31 Films of Halloween – 10/2/15: Dracula

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: 1931’s Dracula.

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Dracula, 1931

Recommending a fresh take on Bela Lugosi’s original Dracula seems like a solid, safe pick for the 31 Films of Halloween. Universal-ly (pun intended) acknowledged as a true horror classic, Lugosi’s Dracula remains—nearly a century later—the definitive take not only on the Dracula story, but on the vampire genre itself.

But here’s the twist.

If you can find it, I strongly recommend re-watching Dracula (obviously, you MUST have seen it before) with the turn-of-the-century Philip Glass score. It will knock your socks off.

In 1999, Universal Studios Home Entertainment commissioned composer Philip Glass to compose an entirely original score for Dracula, and then distributed the scored version on DVD and VHS. When Universal later released its classics collections in 2004 on DVD, the Glass score was available on an alternative audio track on the original movie. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the Glass score transforms Dracula and makes a truly classic film truly great.

In bringing Bram Stoker’s novel to the screen, Universal produced a gold-standard horror classic largely on the strength of two things: Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance and director Tod Browning’s success in establishing a dark, foreboding, dream-like atmosphere. The former has become so seared in the cinematic psyche that Lugosi and the role will forever be inseparable. The latter is often overlooked, but combined with Lugosi’s performance, Browning’s construction of images and mood and moments—Dracula’s welcome, the appearance of the vampire brides, and so on—was simply masterful.

Where Browning stumbled, however, was in the pacing and stagey-ness of the film. While the languid pace supports the dreamy ambiance, there are moments when the film slows to a virtual crawl. Combined with the pervasive quiet—Dracula is a “talkie” but might as well have been a silent film in its disregard for dialogue and sound throughout much of its 85 minutes—the pacing occasionally drains the energy right out of the story.

The Glass score, however, brings the entire film to life, energizing the slowest scenes and adding extra zing to the film’s highest points. In the wonderful scene in which Van Helsing tricks the Count into revealing himself (or not revealing himself, as it were) in the mirror, the Glass score punctuates the dramatic moment, rises with the inner fury and fear of the vampire, and then retreats as Dracula composes himself and exits. The music lingers as Dracula excuses himself. “I dislike mirrors,” Dracula grins. “Van Helsing will explain.” As movie quotes go, it’s one of the best in the original film. With the Glass score and the dynamic filmmaking behind it, it’s one of the smartest, best moments in horror film history.

I love Dracula with the Philip Glass score.

Van Helsing will explain.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/1/15: Re-Animator

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: 1985’s Re-Animator.

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Re-Animator, 1985

In 1999, I met Stuart Gordon at a screening of one of his films on campus at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. After the movie, I waited around to introduce myself, asked if I could interview him sometime, and Gordon graciously gave me his card and told me to call him. I should note at this point that I was not working as a journalist and had nowhere to publish the interview, but that’s beside the point. When I called his production office a couple of days later, I got his answering machine, left a message, and assumed I’d never hear back from him.

To my surprise, Gordon did call me back, and we scheduled an interview a week later.

That week, I plowed through all ten of his movies as research for the interview. One evening, as I was re-watching his first film, Re-Animator, my phone rang, and it was Gordon. He was personally calling to reschedule the interview, which we did. After we hung up, though, I marveled at the fact that I had just received a call from minor legend in the horror field WHILE I was watching his iconic, ground-breaking film. I assumed—correctly—that that would never happen again. But it remains one of my favorite stories to this day.

The film itself, Re-Animator, also remains one of my favorites, not just in the horror genre but on my all-time list.

Re-Animator, a loose adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, is the tale of Herbert West, an arrogant young medical student who develops a reagent that can re-animate dead tissue. However, when West decides to experiment on human corpses and injects his reagent into various medical school cadavers, he discovers that they are far less enthusiastic about his experiment than he is.

A campy blend of classical horror archetypes mixed liberally with heavy doses of ‘80’s sex, gore, and violence—not to mention dark, black comedy—Gordon’s first film is wildly entertaining and genuinely frightening at times.

When Re-Animator opened in 1985, critics did not seem to know how to react. The venerable Janet Maslin warned that the film should “be avoided by anyone not in the mood for a major blood bath.” A more generous Roger Ebert wrote of his fellow Chicagoan’s film that Re-Animator is “a frankly gory horror movie that finds a rhythm and a style that make it work in a cockeyed, offbeat sort of way.” And Pauline Kael effused that it was a “horror-genre parody [at] the top of its class.”

Today, the film endures as a true horror classic. Suspense. Scares. Sex and gore. The film opens with a gothic nod to traditional horror and then immediately flashes its Grand Guignol street cred and wicked sense of humor. It takes hold of you and never lets go.

So, thanks, Stuart Gordon, for all the memories.

October 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Re-Animator. To mark the anniversary, Madison Film Guy has published—for the first time—that 1999 conversation with Stuart Gordon. Read “Death is the Monster: A Conversation with Stuart Gordon” now at Madison Film Guy.