April 18, 2017 | by James Greene, Jr.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute — you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” Al Jolson famously shouts in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the moment that officially ushered in “the talkies” and dooming legions of film actors and actresses whose voices couldn’t match their cinematic looks. Directors remained a bit vexed by this new technological avenue as late as five years later, which is why audiences can hear literal swaths of nothing in what became one of the most popular horror movies of all time anyway: Universal’s 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi.
There’s been bushels of debate over the years regarding just how much of the white noise in Dracula is intentional. The normally painstaking director Tod Browning became distracted during production, rumors say, and left too much work in the hands of cinematographer Karl Freund. Or Browning meant to put in all that aural nothing. Whatever the case, the quiet works to Dracula’s advantage, enveloping the picture in a strange, foreboding atmosphere as the microphones strain to pick up every stray rustle or tick between Lugosi and his co-stars.
In the title role, Lugosi is symphonic enough, his crawling vocalizations a sonorous underscore to that icy, undead stare. In many ways, he seems to be echoing what brief music plays over Dracula’s opening credits, a somber patch from Act II of Swan Lake.
Eventually Hollywood figured out how to properly work score into a film, and in a few decades’ time our cinematic monsters started receiving personalized themes: Godzilla, Norman Bates, Damien, the Tall Man, Michael Myers, Freddy, Jason, etc. In the late ‘90s, Blair Witch proved a ghoul could still succeed without a specific leitmotif, but despite that fact Universal couldn’t leave well enough alone. In 1998, the studio commissioned Philip Glass to create a score for Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Employing a string quartet (as a minimalist would), Glass put together something dour, inward, and gothic… though it isn’t exactly Dracula.
Dracula may be a blood-obsessed freak, but he’s an undeniably bold and sexy blood-obsessed freak, something the Glass score does not reflect. The real issue could be that Glass’s Dracula comes so long after Hammer Films laid out their Dracula chronology, the full color series that pounds your chest with brassy beats and grasps your heart with dramatic orchestra swells, moving you in ways comparable to the debonair vampire’s kiss.
Composer James Bernard’s founding music for 1958’s Dracula (known in the U.S. as The Horror of Dracula) has been the template used by several other high-profile productions, including Universal’s own 1979 remake starring Frank Langella (scored by a somewhat out-of-his-element John Williams) and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 interpretation (featuring Wojciech Kilar's breathless, bombastic work).
Even the tiny bits of scoring Gene Page turned in for 1972’s otherwise soul and funk-drenched Blacula owe a debt to what James Bernard put forth years earlier. Comparatively, Philip Glass gives the Prince of Darkness a treatment better fit for an Amish murder mystery.
Even Mario Beltrami’s score for Dracula 2000, that unmitigated piece of shit starring Gerard Butler, does a better job serving the character of film’s most celebrated count. Not that your average moviegoer recalls a drop of Dracula 2000’s symphonic marks — the movie is smeared with so much dissonant nu metal that’s all anyone can remember. “Ah yes,” they say as their mental fog recedes, “the Dracula where he fights Powerman 5000, Disturbed, and Static-X.”
Of course, the Dracula of 1931 doesn’t need music, pop or otherwise. It has Lugosi’s voice, the brooding and affecting instrument everyone’s been doing an impression of ever since. No horn or string can improve upon that wicked Transylvanian thunder.
“To die… to be really dead… that must be glorious.”