“Dracula is dead forever,” the great vampire scholar Professor Van Helsing exclaims at the end of Tod Browning’s classic 1931 horror film, a boast that, at this remove at least, seems a little premature.
For from low culture to high, from Anne Rice’s novels to TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to a new score by Philip Glass for Browning’s 75-minute gem, the count and his undead compatriots remain very much on our culture’s collective mind.
Glass’ score had its Los Angeles debut Saturday night in front of an enthusiastic Royce Hall crowd that included Carla Laemmle, the last surviving cast member of “Dracula” (she’s the young girl in the coach scene that opens the film) and at least one woman dressed from head to toe like a fairy-tale witch.
The idea to have Glass write a score for a film that pretty much doesn’t have one was, Universal Video president Louis Feola frankly admitted in a preconcert discussion, “a marketing idea for revenue generation, an opportunity to remarket the film to those not ordinarily interested in it.”
How that idea will work in the marketplace, or even how Glass’ music will work on video, are questions still to be answered. As a public event, however, the Royce concert, performed by Glass and the Kronos Quartet and conducted by Michael Riesman, was a distinct disappointment. At least, if you care about film as much as music.
Glass, obviously, has had considerable experience writing music for films; his score for Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” to name just one, was especially accomplished. And, in theory, his insistent, insinuating music would provide a good fit for Browning’s moody, atmospheric film.
And there were quiet moments Saturday night when Glass’ music worked well with the visuals. The composer spoke before the concert about the difficulty of picking a point when the silent duel of wills in a key scene between Van Helsing and the count is won by the professor, a choice Glass ended up making with tact and grace.
Unfortunately, those moments are not in the majority. For a pair of allied reasons, Glass’ music performed live ended up more intrusive than synergetic, fighting with and finally overpowering what was on the screen.
One problem is, simply, modulation. Glass and the Kronos members consistently played the music loudly enough to make it always a struggle, and often a losing one, to hear what was being said by the actors.
While the music occasionally stopped for a line, like Bela Lugosi’s famous introductory “I am . . . Dracula,” more often it trod right over dialogue, treating Browning’s work like it was a silent film. Given that this was the ensemble’s fourth stop in a week (London, Brooklyn and Oakland having preceded it), there was clearly no time to get things aurally right for Royce, and that was a shame.
The other difficulty was that the conundrum of how to feature both the film and Glass and the quartet on the same stage was awkwardly handled. For whatever reason, the decision was made to place the musicians directly behind the screen, their faces and playing frequently illuminated by spotlights that alternated from clear to green to red.
This “ghosts in the machine” effect was unbearably intrusive. Having Glass’ head appear in Dracula’s elbow or Renfield’s kneecap was distracting, and even the occasional unintentionally beautiful moment, like cellist Jennifer Culp perfectly framed inside the cover of a book, was not enough compensation.
The result of that behind-the-screen nonsense was that, Lugosi’s magnetic performance as the Count notwithstanding, it was impossible for the audience to lose itself in the proceedings. Though you’d never know it from the laughter it inspired from the Royce audience, this is a film that will scare you if given half a chance, but it needs to be taken on its own terms to do that.
It’s still an open question whether having Glass’ music, instead of the original silence behind the action, helps or hurts “Dracula’s” ability to frighten, but having the heads of musicians constantly on view pretty much drove a stake through the heart of whatever chance it had Saturday night.