Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Silent Image In Modern Film: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

There is a fine tribute to the earliest projected films in this plushly shot horror epic of the early 1990's.  It comes in as a scene in a cinema parlor in the heart of 1890's London.  As Mina (Winona Ryder) and The Count (Gary Oldman) enter the room, the projection that is just ending is normal; then as other films start up, the images on the screens eventually morph into silent images that behave like good old fashioned Stop Motion Animation obviously being projected straight through the devices from the vampire himself--echoing similar "silent looking" images from the beginning of the film.  (Watch also for the morphing of the woman in an upright casket into skeleton like figure, just before "vampire projection" starts.) After the wolf clears the cinema, the projections then seem to return to normal.  I believe one of the images at this point are of the ultra short film entitled The Ghost Train, which would bit funny since it wasn't shot until 1903--but I can't be sure.

"No Limits To Science"

 The device in question is the Cinematograph, a device invented by Léon Bouly that was patented by him in 1892, but most closely associated with, and seriously perfected by The Lumiére Brothers.  It was invented to be both a motion picture camera and a projector.  It was designed to trump Edison's Kinetoscope, which was an all together different sort of machine that certainly lacked a projection device of any sort.  The cinematograph became wildly popular, and widely know throughout the world, including remote parts of Asia.  The most important cultural impact of the cinematograph was that it was available to the poorest of people, hence Mina's snobbish quip "how can you call this science?"  It is the sort of place that a young woman of her station should not be frequenting.  Of course, it doesn't help that what is playing when they walk in are the earliest forms of "blue movies"--an early form of pornographic film.  Still "The Count" is right, science it was!  

In fact, throughout the film other images invoke the silent era of cinema, and even employ parlor and stage tricks found in earlier 18th phantasmagoria.  For example, during the beginning of Jonathan Harker's (Keanu Reeves) stay in Dracula's Transylvania castle we see a shadow play that was a common parlor and stage trick from the late 18th and early 19th century.  According to Coppola he used what he termed as a "shadow wrangler" to complete the effect--literally a shadow mime off camera to cast an alternate movement behind Oldman as the scene was shot.  This can clearly be seen in the two clips below. 

Another easily spotted trick employed in the film that references silent "trick films" (most produced in the 1890's and very early 20the century) found in earliest staged film is the use of reverse motion--or the simple use of film in reverse.  This was employed in the case of Lucy The Vampire (Sadie Frost) returning to her casket after being confronted by by Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and his rather over sized cross.

More Images:

Image obviously an homage to Nosferatu (1922)

Echoing The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari

Vampire about town at dusk.  From a part of the film that is shot to mimic old hand turned motion picture cameras.

  For More:

Director Francis Ford Coppola talks Old Hollywood Magic in the film in an article from this past August over at Entertainment Weekly.

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