Quarantine Cinema: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Doctor and the Monster.

Image: Elyeser Szturm
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By Walnice Nogueira Galvão*

Commentary on films inspired by these three classics of English literature.

Vampire films constitute a considerable cinematic tradition, which has risen to the level of an autonomous genre, albeit a pop one. The data computes – as of this writing – 156 films, 120 short films, twenty TV soap operas, nineteen television series and six hundred comic books in the heritage of humanity; statistics are lacking for video games. The genre would be responsible for the emergence of a bestiary and an iconography.

Sprouted from the atavistic terror that the dead arouse in the living, it is known that religions and rites are passionate about exorcising them so that they remain in their place and do not leave it, leaving us in peace. The basic fear is that they will come back: “soul-of-the-other-world” in French is return, or the one who returns, and the “soul in pain” is the one who does the penalty of wandering through the world of the living, instead of being very quiet where he belongs. There is no other meaning of the Day of the Dead, of Halloween, celebrations for the dead, burial ceremonies, so important in any society.

Entities like these, before reaching the cinema, come from literature – from the Gothic novel and Romanticism, which explored the nocturnal face of the psyche, reveling in both decadence and Satanism – and in some cases even folklore. There are supernatural beings on both sides. On the side of good, the lights, the solar sphere: fairies, protective elves, elves, Santa Claus. On the side of evil, of darkness, of the lunar sphere: werewolves, ghosts, apparitions, ghouls.

Vampires, belonging to the undead tribe, together with Frankenstein and the Doctor/Monster constitute the three main archetypes. Not by chance, the protagonist of each of the three founding books is a scientist: Professor Van Helsing, Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll. And they always imply a schizophrenic scheme, of duplication between two men, or of doppelganger. It is enough to pay attention to the relations between the professor and his assistant in Dracula, between the doctor and his namesake in Frankenstein, between the doctor and the monster he becomes.

Frankenstein, who was born from the inspiration of Mary Shelley in the homonymous book (1818), is a human being created in the laboratory, from the poorly made assembly of pieces of cadavers. In a sense, he is a forerunner of organ transplantation and genetic engineering, as well as the plastification of bodies for anatomy studies, now exhibited in art galleries. It implies the usurpation of a prerogative of God, hitherto the only Creator. Contributes to this the premonition that the forces of nature released by the Industrial Revolution, that the book is contemporary and countryman, can - like the Genie in The one thousand and one nights – comply with all the wishes of the masters, but never return to the bottle, once uncapped.

Study of dual personality, The Doctor and the Monster it has been remade numerous times and originates from a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). The doctor brews and drinks a potion that transforms him into the opposite, into one of his scientific experiments. Coming from the Victorian era, when puritanism prevailed, he illustrates, in the split between the two people, one philanthropist and the other a murderer, the difficulty of integrating repressed forces of instinct, such as sexuality and aggressiveness, into a single personality.

It is the scheme of fairy tales, where a good mother and a bad stepmother coexist, a duplication that the child operates because he cannot accept that both are complementary aspects of the same person: the mother who feeds and caresses, the stepmother who gets angry and punishes . Or the myths of enemy brothers (sibling rivalry), one good and one bad, like Cain and Abel. One observes, as in the Frankenstein saga, the fear of the unfolding of science and technology.

The first Frankenstein of the cinema (1931) has as protagonist Boris Karloff, in a characterization so remarkable that it would influence the entire sequence. In comic books, his phenotype prevails, perfectly recognizable. In any monster movie, there he is, even if under another name and in an alien plot, like the butler of The Addams Family (directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991): giant stature, big head and even bigger forehead, haggard eyes, seam scar running down the forehead parallel to the hairline, with metal bolts and nuts going through the neck from side to side, everything that traces the montage from which it results. Extraordinary actors such as Robert De Niro in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (directed by Kenneth Branagh, 1994), would be delighted to play him.

For vampires, the base book is Dracula by the Irishman Bram Stoker (1897). In the film of the same title (1931), the face of Bela Lugosi in the role of the protagonist was also impregnated in all subsequent productions. He hardly speaks, but his mask is very expressive: against the white background, a mouth with thin lips blackened by purple lipstick, dark eyes that gleam malevolently in the also black borders, the jet-black hair shaft smoothed back with brilliantine. Reissues, even recent ones, almost always feature Bela Lugosi on the cover.

When even a youth series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been on TV for years, no one ignores the characteristics of vampires anymore. They sleep in a coffin during the day and roam around at night, as sunlight is harmful to them. They are immortal unless their heart is pierced by a wooden stake. They can be chased away by garlic, crosses and holy water. Your image is not reflected in mirrors. They show hypertrophied canines, rigorous for the close-up in the scenes in which they plunge into the victims' carotid arteries. They infect the unwary and by sucking their blood they pass on their condition. They metamorphose into bats, bloodsuckers that were the source of inspiration for the creation of human vampires.

There was no lack of a materialist interpretation, which symbolized the overexploitation of serfs by feudal lords. And a historical model in Prince Vlad the Impaler, from Romania (XNUMXth century), nicknamed Dracula, or The Demon, immortalized by an engraving in which he feasts in sight of the poor people he had impaled. Vlad came from a province called Wallachia, later incorporated into Transylvania, the traditional cradle of literary and cinematographic vampires.

Great filmmakers, trying their hand, like Francis Ford Coppola in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), or Werner Herzog, would periodically gild the coats of arms of a minor genus. Aside from the more traditionally conceived, bland films, some very interesting lines would result, which benefited, above all, from some inventive directors. One explores the existential crisis, another eroticism, and yet another parody.

Two films illustrate the first. In Interview with the Vampire (directed by Neil Jordan, 1994), which is often shown on cable TV, Brad Pitt, a vampire, but on the side of good, wastes his time and his tongue trying to convince Tom Cruise to replace human blood with animal blood. Is at Hunger to live (directed by Tony Scott, 1983), Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, with all their charm and beauty, live bored and highly conscious vampires, doomed to feed their addiction for eternity.

Those who carry sexual accents arrive at very curious results. One of them is Blood Roses (1960), by Roger Vadim, whose original title, Et mourir de plaisir, it gave a better idea of ​​his bad intentions. Another, that of Werner Herzog, Nosferatu, Vampire of the Night (1979), so named in honor of his illustrious compatriot predecessor (Murnau), it opened up the opportunity for the great Klaus Kinski to give a show of interpretation, especially when he harassed the vulnerable beauty of Isabelle Adjani.

Parody would become inevitable, such is the load of terror and melodrama, demanding some degree of catharsis. Among others, Mel Brooks would dedicate his farcical verve to Dracula, dead but happy (1995). And this is where you sign up vampire dance, deriving its interest from the fact that it looks gorgeous, thanks to a remarkable art direction, and that it has Roman Polanski himself as the protagonist. Being a parody, it allows the director to dismantle the clichés of the genre, including a gay vampire. And the end is the biggest joke: the clumsy professor hunting these beings kidnaps two infected people from the castle, or two new vampires, no longer locked up, but released into the world by his own hands. That is, the future of a world of vampires is hinted at.

A little exaggeration, and a movie would be made that shows several of them at once. It's what you see in Van Helsing - The Monster Hunter (directed by Stephen Sommers, 2004), which brings together Dracula, the Werewolf and Frankenstein. In terms of excess, nobody takes the palm of Robert Rodriguez in partnership with Quentin Tarantino, from the first A drink in hell (1996), which would become a trilogy. The meeting of both is a hit, in a kind of aesthetics of speed and shock, with unexpected twists and a great sense of humor, black and grotesque. Tarantino presents himself in great form, in the role of a psychopath and pervert who hears voices. Not only are the proposed situations already exasperated, but the film will embark on an orgy of blood, everyone being bitten and turning into a vampire.

One cannot speak of these beings, of course, without paying homage to the English producer Hammer, specialist in terror, to Peter Cushing (who, in a moment of glory, embodied Dr. Frankenstein himself, the scientist who created his namesake monster) and to Christopher Lee, who starred in no fewer than eight Dracula films. Afterwards, he would spend a whole career talking about the experience, especially in TV documentaries, such was his identification with the character. His effigy would be used in blockbusters like Star Wars e Lord of the Rings, in which he is a prominent actor.

In one of the best phases that cinema has ever known, German expressionism, inaugural films such as Dr's office caligari (1919), by Robert Wiene, Nosferatu the Vampire, by FW Murnau (1922) and m the vampire from Dusseldorf, by Fritz Lang (1931). In the latter, the term is used metaphorically: it is not a vampire per se, but a serial killer who rapes and kills little girls.

In literature, as we have seen, the genre constituted a possible fictional response to the anguish aroused by the Industrial Revolution. Its penetration into the cinema of Germany itself coincides with the rise of Nazism, with the eugenics doctrines and with the paranoia nourishing phantasmagorias about impure or mixed beings (like vampires, like Frankenstein, like the Doctor/Monster, like the beautiful robot of metropolis, by Fritz Lang, in 1926), that is, non-Aryans. Soon after they were carried out, medical experiments with human beings were outlined on the horizon, with the aim of intervening in the genetic programming, which would imply the horrifying mutilation and torture practices of Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz, hinted at in these films.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão Professor Emeritus at FFLCH-USP. She is the author, among other books, of reading and rereading (Sesc / Gold over blue).

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