The other day I saw an amusing social media post from Stephen Bissette, the legendary Swamp Thing penciller. He was mocking a recent online article that promised a list of 11 little known horror films sure to be new to most readers. When I clicked the link, I began to see why Bissette was making fun. The first unknown film on the list was the legendary silent, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Including Caligari—often the jumping off point for horror movie histories—seemed a little bizarre. It’s like presenting a list of obscure science fiction films and starting with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The rest of the list contained such “unknown” movies as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents—still the definitive adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. In other words, you wouldn’t have to be a horror aficionado like Bissette to roll your eyes at this list.
It’s not the first ridiculous attempt to label well-known works as obscure. A couple of months ago I took one of those silly online quizzes to see how many “obscure” shows from the ‘70s I could identify. There were only about a dozen listed, but they included iconic shows like The Rockford Files and Battlestar Galactica. And only a couple of weeks ago, there was a list of the most underrated comic book series from Vertigo. Chief among these long forgotten Vertigo titles was Grant Morrison’s The Invisbles.
So lately I’ve been thinking of putting together my own list of forgotten rock albums. Sure, everyone remembers Sgt. Pepper, but did you know the Beatles also released a double album called simply, The Beatles? Because of its cover, I’ve taken to nicknaming it their “White Album.”
I jest. But my goal here isn’t just to make fun of uninformed click bait articles. Not really. (Okay, so maybe a little.) Instead, I offer this anecdote as a means of explaining this week’s column. A funny thing happens each October. As the retail stores drag out their monster costumes and the radio stations put Bobby Pickett, Warren Zevon, and Ray Parker, Jr. in steady rotation, I, like a lot of people, get a hankering for a really good horror movie.
For those who don’t normally watch horror, picking a good movie isn’t too difficult, because almost all the good stuff is still waiting out there unwatched. And for the hardcore fans, it’s also not that hard to probe deeper and deeper into the genre. But if you find yourself, like me, in the position of being a merely a casual fan, you eventually run up against a problem. You run out of great movies.
The problem isn’t that there’s nothing out there. It’s a huge genre, and I’m not arrogant enough to presume that I’ve seen every good horror movie ever made. But because I’m only a casual fan, I can’t really summon up the energy to explore third, fourth, or fifth-tier horror movies, striking out multiple times before stumbling on one that really delivers.
So what to do? Because when the leaves start dying, the wind grows colder, and the grocery shelves fill up with Count Chocula, I start feeling that Gothic itch again. Last year, I wrote a column about watching some really offbeat horror-themed movies like Jean Renoir’s modernized adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and some of the sillier horror comedies like Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers and its remake, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s Scared Stiff.
But this year I’m going even further off the beaten path. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for old-time radio drama. In fact, when I was in college, one of my favorite possessions was an extensive collection of highlights from the biggest and most influential of the radio stars, Orson Welles.
Welles’s radio career is mostly identified with his October 30, 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds which simulated newscasts covering a Martian Invasion. That broadcast famously prompted a minor panic among listeners who tuned in after the opening credits and thought it was real. In fact, as a result of that broadcast, the FCC banned the simulation of newscasts for many decades.
I’m not sure when the ban on fake news was finally lifted, but I assume it must’ve been around the same time Rupert Murdoch launched the Fox News Channel.
Anyway … Welles’s contributions to radio are far more significant than just one broadcast. He had begun acting on radio—even anonymously playing the Shadow—as a way to supplement his theater work. By the end of 1937, he had become the most innovative theater director and star in the United States, creating a sensation with two revolutionary Shakespeare productions—Macbeth, for the Federal Theatre Project, and Julius Caesar for the company he and John Houseman created, called the Mercury Theatre.
He was 22 years old.
So in 1938, at age 23, Columbia invited Welles to bring his Mercury company to radio. The first show, which aired 3 ½ months before the War of the Worlds broadcast, was an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While Dracula might’ve seemed a more natural selection for October, it was a perfect choice for an inaugural broadcast. As an epistolary novel, Dracula is comprised of journals and letters—the sort of thing ideally suited for first person radio narration. And as a quintessential work of Gothic horror, it offered plenty of opportunity for establishing mood and atmosphere.
The broadcast features much of the Welles team, both past and future. Stalwart Mercury actors like Agnes Moorehead and George Coulouris play Mina and Jonathan Harker, and the soon-to-be legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann contributes the music. Welles plays two roles—Dr. Seward, one of the novel’s romantic interests for the ill-fated Lucy, and, of course, Count Dracula, whose lines Welles delivers at a significantly lower pitch and with a mishmash of a Slavic accent. It’s certainly no Bela Lugosi impression, and Welles’s delivery emphasizes the Count’s regal demeanor.
As Welles introduces himself and his theater troupe to the audience, the scariest thing is the realization that the deep, rich voice belongs to a 23-year-old. I couldn’t help but Google the names of current 23-year-old actors, but I’m having trouble seeing Taylor Lautner or Nick Jonas running their own theater company, directing and acting in classical literary adaptations, or, frankly, just sounding like Welles.
The first half of the show is a feast of sound—and not just for Welles’s voice. Most radio drama utilized sound effects, but often those effects were simple, isolated, and measured. If an actor were to say he knocked on a door, his line might be followed by a distinct sound of knocking. Then the dialogue would continue.
However, Welles attempts to overwhelm the listener with sound. In the opening half of Dracula, his team assaults the audience with thunder, wind, wolf howls, horse whinnying, chanting, coach wheels, human shrieks, sliding coffins, crashing windows … it’s the noisiest thing you could imagine. The result is a chaotic cacophony of sounds, and even if it’s not necessarily creepy, it’s incredibly impressive. As with Welles’s Citizen Kane or George Lucas’s first Star Wars film, the various sounds act almost as a character themselves.
Some of the more popular staples of the story, most notably the bug-eating Renfield, are eliminated, as is Quincey Morris, Lucy’s Texas suitor who, along with Jonathan Harker, actually kills Dracula in the original novel. However, for the most part Welles’s Dracula stays relatively close to the events in the book.
Welles backs off the avalanche of sound in the second half, and the scene where Van Helsing and Seward kill Lucy is particularly gripping. What’s more, because we’ve relaxed into the quieter tone, her death scream carries twice the impact. I won’t lie—it made me jump.
For the rousing cross-country chase of Dracula in the final act, Welles returns to the overwhelming noise of the beginning. The ending also gives Mina a real chance to shine and, unlike Stoker, Welles does an excellent job of drawing out Dracula’s final moments.
As is often the case, the post-show commentary with Welles speaking directly to the audience, asking listeners to write him with their suggestions for additional stories they want to hear and playfully teasing the audience with his Dracula voice are as entertaining as anything in the actual drama.
Overall, it’s an admirable production—perhaps not as memorable as some of the Mercury team’s later productions like the sentimental My Little Boy or the dramatic Rebecca, but still quite fun and impressive.
I’ll certainly take it over a third-rate horror movie this October.