Andy Warhol's Dracula

by on Jul.29, 2012

Warhol’s Dracula

These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted for more than a few seconds; it often happened that, in my brief spell of uncertainty as to where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any more than, when we watch a horse running, we isolate the successive positions of its body as they appear upon a bioscope.                                                                   – Proust, from Swann’s Way

 Last summer, I watched Andy Warhol’s Dracula (aka Blood for Dracula) for the first time in about a decade. The previous time I’d seen it with Johannes back when we were room-mates in a mouse-infested house in Iowa City. And the time previous to that, I was a high school student in Memphis, living in a crack-infested neighborhood where gun fights and police helicopters were a common occurrence. And my reaction to the film every time I’ve seen it has been fairly consistent, despite watching it under incredibly different circumstances. I think it’s brilliant. One of the best horror films ever. And one of the best films from the 70s.

And yet I also always have a second reaction: by the standard of most films, I know Andy Warhol’s Dracula is not very good. The acting is stiff (with the exception of the great Udo Kier, and the cameos by Vittorio De Sica and Roman Polanski). The film is boldly careless with historical consistency: for example, though the film is set in Italy in the early part of the 20th century, one of the characters (Joe Dallesandro) has a contemporary New York accent. The characters are not complicated even by grade B horror films standards. They have as little back-story as figures in a landscape painting.

I find the film incredibly compelling, starting with the first scene. We see Dracula sitting in front of the mirror. A beautiful, melancholy piano piece plays in the background. He applies makeup to his face to make himself look lifelike. His hair is white, and he starts to paint it black with a brush. He’s not very good at it either. The edges remain white. The paint itself is as thick as tar. (Later in the movie, his hair will be normally black. How the tar-like paint turns into a more normal hair color is one of the film’s great mysteries.) Finally, there is no reason he should be sitting in front of the mirror. As the last shot in the scene reminds us, vampires cast no reflection.

Of course, the opening scene is a joke, literally. Why would a vampire use a mirror? And yet it’s also a toss-away gesture, an act of expenditure. The act of applying makeup in front of a mirror in which you cannot see your image is an act that shows disdain for purpose, for use value.

Why would a vampire use a mirror? To remind himself he isn’t there.

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I really love this opening scene. First of all, the score by Claudio Gizzi is breathtaking. It has to be one of the all-time great film scores. Secondly, the shot has an eerie elegance. The credits are in bold red, and they contrast sharply with Kier’s pale, taut face. When I watch the scene I think of Proust’s Swann, and Mann’s Aschenbach, and I also think of Baudelaire’s famous writings on cosmetics, and the long historical link between cosmetics and death. Not that Paul Morrissey, the director, in any way meant to self-consciously refer to those things. Yet to me, the scene is dripping with associations.

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The film is also gorgeous, much more visually alluring than the usual B film. Many of the shots look like they could have been paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In fact, just as this film is of a “low” and debased genre (horror), and yet still has real aesthetic power, so the Pre-Raphaelites are considered to be a low and debased form of Renaissance painting (albeit a few hundred years too late). And yet some of their paintings have a great deal of power.

And Dracula himself in this film is closer to the vampire in Nosferatu than the ones we see in most vampire films. He is not strong or eloquent or Byronic; rather, he’s sickly, weak. Udo Kier plays him as a drained, desiccated, though elegant figure. In fact, one of the most disturbing scenes in the film is where he convulses violently on a bed with Gizzi’s score playing. Kier is probably most famous, now, for his work with Lars von Trier. Yet even here, back in 1974, you can see the odd mix of black humor and pathos that he is able to bring to a role, a mix few actors would be able to pull off.

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Why make it new? Why not make it old? Why not make it rot? Why not watch it fall apart? Why care about “the way we live now”? The way we live now is usually limited, circumscribed. I’m always surprised when certain critics say, for example, that we must read and respect Conceptualism (or writer X or movement Y) because it is a fundamental part of the zeitgeist. But, contrary to Hegel, the zeitgeist is only what we say it is.

Foucault’s interest in history was to use it to get out of the present. Not to return to the past or honor the past. But to use history to jolt us out of the stranglehold of the present. To make the present strange. To upset the smooth surfaces of the present with the jagged shards of the past.

Or the way Tom McCarthy talks about Joyce and Faulkner in certain interviews: with them, time is not a place, or a linear line, but a ripple effect that can go back and forth. Time, in other words, becomes a toy, a game. (He could also be speaking about Proust and Woolf here.)

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I saw Andy Warhol’s Dracula around the time when I first saw Bergman’s Cries & Whispers, and I’ve always been struck by how similar they are. The grave tone. The elegiac soundtrack. The presentation of immense physical suffering (there are some scenes in the Bergman film of a charater with cancer writhing in agony that I still have a difficult watching). The black and red color schemes (Bergman once said in an interview he used red so much because he saw it as the color inside the human body). Both even involve the undead.

In Steve Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body, there is an interesting section where he talks about the similarities between early Warhol and Bresson: how they are both invested in a certain presentation of the body, a presentation based on materiality, on there-ness. (Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy with me at the moment, and can’t go into too much detail about it.)

In a similar way,  Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Bergman’s Cries & Whispers are twins who stand back to back and yet face different directions. But they are still twins, and their backs are still touching.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Helen

    I’m interested – you mention noticing the black humour of the film, but also its gravity. I wonder if you laughed while watching it? I saw Blood for Dracula first – and mesmerising it was – at a cinema in Glasgow, which is where gallows humour is the norm. I and everyone else were convulsed with laughter. Horrified laughter, but true laughter nonetheless. Aware of the self-consciousness of things, but blanking out any gravity, really.

    I am afraid to watch it again, because that experience was so situational.

  2. Phil

    Great stuff here, and both of these movies, too, I love.

    Another film to consider in this context might be Corman’s _A Bucket of Blood_. In it, a busboy at a beatnik cafe becomes an artist by murdering animals and people and casting the corpses inside of clay: there’s image and membrane and violence and art and excess and quickly escalating statuary with bloody red interiors and chalky skin.

  3. Johannes

    Oh shit I love Bucket of Blood and all those movies from the 50s about wax sculptures – this great anxiety about art – that the art will kill, that the art will take the place of the real living thing, until everything is potentially art (dead). Hilarious of course.

    Johannes

  4. Johannes

    Interesting post James. Warhol also supposedly made a Dracula in the 60s starring Jack Smith. I haven’t seen that but apparently Smith is breathtaking. Though I love Udo Kier of course, especially the creepy dude in My Own Private Idaho.

    Curiously, Joyelle and I just re-watched Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (and Nosferatu, and Vampyr) and it was both worse (not in a good way!) and better than I remember it. It’s of course all about the costumes, the plot having been reduced to mis-en-scen. And they are amazing costumes, explicitly based on Klimt paintings from the era.

    And I was also intrigued to notice this time that Monica Belucci is the half-naked vampire lady who orally castrates Harker and has her head cut off! I have to add that to my ongoing critical project about her work.

    But what struck me the most I think in this viewing was how similar it was in its “naive”/archaic techniques to Guy Maddin’s work, using all these old camera style work etc. But it’s done in such a “professional” manner than it loses that Maddin-esque madness.

    I’ll have to watch Warhol’s Dracula too. The first time I watched that was like at 2 am in the basement of a house in suburbia when I was in like 8th grade.

    Johannes

  5. James Pate

    Helen,

    Really interesting question. To me, the gravity is part of the humor. The film is so deadpan it has a Buster Keaton quality about it.

    And yet, one of the things I love about the movie is that it doesn’t seem to simply be an exercise in irony, like an especially gory and decadent Young Frankenstein. There are moments in the film that I find inexplicably beautiful, like the opening scene.

    But of course all of this is wildly situational, as you point out. And subjective. I think criticism or just talk about art in general often tries to position itself outside of situations, trying to gain a tone of objectivity it can never reach anyway. And it would be great to see Warhol’s Dracula in Glasgow! That must’ve been great. I really like that city…

    Phil,

    I’ll have to check out Buckets of Blood. I’ve been meaning to see it for a while…

    James