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Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes Dishonorable Mention Dracula (1931)

Norma Desmond would be proud.

A face like that needs to go out on a high note.

Time for another list, and this time I decided to take a leaf out of the book of a favorite YouTube personality– Calvin Dyson (he reviews James Bond media) and start with a “dishonorable mention.”  However, instead of listing the one I absolutely can’t stand, I’ll go with a movie that I otherwise like and was incredibly influential, but at the same time suffers from one of the worst endings ever.

Of course I’m talking about the original Universal Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

Given its origins… it’s amazing that the movie has the iconic status it enjoys to this day.  The movie was adapted from a Broadway play rather than the novel (Broadway adaptations are always watered-down and disappointing compared to the actual play).  The director was drunk most of the time and the cameraman did a lot of directing (luckily Karl Freund was a capable director, even if he never found his niche).  Aside from three standout performers (Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward van Sloan) the cast is wooden and forgettable, or worse annoying.  Luckily the aforementioned men keep the audience er, well… hypnotized, until the very ending.  And then the truly unforgiveable sin comes in.

Dracula strangles Renfield.  It’s a very well-shot scene, with great acting from both Lugosi and especially Frye.  But then the sun rises and Dracula retreats to his coffin.  Now we’re down two-thirds of the capable cast, and are left with just van Helsing (van Sloan) and Harker onscreen.

The two men look for Dracula and Mina, to drive a stake through their hearts.  They realize Mina is not yet a vampire, and the camera focuses on her (inexplicably clutching her breast) while van Helsing drives a stake through Dracula’s heart offscreen.  All we hear is a sort of gasp when the Count is truly dead.  Van Helsing sends the lovebirds away (why is never explicitly said), and the movie ends.

The movie opened so powerfully in Transylvania, and the scenes with Renfield sparkled with intensity.  Bela Lugosi could always speak volumes with one look, so it really was a shame the film didn’t show the Count seeing that he would be destroyed after centuries of immortality.  That would have been powerful.  And the next year Freund would direct The Mummy, which featured a man being completely run through with a spear.  They could have shown more here.

But for some reason, director Tod Browning was compelled to end his horror films with an old man saying goodbye to a young woman.  Even when it was horribly inappropriate to the story.

But without this dishonorable mention, the rest of the list probably would never have been made.  I think that probably makes Browning’s gaffe worth it in the long run.

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What’s Up with Vampires?

batThis morning I watched Dracula 2000 as part of a study on Dracula movies.  It left me with a lot of questions, like “how should I categorize the vampire making the victim drink the vampire’s blood– plain old violence?  Sexual assault?  Or is it in a category all its own?”  But the main question is what is up with vampires, and why, for the love of God, is vampire sex such a coveted, lovingly photographed thing?

I don’t have a good answer, only speculations.  Maybe by the time my study is over, I’ll have sounder speculations.  Anyway, I can describe some of the actors who have played vampires in some of the most disgusting, objectifying terms available, but I’ll spare us all that.  The collective fascination goes beyond Ingrid Pitt’s bust, Louis Jourdan’s sexy voice, and Christopher Lee’s everything.

Apologies.  Contrary to my drooling, attractive actors are only part of it.  Given, Bela Lugosi made the vampire popular in a way that Max Shreck didn’t– probably because Lugosi, while no spring chicken, had hair, arresting eyes, a Cupid’s bow mouth, and elegant fingers.  He also had charm– enough for the baby Hays Office to get nervous and say “no onscreen bites.”  A lot of people today would argue that he’s not particularly attractive– that’s academic– but the censor board may actually have been onto something regarding bites.

People bite each other on the neck affectionately all the time.  Getting bitten on the chest is a little less common (at least in my experience), but love bites can happen anywhere.  And therein begins my speculation.

Maybe the thing with vampires is that the act of biting someone and drinking their blood has certain connotations already.  Especially since the image is of a maiden in a white nightgown falling victim to this act in her bedroom, during the night, at the hands of a swarthy man.  Bram Stoker wrote it in a very unromantic way, back in the 1890’s, and though vampirism is linked to sex in Nosferatu, it is also incredibly unromantic– a noble woman has to sacrifice herself by willingly letting the vampire have her blood.  In 1931 Dracula looked like a prime catch as opposed to the utterly repugnant John Harker, though his attacks on Mina were meant to be frightening rather than alluring.

Changing attitudes regarding sex may have something to do with the portrayals of vampires, although now the pendulum doesn’t really seem to be swinging back as the country seems to be having another one of its Victorian fits (I’d say “puritanical,” but they Puritans so weren’t).  Well, except for Twilight, but it’s an anomaly.  And fans of the series don’t realize how creepy it truly is.

Is it just that Hollywood has forgotten how to be scary, so it’s peddling shock?  Possible, but some of the older vampire movies combined sex with scares very successfully.  Is it overused?  Quite probably.   Nosferatu have been in vogue for over 80 years now.  Maybe it’s time they took a vacation.  Or maybe filmmakers need to take a hint from Katherine Bigelow’s film Near Dark and have the vampires just walk up to their victims and start killing.  It’s hard to romanticize getting one’s throat cut by a stranger.

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Top 10 Vampires #7 Countess Zaleska

Beautiful, tragic, and obsessed... a thoroughly modern vampire.

Beautiful, tragic, and obsessed… a thoroughly modern vampire.

“She gives you that weird feeling,” proclaims my old Dracula’s Daughter (1936) poster.  Well, fair enough.  She does.

Made five years after the original Dracula (who we’ll meet later), this movie opens with van Helsing being arrested for the murder of the count.  The old doctor is bailed out of jail by his former student, Dr. Garth, who was summoned from his vacation by his secretary/girlfriend Janet.  While Garth dismisses the notion of vampires, he agrees to help defend his old teacher.

Meanwhile, Dracula’s body is stolen from the police station (and the comic guarding officer killed) by the mysterious Countess Zaleska, who burns the corpse, placing a crucifix on top of the flames.  She proclaims herself free of her curse, although her creepy servant, Sandor, undermines her assertion at every turn.  Eventually she reverts to her vampiric ways, handing her cloak to him one morning with the embarrassed words, “There is blood on it, again.”

She then meets Garth at a party, and is very drawn to him and his talk about curing alcoholics by making them confront their desire to drink.  Since she is artistically talented, she hires a model off the street to paint a study of her head and shoulders– but it is to confront her desire to drink blood.  Unfortunately,  and in a scene that I still can’t believe got past the Hays/Breen Office, she gives in and attacks the model, who dies while in Garth’s care. Van Helsing argues that this proves his argument about Dracula being a vampire, but his student refuses to listen.

The Countess kidnaps Janet, returns to her father’s castle, and gives Garth an ultimatum– join her as a vampire or else.  Out of options, he agrees.  But Zaleska’s servant, furious at not being made a vampire himself, aims a crossbow at Garth.  Van Helsing and another traveling companion shoot Sandor, whose crossbow misfires, striking the Countess instead.  As she dies and Garth and Janet reunite, the companion says, “Beautiful, isn’t she?”

“As beautiful as the day she died, a hundred years ago,” van Helsing replies.  A line that perfectly sums up its titular character and her tragedy.

If one wants to be picky, yes, we don’t know if she is Dracula’s actual daughter or not, but the rest of the movie, surprisingly, works well.  Her obsession with Garth makes sense; she is alone except for Sandor, and he is attractive and tries to help her, although she does heartily resent his failure.  Some might argue that the Countess is a lesbian because of the scene with the model, and while there are overtones of that– the bisexual vampire is now a staple of the genre.  It would be interesting if this movie did it first.

As a vampire, Zaleska manages to be menacing, seductive, tragic, sympathetic, and unsympathetic in the course of a relatively short movie.  That’s a tall order for any character (and the actress playing her), and both are to be commended.  The “weird feeling” description is spot on!

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Top 11 Scariest Performances #7 Bela Lugosi

One can only be pushed so far.

Don’t push him too far.

Surprise!  This won’t be about Dracula.  Or maybe that’s not a surprise… you tell me.

But time for a history lesson… in 1934, the Hays Office (censorship board) came under new, hard-assed management in the form of Joseph Breene.  This is where the “pre-Code” divide comes in, and a lot of female directors were demoted back to screenwriter, cinematographer, and other, less forefront positions.  And horror movies began to get more… shall we say, “silly.”  The Black Cat, released right before this changing of the guard was Unviersal’s attempt to get in everything distasteful while they still could, and brother did director Edgar G. Ulmer, and actors Karloff and Lugosi deliver!

The movie begins with a dippy American couple on their honeymoon, who end up having to share their train compartment with Lugosi’s character– Dr. Werdegast.  On the way to their hotel, the bus crashes, and they have to stay with Engineer Poelzig (Karloff)– Werdegast’s “old friend.”  However, it is soon made clear that the two men are not really friends– Poelzig betrayed his fort to the Russians, and after Werdegast was captured, told Mrs. Werdegast that her husband had been killed, married her, and later on, after her death, her daughter.  Werdegast has come to settle accounts, but prefers to wait until the Americans are gone.  Unfortunately, Poelzig, the leader of a Satanist cult, has designs on the wife as his next sacrifice.

It is unusual to see Lugosi as an anti-hero, but he is superb as the tormented Werdegast.  Karloff is an icon of horror as Poelzig, but Werdegast is dynamic, one minute grimly reliving the siege of Fort Marmaros, putting on a friendly bedside manner for the injured American woman, grieving intently for hid deceased wife… and finally he snaps.  When he realizes that his daughter, too, was murdered, he dispenses all decorum, attacks Poelzig ferociously, and skins him alive.

The Hungarian actor aptly rises to each task.  A veteran of WWI, it’s probable that some of his own memories of fighting the Russians helped bring his expressions of weariness and pain to the reminiscences of the war early on in the movie.  His grief is believable when Poelzig unveils the body of the dead wife, Karen, and when Werdegast has finally had enough, Lugosi drenches his dialogue, movement, and expressions with rage, hatred, and sadism, resulting in a truly frightening deliverance of the villain’s comeuppance.

And don’t take my word for it– these fiendish characters agree with me, too! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuX3YFmqmSw.)

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