Friday, October 13, 2017


Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was playing in the supermarket today. This abrupt change to classical music is an attempt to remind us to buy stuff for that scary day, no, not Voting Day but Halloween. Large bags of sweets, pumpkins, plastic skeletons, animatronic characters of restless souls which blink, howl, shake and cackle. Headstones, coffins, zombies and "dark" art shows. Halloween, the adult phenomenon and not the trick or treat for children, as we old folks knew it. There was a small pub called Huey's in Lansdale which decorated two rooms from floor to ceiling. I recall sitting there with my husband listening to the talking rat and the wailing ghouls and I said, "Do you think people really understand what all this means?" It is about the First Things; life, death and the soul in the eternal world to come.  The plastic junk will come down but the reality of eternal life remains. These days, Eternal Life could easily be a trendy new insurance company.  Once superstition in the form of occasional piety was seen as supernatural insurance.  The notorious actor John Barrymore admitted in his biography to the efficacy of praying an occasional Hail Mary.  "It worked!" he said.  His co star Conrad Veidt said, "I believe in prayer because when we pray, we always pray for something good."  To which I say, "sometimes."  Certainly, the way we pray and live now decides how we will spend eternity. Which brings me to DRACULA. 
 I read the text for the first time aloud to my ailing father. I wasn't keen on reading Dracula, as the films come off as rather silly or sacrilegious. However, the original novel was an edifying, suspenseful ride encompassing such themes as; friendship, goodness, self sacrifice, and innocence pitted against selfishness, impiety, greed and abominable evil. The story is told via journals, newspaper accounts, cylinder recordings and personal letters shared by a small group of friends all but one drawn together by romance. The steam punk technology with Kodak camera was a refreshing take on the method Mary Shelley used via letters and journals in her Romantic era Frankenstein. Mary Shelley, I believe, was searching for the Divine in a cruel material world. While Bram Stoker, I believe, made the Divine a central character who becomes materially present with the arrival of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. Doctor, professor, father figure and literally a Dutch uncle to all.  A much needed figure of a pious man. Surprisingly, as all the English characters are Protestant, the good Dr. is a Roman Catholic!  We know little about him, he has a degree in medicine and law, married albeit his wife is institutionalized and his only child, a son, is dead. We never learn the details. Van Helsing carries a heavy cross and something profound, the Body of Christ.  More on that later.  Where did he get his extensive knowledge of Vampirology? He is described as robust and red headed,  weaker than the young friends he assists. He is fearless but has his limits especially when Lucy's mother interferes causing her daughter's doom. He uses German phrases. Was this Bram Stoker's lack of a good Dutch dictionary or could it be he had a German mother?  I know Dutch and Belgian people who live near the German border, a border that moved, who speak fluent German.  Being an academic, he would have known German and Latin and some Greek. He recalls actor Alfred Basserman, see photo.
 Van Helsing must relate the painful realities of life to the young people who in spite of their virtues don’t want to hear it.  No, the fact evil is not only found among the living but the dead is a chilling reality indeed.  The fact there is a spiritual realm across an unseen veil that exists beside us.  
Which brings us again to Dracula who is not a sympathetic figure. Mercenary, cruel, foul and evil are the words for Dracula. Nosferatu, the first film based on the novel, was set in a Caspar David Frederick German Romantic era setting. This era was the setting for Frankenstein a story dwelling on loss and the impossibility of returning to innocence.  Mary Shelley had eloped with a married man, whose young wife then committed suicide in her despair.  Then Mary and Shelley's baby miscarried.  What a horrible ordeal for a romantic young woman.  I wondered when the monster says to Frankenstein you had no right to make me, if poor Mary's grief  and guilt for her miscarried child was subconsciously pouring out.  Frankenstein is a difficult book to read for love and hope are ethereal.  Not so with Dracula.  When Dracula was remade in the thirties, Hollywood offered the part to Conrad Veidt, a rather bizarre choice, at first. Veidt had the look; tall, gaunt, pale, pointy eared with massive hands. All he would require would be the long white mustache, hairy palms, pointy teeth and fingernails.  Veidt fled to Germany instead, no doubt anticipating another A Man Who Laughs prosthesis experience.  Bela Lugosi was competent but he was not Dracula. Dracula was polite when it suited him but not suave.  Although blood made him young again, he literally stunk. 
With permission and thanks to Conrad Veidt Forever Wordpress

Personally, I would have chosen Victor Francen the Belgian character actor with his strange pale thick lashed scornful eyes.  See below. Francen usually played characters who were not happy and that was Dracula. Perhaps it was all the housework. The Count retained no servants except for Slovak and Gypsy "moving men". No household help. Working for Dracula would have been draining.  
Poor Jonathan Harker wonders why he never sees anyone else in the castle until he catches the Count making up his bed. He then realizes the Count was the unsocial coachman, the cook, butler, bell hop and maid of all work. Plus he had to do the shopping, dish washing and emptying the chamber pot. I liked the unused rooms in the castle, we all have them but not with piles of gold coins blanketed with the dust bunnies of centuries, eww.  The castle was enormous.  No wonder the Count was up all night. Dracula and his harem do eat babies then sic wolves on peasant mothers who come looking for their murdered children. Dracula terrifies his neighbors, enslaves victims, molests women and in the case of poor Mina for sadistic revenge. Dracula terrorizes animals too. Horses die of fright, even a wolf ashamed by his involvement in the death of the Westenras returns to the zookeeper with his tail literally between his legs. 
 After World War II horror films changed perhaps because we could not imagine fictional horrors worse than those perpetrated during that time.  With the sexual revolution, horror films added the abuse of beautiful young women well illustrated by Hammer films. After a while a terrible trend ensued, the anti hero, and I don't mean Heathcliff.  In The Seven Year Itch Marilyn Monroe's character remarks she felt sorry for the monster in The Creature From The Black Lagoon because all he wanted was love. Tom Ewell's character replies it is an interesting concept but his expression is one of amazement at this projecting of human longing into a slimy, murderous Lovecraft monster. Monsters went from being evil to being sympathetic perhaps even to becoming the hero. Think Barnabas Collins from the popular soap opera Dark Shadows, a vampire who is a tortured victim who doesn't want to bite people but the guy can't help it. Barnabas goes from vampire to avenger fighting other "meaner" characters, walling up the witch hunting Reverend Trask, for example see photo.  No coincidence the bad guy is a "Christian".  We all know there are Christians who do not live up to the faith.  The reality is most do not live up to Christ, the Christian life is a learning process.  Still the increasingly secular Sixties and Seventies gave us so many cross wearing villians they are hard to count and continue in the film and comic book realm to this day.
The endless Dracula spin offs, lampoons, rip offs, comic books and dollar dreadfuls cannot compare with the original novel of Dracula.  In Twilight, the novel, the vampire becomes a invisible friend/high school crush who will take a self conscious depressed teenage girl into the world of the undead where she can at last attain happiness!  Really? But with the hook up scene today perhaps this makes sense.  In the funky Disco satire, Love at First Bite, Cindy Sondheim tells the Count after asking him to give her the third bite, "this isn't so bad I am going to love immortality!" Immortality being a slave to Dracula?  She is literally dying to get away from the phony affluent non-committal life she leads. You don't need to read Fifty Shades of Grey to see modern women have been talked into suffering abuse. So who needs Van Helsing? 
 Van Helsing, in recent films, is the odd ball, a violent wacko zealot who likes the job. Van Helsing goes from being cast as a Sherlock Holmes type by Peter Cushing to a Hannibal Lecter type by Anthony Hopkins. In comics, Van Helsing becomes a super stud with a long coat or his own grand daughter in a bunny girl suit. It says less about Stoker’s novel than our increasingly regressive society which rejects the father figure as unnatural and patriarchal preferring to identify with a cruel unmerciful undead being - not human, animal or spirit - the opposite of a glorified body. More like a demon than a dead man. Why would people identify with that? Unless it is a recognition of sin in us all, concupiscence original sin which we know we carry and cannot rid ourselves of when we no longer believe in God or forgiveness. So all is violence and revenge and self justification. A strong truthful and good father figure doesn’t exist in heaven and therefore not on earth. So any man pretending to be so would be a charlatan or a fool. How is that for nihilism? Lack of trust and hope? A loss of innocence and pure motives. Moral relativism. Which brings us to one of the oddest, offensive films with vampires.  This is the one which made me think Dracula was silly. The Fearless Vampire Killers, see the photo of Jack MacGowran as Prof. Abronsius a stand in Van Helsing gene spliced with Einstein photographed with the lovely and unfortunate Sharon Tate as Sarah "Shagal's daughter" in the Italian Alps on location. The cinematography and color is breathtaking as the comedy is Benny Hill objectionable jokes upon ethnicity and creed irreverent enough to embarrass man or beast. Women are objectified and homosexuality makes an entre in the horror genre 7 years before Rocky Horror. Roman Polanksi directed and played the "innocent" "childlike" Alfred in a suit modeled on the Harker character from Nosferatu. What happens to people? The scene on the parapet is unforgettable and the castle is closest to the castle in the novel. Dr. Abronsius steals the film, so relaxed in the vampire's castle drinking his coffee and reading as if he were in a fine hotel.  The dark nihilistic ending is a parody of Victorian rescues.  Ferdy Mayne's Count will live on in his stolen bride.  Evil is not vanquished but released to the wider world.  Here is a link to a French version from one of the better scenes.  It was worth seeing just for the Professor.

While Dr. Abronsius is oblivious, Dr. Van Helsing is not.  What impresses me is the dedication of the friends in the novel Dracula.  My favorite scenes from the book include Lucy's sleepwalking adventure. Mina Murray soon to wed Jonathan Harker vacations at the seaside with her best friend Lucy Westenra. I see Mina being played by Wendy Hiller and Lucy being played by Joan Greewood.  

Mina wakes to find Lucy is not in the house. She searches for her and finds her in the graveyard overlooking the sea sitting on a bench near the grave of a suicide.  Mina has trouble seeing in the half light.  A large dark figure with red eyes is holding Lucy. Does Mina run screaming? No.  Mina goes directly to help Lucy. Now that is the kind of friend I want. Or Renfield the fussy lunatic who wants to consume living things in a bizarre antithesis of Christ's Communion spurred on to madness by Dracula who has become his master. Mina hears of his sad case from Dr. Seward.  She asks to meet him and treats Renfield with respect and compassion due a man. Renfield is edified by Mina's kindess and attempts in vain to rescue Mina from the Master.  Renfield meets a lamentable end but one of self sacrifice for another person's good.  He is no longer a "lost soul" but a heroic figure, a man in good standing. Dr. Seward the man of science learns there are things science cannot explain. Lord Godalming, Lucy's fiance,  a young man of privilege loses all those closest to him but finds there are higher things than wealth or satisfaction. The American, a Texan, is a symbol of all Bram Stoker hoped Americans could be, strong, compassionate, humble.  It is he who dies for his friends in the final battle to destroy Dracula.  It had me crying.

This brings me to the best of all the characters in Dracula, Jesus Christ.  Now what you may wonder am I saying?  Isn't the Blessed Sacrament being used as a literary device as the magic ring in The Hobbit?  How can I call the Professor's use of the Holy Eucharist as a door sealer, soil purifier and what appears as one more Vampire Be Gone tool with the Crucifixes and large fresh garlic arrangements shipped in daily from the greenhouse in Holland?  Isn't crushing the Holy Eucharist a sacrilege?  Even to use a mortar to fight this diabolic undead fiend?  The Professor says he has a special dispensation but we as Catholics know this isn't right.  The Vatican may have spies but it never had vampire hunters.  Bram Stoker had a friend who became a Catholic but his knowledge of the Eucharist was clearly limited.  What is charming about the use of the Host, even to me as an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist who believes this is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, is Bram Stoker makes the Eucharist a REALITY.  A wafer has no power over demons but Jesus Christ does.  Dracula has demonic powers and strength the mortals do not.  Jesus gives the helpless human beings the power they lack.  It is the Eucharist who keeps Dracula off them in the house search, who prevents Lucy from preying on more little children and permits her soul to go on to eternal life with Him.  Strong stuff here.  When Lord Godalming is given the job of putting the stake into his fiancĂ©'s heart he has an emotional melt down.  When the professor explains the reality, Lucy spending eternity as a vampire in an earthly hell of perpetual abuse, he does the unthinkable and agrees to the operation. Not mercy killing at all as Lucy is already dead.  No this is self sacrificing his comfort to release the woman he loves into eternal hope and joy.  Can we not recall something we did out of our own comfort zone to help someone?  Feeding a homeless person, praying outside an abortion clinic, speaking out on a moral issue knowing we would be mocked or praying continually the Rosary for someone we love who is in trouble even for what seems a hopeless case?  Conversions come out of those prayers and so do miracles sometimes more bizarre than fiction.  So read Dracula some misty fall evening.  You will enjoy it.  Here is some good information on Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day as the three get mixed up sometimes.

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