Heart of Glass
THE MANIC THRUMMING of Philip Glass has always seemed like a lullaby for insomniacs. So it makes some sense that the minimalist composer's latest film score should back the undead antics of Bram Stoker's nighttime carouser, Dracula, as put to screen by Tod Browning. Just as the Transylvanian vampire tale is typically set to chamber music, replete with melancholy strings, Glass has written the piece specifically for his frequent collaborators the Kronos Quartet. The result is a frenetic brand of gothic, ultramodern, and musty at once. The whole package is coming this Halloween season--Sunday, October 29--to Northrop Auditorium, where Kronos, accompanied by Glass on keyboards, will play live while Dracula haunts the big screen.
Browning's film, oddly, has never had a score until now. Made in 1931, when sound in film was still a new phenomenon, Dracula was created with silent film strategies still in mind. In fact, from the heavily stylized bat logo behind the titles to Bela Lugosi's mugging for the camera, the first third of the film might as well be silent. Except, of course, that it is impossible to imagine this film without Lugosi's suave Hungarian inflections bidding us "velcome" and lecturing us on how "the blood is the life." Yet despite adding many classic moments to our cultural memory, Browning's Dracula is a transitional work--unsure of itself, even stilted--which shows most in both its gaping silences and overwrought conversations.
In response to this aesthetic dilemma, Glass has saturated the film with sound, weaving notes between and behind nearly every bit of dialogue, wedding virtually every image to music. Reflecting on the drama's key moments, the composer used a time-coded copy of the film to construct a score that attaches musical figures to motion with split-second perfection--a neat trick. At times the effect is overstated, as when the violins screech ominously while Renfield enters the carriage that will whisk him to Castle Dracul. Elsewhere, passages glow with heightened feeling, as when the Count claims the seduced Lucy, or during the first showdown between Dracula and his nemesis Van Helsing.
Yet whether played for camp or as a cri de coeur, the music is always attentive to the action of the film. Its hypnotic force propels the plot in waves, practically conjuring the "bad dreams" Renfield hysterically warns of. Best of all, the vigor of the score (and the expressiveness with which Kronos plays it) unhinges the movie from its narrative, the juxtaposition of sound and image encouraging us to watch the scenes for their abstracted beauty and often brilliant cinematography instead.
Starting with his riveting composition for the film Koyaanisqatsi, Glass has made a habit of nearly upstaging the pictures onscreen. His score for Mishima helped director Paul Schrader eviscerate the Japanese writer's psyche; his fanciful trills on Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line questioned the stability of memory; and his more brooding approach on Martin Scorsese's Kundun deconstructed the themes of spiritual and political intrigue. What's most intriguing about Glass's work on the reinvented Dracula is how he ties his obsessions to Browning's. The composer's trademark repetitions and nerve-racking arpeggios highlight the psychosexual subtext beneath this supernatural melodrama, spinning a spider's web around each character's movements and motivations. The musical tension also supports the film's commentary on the anxiety of the social order. ("They're all crazy," says Renfield's working-class custodian to a fellow laborer at the sanitarium.)
These themes would play out in Browning's next film, the truly disturbing Freaks, a morality play about circus people that ends with a violent overturning of the caste system. Here, as in his earlier work, Browning's eye for the horrific in human nature turns out to be as precise as Glass's mathematical evocation of unease. "The strength of the vampire is, people will not believe in him," Van Helsing says. This new version of Dracula may make believers of us yet.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.