The 1999 release of Philip Glass’ score to Universal’s DRACULA (1931) was met with mixed reviews. Purists found the pregnant pauses in Bela Lugosi’s distinct Eastern-European delivery to be part of the charm of a film released only four years after the first talkie appeared. Scores were only just coming into their own . Director Tod Browning had 35 silent films to his credit (not including shorts), and would go one to make less than a dozen talkies. Indeed, one could argue that Browning intended a DRACULA that embraced silence and used it to cinematic advantage.
Except for two brief Tchaikovsky and Wagner excerpts, DRACULA without dialogue has little more than a few sound effects. Dramatic pauses abound, making all the more memorable the moment a wolf howls in the distance and the titular count opines how one should listen to the “children of the night…what music they make.”
Whether or not that was the extent of the music Browning intended is immaterial. In this day and age, it is not unusual for there to be “director’s cuts” and “extended versions” of films old and new. What is rare, however, is the superimposition of one art form over another as in the case of Glass’ score for Browning’s DRACULA. Writing a review in the New York Times at the time of DRACULA’s release with the added score, Allan Kozinnoct wrote
“The idea of commissioning a new score for an old film is interesting from an interaction-of-the-arts point of view, and it might have been even more interesting if Mr. Glass had provided a score that worked, which he didn’t.”
Kozinnoct goes on to say that the “score does not allow for the concept of eloquent silence.” But is this silence necessary in Universal’s DRACULA? Does silence add to the suspense of a motion picture or, to the contrary, take the audience out of the sutured experience by having them dwell then on the absence of sound.
Horror films — especially those consumed by a modern audience — rely upon three potent conventions: lighting, sound, and camera work. Yes, the script must be solid. Certainly, the acting must be believable. But sudden jolts and uncomfortable (look away) moments are often the result of a well-placed camera, a well-lit set and/or a well-timed piece of music.
Except, if legendary horror director John Carpenter is to be believed, the soundtrack should be implied and not so plainly expressed. In a December 1995 issue of Mix: Professional Recording & Sound and Music Production, he is quoted as saying: “you shouldn’t be aware of what I’m doing. Yeah, when it’s scary or action-filled, you’ll hear it, and it’s fine. But you shouldn’t be sitting there listening to music, or aware of it.”
And that — despite its beauty of dynamic instrumentation, gloomy interludes and dramatic flourish — is why Glass’ score for DRACULA simply doesn’t feel right as one is acutely aware of listening to it. This criticism is not of the music itself. It is haunting and visceral, timed perfectly to suit the film, arguably augmenting the experience. But it is not the film. It is an addition. An experiment in art forms colliding and becoming something else. It is essential viewing for all of those fascinated with the history of Dracula on screen. But it is not Todd Browning’s 1931 masterpiece, where every languid line delivered by Lugosi must breathe with “eloquent silence.”
A blu-ray of 1931’s DRACULA with the music of Philip Glass performed by Kronos Quartet is available on amazon.com.