Bronwyn Lloyd: Lugosi’s Children (2011)
Tod Browning’s 1931 movie Dracula may be a classic, but it’s far from a masterpiece. When you compare its stagey sets and static camerawork with the creepy intensity of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), or even James Whale’s campy (but stylish) Frankenstein, also released in 1931, the whole thing seems distinctly undercooked.
The one thing it really has going for it can be summed up in two words: Bela Lugosi. One might even go further, and ascribe the film’s undoubted success (then and later) to two immortal lines of dialogue:
[as Renfield arrives at the Count’s castle in Trasylvania, to the accompaniment of a pack of howling wolves]:
Count Dracula: Listen to them. Children of the night! What music they make![later, at dinner]:
Count Dracula: This is very old wine. I hope you will like it.
Renfield: Aren’t you drinking?
Count Dracula: I never drink ... wine!
It’s alleged that Lugosi’s English was so poor that he was forced to memorise his lines like a musician, purely as a collection of sounds. Accent, emphasis, pitch – everything had to be written out for him in advance.
The absurdly over-the-top phrasing of those two lines (“Vot Myoo-zeek they mehk!” & “Ay neffer dreenk - vayn!”) has therefore nothing to do with “acting” in the normal sense of the term. Lugosi was not carefully setting out to craft a character by the way he spoke the lines. They must have become familiar to him through the innumerable times he performed the part of Bram Stoker’s Count – first on stage, then in the Browning film, and then in the long melancholy series of parodies and sequels which provided his main source of income for the rest of his life. Perhaps he should be regarded as more of an opera singer than a screen actor in this, his greatest role.
Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood did a surprisingly good job of lending dignity to the sad saga of Lugosi’s last years in Los Angeles: a washed-up heroin addict, sinking ever lower in the Hollywood food chain, from ‘B’ movies to serials and screenfillers, and from there to a bit-part in what is generally acknowledged to be the worst movie of all time: Ed Wood’s immortal Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
On the one hand, then, we have the actual Béla Blaskó (1882–1956), better known under his stage-name “Bela Lugosi,” a not particularly talented Hungarian actor, who died in penury, and who owes any fame he might have had in his lifetime or subsequently to one part and one part only.
On the other hand, we have the strange, distorted cosmos of the Horror movie-buff, where Lugosi is locked in an eternal struggle with other larger-than-life figures such as Christopher Lee, Max Schreck, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella ... even Jack Palance (would you believe?) - for the title of “greatest Dracula of all time.” There’s no real contest, though. Lugosi is it. He may not have been the first Dracula, but he’s certainly the most enduring. There will never come a moment when someone, in some corner of the planet, is not watching the movie Dracula and thrilling to that immortal line: “Ay neffer dreenk - vayn!”
But why? Why is this second-rate Hungarian movie hack an immortal god of the silver screen when other, far more talented actors have gone to the dust to which they belong? What is it about vampire movies, with their dark shadows, lurking dangers, sharp sting of canine teeth and telltale trickles of blood on white nighties which absorbs and perturbs us still?
They are ridiculous. So much is obvious. Why, then, do they keep on being produced? Why does Buffy the Vampire Slayer have a worldwide cult following rivalled only by the cult following of the various stars of the Twilight movies, with new contenders – Underworld, The Lost Boys, The Vampire Diaries, Let the Right One In – constantly lurking in the wings, ready to assert their right to a place in the sun (or out of the sun, perhaps).
Pure escapism is the most obvious explanation, I suppose. There’s something comforting about so thoroughly comprehensible and controllable a terror as a vampire. Vampire-hunting, at any rate according to the classic Van Helsing rules of the profession, must be one of the safest extreme sports on earth. So long as you’ve provided yourself with enough holy water, fragments of consecrated wafers, silver crosses, and sharp, pointy wooden stakes – and are careful not to enter the vampire’s lair anytime near sunset – you should be able to dispatch him (or her) at your leisure. This extreme predictability, inherent to the genre, explains why slight variations on these conventions have to be dreamt up by each new film franchise.
It should also mean that people would get tired of these films after a while, though. Yet they don’t seem to. No matter how many vampire movies there have been, there doesn’t seem much doubt that they will continue to be made – and if not vampire movies, werewolf movies – and if not werewolf movies, Frankenstein, mad-scientist, “tampering with forces you do not understand” movies. Again, why?
The answer must surely be that there’s something in these movies which speaks to us in a special way. It’s hard to put one’s finger on what exactly that crucial x-factor might be, but it’s clear that it has something to do with the violence and extremity of their stories, but also by the confined and essentially logical character of the worlds they paint.
Vampires may be evil, but they do obey certain laws. Their status as supernatural beings does not exempt them from having to bow to other supernatural forces, such as crosses and churches and even folkloric superstitions such as garlic and that prohibition against crossing a threshold unbidden. They don’t so much call into question the laws of nature as confirm them on another level: “As above, so below.” Just as matter should always obey the laws of physics (in a rational cosmos, at any rate), so must occult beings obey the laws of their own shadowy world.
In terms of human psychology, though, the role of such beings, of the realms of the imagination they inhabit, may be even more vital than that. After all, the inability to find a language for the expression of grief, of terror, is one of the principal causes of psychosis and breakdown in ordinary people who’ve had to endure extraordinary events.
How adequate are our everyday words and thought-patterns to the experience of war, of massacre, of torture, of natural disaster? And yet these things happen all the time, to vast numbers of people – not just in foreign parts, not just in Transylvania or Nazi Germany, but in the humdrum streets of our own towns and cities.
We have no language for such things because we hope so profoundly not to experience them ourselves. It’s easy to be a voyeur, to gloat over the latest parade of victims on Oprah or Jerry Springer. Nor is it particularly difficult to feel sympathy for these other people who’ve had to see the benign face of their universe stripped away to reveal the blind horror beneath. To empathise truly with them, though – to realise that they are we – takes a bit more imagination, though. It involves acknowledging that all of us live in fear of one ultimate, unknowable terror: our own physical death.
Hence Gothic, hence vampire movies, hence Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Francisco Goya … If we lived in some happy, rational kingdom of love and harmony we wouldn’t need them. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, though.
Lugosi’s children, then, are the reverse of escapists. They examine their own inner space for clues to the true nature of our experience of the world – in all its majesty and horror. Taxidermy, decay, oracles and horoscopes are all clues, potential maps of this numinous area where we confront our deepest hopes and fears.
It’s no real accident that the survivors of the second Christchurch earthquake were so unusually willing to lend an ear to the occult calculations of Moonman Ken Ring – that their first resort, their first need was for some certainty about the likelihood of a recurrence of this terrible event. Nor is it surprising that the first place they would look for it would be in the ringbound volumes of a latterday soothsayer.
Gothic and horror cinema, fiction and art provide us with a lens, a language, a means of grasping the shape of the horrific events that surround us. The subtlety and complexity of Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” may be intrinsically preferable in subtlety and craft to the crudity of Tod Browning’s cardboard sets and lurid camera-work, but in the deeper regions of the psyche such distinctions are not as important as one might think.
The standard response nowadays to traumatic experiences us to prescribe “counselling” – our one-size-fits-all panacea for all the ills of the world. But what precisely is one to say to the counsellor? How is one to express what has occurred, when the lack of any way of articulating the event is precisely the problem in the first place? One could do worse, perhaps, than go instead to examine these strange, dreamlike works of Lugosi’s children.
Their wisdom may be intuitive, the logic of darkness rather than that of the daylight world, but sometimes those can be the only answers one can bear to listen to.
Lugosi’s Children, Curated by Bronwyn Lloyd (27 August – 1 October 2011).
(Auckland: Objectspace, 2011): 2-3.
[PDF available at:
Lugosi’s Children (2011)