Bright Lights Film Journal

Browning and the Slow Club

Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) has gotten a bad rap in recent years. Some have even gone so far as to maintain that the 1931 Spanish version (shot on the same sets at night by George Melford, a non-Spanish-speaking director) is “technically superior.”

Leaving aside the relative lack of distinction of the Spanish-speaking cast, the crudeness of the lighting (when compared to the cinematography of Karl Freund, the genius who shot the Browning version), and the jarring continuity errors (intercutting long shots from Browning’s version with closer shots featuring different actors in the same roles, e.g., as the Brides), why is the Spanish version supposed to be so much better? Or rather, why is the Browning version supposed to be so much worse?

Critics of Browning and Freund’s Dracula have generally leveled their attacks at the pacing of the film, which is much slower than modern audiences are used to and is, indeed, noticeably slower than other films made during the same period. Not only are substantial portions of the film played without either dialogue or music, but even where there is dialogue, it is punctuated with uncommonly long pauses. Moreover, in almost any of the scenes involving Dracula or the other vampires, the actors move as slowly as if they were walking underwater.

You might as well complain that Lugosi’s Count Dracula “talks funny.”

For it is precisely the most peculiar aspects of Browning’s Dracula, the unnaturally slow pacing, the unnaturally massive sets, the odd off-beat line readings of Lugosi, Edward Van Sloane (as Van Helsing), and Dwight Frye (as Renfield), that give this film its extraordinary creepy power. Browning was at heart, if not by conscious affiliation, a Surrealist. (If you have any doubts, check out those armadillos scuttling about the floor of Castle Dracula, or the shot of the wasp emerging from the tiny coffin.) His films – Freaks is the example par excellence – consistently identify with characters who subvert the norm. According to his biographers, Elias Savida and David J. Skal, Browning disliked both dialogue and the title cards that interrupted silent films, preferring to tell his stories with images alone.

The contribution of cinematographer Karl Freund to Dracula was immense, comparable to Gregg Toland’s contribution to Citizen Kane. And Freund was something of a Surrealist himself – his great 1935 film Mad Love owes as much to Surrealism as it does to horror. Yet for all the claims that Freund actually directed or co-directed Dracula, the film’s distinctive silence and slow pace are plainly due to producer/director Browning. One sees the same suppression of dialogue and pace in the best scenes of Mark of the Vampire, a film directed by Browning with a different cinematographer (James Wong Howe) for a different studio (MGM).

Browning was a charter member of what I call “The Slow Club,” a group of filmmakers who intentionally use silence, stasis, long takes, and an unnaturally slow pace to cast a kind of hypnotic spell. In 1932, the year after Dracula was released, Carl Theodore Dreyer made Vampyr, a film whose slow pacing and long passages sans dialogue appear unavoidably influenced by Browning/Freund. But Dreyer’s interest in the aesthetics of slowness was not limited to vampire stories. His subsequent films, Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964), become increasingly static and more slowly paced.

Other members of “The Slow Club” include Josef von Sternberg, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky, and David Lynch. The influence of Browning is all over Lynch’s Eraserhead, a blatantly Surrealist film filled with long dialogue-less passages that are slowly paced and scored only with sound effects. And it’s no accident that in Blue Velvet, the nightclub where Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) first hears Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) sing is called … The Slow Club.

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The preceding post is Bright Lights After Dark‘s contribution to the ongoing Vampire Blog-a-Thon. For more in the same vein (chuckle), check here.