The Immortal Hickey
My brother took me to the original Frankenstein movie when I was six, and I was so thoroughly frightened that I couldn't sleep for a week and vowed never to see a horror film again. But, later, I couldn't resist the 3-D horror movies of the 50s, the Hitchcock thrillers of the 60s like Psycho and The Birds, and the "Creature Features" on television today. Especially memorable is an obscure British film, The Hidden Room, in which a husband decides to get rid of his wife by dissolving her in the bathtub and pulling the plug. He works on his formula in the "hidden room" and plans to test the effectiveness of his solution on the family dog first. My memory is that the audience was more concerned about the dog than the wife.
Until I chanced upon Nosferatu, a 1922 German version of the Dracula story, last summer on television, I had not recently seen a horror movie. (No. I didn't see The Exorcist.) Then the new wave of horror films now flooding the market appeared, including an updated Dracula portrayed by Frank Langella from the Broadway stage. Nosferatu was a fascinating psychological and cultural exploration into human relations, and I wondered how the new Dracula would approach those same human relations nearly 60 years later. I found it plenty horrible, especially for women.
Ron Rosenbaum in his recent Harper's article, "Gooseflesh," says horror films are becoming a new religion; spawned by the self-obsession of many in the 1970s, horror has turned into their latest drug. "In fact," he goes on to say, "the horror revival may be looked upon on one level as the dark side of the human potential movement." I have no argument with Rosenbaum's analysis, but he doesn't go far enough. Yes, the horror film is a lot about what being human is not, but even more about what being female is not. The new Dracula is horrifying because of the image of womankind it imparts and for the assumptions about women the legend makes.
Frank Langella and George Hamilton—the "never-say-die" Dracula of the other recent Dracula film, Love at First Bite — both think they can explain why Count Dracula is sexually alluring. In an interview in US magazine, Langella says that Dracula is "a dominant, aggressive force. A woman can be totally passive with Dracula. Besides, he's offering immortality."1 Of course, Dracula gets something in return. Says Hamilton: "I know what women want and don't want. And so did the Count. Aside from his strange thirst for blood, he is exactly what every woman wants in a man—strength, aggression, and protectiveness. Every woman fantasizes about a dark stranger who manacles her. Dracula represents the ultimate romantic figure. Women don't have fantasies about marching with Vanessa Redgrave."
Interesting. Coming precisely in the same decade as the women's movement when stereotypes are dissolving, Langella and Hamilton's ruminations would calcify them. Imagine a statement such as: "I know what blacks want. They really fantasize about eating watermelon after a hard day's work in the cotton field and dancing to the crack of their master's whip." Or: "Those Jews never did protest going to the gas chamber. I guess they must have secretly wanted it." The situation, whether in film or in life, is used to corroborate the myth—which in turn confirms the situation.
Langella and Hamilton reinforce the "lie-back-and-enjoy-it" view of rape when they tell us women enjoy violence, loss of self-control, and disfigurement. All women who enjoy punctured necks and their blood drawn, please step forward! But remember, ladies, as a young black woman seated in front of me said: "Them hickies don't go away."
Just what kind of person is the enticing Dracula? In Bram Stoker's original novel, Dracula is a charming, if rather bloodless character who victimizes women and men. In Nosferatu with Max von Schreck as the vampire, Dracula is turned into a monstrous grotesque who nonetheless attracts women, and the linking of violence to erotic arousal is very clear in that film. But in today's Dracula, especially Langella's characterization, there is a noticeable change. To quote Gene Siskel, he is "less of a ghoul and more of a gent." Our Dracula is strikingly handsome, even beautiful, soft-spoken, lusting for possession. With flowing cape, long white fingers, and perfect coiffure, he is almost androgynous. (He likes men's necks as well as women's. A sort of Dragula, as it were.)
And the female characters? Dracula is glutted with female stereotypes and clichés. Chief among them is the (yawn) "eternal woman" who helps/ saves the man in his misery. (I need your blood, Dracula says.) The woman's role in Dracula is reminiscent of the woman's role in The Flying Dutchman, of Gretchen in Faust, and of women in numerous fairy tales (The Six Swans, for example). She needs only to be to save the male (never mind other females), and she need not possess anything more than beauty. The message is clear: you don't require intelligence, dearie, just be (passive) and you'll get your man.
The female character has changed not one iota from the novel. Far from being a "liberated lady" (sic) as one reviewer put it, the film Dracula's "lady" remains passive and attracted to violence against herself. All she contributes is her blood to the male. Hamilton doesn't quite understand Dracula's "strange thirst for blood." But the male's attraction, fascination, and horror with respect to women's blood is age-old, well-documented. The Dracula myth simply takes up the taboo at an anatomically safe place.
Actually, what Dracula in film and story is about is the power of one human being over another and a certain kind of power over death, a macabre immortality. The power is evil and sinister, not loving or caring. Strange to see, Dracula's immortality keeps him young and beautiful while his female victims become vampire abominations. Perhaps men really do fear the eternal woman—not the woman who redeems but the woman who becomes immortal. I am not aware of one female writer or filmmaker who has propagated the myth of the eternal woman. It is a male myth.
Dracula and Love at First Bite have come and gone, but what I missed in the reviews is the dispelling of the myths and stereotypes which have been with maledom so long. Perhaps male reviewing of a male myth authored by a male is too impregnable an old boy's network. The film Dracula is really not very good. It is strangely incongruous that Dracula, impeccable from cape to coiffure, "lives" in a castle crawling with roaches and spiders amidst de rigeur cobwebs. Nothing disturbs Dracula's grooming, not even metamorphosis! I had the pleasure of seeing Dracula on a college campus; Rosenbaum is probably right to note that these films attract college-age, white, suburban-bred audiences. The laughter of the students suggested they were not taking it too seriously, and there are comic moments: Dracula refuses a glass of wine with a laconic "I don't drink wine." Two young black women in front of me made facetious comments on every scene. I sensed their alienation: black and female, what's in if for us?
With the entrance of Laurence Olivier as the Dutch scientist Von Helsing, the plot thickened and the film tried to steer a more serious course. Unfortunately, it was too late. In the end, we are not even sure that good has triumphed, for Dracula's "lady" turns a faint Monalisian smile at the rotting body of Dracula which fades into the distance in the form of a bat—suggesting that we aren't rid of him yet and that she is savoring that hope. Rosenbaum is right; in the new horror films good no longer triumphs.
Of course, it could be argued that the male characters in the film, especially Dracula and Renfield, are not exactly positive, and nobody serves as a "role model" in the movie. But there are important differences between the male Dracula and his "ladies." The women are ciphers, aspire to nothing, have no autonomy, and seem like "sleeping beauties." Dracula, on the other hand, has power, possessions, intelligence. He is a prisoner of his fate (as are the women), but within the coils of his fate he acts freely. The women are like zombies before they become vampires.
Significantly, it is possible to resist Dracula with will, intelligence, and courage, but that role is reserved for males. Von Helsing, the real hero of the film, is the brilliant male scientist who cracks the mystery, who takes the ultimate risks, and saves the day with his life. The women merely stick their necks out. Thus, the real horror of the film is the message of the film. The myth remains unchanged, though Dracula sugar coats it more romantically than earlier versions of the myth. Gene Siskel complains that the film does not really take us into what it's like to be a vampire, but I doubt that such an exploration of vampiredom would make the film or myth any more palatable for women. I'd be more interested in finding out why men and women in real life have to interact in the way the myth presents those relationships. And why men think that Dracula is what women want!
Vanessa, when does that march begin?
1. Some immortality. If the hideous figure of Mina Murray with her blood-dripping fangs and insatiable desire to stalk children is immortality, I’ll take Dante's Inferno any day of eternity.