passion for Helen stems from her
resemblance to the ancient princess. Helen responds by joking: "Do
you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?" From
this perspective, Frank's attempts to win her away from Imhotep
can be seen as a sort of an archaeological work, as battling with
the past for rights of possession over its treasures. But for Helen,
her identity and affections torn between a necrophiliac and a walking
corpse, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the boorish
Frank is preferable to the elegant Imhotep.
The film's ending sees her rejecting Imhotep but even this doesn't
necessarily signify Frank's complete victory because it remains
tantalisingly doubtful that Helen has surmounted her schizophrenic
What lends The Mummy the extra dimension of uncanniness
that really distinguishes it is that the heroine is actually neither
Helen nor Anckesenamon. In an otherwise perfectly cast movie, Zita
Johann's complete failure to incarnate the mystery required to make
her complex character believable affects everything around her.
She looks like a pretty waitress who's been through a couple of
intensive sessions with Henry Higgins, a girl in fancy dress earnestly
trying to live up to the fairytale character she is imitating. Her
excessive sincerity is rather hypnotic, but it is the sincerity
of a machine going through its paces. This gives Helen the dimension
of seeming to be in fact a third, quite ordinary woman whose own
narrative has been suppressed. She has become a blank screen reflecting
the twisted masculine fantasies of Imhotep, Frank and even the filmmakers
behind the camera who are so wrapped up in willing their version
of her into being that her true identity becomes invisible to them,
even while remaining clear to the audience. There is, latent in
her, a whole different reality which everyone, herself included,
ignores. Thus The Mummy's focus of obsession becomes a blind
spot amidst chimeras, suggestive of a sort of Russian doll of reality
and illusion- Imhotep's past surrounding Frank's present surrounding
the unopened reality of Ms Johann's playing at movie star. This
poetic study of stories invading and controlling bodies like a disease
makes it safe to conclude that The Black Cat was certainly
not the only 1930s horror film to prefigure the baroque cinema of
Still from Karl Freunds The Mummy
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