DRACULA (1931) July 2nd 1977 23.05-00.25
‘I Bid You Welcome.’
Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi)
This was the one. No question, no debate. Forget the incredible, masochistic skill of Lon Chaney’s 1920s self-transforming portraits of deformity. Forget the lurid expressionistic stylings of Weimar Germany’s Caligari and Nosferatu. Most of all, forget the critical received wisdom that Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula is fatally compromised by its director’s lack of technical ambition; by its lead actor’s overripe, melodramatic style; that its last two thirds plod by in stagey theatricality; that as a film its inadequacies are thrown into sharp relief by the simultaneously made, and much better directed, Spanish language version shot by George Melford, and even more so by comparison to James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, made only months later but light years ahead in terms of its maturity of vision and technical sophistication.
No, forget all that. This was the one, the wellspring, the great original on which everything since has depended. There’s a pleasing symmetry (which I confess gives me a worrying degree of satisfaction) that the horror film itself was born at exactly the same moment that I fell in love with it. It could have been otherwise, you see. There had been, I later discovered, two previous horror double bill seasons on late night Saturday BBC2, a fact I found almost impossible to believe at the time. How could you start anywhere other than here, with the unbeatable Universal cycle of the 30s and 40s? Why on earth would anyone choose to show anything else first?
Had I been a year older, there’s every chance I might have started with the 1976 season, yawned a bit through The Cat and the Canary with Bob Hope or The Mad Genius without him, and drifted away forever. There were more double bill seasons to come, so worse still, I could have been a year or two younger in which case my first contact might have been with Superbeast or Daughters of Satan; a dread prospect far more frightening to me than anything within the films themselves. Even now I sometimes envisage a scenario in which I am gasping my last upon my deathbed when a black-robed chess-playing Reaper straight from Bergman’s Seventh Seal (I do sometimes watch films without werewolves in them) offers me the chance to play for an extra year or two of life. ‘No’ I croak feebly, ‘not if it means the first horror movie I see has to be Zoltan Hound of Dracula in 1981.’
But thankfully no; the synchronicity was delightfully exact and this was the moment, both for me and the genre itself. Chronologically the two events may have been forty six years apart, but the on-screen instant was the same. About ten minutes in, Dwight Frye’s Renfield nervously enters the vast, ruined hall of Castle Dracula. Huge, fairytale cobwebs dominate the mise-en-scène. Wolves howl. Rats, bats, insects and spiders scuttle and swoop. So, bizarrely, does an armadillo, whose own gothic career never quite took off like his animal co-stars. Spare a thought for all those black and white armadillos roaming the gutters of Hollywood’s skid row muttering ‘It should have been me.’ Lugosi stands in full evening dress, a knowing smirk playing across his striking features, half way down a crumbling stone staircase. And what a staircase.
Anyone ever inclined to dismiss the horror movie as a low budget form, marred by its shoddy production values, should be strapped to a chair with their eyes sellotaped open in front of a screen showing the entire 30s output of Universal horror films on loop, marvelling at those lofty, magnificent sets until they promise never to utter such lazy second hand shite ever again. I’d be hard pushed to think of a better sustained series of production designs in the whole history of cinema.
And then it happens. Slowly, richly, enigmatically, each heavily accented syllable weighed and relished, Lugosi intones ‘I am – Dracula. I bid you welcome.’ Many have argued since that the tragic downward spiral of Lugosi’s later career trajectory was due in large part to his voice, and his failure to ever fully master the English language, but it seems to me that such an argument misses the point. Admittedly, Lugosi’s delivery is ripe for parody – yes, I mean you Sesame Street’s Count von Count – but his voice is perhaps the essential component of what makes him such a charismatic screen presence. The sonorous musicality of cadence he brings even to a line as apparently banal as ‘We will be leaving … tomorrow … evening’ lends it a strange, moody portentousness which has to be heard to be believed.
In a career move which has often been cited as the other main factor behind his later struggles to find decent parts, or even to work at all, Lugosi reportedly turned down the role of Frankenstein’s Monster before it was offered to the then unknown Boris Karloff, on the grounds that the Monster had no dialogue. For my money though, if this was indeed the truth of the story, then Lugosi was absolutely right. His voice is among the most perfect cinematic artefacts in existence, and to fail to give him dialogue was to waste an enormous part of what made him so extraordinary a performer. And what dialogue he is given here. ‘Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.’ ‘The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr Renfield.’ ‘I never drink – wine.’ Every one a winner, and all of those within the first twenty minutes.
Certainly the lush richness of the dialogue was one of the reasons I fell so immediately in love with the film. Even at that age I loved words, the sound and the shape of them, and Lugosi’s dialogue was instantly memorable and instantly quotable, like many of my favourite things – Python sketches, or Withnail and I for instance. It’s this, in the end, which makes all those critical commonplaces about how cheap and stagy and talky the film becomes in its later sections irrelevant to me. Yes it would be nice to see that wolf running across the grounds of the asylum rather than being told about it, and yes it would be nice for Lugosi to be given a more dramatic curtain call than a limp off-screen groan, but to assume that ‘talky’ is such a terrible insult to bestow on a film is to miss a central point which is to do with the nature of that ‘talkiness’.
Of course cinema is different to theatre, of course film can be much more than pictures of people talking, but great actors delivering great lines don’t necessarily need prowling, moody camerawork of the sort Karl Freund delivers in the magnificent opening castle scenes in order to hold an audience riveted. It’s still a legitimate use of the medium to allow the camerawork and technique to become invisible for a time while the actors and the dialogue hold centre stage. In fact it seems to me perfectly fair to say that one of the many and varied palaces of delights – some visual and technical, some not – which this greatest of all art forms is capable of, is bringing us closer to those great actors delivering great lines than the theatre ever can. Anyone still inclined to regard the last hour of Dracula as dreary, dull and disappointing should take another look at the two, equally powerful confrontation scenes between Lugosi’s Count and Edward Van Sloan’s steely Van Helsing. Despite the single, ‘stagy’ setting in each case – the drawing room for the first, and then a hallway for the second – and without any showy filmic techniques to distract us, the battle of wills which culminates in Lugosi’s beautiful rendering of ‘For one who has not lived even a single lifetime – you are a wise man, Van Helsing’ is enthralling, intense and genuinely epic.
In fact it was at least in part this epic nature to the conflicts at the heart of the film to which I found myself responding. Even today, I love stories that deal in Good and Evil on a grand, apocalyptic scale – the season finales rather than the ordinary episodes, the vast end-of-the-world-is-nigh sweep of those kind of narratives – and even more so back then. I never much liked The Fantastic Four, preferring the stark realism of Spider Man Comics Weekly (strange how a 10 year old sees things), but a couple of years earlier I had been completely floored by the issue with Galactus on the front, the sky filled with fire and meteors, sun blotted out, Silver Surfer as the horseman of the apocalypse, all that. Albeit in a different genre, Dracula’s sheer Gothic romanticism; the crypts and the bats; the fogs and the storms; the castles and the crumbling abbeys, seemed of a piece with that kind of storytelling. The decay and the death. Death as a concept, in all its power and endless, incomprehensible strangeness, is an eternal preoccupation, of course, but perhaps most preoccupying of all at around that age, when the reality and the truth of it begins to present itself fully, but remains somehow fresh, undimmed by painful experience, and unbelievable.
There are many things that make the film compelling viewing, but central to all of them is Lugosi’s extraordinary power and charisma. Most aficionados tend to argue that Karloff was the finer actor – Bela versus Boris is the horror movie fan’s equivalent of ‘are you a dog person or a cat person?’ – but whatever the role, and especially when, as here, the role was worthy of him, Lugosi possessed an intensity on screen that is completely unrivalled. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him – the audience is every bit as hypnotised as Helen Chandler’s doll-like Mina.
It’s hard now to describe just how much I loved that screening, and just how much of the rest of my life was set in motion by that otherwise unremarkable hour and a half in front of the telly. I didn’t so much watch the film as wallow in it, rolling it around my eyeballs and savouring each frame the way a wine taster swills a fine Burgundy. Except I was definitely going to swallow, not spit. I remember the feeling of that summer night with an absolute vividness which no number of passing years or alcohol-zapped brain cells seems to diminish. Of course I’ve seen Dracula many times since, and I understand a bit about how memory works. Of course I’m idealising; I’m distorting; conflating the original event with later ideas and memories; incorporating other experiences. Still, who cares? I remember it, so there.
But why did the film impact on this 12 year old so profoundly? It is a great film, certainly, despite what its detractors and doubters might suggest to the contrary, but even I would have to admit that I find it rather less impressive now than I did way back when. And even then, in a world where classic black and white movies from the 30s and 40s were still a familiar and regular part of the schedule on the three available TV stations rather than, as now, having to be specifically sought out in the wilder regions of the subscription movie channels, I was still aware that I was watching something oddly remote and archaic.
Shown to today’s younger generation, as, against my better judgement, I have occasionally done to classrooms of disbelieving students, Lugosi’s performance inspires only one reaction: gales of laughter. Never teach a text you love, I was once sensibly advised. Teenagers will trample it viciously underfoot, laughing in your face as they do so, leaving your poor heart bruised and bloodied on the floor. Knowing this, I’ll even defensively try to forestall their reaction in the way I introduce the film, droning on about context and the passage of time. Worse, I’ll sometimes even join in, siding with the adolescent philistines against my beloved Bela just to show how hip and aware I am – and dying a little inside as I do so. So why should it have been so different for me, at a similar age, back in 1977?
There’s been a marked shift in the cultural landscape, I think. Today we live in the age of detachment and distance. To really believe, to be totally passionate about anything, to genuinely and unabashedly fall for something, as I did for horror movies in a no holds barred, hook line and sinker heart on the sleeve all cliché’s welcome kind of way is growing harder and harder in these 21st century too cool for school days of ours. We’re almost always a step back, at one remove from the world around us. We live our lives inside inverted commas. We can say anything because everyone knows we don’t really mean it. We don’t mean anything, and so in turn nothing means anything to us. And so nothing matters, except being in on the joke. It’s the post modern curse; the inability to view anything without the layers of irony and cynicism which inevitably intervene between us and our experiences. The idealistic ‘we can change the world’ daydreaming of the 1960s, even the earnest political ideologies of the 1970s and 80s are laughable to us now, their passionate conviction and hopeful sloganeering rendered risible by disillusion and the changing landscape, but they’ve been replaced with nothing more worthwhile than a sneer.
It’s encoded inescapably into our language, into our speech patterns. Words which once commanded a distant view of the sublime, like ‘Epic’, ‘Awesome’ or ‘Legend’ are now commandeered into service as epithets to describe – usually at one further remove from existence on Twitter or Facebook – the most mundane and routine of experiences and people. The twenty first century isn’t unique in this of course. A quick scan of Pope or Fielding would quickly demonstrate an eighteenth century facility with utilising the once epic and legendary to offer ironic comment on the triviality of contemporary experience. But much as I love the cheerful cynicism of the eighteenth century novel and the wit of an Augustan mock heroic couplet, it was precisely a reaction against the emptied heart and the sense of lack that this ironic world view left them with that drove the Romantic revolutionaries to rediscover passion and a sometimes overwhelming, dangerously embarrassing sincerity. And Gothic horror, let’s not forget, is Romanticism’s disreputable cousin. Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats, were driven by their rejection of the perils of an age, which like ours, seemed led by irony and the curl of the lip.
It’s little wonder, of course.
So much of the world we now inhabit is plastic and artificial and fake, drawing a kind of knowing, self-mocking attention to its own artifice, from the hollow strains of The X Factor musical landscape that envelops us through to the ironically labelled ‘reality’ shows which don’t represent any kind of reality anyone is ever likely to encounter unless they travel across the vast infinity of the interstellar to consider the nature of real life on the planet Bollocks : from our phone tapping, kiss and telling ‘free’ press to our laughable, and laughably inept, post-spin doctoring post-Blairite post-new-new Labour post-plastic coalition post-Cameron post-Brexit Tory ‘government’ (and that one really belongs in the inverted commas), that it’s no wonder we choose to view everything, whether it deserves it or not, in the same way. Over-earnest belief, closed systems of thought, the fraudulent, the fundamentalist and the empty; they need a cold and cynical eye to be cast upon them, but when we can’t differentiate, when everything becomes the same, then nothing has any value. We preclude real involvement, real belief, real love, and we’re killing ourselves. A vision of the future we’re making? Simon Cowell’s face, forever.
Well not here. In this tiny corner of the 21st century I can mean what I say, just as I did back in 1977. There can be a way of viewing this sort of material as the very definition of kitsch, as though the only conceivable pleasures to be found in old horror are of the sniggering, knowing, ‘so bad its good’ variety, and I…HATE…IT. Dracula is not ‘so bad it’s good’. It is not ‘bad’ at all; in fact, it’s not even ‘good’, it’s magnificent, and it doesn’t need me to apologise for it, as I have done too often, on the grounds of age or context or the conventions of melodrama or anything else. And irony, that most precious and delicate of comedic techniques in the hands of an Austen, and that most ugly and lazy way of cheapening and demeaning the genuinely beautiful and transcendent in the hands of the rest of us, had nothing whatever to do with the way in which my twelve year old self fell so suddenly, desperately and unexpectedly in love with the performance of a long dead Hungarian actor in a film made four decades and an apparent millennia of technological advances previously (1977 makes me the Star Wars generation remember; this screening of Dracula coming only months before I saw George Lucas change the very idea of what was possible in the cinema). No irony involved; this was the real thing, and I fell for Dracula on its own terms, not mine, which was to be true only rarely when, much later (much much too much later as it happens) I was to fall for actual flesh and blood people rather than flickering black and white celluloid ghosts.
So if not irony, then what? To begin with perhaps the most obvious – certainly the most commented upon – element which may have resonated in my adolescent psyche, it would not need the most ardent of Freudians to discern a degree of sexual significance in Dracula, and indeed in the whole mythology of the undead bloodsucker. The dark, domineering lover. The kiss of the vampire. The bite as symbolic penetration. Dracula as seduction motif. Dracula as sadomasochistic fantasy. Dracula as the sexual liberator of repressed female desire. As the id to society’s ego. As homoeroticism. I’ve read them all. Admittedly I hadn’t read them all when I was twelve, but looking back I don’t feel there’s much doubt that a part of the reason for the film’s marked impact was that I was responding powerfully to a touch of the old subtext.
If you look at the evolution of the vampire film since 1931, of course, in the genre as in the rest of society, subtext grows ever more overt. In the 50s and 60s Hammer added heaving cleavages delightfully to the mix, and by its nadir in the 70s was dealing almost exclusively in bare-breasted Scandinavian lesbians. Then there’s Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in one another’s arms in Interview with the Vampire (whatever did Scientology have to say about that, little Tom? Did no-one notice?) After a certain point it’s no longer subtext so much as…well, text. By comparison, of course, the Lugosi version is relatively chaste and sedate. But make no mistake, the subtext is there, and it’s powerful, particularly when you bear in mind that I hadn’t seen those other films yet, and by and large nor had anyone else I knew. Sublimation was the order of the day, and just like a whole generation of obsessive stamp collecting or butterfly pinning Victorian schoolboys before me (because those showers could never be quite cold enough, could they?), I found something into which I was able to channel some of my dawning sexual awareness and energies.
And to a painfully shy and spotty 12 year old like me whose technique for getting a girlfriend consisted mainly of lying on my bed and waiting hopefully (‘Talk? To girls? Are you insane?’), sex was a dark and troubling mystery, just like Dracula itself. Alluring, enticing, preoccupying, but secretive, furtive, somehow unknowable and unknowably intense. My sexual experience at this point was restricted to a strange and growing relationship with Leela, Louise Jameson’s brilliantly played leather bikini clad companion to Tom Baker’s Doctor – albeit a rather distant and one way definition of a ‘relationship’ given that it was conducted entirely via once weekly 25 minute doses of Saturday teatime television and some occasional single-handed and inexpert under the bedclothes fumbling. Actually, 25 minutes in front of a screen and a bit of a wank? Perhaps it was all rather more 21st century than I’d realised.
Of course I knew the basic facts, but sex existed for me only in the imagination, in an overheated fantasy world, and it was this humid and sticky world which those coded old horror movies plugged straight into. And the fantasy possibilities they offered, like the idea I might be able to work a little of Bela’s hoodoo over Shirley Chambers, who sat opposite me in double Art once a fortnight, (‘You vill be mine, Shirley Chambers…mine’) thus circumventing the obvious impossibility of actually speaking to her, was desperately appealing.
I’m a long way from understanding how the adolescent mind works in 2017 – if I understood that a bit better my day job might be a tad easier than it is – but it’s been very interesting for me to see the impact of today’s vampire craze. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries may wear their adolescent sexual yearning rather more obviously on their sleeves than the old Universal and Hammer movies I grew up on, but it’s clear to see that the symbolic representations of that overheated fantasy life still strike a chord – it’s just that in today’s world that breathless audience is almost exclusively female. The male horror audience has largely decamped to the zombie as its monster of choice (slow, unthinking, unfeeling and hungry – it doesn’t get much more male than that). As a result, vampires have transformed into ‘a little something for the ladies’, as an otherwise educated man speaking to me only last year, without a hint of face-saving irony, described the orange juice beside the bottles of Stella in his fridge.
The reason for this seems fairly clear. Even in this apparently more equal society, its gender roles and expectations no longer so absolute or so clearly defined, it remains much much more difficult for girls to approach, or more importantly be seen to approach, sex and desire in as direct and straightforward a way as boys. The double standards remain – the identical behaviour makes him a ‘player’, her a ‘slag’ – so the coded fantasies of the vampire story – the ultimate bad boy if ever there was one – strike home powerfully. The majority of teenage boys are well versed in the twilit and degraded world of the most explicit internet porn while grown women still hide behind the tasteful grey covers of Fifty Shades of Shite.
For all that, however, I think I have to concede that the sudden rush of adoration I felt while watching Dracula came also from another and altogether more specific and personal need. The sexual imagery, after all, is there for everyone to see, but not everyone who saw the film finds themselves nearly forty years later writing thousands of words on the subject, Aurora glow in the dark monster kits watching over their shoulder, swigging coffee from a mug with a fangs out Christopher Lee on it in a horror-memorabilia filled shed at the bottom of their garden. I entered into my lifelong relationship with the film and the rest of its demon kind because of something more direct and more particular.
Despite the rather cosy – and not untrue – portrait I’ve tried to create of the moments leading up to that first encounter with movie horror, in many ways I was in fact a very unhappy twelve year old. I was secure at home with solid, loving parents, but in the outside world I was a bullied child.
School was another, entirely separate world, and it was one I found completely impossible to cope with. The shithole to end all shitholes; school was a series of savage hierarchies, with me at the bottom of all of them. It would be wrong, of course, to try to give the impression that my high school was a cross between a Siberian Gulag, Room 101 and the lowest circle of hell; only that if you were trying to make a film about such a place it would have made a good location without much need for set dressing. Not that it was appreciably worse than any other state school in the 1970s I don’t suppose, and perhaps even better than many. God they were awful places. All those freezing mobiles, all that institutional snot green paintwork, the spam fritters and the semolina puddings (what the hell is semolina anyway?), the narrow gloomy corridors and the toilets of death, and all of it stale with the smell of decay, despondency and defeat. If, as it has become a cliché to say, the 70s really were the brown decade, at least some of that brownness – brown Cortinas, brown leather jackets, white dog poo for contrast, even tank tops – has attained a kind of Life on Mars retro chic. But not the schools. In the brown decade, they were the brown of mud and shit.
I attended Thorpe Grammar School – I might as well name it; sue me if you dare – which, in accordance with Shirley Williams and the Labour government of the day’s nobly egalitarian ideals, merged after a year with the neighbouring secondary modern to become simply Thorpe High School. It should, I hope, go without saying that the aspiration to a single, fair and equal system of education for all is one to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, but at the time and on the ground I have to accept that it was the worst of all possible worlds.
We grammar school elite retained a separate uniform, until we outgrew it, were educated in separate classes in that ghastly parody of a ghastly public school, marked out as swotty gits by the grammar school tie but surrounded in the corridors by the full warp and weft of the comprehensive world in all its rich tapestry. We might as well have been given targets instead of badges on our blazers.
Not that I can pretend I found solidarity and comradeship within my narrow band of classmates. Au contraire. They hated me, and made that fact very clear. At the time I found it baffling and incomprehensible; everything I did, everything I was, was apparently laughable, ridiculous and wrong, but I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do or to be instead. Looking back, of course I can understand, and far from feeling any resentment I’m inclined to side with my tormentors and against my weedy and wet, snotty and self-pitying twelve year old self.
For one thing, I wasn’t blessed physically. Tall, gangly and very, very skinny (oh, how my middle aged self wishes for that problem now), with buck teeth, big ears, a crooked nose and unfashionable hair. And spots. I discovered rather to my surprise in later life (somewhere in the nanosecond that came between acne and grey hair) that I wasn’t bad looking. Not Johnny Depp, admittedly, but not Wayne Rooney either, and looking now at old photos I can see that back then there was really nothing wrong with me that wasn’t wrong with everyone else too. In any case, it’s how we feel that is more important than any kind of objective reality. As time has gone on I’ve known many people who look like the back end of a particularly ill-favoured Routemaster to be extremely successful sexually, and by contrast many others who manage to combine statuesque good looks with all the attractiveness and allure of a pot plant. It’s probably enough to say that at the time I felt ugly, and so I was.
For another I was, and still am, a natural obeyer of the rules with an instinctive and inbuilt fear of authority figures that amounts to a kind of dread of being caught out – a fact that has probably prompted my political sympathies into their lifelong leftist, anarchistic anti-authoritarian shape as a reaction against my forelock-tugging, cap-doffing personal instincts. Those instincts kept me well away from the smokers and the snoggers and the drinkers in the legendary realm behind the bike sheds, away from the popular naughty boys and the even more popular naughty girls and resolutely out of the in crowd.
We were also poor. Not in a boys from the blackstuff, where is the next meal coming from kind of way, but sufficiently poor to mean I was aware of looking a little shabbier, a little different from most of the people around me. We lived in a biggish 30s semi in a decent area, which we owned, we had a car, we even once went on a week’s holiday, but the holiday was to Southsea, not Spain, the 30s semi was a bit run down, and the car was a rusty 60s Singer Gazelle rather than an anonymous Ford (on the rare occasions my mum picked me up I used to slide down in the seat until I was almost horizontal to try to avoid being spotted). I wore a faded blazer and too-skinny tie, a crucial year before the days when skinny ties became punk-fashionable, both of which had been handed down to me from my elder sister. For a time between school shoes I was despatched in a pair of the steel toe-capped brown suede safety boots my mum wore to her factory job. It seems odd and a little irritating to me now that in the full knowledge of the kind of stick I was going to get for that I didn’t simply refuse, but somehow you just didn’t do that in our house. Instead, off I toddled to my inevitable doom looking like a slightly less butch Rosa Klebb. I don’t mean to imply that there weren’t other kids who weren’t just as badly off, and many worse, but they all seemed to have personalities which could defuse it as a target for bile rather better than me.
Not only was I ugly and poor, I was clever enough to stand out a bit and stupid enough not to hide it. My mum was a Geordie and my dad fairly broad Norfolk, and the result of the combination for me was a standard English accent which, combined with a strangely pompous and antiquated way of expressing myself (not sure where that came from really; I think it was just liking words, and not seeing why certain phrases or bits of vocabulary should be out of bounds) marked me out as ‘posh’. Crivens! Those deuced fellows gave me the very devil of a time for it! Early on I remember overhearing another boy – Darby was his surname I think, though he was always known as ‘JD’ (the closest I got to a popular nickname was ‘Bender’) asking where he could find our cookery-teaching form tutor. Eager to be helpful, I pointed to a first storey window I’d clocked earlier and said ‘She might be in that room. I can see cookery utensils in the window.’ Handy hint, younger readers. ‘Utensils’ is not a word to bandy around lightly if you want to be a popular 11 year old. Poor and posh is a tricky combination to carry off at the best of times, and I couldn’t carry it off at all.
I couldn’t even manage the one option which my taste in music and books (and even horror movies as time went on) might have made possible, which was to find some kind of safe haven in a sub culture of what would now be called ‘alternative’ like-minded kids. Today I would have had a ready made outlet – I’d have been a goth or an emo – and in fact I was soon to find a bit more of a secure identity as I discovered and embraced punk and new wave for similar reasons. I saw some of myself in Costello’s geeky speccy intelligence and sneer, in Rotten’s howl of anger and the curl of Strummer’s lip. Back in the summer of 77 though, my mum-bought clothes and my conventional once-every-six-weeks-regular-as-clockwork-down-the-road-to-Adrian’s-unisex-stylists-haircut told against me.
In truth my mum and dad’s salt of the earth solid working class respectability precluded that kind of escape route which I wouldn’t really begin to find until Sixth Form. They were both clever people, and books were embraced in our house rather than feared as strange alien invaders from another world – not so long ago I saw a perfectly pleasant fourteen year old I was tasked with inculcating with a love of Shakespeare and the Literary Heritage physically recoil from a pile of paperbacks at a school book sale as though they were somehow mysteriously slimy and contaminating. We weren’t like that – the local library (remember them?) was a fortnightly fixture in our lives; we watched ‘Play for Today’ (though mum’s verdict was almost always a variant on ‘what a funny ending’ or ‘what was that all about then?’), but neither mum nor dad had an ‘alternative’ bone in their body. There simply wasn’t the frame of reference for that process of osmosis that comes from having the right books and music lying around, the right films to have seen, the right holiday destinations to have experienced. Of course at the time the cultural horizons of most people I knew were fairly limited and I’m not suggesting that I was sneered at or beaten up because of my lack of knowledge of Italian neo-realist cinema, only that the one sub-culture I might have had some kind of instinctual connection with was closed off to me.
No, I was very much on my own, and a ‘natural victim’ as the teachers who can’t be bothered to do anything about it (and I now proclaim myself as a proud member of their number) will tend to label the bullied to avoid the much more difficult task of confronting the pack.
There was one point above all the others though, which shamed and humiliated me more than everything else put together. I cried. At eleven and twelve years old, at high school, I still cried. I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t trying to earn sympathy. I wasn’t attention seeking. In fact I was desperate to avoid attention, and I’d have done anything to stop it but I couldn’t. It just happened. Part of it was just a natural reaction to being singled out and bullied and victimised, but often it came out over the most trivial stuff. I lost my PE kit, Carl Pennington nicked my Doctor Who book, that kind of thing, and my wailing reaction to it would, obviously and not unreasonably, only heap further abuse upon my snivelling head. Of course I now recognise the self-perpetuating cycle. I cried over trivial stuff because I was profoundly unhappy about pretty big stuff (or at least pretty big to an 11 year old whose life was mainly school), and because I cried, more nasty stuff would happen to make me unhappier. While I’m still prone to a few more tears than the average fifty year old – though I’ve never compared notes on this with anyone: who knows, maybe there are whole legions of middle aged men who can’t make it through the last half hour of ET without sobbing like a baby – I don’t really think I’m especially thin-skinned or sensitive in my true nature. ‘I was benevolent and good,’ as Mary Shelley has her articulate monster outsider almost say, ‘Misery made me a cry-baby’.
My days at school were grey with boredom and a barely suppressed hysteria always bubbling just under the stagnant water of the cesspit. For some time before I sat down to watch Dracula I’d been bullied and miserable; picked on at school by girls – often by older girls I didn’t even know – for being ugly and unattractive, and all the time by boys of my own age for being gay and swotty and posh, and it didn’t help at all to know that I wasn’t. And it was into this world that Lugosi strode on the 2nd of July 1977, his screen presence one of complete, assured, commanding power.
Outlandish, heightened and stylised as my alternative bohemian self that never was could ever have aspired to be. Intelligent, yes, but also strong and powerful, as charismatic and enigmatic as my ideal self might ever have wished. Above all, controlled and in control. He was tall and erect, each odd gesture of the hands and fingers held with rigid precision. I slouched and stooped and stumbled. For all his evil, Lugosi’s Dracula was a man absolute in self possession and purpose, utterly secure in his own skin. Small wonder that an adolescent so insecure, so uncertain, so opposite, should identify so completely. To a bullied child, filled with self-doubt and uncertainty, the one I had been waiting for, my dark Messiah, had come. Lugosi was my dream self.
How could I resist? When he spoke those famous first lines it was me, far more than Dwight Frye’s Renfield, who Lugosi was welcoming into a new world; a fantasy land where I would find many of my fears and obsessions, my desires and fascinations played out in coded form; a dreamscape I was never really to leave. Here in front of me was a rich and stylised world, endlessly fascinating and endlessly enjoyable, a world sumptuous and alien enough to enable me to lose myself entirely and forget the unhappiness of the everyday completely, and yet paradoxically a fantasy world in which I could find myself, because these films for me were not simple escapism. I didn’t develop a sudden love of glamorous MGM 30s musicals for instance and fixate upon Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – creatures of equally extraordinary and alien physical grace and beauty as Lugosi, in their own way. A love of show tunes and Busby Berkeley might have taken my later life in an entirely different direction.
When I discovered the horror film, I found that through it I could view and confront difficult truths about myself and the world around me, but in distorted funfair mirror form. I recognized the selves and the worlds I saw, but they were drawn in such heightened, expressionistic shapes that they were not only manageable, it was possible to adore, to luxuriate in them, all because of the exotic version of life that Lugosi introduced to me that summer’s night in 77. It’s no exaggeration to say that those summer double bills saved me at a time I desperately needed saving, offering me some sense of validation and worth which I was otherwise entirely lacking.
Of course I was never consciously aware of all this back then. I didn’t reflect on it – vampires not being good with reflections (see what I did there?). I only knew that I loved the films, deeply and totally. I never really thought about them at all. Or rather, I thought about them all the time, but in an entirely uncritical way that could hardly be called thinking in any meaningful sense. They filled my head (excerpt from M.Galley’s stream of consciousness circa 1977 …belalugosi’s brilliant isn’t he yeah really brilliant yeah really really brilliant I wonder what frankenstein would have been like if he’d been in it really brilliant I should think yeah but karloffs great too him and lugosi in the raven was really brilliant…) but I never really considered why they meant so much to me or why they colonised the inside of my head in quite such an alarmingly inane way.
In some ways I’m only becoming truly conscious of it now, as I write, and so perhaps only now am I beginning to fully realise just how much I owe to these films, how much they gave me at a time when I needed it most, and how deeply, deeply grateful I am for the comfort, and the joy, and the genuine inspiration they offered me. So, with apologies to one of my later heroes, George Orwell:
To the past and to the future; to whatever genius was controller of BBC2 Summer scheduling back then; to the disappearing concept of Public Service Broadcasting; to Universal Pictures; to Karloff and the Chaneys; to Hammer Films, Cushing and Lee and Corman and Price, and to all the rest; and above all to Bela Lugosi, who himself lived at times a lonely and haunted life, old friend from my loneliest and most haunted days: from the age of irony; from the age of Big Brother; from the age of Cowell and Cameron and Trump and Teresa; from my long gone and long ago twelve year old self and his middle aged child – Greetings. And thanks.