Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is a kind of miracle insofar as it’s as free a film a filmmaker could ever make within the constraints of the studio system. Coppola’s Dracula is endlessly, joyously experimental, a love letter to the old-fashioned trickery of cinema that revels in the beauty of artifice. This makes it close kin to Coppola’s late-period triptych of Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt, the three of which comprise Coppola’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker.

Dracula boasts career-best work from a team of incredible collaborators (among them, Michael Ballhaus and Eiko Ishioka). The film contains of such unearthly beauty that they take away my breath every time I see them (and I’ve seen them countless times), such as a princess’ gorgeously staged leap from the precipice of a tower, or a romantic dinner in a private room where the shadows of dancers play off of the glass in the background. What Dracula offers is something more than mere ornamental spectacle, a cornucopia of beguiling visions that nod back to a legacy of symbolist and expressionistic art.

Sadly, the tin-eared script often rears its head to interrupt the fantasia of images and sounds. This Dracula never quite knows what its doing with the historical detail and theological architecture it so carelessly emphasizes. The film’s risible resolution, a series of non-sequiturs about love and redemption and reincarnation, only re-emphasizes the thematic muddle at its center rather than providing a pathway through it.

There’s also an odd disharmony among the performances of the cast, whose heightened interpretations of these characters often clash in ways that are not especially productive. That said, I’m very fond of Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing, who is less the model of Christian virtue than he is a kind of madman who attacks metaphysical monstrosities with an abundance of dark humor, and it’s undeniable that Gary Oldman’s very theatrical Dracula finds new shades and colors within a character who, even by the time of the film’s release, had been already interpreted by a host of accomplished thespians.

Of all the film’s many admirable aspects, the component I admire most is composer Wojciech Kilar’s vivid score, which perhaps does more to unify the film’s disparate pieces more than any other element of the film. The sinuous and sensual love theme Kilar conceived for this Dracula (“Love Remembered”) is a work of art unto itself.

The Shining

“In The Shining you’re dealing with a director who is working for the first time in this genre and who seems to have a bit of contempt for it. He is obviously not interested in the conventions of the genre he he’s chosen; in fact, he seems to feel there would be something cheapening or demeaning in drawing from the wellspring of the normal genre conventions. Instead you sense that he wants to revolutionize it and make it something profound or significant. But the result is inevitably heavy-handed because what he has actually done is failed to realize the intrinsic beauty of the basic form per se.

The real trick is not to ignore the conventions but to take them and then personalize them.”

~ Brian De Palma, speaking in a 1980 interview with Ralph Appelbaum

The Shining has become such a significant film in the landscape of cinematic horror that it’s often easy to forget the mixed reception it received upon its theatrical premiere in the United States (indeed, Stanley Kubrick’s films, while generally successful in financial terms, were often met with mixed critical receptions), and during the film’s original run, remarks like De Palma’s above were not entirely uncommon. While I have my own misgivings about Kubrick’s The Shining, I believe that the allegations De Palma makes in that 1980 interview somewhat fail to appropriately diagnose the problems with The Shining (though his allegations are obviously revealing about De Palma’s own approach to genre storytelling).

Despite the widespread view of Kubrick as a kind of mythic mastermind who meticulously planned every feature of his films from the outset, the truth is that Kubrick discovered his films in the process of making them, often clarifying their intentions and effects in the editing room (even to the point of re-editing films after they had begun their theatrical run). I have never been entirely convinced that Kubrick entirely found what he was looking for in The Shining, and believe that the film’s conceptual fogginess is responsible for the number of absurd conspiracy theories that have sprung up surrounding the film (a number of which are memorably explored in the documentary Room 237). Nevertheless, there remain certain clues to what fascinated Kubrick about the material, and I think those who are curious that would do best to look back to the work’s genesis (such as this early treatment, authored by Kubrick himself, which differs from the final film in some key ways, but is also very consistent with it on other key points), and the film’s most final form, the shorter European cut of the film that Kubrick constructed after the film’s initial US release.

It’s evident that Kubrick quite enjoyed playing with the tropes and shock effects of the horror story; certainly, the enthusiasm with which he describes The Shining‘s events in that early treatment would seem to make it quite evident that that was part of what drew him to the material. If The Shining‘s effects are so blunt as to verge on the comical, that stems less from condescension than from Kubrick’s essential style, which often has a “Get a load of this!” undercurrent. After all, The Shining begins with the strains of “Dies Irae,” which is so unsubtle that it must be read as both a dark joke even if it also functions as an ominous effect, and that revelry carries through the film into the film’s famous “woman bathing” nightmare to the climactic hallucinations involving a man in a bear suit and, at least in the US cut, a table full of cobwebbed skeletons that might have come from a William Castle movie.

Structurally, The Shining remains stubbornly odd, though the clearest throughline in Kubrick’s film comes from its resolution, which was Kubrick’s most significant alteration to Stephen King’s source text. Kubrick’s suggestion that Jack Torrance, The Shining‘s primary protagonist, is not a victim of the haunted Overlook Hotel (as he is in King’s text), but an extension of it–that he is, and always has been, the haunted hotel’s caretaker, as one of the Overlook Hotel’s phantoms informs him–radically alters the nature of this haunted house narrative. Note that even in Kubrick’s early treatment, we find a variation of the finished film’s conclusion, in which a photograph reveals that Jack Torrance was once at the hotel in a previous life. Thus Torrance’s arc is less of a descent into madness than an awakening of his true, repressed self. The story of Jack Torrance is the story of the re-emergence of a demon of the dark, disturbing American past.

This adds a new level of emphasis to the way Kubrick’s film opens with Torrance driving to the Overlook hotel: The Shining is Jack Torrance’s journey home. The flickers of menace that occur in early scenes of Torrance with the hotel manager and with his family on the journey to the hotel hint at his unity with the malevolence with which the film presents us. This radically transforms the nature of the dysfunctional familial relationships at the center of the film in ways that author Stephen King has famously resented, but it clues us in to the existential horror that Kubrick sought to locate in this text, in which a legacy of American violence reaches into right into the heart of the American family, connecting historical atrocity with the intimate cruelty of child abuse.

Scholars debate which cut of The Shining Kubrick ultimately preferred, and the record on that score is mixed in ways that prevent us from arriving at any definitive answer. Kubrick left two cuts in circulation: the more expansive American cut, and the considerably briefer European cut, which trims many of the film’s languors, and notably shifts the revelation of Jack Torrance’s past physical abuse of Danny to much later in the film.

While the scope and scale of the American cut has its own level of appeal, the European cut has greater clarity and unity. The film becomes even more exaggerated, more heightened, offering less room for the viewer to reorient themselves between its pulses. The nightmare inundates the viewer like the blood from the Overlook Hotel’s elevator. The European cut offers only brief glimpses of the “real world” outside of the Overlook, reshaping the film’s central trio into almost archetypal figures in the midst of an infernal play.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

“There is more evil around us here than I have ever encountered before.”

So declares Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), which embellished Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved novel into a Gothic horror picture from Hammer Film Productions.

By the time he directed Baskervilles, Terence Fisher had already firmly established the Hammer horror film aesthetic with his pictures, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), and The Mummy (1959), mingling a kind of dry, British elegance with vital sensuality. Fisher’s images, created in collaboration with the great cinematographer Jack Asher, achieved peak loveliness here in Baskervilles (as well as the marvelously lush The Brides of Dracula, which was released a year later), and they are not mere veneer, but achieve synthesis with Doyle’s story and transform it, adding both scope and existential urgency.

No scenes in the Hammer filmography are more eerie and arresting than Baskerville‘s prologue and climax, both of which unfold around and within the ruins of an abbey, and in which carnal desire and malice collide in fatal combinations. Sherlock Holmes, with his rational mind, explains away the mythic beast with which the story is concerned, but the supernatural is still very much in evidence in Fisher’s film, in which metaphysical evil becomes tangibly physical. Evil possesses people much in the same way that vampirism possesses the victims depicted in Fisher’s vampire pictures, twisting human expressions into unhinged, animalistic desire. In vivid departures from Doyle’s considerably less operatic and less sadistic conclusion, the cosmic forces of nature turn against wickedness as evil’s perpetrators are torn apart by beasts and, in one especially chilling image, swallowed up by the earth itself.

Strait-Jacket

William Castle’s explosive 1964 film, Strait-Jacket, emerged in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic proto-slasher, Psycho. Castle, an impish showman with a strong instinct for gimmickry, had been making horror pictures for years by the time Psycho was released, and the picture he made immediately after it–1961’s Homicidal–was accused by contemporaneous critics of being a crass ripoff. Castle’s effects were considerably more blunt and less “respectable” than Hitchcock’s, but if Castle wore the aura of carnival barker proudly, he could still be a very canny, expressive filmmaker. Homicidal may have sprung from the shadow of Psycho, but Strait-Jacket, made just a few years later, may be an even clearer descendant; Strait-Jacket was written by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel from which Psycho had been adapted. Strait-Jacket repurposes some of Psycho‘s structures and motifs, but it proves to be more of a cousin to Psycho than a twin.

The psychological rupture at the heart of Psycho serves as background material to be doled out as exposition in the film’s denoument, but Strait-Jacket presents that rupture as its inciting incident, centering its dramatic arc on its protagonist’s attempts to re-enter society after years of recovery (in this way, its trajectory is actually more similar to that of Psycho II (1983), in which murderer Norman Bates struggles with his psychological stability as he returns to civilian life, than that of Psycho). Strait-Jacket does share Psycho‘s fixation on a maternal figure, but here the mother is both the film’s bogeyman and the film’s protagonist.

Joan Crawford stars as axe-murderess Lucy Harbin, who, in the film’s opening moments, brutally murders her younger husband and his lover after discovering them together. The film follows the psychological warping of Lucy Harbin–who first emerges as virile, confident, and sensual–as the realization of betrayal pivots from shock to dismay to psychosis, shifts that are all telegraphed with striking clarity by Crawford. As the violent act occurs, the film breaks apart before our eyes, blurring the line between the feverish experience of Lucy and that of her daughter Carol (who tragically witnesses the violent event). The decapitations are the first of many in the film, and in their cleanness as well as their unconvincing gore effects, they have a decidedly unreal quality that has been enhanced by the passage of time. The sequence climaxes with the image of Lucy, strapped to a gurney, screaming protestations of innocence, her twisting form superimposed over her daughter’s horrified eyes.

The shared trauma between mother and daughter turns out to be the heart of Strait-Jacket, and the title sequence, which serves as a pause as the film leaps forward twenty years, takes us into abstract, feverish images of that trauma: silhouettes traversing landscapes of severed heads and watchful eyes. The bookends–painted images of Crawford’s face as a vacant, eyeless mask–foreshadow the film’s climactic twist and suggests the way in which Lucy Harbin’s identity that has become untethered from the psyche. Van Alexander’s title cue disrupts lushly romantic, tender passages with eerie, wailing effects, the musical expression of a woman’s soul unable to reconcile itself to itself.

Crawford, now in the post-What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? phase of her career, anchors it through sheer conviction. Strait-Jacket demands that Crawford utilize the full range of her expressive abilities as she performs astonishing dramatic gymnastics, portraying a woman continually phasing through modes of meekness and anger and strength and weakness. Crawford proves adept at maintaining a sense of consistent character throughout all these sensationalized pivots, somehow able to reconcile the the vampy, confident woman she first emerges as and the washed-out, timid shell of herself that she has emerges as after twenty years in the asylum.

Lucy’s daughter, Carol, played by Diane Baker, remains preoccupied both with her mother and the past; the full extent of this fixation is not expressed until the film’s climax. Following her mother’s release, Carol seeks to return her mother to her past self in a sequence reminiscent of Judy’s transformation into Madeleine from Vertigo (and Baker herself has some of the Hitchcock aura; she memorably appeared in Marnie, which was released the same year as Strait-Jacket). Carol’s attempts to conjure the past also conjures up its demons, and hints of the latent violence in Lucy emerge, as well as hints of the raw sensuality of her youth. In one of the film’s wildest scenes, Lucy meets her daughter’s fiancé (who resembles the murdered husband, a hint at the daughter’s own fixations) and instinctively returns to her younger self, lasciviously flirting with him in a borderline predatory fashion. It’s a scene only Crawford could play, and she does it with panache; in a magnificent gesture, Crawford’s Lucy confidently lights a match by striking it on a record. This Lucy quickly crumbles when confronted with her greatest fear, the fear she might once again be imprisoned in an asylum. Another sequence in the film finds her trapped in a bathroom, frantically crying for release as she beats the room’s striped walls.

Much of the film features Lucy entrapped by the conceptions and demands of others, whether that be those of her daughter, of the doctor from the asylum (who stops by for a visit and, after seeing her distress, tries to return her to the asylum before losing his head), or of the parents of Carol’s fiancé. Without a strong sense of self, she is intensely vulnerable to the projections of others, both yielding to and resisting them simultaneously. But in the midst of these moments, glimpses of her vulnerability and tenderness emerge, her desperate hope that she might escape her own legacy of violence. None are quite so moving as when Lucy, fresh from the asylum, sees her daughter’s sculpture of her younger self and is left stunned by this monument to her lost beauty.

There’s a ghoulish sense of humor undergirding Straight-Jacket‘s trajectory of violence, a humor which will be familiar to anyone who’s spent some time with Castle’s filmography. Carol lives on a farm, and much is made of Lucy’s visible discomfort with the slaughter of the animals, as well as the cosmic pull of sharp knives and axes. The violence itself is staged with a keen sense of the lulls and pauses necessary to heighten the sense of anticipation, leading up the exclamatory burst of gore as the heads are removed from the bodies. That same perversity tilts over into the way in which the film relentlessly tortures Lucy, who the film continually pushes toward the breaking point, haunted by voices of children singing nursery rhymes about her murder and waking up to hallucinations of severed heads in her bed.

The hallucinations turn out to be nothing of the sort. Lucy has been a victim of a campaign to drive her back to insanity, a campaign led by her daughter, Carol. This reveal occurs as the film’s climax, as Lucy discovers that her daughter, Carol, is the murderer. Carol has become her doppelgänger, dressing up as Lucy in the same outfit Lucy wore during that tragic night twenty years ago, complete with an unsettling mask she sculpted on her mother’s features. Lucy pulls away, unable to utter a word. Carol’s own calm facade crumbles as her fiancé finds her, pleading with him as she explains she sought to kill his disapproving parents so that they could be married. Carol’s frantic explanations give way to incoherence; she pummels the mask of her mother with her fist, alternating proclaiming her hatred and love of her mother. Like practically everything in Strait-Jacket, the moment has no real subtlety, but it’s still agonizingly raw. Baker’s collected manner gives way to the frantic mania that Crawford’s gave to in the film’s opening minutes, as Crawford’s Lucy stumbles outside, bewildered.

That gut-wrenching revelation and its aftermath functions as the film’s true ending, the jarring conclusion of a nightmare. The scene that follows feels like the morning after, with a serene Lucy talking to her brother, neatly explaining all of Carol’s insidious attempts to exacerbate her mother’s mental instability and frame her for murder. If the film would be better without this attempt to assuage the audience, the film nevertheless concludes on a poignantly sad note: Lucy will be joining Carol in the asylum in the hopes of helping her heal, a mother bound together with her daughter in trauma and violence and madness.

Raúl Ruiz and Narrative

“To say that a story can only take place if it is connected to a central conflict forces us to eliminate all stories which do not include confrontation and to leave aside all those events which require only indifference or detached curiosity, like a landscape, a distant storm, or dinner with friends–unless such scenes punctuate two fights between the bad guys and the good guys.”

~ Raúl Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema

The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part IV

With the aid of M and Tanner, Bond learns that Dominic Greene is moving to Bregenz, Austria. The narrative mechanics by which M determines that the CIA have been working with Greene make for one of the better connect-the-dots moments in the Craig films, and it also features the film’s niftiest graphical interface, a large glass display-screen that doubles as a wall of M’s office.

The CIA has significantly more knowledge of Quantum than their British counterparts–Felix Leiter, who makes his first appearance in this film in this scene, will later note that they “know who Greene is” and express his reservations about cooperating with him–but the CIA also knows less than they think they do; they’re being duped by Greene, having been purposefully misled into believing that they might be able to get oil rights out of the Bolivian revolution Quantum is manufacturing.

The Americans come off looking very predatory in Quantum of Solace, with Felix Leiter serving as the the “Not All Americans” ally who lends Bond a hand later in the picture, but even Leiter’s turn only happens reluctantly, after Bond twists his arm. The film laces more than a few barbs at the USA’s foreign policy throughout the picture, but this scene fixates on it. Greene’s remark–“You don’t need another Marxist giving resources to the people, do you?”–is perhaps the most brazenly political moment in the entire Bond franchise.

Wright’s Leiter remains relegated to a largely passive role throughout Quantum of Solace. He sulks his way through the film, following the lead of his superior, the very greasy Gregory Beam (played with wonderful hamminess by David Harbour). In this scene, Beam tests Leiter by pushing him to identify Bond to Greene; Leiter tries to avoid it, only for Beam to call him out in front of Greene. Beam defends this uneasy partnership with Greene on the grounds of realpolitik–“You’re right, we should just deal with nice people,” he sneers to Leiter when Leiter expresses his reservations–and then bullies Leiter into submission by hinting that the success of Leiter’s career depends on his cooperation.

The Craig era continually underlines the notion that spies–and even their masters, like M–are just employees who are subservient to a larger bureaucracy that isn’t particularly concerned with their best interest and will gladly discard them whenever they become too inconvenient. There’s no longer an assumption that Britain and America are necessarily the “good guys” on the international stage.

The architecture of the Bregenz Opera House blends neatly into Dennis Gassner’s more stark, sleek approach to production design, and its watery stage makes for one of the most richly atmospheric locations in the Craig era. In the early drafts of Quantum of Solace, the opera house was to be the locale for the film’s climax, but rewrites shifted this setpiece to the film’s midsection. The notion of a criminal organization using an opera performance for their business meeting is blatantly absurd due to its transparent impracticality–it’s amazing that the crowd doesn’t shush all the members of Quantum who are talking about water rights and piping–it’s also the kind of brilliantly surreal conceit that Bond movies thrive on, transforming something as dull as an executive board room meeting into vibrant spectacle.

Bond isn’t dressed for the occasion, so he steals a dinner jacket from the opera’s cast and crew lockers (naturally, it is conveniently tailored to his physique). The theft of his black tie ensemble unfolds in a confusing string of cuts that marks the one “off” editing beat in an otherwise well-constructed montage depicting the build-up to a gala performance of Puccini’s Tosca.

David Arnold’s eerie cue for this sequence, arguably the highlight of the score, pays homage to John Barry’s “Space March” from You Only Live Twice, reworking Arnold’s sinister motif for the Quantum organization into an electronic-accented march that builds into the “Te Deum” from Puccini’s opera.

Bond identifies a Quantum member by noticing that only a few members of the crowd receive specialty gift bags. The bags contain ear pieces and a “Q” pin. The pin seems a bit too cutesy and seemingly conflicts with later dialogue from Greene that indicates that none of the Quantum members are supposed to actually see one another face-to-face.

As Greene and his entourage take their positions in his private box, Elvis becomes the focus for an odd moment–he gives another of Greene’s henchmen a kind of imbecilic, friendly look, only to be met with a dead stare. It’s yet another of the film’s many curious “gags” related to this character, and one occurs just a few minutes earlier, during the CIA meeting with Greene, when Elvis tries to start up conversation with Leiter and is completely ignored. The nature of Elvis’ relationship with Greene is never addressed directly, but is certainly affectionate (when leaving the box later, Greene will escort Elvis out of the room with his hand on Elvis’ lower back). Certainly, Greene has an unusual tolerance for his bodyguard’s incompetence. Taken with Greene’s desperately performative displays of heterosexuality when it comes to Camille, it is all too easy to read Green and Elvis’ relationship as coding Greene as being homosexual (or perhaps bisexual, given Greene’s desperately performative declarations of heterosexuality throughout the film). That said, both Amalric and Taubman (who plays Elvis) concocted their own backstory for the characters: Elvis is Greene’s cousin, and he had previously been destitute before Greene rescued him by bringing him into the Quantum organization.

The Bond production team originally hoped to utilize the Bregenz production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera as the setting for this sequence. The set for Un Ballo in Maschera featured a giant skeleton flipping through the pages of a book, an image very suited to a series as dominated by death-imagery as the Bond series is, but they were quickly informed that this would not be possible, and so the Bond team agreed to utilize Tosca instead.

The extravagant floating set for the Bregenz production of Tosca centers around a giant eye. Bond perches at the top of this ever-watchful eye as he observes the crowd, identifying himself (and the profession he embodies) with it. Quantum’s business meeting unfolds as of Tosca‘s first act reaches its climax, the “Te Deum.” During this spectacular moment, Tosca‘s villain, Scarpia, declares his love for the diva Tosca and his plans to coerce her into becoming his lover. The bold fanfare that accompanies Bond and Greene’s face-to-face encounter in the opera lobby marks the musical conclusion of the act. The subsequent montage of scenes from Tosca that are interspersed with Bond’s firefight with the Quantum assassins breaks with the opera’s chronology and mingles different moments from the opera, but will most directly fixate on Tosca’s murder of Scarpia at the end of Act II, foreshadowing Camille’s struggle with the predatory General Medrano during the climax of Quantum of Solace.

If you listen carefully, you can hear that this is the first time the organization refers to themselves as “Quantum”; this only happens one more time, towards the end of the film, when Greene mentions the name to Bond. The organization’s name was apparently chosen very late into production; scribe Paul Haggis stated that he was unaware of the name or the reasons for its selection.

Bond decides to interrupt the meeting, hoping to force Quantum out of the anonymity of the crowd, and does so with dialogue that is more blandly functional than clever (“Can I offer an opinion? I really think you people should find a better place to meet”). To identify the members of Quantum, he uses a nifty phone app that captures and reconstructs their faces from blurry photographs by assembling various angles into a composite face.

Mr. White has come to the Quantum meeting, too, but he’s sharper than the rest of his organization, and, accordingly, he gets the best line of the scene. Noting the departures of his colleagues, he turns to his companion: “Well, Tosca isn’t for everyone.” This turns out to be Mr. White’s last scene in the film, leaving a loose end which Spectre later picks up on. The original ending of Quantum of Solace actually featured Bond killing Mr. White, but the Bond producers deemed it to be too much of a cliffhanger and was ultimately left on the cutting room floor.

The impressionistic montage that depicts Bond’s tangle with Greene’s henchmen is self-consciously arty in way the series has rarely been, eschewing the thrills of well-documented action choreography for the thrills of montage. It resolves itself in one of the film’s more self-referential moments; Bond cornering one of the henchmen on the opera house’s rooftop recreates a similar moment from The Spy Who Loved Me. Unlike the baddie in Spy, this henchman does not cooperate with Bond, and Bond promptly drops him off the roof without a word.

The henchman actually survives, landing on the hood of Greene’s car. In keeping with this film’s penchant for overcomplicated plotting, the henchman isn’t one of Greene’s, but is actually the bodyguard of Guy Haines, a powerful advisor of the Prime Minister. When M learns, via Tanner, that the henchman was found shot, she naturally blames Bond (which isn’t entirely inappropriate, given that Bond did drop him off a roof and presumably intended for him to meet his demise).

M, recoiling from the news that the Quantum organization may have significant influence on the British government, tries to pull Bond back to Britain to debrief him. Bond refuses to let the trail go cold, and, when M attempts to restrict his movements, he effectively goes “rogue,” a choice that Craig’s Bond makes quite regularly throughout these films.

Bond learns that MI6 has shut him down when his company credit card is declined at the airport. Bond, ever courteous to service representatives, charmingly asks the attendant to tell anyone who calls about him that he’s headed to Cairo. We’ll very quickly find out he has other plans.

Terror and Solitude

“What has this man from Illinois created–I ask myself, closing the pages of his book–that his episodes of the conquest of another planet fill me with such terror and solitude?”

~ Jorge Luis Borges on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles