Saturday, February 16, 1974 (Midnight): Dracula (1931) / The Strange Mr. Gregory (1945)

Synopsis: Renfield (Dwight Frye), a young attorney from London, arrives at a small Carpathian village. His fellow travelers are staying in the village overnight but he insists on continuing on to the castle of a local nobleman, Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi).

The villagers turn pale at the very mention of the name, and beg him not to go. But Renfield is there on business, and insists on completing his journey.

After an unnerving trip to the castle, Renfield finally meets the count, who signs documents to complete his purchase of Carfax Abbey in England. It is to England, Dracula says, that he will go the very next morning.

Later, a ship drifts into an English harbor, all aboard her dead — save for Renfield, who is now a raving lunatic.

Several crates from the ship are delivered to Carfax Abbey. From one of them emerges Count Dracula, who soon insinuates himself into London society, befriending Dr. Seward, owner of the Seward Asylum where Renfield is confined. The asylum, we learn, adjoins the grounds of Carfax Abbey. Dracula meets Dr. Seward’s daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler); her fiancee Jonathan Harker (David Manners), and their friend Lucy (Frances Dade).

Meanwhile, a string of bizarre murders has caught the interest of Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), an unorthodox scientist and student of the occult. Two small puncture wounds, he finds, were on the necks of each victim, including young Lucy.

When Mina relates a dream of a man coming into her bedroom and biting her neck, Seward is surprised to see that Mina has been hiding two small puncture wounds herself. But Van Helsing is not surprised. He insists that a vampire is attempting to make Mina its slave by visiting her over a series of subsequent nights.

Mina can only be protected, he says, by locking her in her room, and sealing the windows with wolfbane and crucifixes, which vampires find repellent.

Meanwhile, Count Dracula pays a visit to the Seward home, and Van Helsing quickly realizes that Dracula himself is the vampire they seek. A battle of wits ensues, with Van Helsing battling Count Dracula for Mina’s very soul….

Comments: By my count this is our seventh broadcast of Universal’s 1931 Dracula, the linchpin for the original Shock! package of films. No movie has turned up more frequently on the show. Not coincidentally, Dracula was also the very first movie to be broadcast on Horror Incorporated when it premiered on November 8, 1969.

I’ve written about the movie before here and here, so let’s take a moment to consider the film’s music — or lack of it.

Dracula was released in the early days of “talking pictures”, and at that time it was believed that a musical score would confuse the audience. After all, if the audience suddenly hears music playing, how could they tell if the characters onscreen could hear it too?

So in this picture, as with many Universal features at this time, the only music heard is over the title cards at the beginning. After that, we hear ambient music at the scene in the Royal Albert Hall — but apart from that, there’s nothing at all.

As a result, the movie seems quite static to modern viewers, who are used to music serving as an undercurrent to the action.

Universal shrewdly saw a marketing opportunity in all that silence. Philip Glass was commissioned to write music for a 1999 video re-release (initially on VHS, but it’s been carried over as a feature on subsequent DVD and Blu-Ray editions).

Commissioning a score for the film was an interesting idea, a way to make a very old movie seem new again, and Universal presumably chose Glass because he brought a good deal of artistic gravitas to the project as well as a proven track record with film scores over the years.

Glass decided to write his cues for a string quartet.  At the time he claimed he was trying “to evoke the feeling of the world of the 19th century – for that reason I decided a string quartet would be the most evocative and effective. I wanted to stay away from the obvious effects associated with horror films.”

Alas, buried within this innocent quote lie the seeds of Glass’ failure. The use of a string quartet isn’t a bad decision of itself – it lends a certain warmth and hominess to some of the early scenes in England.  But it also points to an uncertain approach to the material.  Glass is a minimalist, stylistically unsuited to doing a lush orchestral score.  And he is also a modernist, with an atonal, hypnotic style.  Clearly he wanted the project to be taken seriously, and so he composed music to accompany, rather than underscore, a classic film, and deliberately avoided writing a score that toiled in the service of  — you know — a horror movie. 

As if to compensate for this uncertainty, he seems grimly determined to give Universal its money’s worth; 65 of the film’s 75 minutes now feature the Kronos Quartet sawing doggedly away at Glass’ signature two-note themes.

Considered as a film score — and we must consider it as such, even if Glass does not — it is surprisingly clumsy and ham-handed. One cue is nearly indistinguishable from the next; Glass attacks the stagecoach trip through the Carpathian mountains with the same busy indifference that he lends to the drawing room scenes and the Carfax abbey scenes and the Castle Dracula scenes .  His composition noodles along at more or less the same tempo throughout, walking so indiscriminately over the actor’s lines that you would be forgiven for thinking that Dracula was a silent film.

Unfortunately, Universal didn’t mix the audio well, so the volume of the score never varies; it’s loud enough in each scene to take attention away from what’s happening on screen.  But remixing the audio track probably wouldn’t have made much difference.  As interesting as the score is as a stand-alone project, it’s too busy and intrusive to add anything to the proceedings.  Dracula is a much more effective film without it.

The Strange Mr. Gregory

Synopsis: A famous magician called Gregory the Great (Edmund Lowe) is experimenting with an ancient method of suspended animation.  He has managed to place himself in a trance so deep that it is indistinguishable from death. Moreover, he is able to maintain this trance for days on end.  His butler / personal assistant Riker (Frank Reicher) assists him, and he is the only one who knows about Gregory’s mysterious endeavors.

One night, at the conclusion of his stage show, admiring amateur magician John Randall (Donald Douglas) and his wife Ellen (Jean Rogers) come to Gregory’s dressing room to visit him.  Riker tells them that Mr Gregory never receives visitors.  But Gregory, noticing the beautiful Ellen, immediately invites the couple in.  John Randall is quite excited to meet Gregory — so excited that he doesn’t notice that Gregory’s attention is fixed almost entirely on Ellen.

The fact that Ellen is a) married and b) uninterested in him does not deter Gregory in the least. He decides to make Ellen his.  He gets Randall to invite him to his home, for a gathering of the local amateur magician’s club.  In front of many onlookers, he shows Randall how to make a slip-noose that can easily be used as a garrote.  Later, seeing Ellen walk out onto the back patio alone, he follows her. Using his powers of hypnotism, he draws Ellen to him and embraces her, just in time for Randall to see what he’s up to.  Angered by the liberties he’s taking, Randall throws Gregory out of the house.

The next day, Gregory sends Ellen a dozen roses. She throws them out, but the next day, he sends eleven — and the next day ten, and the day after that nine.  Eventually Randall finds out about this flowery countdown, and goes to confront Gregory. 

To Randall’s surprise, Mr. Gregory is found dead the next morning, strangled with the very same garrote he had demonstrated at the party.  Riker sees to Gregory’s burial, but soon he too is strangled in the same way, after writing a note implicating Randall.

Randall finds himself on trial for a double homicide, and the prosecution’s case is strong: Randall had means, motive and opportunity. But just when things are at their bleakest, a surprise witness arrives to testify at the trial — Gregory’s twin brother Lane Talbot.  Talbot explains to the court that Gregory was a cad, and he might even be considered an evil man. No one should be judged too harshly for doing away with him.  In light of this testimony, the jury spares Randall the death penalty.

With Randall safely in prison, Lane Talbot begins worming his way into a grateful Ellen’s life.  But Ellen’s friend Sheila (Marjorie Hoshelle) is becoming suspicious.  Is Lane Talbot who he says he is?  Or is this the sinister Mr. Gregory, alive and hiding in plain sight?

Comments: In the movies, certain career paths are viewed with enormous suspicion. Scientists, as we have seen, are assumed to have at least a couple of screws loose. Actors, who spend all their time emoting and pretending to be people they aren’t, are another. Puppeteers and the curators of wax museums don’t fare much better. And tonight we can add another vocation to the list of ones your high school guidance counselor ought to have steered you away from: the stage magician.

Like the title character in The Mask of Diijon,  Mr. Gregory has gotten tired of sawing ladies in half and wants to do a deep-dive into the mysteries of the human mind. Being able to simulate death would make for a tedious stage show but it’s a terrific way to get away with all kinds of skullduggery. There isn’t a great deal of suspense in The Strange Mr. Gregory — we know, for example, that Lane Talbot and Gregory are the same guy almost immediately. The real mystery is why Gregory would fake his own death, frame one man for two crimes he didn’t commit, and murder another, all for the love of a married woman he hardly knows. Unfortunately, that’s a mystery the movie doesn’t get around to solving. But come on, you wouldn’t be watching it if it was called The Well-Adjusted Mr. Gregory, would you?

Edmund Lowe is perfectly qualified to play the title character; not only had he previously portrayed Chandu the magician, but he’d also played his own doppelganger in The Great Impersonation. And while Lowe looks somewhat longer in the tooth than he did in those films  (because he is) he still imbues Gregory with an aura of unnerving charm.

One amusing thing about Gregory is that for all the talk about what a great magician he is, what we see of his act is on a par with what you’d see performed at a kid’s birthday party. The stale magic tricks he employs — making doves appear from under silver serving domes and so forth — must have seemed tiresome even in the 1940s.

The prolific Frank Reicher has been seen on Horror Incorporated a number of times in minor roles (he played Ullman in the monster-rally House of Frankenstein, Dr. Norman in both The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Ghost, Professor Mendelssohn in The Invisible Ray and the ill-fated Timmons in Night Monster). The character of Riker is a small one but Reicher makes it memorable in his few scenes.

Jean Rogers is pretty and assured in the role of the put-upon Ellen, though the part isn’t particularly well written. Rogers, of course, was Dale Arden in the Flash Gordon movies and while she was never an A-lister she was a sturdy screen presence through the late 30s and early 40s. After leaving Universal she moved first to Warner and then to the ritziest studio of them all, MGM. But she soon walked away from her contract in a dispute, and it wasn’t long before she fell all the way down to Monogram, a sure sign that her career had flamed out.

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