Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween Mini-Reviews Classic Edition: Dracula (1931) and The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

* Dracula

Renfield goes to Transylvania as a financial advisor and leaves it in the thrall of Count Dracula, a bloodthirsty vampire. Together, they move to London so Dracula has access to a fresh crop of victims. As the first horror talkie, the film has large swathes of silence that give the film suspense and tension helped along with the deliberate closeups. Bela Lugosi plays both the charming socialite Dracula pretends to be and the powerful, inhuman creature he actually is. This is the first movie to portray vampires as seductive and show them as blending into human society. Lugosi uses his skill as a silent movie actor to make his body language effective. His mesmerizing eyes hold the camera's gaze with a small strip of light over them to show his mental power over people. His hands and movements are almost otherworldly.

Instead of Jonathan, Renfield is the person who takes us through the story and has the most pathos. His physical and emotional change from before being under Dracula's thrall and after is stark. Before, he's a professional, neat, confident financial advisor. Afterwards, his hair is in disarray. His eyes bulge crazily and he bares his teeth in an insane smile. He alternates between being completely devoted to Dracula and struggling to help Dr. Van Helsing and his daughter. Jonathan Harker in contrast is an oblivious idiot who has an overinflated sense of importance. I don't sympathize with him at all. The only problems with the film are in Dracula's nature and censorship. Dracula isn't conflicted or anything which makes him a much flatter character than all the other Universal monsters. Because of the Hayes Code, showing any sort of vampire attack and Dracula's death was banned. It unfortunately takes a lot away from the sense of danger and the impact of the ending.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

* The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Erique Claudine is fired from the Paris Opera orchestra due to the deadened nature of the fingers in his left hand. While the Opera paid well, he spent his savings on voice lessons for Christine Dubois, a talented but overlooked singer. When he thinks his music is stolen, he kills the offending man and has acid thrown in his face. Erique's madness has claimed him as he terrorizes the Paris Opera, making demands and doling out fatal consequences for noncompliance.

This version of The Phantom of the Opera is my personal cinematic favorite because of the humor, the lush sets, and the extended opera scenes. These things are largely seen as ruining the horror, but it's an odd story that is never adapted faithfully. This film fits in well with the Universal formula with its sympathetic villain. Erique Claudine can't catch a break. His life is falling apart due to failing health with his piano concerto being his last effort to keep out of poverty. There is injustice in someone stealing his music, but murder is where the sympathy stops. He lives under the opera house, stealing things so he can help Christine and intimidate the managers and the police. The actual music he creates is beautiful, believable as a folk song and lullaby, and the only original music performed in the movie.

Christine, on the other was hand, works hard at her craft and courts Anatole, a leading baritone in the opera, and Raoul, a policeman. Stuck in the chorus line, she aspires to star in the opera and acts as understudy for Carlotta. Both men comically snipe at each other while they garner her affection. This was probably done to fill the void of the Phantom, Raoul, Christine love triangle that wasn't done here because of the Phantom's age and his more paternal affection towards her. The opera takes on a different type of drama when Carlotta is first poisoned and then killed. The police respond by not complying with the Phantom's demands to bait him into caputre, but instead he responds with a large scale attack. The offstage drama and high stakes contrast with the beautiful operatic moments. The composer takes familiar themes from Tchaikovsky and Chopin and creates original opera music and scenes.

The Phantom of the Opera is light on horror and heavy on personal drama, but it captures the grandeur and scale of the opera with amazing music and performances. The comedic elements are well placed. The love triangle ends satisfyingly with Christine chosing her career and the adoration of the public over the affection of the either man. It's a well made film that will always be my favorite of the Universal horror films.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

No comments: