Nothing is more alluring for both audiences and writers than dusting off old tropes. This is true. There is no argument against this statement. Resistance is futile. Boom. Done. Let’s pack it away, boys. No? Okay, I guess we could talk a little more about this very general statement I just made. And if I’m going to be talking about housekeeping motifs and tropes, do me the favor and humor me by nodding your head or something and when passersby asks why you’re nodding your head, you tell them about this brilliant piece you’re reading, as I delve into this odd analogy to FX’s dark horror show, The Strain. Let it be known now, while I may make mention of some of the newer seasons, my focus will mostly be with the first season, as it is the best and has one of my top ten TV/movies favorite openings/pilots. The only big let down with the second season is the new kid they got to play Zack Goodweather, as he plays a larger role in the second season, he became downright annoying and I’m secretly hoping something really bad happens to him. If that was the point then bravo to the writers cause I really do loathe that little bastard. Anyway, that’s not really why we’re here, is it? Tropes. That’s the term I used before and that is precisely what I want to talk to you about. Dusting off aged tropes is, in my humble opinion, an excellent method of storytelling. The classics for horror being Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, and Frankenstein, etc. etc, and how can we use these today? In this endeavor, The Strain is an excellent example we can learn from.
Before we scourge the graveyard any deeper, here’s a quick synopsis from our favorite source, IMDb:
A mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism ravages the city of New York.
Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause, if you please, for another stunning synopsis from IMDb. Well, they’re not wrong. There is a virus going around, and it certainly creates hosts that act very vampiric. A very fresh take, I think, on the classic vampire trope. No. This isn’t Lestat. These are monsters, as well they should be. And I love this reimaging of the vampire. The Strain uses invokes classic myths, such as The Master, or “patient zero,” as one of the characters refers to him as, in a way of explaining the legend to a couple of non-beliving doctors. Silver and sunlight are also here too. But no longer crosses and garlic, both of which are hardly ever mentioned. So, despite that the fangs are gone and they have a “stinger,” a worm like tentacle, that the vamps use to “latch on” to their prey, it’s still very much in tune with the aged trope. Better, in my opinion. While we all love Bela, the dashing vampire is too tired nowadays, and xenophobia is more rapid and in your face for such subtlety. We need monsters. Vampires are not lonely outsider boyfriends that sparkle. They are killers, and worse. They are a virus, a scourge, a blight. Some films get it right. 30 Days of Night was good. And Let the Right One In was an instant classic.
What really sets The Strain apart is the use of some of the more classic character types that are largely ignored in modern vampire storytelling. Sure, you cannot have a vampire movie without the preverbal “Dracula,” and in The Strain, we get The Master, who is without question truly terrifying and oddly alluring. But besides the “Dracula” character, what else is offered. I’m going to start off with my favorite. Instead of Abraham Van Helsing, we get Abraham Setrakian, an aged, very aged professor now turned pawn shop proprietor. His history within the context of the show is very rich. Setrakain is a Holocaust survivor who was taught by his grandmother regarding certain “creatures of the night.” As a young man, Setrakian believed her stories to be just that, stories. For a young Setrakian, the Holocaust proved to have enough horrors of its own without the need of mythical monsters. However, as it would seem, the concentration camp, Treblinka, in which Setrakian is incurred is besieged by, not just from war and death and human injustice, but also by a physical parasite that moves about during the night. Witnessing the creature with his own eyes, his grandmother’s stories flood back and he works quickly at finding a way to dispatch this monster. He fails at this but survives the encounter and the war. He then dedicates his entire life at tracking down The Master and his creations and riding the world of the Strain.
The Van Helsing motif in Setrakian was very well thought out, taking the old trope and making it more, giving it more life and substance. For me, Abraham really makes the show enjoyable, especially during flashback episodes that show Setrakian’s evolution.
Another interesting twist with tropes is the Renfield motif found in not just one character, but two, each with their own set of motives that feel very parallel to each other. The first is a human named Eldritch Palmer. While Renfield in the film and Bram Stroker book feels both pathetic and sympathetic, Palmer takes that notion to a different level. Due to his disabling sickness, whatever condition he seems to suffer from physically does not hinder the power of his will, his sheer determination to get whatever it is he wants. And what he wants most of all is to live. This desire seduces him in aligning with The Master and helping the Strain spread over New York. We feel bad for him, as we do with Renfield, for the kind of life he must have had, never knowing which breath would be his last, while at the same time we are appalled by his greed for life and uncaringness towards others. The second Renfield character is in the person of Thomas Eichhorst, played wonderfully by Richard Sammel. Eichhorst is, for lack of a better word, the Master’s right-hand man, but in reality, he’s more of a puppet than anything else and is in fact used quite literally as a puppet whenever the Master feels like “speaking” through him. But his character is more alluring for me than Palmer is. Palmer is just pathetic, especially in season 2. An old groveling to maintain his authority. Eichhorst has an interesting history that is connected with Setrakian, making the motivations for their rivalry very believable, and solidifying Eichhorst as a fan favorite baddy.
There are other characters in the show, a lot of hunters and community leaders, most do not necessarily correlate to classic Dracula trope. We could say that Dr. Ephraim Goodweather could be a close match to a Jonathan Harker motif. But Harker wasn’t really a well thought out character in the movie, perhaps more so in the book. There is one character though that needs mention. The part of Kelly Goodweather as a trope for Mina Harker. While the Master’s fascination with her still begs the question, her role is without a doubt very much Mina-like. When she is turned, she is used, more or less, as a tool to find her son, Zack Goodweather, and in turn to stop Eph and the merry band of vampire hunters. The Master’s interest in Kelly seems to only relate to his interest in stopping the good doctor, perhaps using Kelly and keeping her around just to taunt him.
Have you ever heard the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun?” It’s a saying from Hebrew scripture, Ecclesiastes 1:9. I’m often fond of saying it, especially when fellow writers pitch me their book or story idea and ask if it’s too much like another story. I’ve done the same as well, wondering if this “new idea” is too much like something else. Recently I published a short story with Matt Shaw is his release of Bah Humbug! An Anthology of Christmas Horror Stories. My story is called “Happiness U.S.A.,” and is “inspired” by a classic Twilight Zone episode titled “Garrity and the Graves.” The basic concept is a con artist that travels through an old west town and cons the town into thinking he can resurrect the dead. The catch is that the people in this old west town do not want their dearly departed returned to them, and so to put them “back in the grave” they have to pay Garrity more money. This is one of my favorite shows and one of my top favorite episodes. It’s both cheeky and disturbing, as many Twilight Zone episodes are. And I wanted to do my own take on Mr. Garrity and this old west town. But my version, my dusting off of the classic trope/motif was asking myself, what if Garrity wasn’t really a “con” artist per say, what if he could really bring back the dead. What kind of person or being could do something like that? An angel…or devil? So I took that concept and made my town of Happiness a small Texas oil town back in the mid-1970s. And the price the people of Happiness will have to pay will be much steeper than gold or silver.
This feels like a long way around to basically say, it’s okay to resurrect old trope, give them a good dusting, and retell the story in a new and exciting way. The Strain just so happens to be my favorite example and I wanted an excuse to talk about the show. I’ve started in on the novel the show is based on. There are some differences, but the meat and potatoes are pretty much the same. So if you need a recommendation, you’ve got it. Give this show and book a go. You will not be disappointed.
AND if you happen to be curious about that Christmas anthology I mentioned, follow the image below.
And if perhaps I can tempt you with one more book. I’ve got a new novel that released this week. Conceiving (Subdue Book 3). “…an evil [is] biding its time…waiting for them all,” Conceiving can be read as both a standalone or as part of the series. You can find out more about the book here. Or you can check it out on Amazon. Currently, the book is marked down to $0.99, but only for a limited time. Available for both kindle (or kindle apps) and on paperback.
Another first for me. Fresh from a late night screening of Dracula’s Daughter, expecting perhaps something humdrum or worse, mediocre. However, the most sublime thing happened. Dracula’s Daughter turned out to be an actually wonderfully fantastic film. With beautiful cinematography and superb acting, its a wonder why folks don’t talk about this film more. It is astounding how the general consensus on movie review sites, such as Rotten Tomato, is nothing more than a snore, between critic and everyday reviewers alike. I suppose walking the line between boring and atmospheric is a very narrow path. Personally, I felt Dracula’s Daughter was very atmospheric and I can see now where more recent vampire adaptations picked certain images. When I first glimpsed Countess Marya Zaleska (played by the enchanting Gloria Holden), with her face hidden behind a black hijab, she reminded me of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Of course, one the significant differences the between two, Countess Marya Zaleska seems to prefer to prey on women than men, which also gives us some rather homoerotic vibes, especially concerning a certain scene between the Countess and a woman her man servant Sandor brings in off the street under the guise of needing model for a painting. Thankfully, we’ve got a special guest with us today to help us sort through this film. Teacher, screen writer, film maker, author, podcaster, and all around great guy, William D. Prystauk has graciously agreed to take on this Universal classic. Lets see what he has to say!
Dracula’s Daughter (Universal, 1936)
by William D. Prystauk
This is the official sequel to 1931’s iconic Dracula, this tale takes place a few months after the count’s death at the hands of Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Dracula’s Daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), with the help of her right-hand man, Sandor (Irving Pichel) steals the body of her “dead” father, and burns Dracula to a crisp in order to rid herself of the desire to consume blood that possesses her – except it doesn’t work. As Van Helsing remains in court defending himself against murder charges because he rid the world of a vampire, the countess takes victims by mesmerizing them with a jeweled ring. Even so, she meets up with psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), and undergoes therapy while trying to use sheer force of will to keep her bloodthirsty cravings at bay. Seeking a distraction, Sandor brings the countess model Lili (Nan Grey) to paint. In the beginning, Zaleska resists her urge to attack Lili, but ultimately fails. Though Lili survives the assault, she soon dies when Dr. Garth tries to hypnotize her. Realizing a cure is impossible at the same time Dr. Garth realizes she’s a true blue vampire, Zaleska kidnaps the doctor’s lover, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), and whisks her off to solemn Transylvania. In order to save Janet, Dr. Garth must allow himself to be bitten by Zaleska so he can become her partner – forever. However, the countess had promised Sandor eternal life. And before her fangs can penetrate her soon to be enslaved beau, Sandor, pent on revenge for the snub, destroys her with an arrow.
The only one to reprise his role from the first film is Van Sloan. Hell, the studio didn’t try to get Tod Browning to direct again, and James Whale took a walk – and they didn’t even show Bela Lugosi in a coffin (even though he came cheap as stars go), but used a wax bust of him instead. Simply put, Universal wanted to cash in on the Dracula name one more time.
Dracula’s Daughter, although far from a perfect film, certainly has its moments. First, it distanced itself from the original movie to the point where the film can stand on its own because an entirely different mythos has been created. Where Lugosi’s count wanted control and power, Zaleska is a reluctant bloodsucker. She wants nothing more than to be a normal woman and experience the sun on her face. Thinking and talking about a world she cannot engage with her senses, she seeks out any means to make it happen. She burns her father’s body to dust as if she’s honoring some archaic folk remedy, and when that fails, she turns to modern science because it’s clear Zaleska thinks the problem’s in her head, thanks to psychiatrist Garth who thinks he can cure any “disease of the mind”. If she can find a way of quenching that thirst without unleashing her fangs, she can recapture her humanity. But don’t let this fool you because Zaleska keeps Lurch-like Sandor around. He’s a cold Vulcan wannabe who drops shade upon her fantasies to comedic splendor. Sandor sees death in her eyes, and when she imagines birds and dogs, he sees bats and wolves. Therefore, every smile she conjures he turns into a frown. In this case, he’s not just her servant, but her reality check. In addition, if Zaleska finds a cure for her curse, Sandor will never become the immortal badass he wishes to become. If the countess had chosen Sandor as her companion, there’s no doubt that once he became the immortal dead he’d either stake Zaleska or leave her behind. Beyond those two options, Sandor would have followed in Dracula’s bloody footsteps. However, I always wondered if Universal had made a third installment with the Return of Sandor and Irving Pichel reprising his role. This would have kept the franchise rolling, and could have altered Pichel’s career, which ultimately became waylaid by the truly horrific House Un-American Activities Committee who had him blacklisted as an actor and a director.
One thing that never escapes vampirism in all its forms is the homoerotic element: A villain with fanged teeth (phalluses) penetrating the flesh of men and women. Dracula may have wanted Mina Harker, but he takes her husband to be, Jonathan as a live-in slave, and who knows how he crawled into the mind of Renfield before going after Lucy Westenra. In Dracula’s Daughter, the much talked about scene between Zaleska and Lili makes one wonder if the countess craves the young woman out of hunger or something more. As the young woman stands half-naked before Zaleska, the countess hunger shines through, but one can argue either way if it’s bloodlust (looking at Lili as sustenance) or as a love interest. When Lili fades fast, Zaleska seems to revel in the fact that the woman is dying, because this demise is the countess’s dark creation thanks to her own fangs. This is where some of daddy Dracula’s darkness leaks through, and for a moment we wonder if Sandor wasn’t right all along about those bats, wolves, and notions of death. After all, he knows his mistress better than anyone else ever could.
Most important, unlike Dracula, we feel for Zaleska the monster. She’s in turmoil and seems serious-minded about becoming something better than her uncanny, human consuming self. This allows audiences to appreciate her struggle and have sympathy for the monster, the same as Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolfman, who had become a creature of the night against his will, and Boris Karloff’s poor monster thanks to Dr. Frankenstein. Granted, we don’t really know of Zaleska’s origin, but with her longing for sunlight, she most undoubtedly had been sired against her will.
Regardless, Gloria Holden was a reluctant actress. She did not care for horror and did not want to become typecast as she saw Lugosi becoming. This helped her in creating a “yearning for life” character, a reluctant vampire who had to feed like a human needed a bite out of a hamburger each day, and there was no non-blood alternative to sustain her. Holden maintained her stature and grace in the role, bringing an element of regality to the countess, which appeared as an older, domineering lesbian to some, or mommy dearest like mistress of the damned. One can see how she may have influenced the eyes of Lily Munster or Angelica Houston in the Addams’ Family films. We can only guess what the reaction would have been if scribe John L. Balderston’s original screenplay had been accepted by Universal, and the stifling censorship board (Production Code Administration) at the time. In Balderston’s version, Von Helsing would have returned to the castle to finish off the vampire brides, but we would have been introduced to a countess who enjoyed her role as queen destructive bee. Several scenes apparently implied that the countess had a desire for torturing men, which included paraphernalia equivalent to a 1930’s version of a dominatrix with whips and such. However, Zaleska did have a mental hold on Sandor, and she certainly tortured him with the dangling carrot of immortality.
Ultimately, in Dracula’s Daughter, the beast and her bodyguard butler only discovered death and destruction, while the arrogant cocksure psychiatrist and his love interest earned the chance to live another day. Yet oddly enough, with Garth’s education and prowess to hypnotize there is a subtle hint that he is the human equivalent of a vampire (sans Zaleska’s jeweled ring), though we never learn if he’ll use his mental skills to manipulate poor Janet. We only know that the vampire queen is dead and young women in London and in the valley of the castle’s shadow are safe for another day.
Rate: 3 stars out of 5
William D. Prystauk is an award-winning screenwriter, film producer, and teacher in higher education, as well as a published poet, and essayist. His crime thriller, BLOODLETTING, has been adapted from his script of the same name, and he is currently working on a horror series. William also co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK podcast as Billy Crash with his good buddy, Jonny Numb, and currently has thousands of listeners in 120 countries. You can find more about horror and William on his Crash Palace Productions site. As an Assistant Professor of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, William teaches business writing, and public relations. You can find more about William at any of these fantastic sites: Amazon: http://amzn.to/1Fu9PHS Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/1GhclaJ Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23365977-bloodletting BLOODLETTING Book Trailer One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVNji_G-tSI BLOODLETTING Book Trailer Two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glK9DiVIHT8 IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5464477/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/william-d-prystauk/10/9a1/a55 Horror Podcast: THE LAST KNOCK on iTunes Twitter: @crashpalace
Behold! Dracula, the movie that launched a twenty-three year progression of monster movies we call Universal Classics today. Who could have predicted the success despite a rather tremendous stage career of not only the film but also the glowing eyed antagonist, Bela Lugosi? Dracula, the dashing, mysterious godfather of modern horror cinema, released at the Roxy Theater in New York City, on February 12, 1931. Even the cleverly crafted “fainting” rumors and “on-call” medical staff in the lobby orchestrated by nervous executives, hoping to induce some natural sense of morbid curiosity, was unnecessary. According to film historian Michael Fitzgerald, within the first 48 hours of Dracula’s release, the Roxy Theater had sold over 50,000 tickets. Horror had just become mainstream. Dracula’s acclaim paved the way for the other classics we’ve grown to love, our other Universal Studios Monsters, such as: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman, each owing their existence to the success of one film, even if said film wasn’t entirely all that great. But I think, in large part, the success, as it began at first, was due to the period in which the film released. Lets take a look back in time (key Twilight Zone theme).
The golden era of Universal Studios monster movies is one of most interesting bits of Americana cinematic history. Why? I’m glad you asked! As the roar of the 20’s was coming to an end, the decade that had ushered in high booms and some of the best silent pictures would eventually end in the same dramatic fashion. The Stock Market Crash, also known as “Black Tuesday,” on October 29th, 1929, while still under much debate among certain historical circles, we can say that following the panic, America went into the greatest depression she, thus far, had ever known. By March 1930, 3.2 million people would be unemployed. And while Americans were growing uncertain regarding the future in the face of food riots, strikes, and lamentable upheaval, even more uncertainty was developing on the horizon.
Beginning in 1928, against the backdrop of Germany’s almost two decade long depression following the end of the Great War, and the peoples utter discontent with what they considered a failure of Wiemar Democracy, the Nazi Party (The National Socialist Party) slowly began taking over the Reichstag (Reichstagsgebäude). Fascism was a darkening cloud over the Atlantic. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. By 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were established, and by 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland, World War II began.
This is, of course, just a brief look at the world during the era of Universal Horror. Only with the luxurious logic of hindsight can we contemplate why executives were nervous over Dracula’s success in the first place. Some things we can guess. This was a film, based on a stage play, based on a novel that was, at the time, rather dark and perhaps too sexualized for tastes during the 1930s. And across the pond, the world was in turmoil. And not just that, but Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, the producers first pick as Dracula, had recently passed away. Who would they cast now? In the end, it boiled down to Lugosi, and mostly only because he was literally the last option and would work for cheap, about $500 a week. Certainly, the film was a risk for Universal, but as history proved, Dracula became one of the greatest escapes for worrisome audiences listening in on radio broadcasts about invasions, famine, poverty, and war. And of course this was no simple drive to the movies! Not at all. For the silent and talkie black & white era “going to the movies” was no humbug experience. Especially for theaters such as Roxy, in New York City. The Roxy was a Grand Theater, a “Cathedral of the Motion Picture.” Going to the movies to see Dracula was not the same experience as going to the movies today, to say the least. Going to the movies during the 20’s and 30’s was like going to the Opera in today’s standards. Folks got dressed up for cheap tickets and excellent performances. Live orchestras opened the night before the large velvet curtain pulled away revealing the white projection screen underneath. Going to the movies, was indeed The Greatest Show on Earth.
But that was then. Now, we’re sitting at 85 years since Dracula’s original release. What does Dracula say for today’s audiences. Well, to be honest I’d say most people probably feel Dracula is rather dated. Tod Browning’s directorial control seems very lacking in many regards. Consider the piece of cutout cardboard left on a lamp for one of Lugosi’s closeups. In fact, we should probably give more directorial credit to Karl Freund, famed cinematographer of 1927’s German Expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis. And the lack of a musical score gives one the impression of empty space, like watching a High School stage production than a big budget Hollywood movie. Its choppy. There’s a sense of discontinuity. Yet, despite all that, Dracula is, in my most humble opinion, incredibly dark and at times scary. The fact that the movie is, in its own way, still disturbing stresses something important about the kind of story being told. A horror story playing on fears realized in the hearts of humanity told since the first campfire. Dracula tells us about (though, i’d argue for socially different reasons between 1931 and today) our fears of the so-called foreign invader, fears of madness, fears of hierarchical purity (Nazis called this, Volksgemeinschaft; the United States called it, Eugenics), fears of the unknown, fears of losing free will (especially the freedom of choice), and fears of death.
One of the greatest (of many) appeals with Dracula is its quality of acting. While Dracula was Bela Lugosi’s signature role, a role he played beautifully and held audiences with his mesmerizing Hungarian accent, my favorite all in all is Dwight Frye’s portrayal as Renfield. Watching the movie, even now 85 years later, Renfield gives me the chills. His sensibility as Dracula’s minion, his raving lunacy, devouring spiders and flies alike, was delivered with pure genius and incredible character acting. Especially during the scene aboard the Vesta, when the London longshoremen discover Renfield hiding below deck, the look on his face looking up at them from the staircase is, to say the least, disturbing. And this pretty much goes for the rest of the supporting cast. Edward Van Sloan as Abraham Van Helsing was marvelous. And who could deny the captivating charm of Helen Chandler as Mina Harker, the subject of Dracula’s desire? Yes, Dracula has some production issues that could sway you away into settling with a few YouTube clips to satisfy your curiosity. If I could somehow convince you otherwise, I hope this review helped. There’s certainly an historic importance with Dracula, but not just that. Dracula was, regardless of the all its mistakes, a hauntingly human, and, as it was billed back in 1931, a strange [otherworldly] romance.