d. Tod Browning / 1931 / USA / 75 mins
w/ live score by Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet
@ Hackney Empire (London, UK)
Re-scores can be a tricky thing. The temptation to over-experiment sometimes threatens an inglorious failure, and the desire to play it safe can leave a re-score seeming dull and unimaginative. Curious, then, that someone might attempt to score of a non-silent, particularly a film which, though driven by action, was adapted from a stage production and is therefore largely reliant on dialogue.
Of course, it’s important to note that on its original release in 1931, Tod Browning’s rendition of Dracula was marked by the complete absence of a dedicated score, with only an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake accompanying the opening credits and a snippet of a Wagner overture audible during the theatre scene. In fact, it was fairly common for early talkies to appear without a dedicated non-diegetic score, so it is perhaps not entirely surprising that they are occasionally treated to re-scores, which often has the added benefit of introducing these films to a whole new audience.
Philip Glass’ re-scoring of Browning’s Dracula – commissioned in 1998 and performed with Kronos Quartet – has set something of a benchmark for the re-scoring of early cinema, talkies or otherwise. Glass’ compositions are undoubtedly quite excellent and at times brilliant, adding immeasurably to what can be a pretty lacklustre affair, even by the standards of an industry still coming to terms with the implications of sound technology.
And yet there is something about talkies and live scores that just doesn’t mesh for me. It works well enough on disc, I suppose, when those in charge have the time and ability to remaster the old soundtrack and perfectly integrate the new audio elements with the old (as they have, very capably, with the DVD version of Dracula). But when performed live – particularly over the top of a curiously muffled existing soundtrack, as it was for this showing – it can sometimes struggle to maintain the right balance of cinematic experience and live performance.
Regardless of the sound issues, however, this performance at the iconic Hackney Empire – sweltering after weeks of an unseasonably warm period of the English summer – was thoroughly enjoyable. The atmosphere amongst the sold out crowd was palpable right from the offing, even if some people treated the evening with a little less respect than it deserved.
And the film itself – featuring, of course, Béla Lugosi in his most (in)famous role – certainly benefitted from the surroundings and the score, making it curiously better than I ever remembered. After all, there is simply no matching Lugosi’s chilling glare, and whilst it is far from being a comedy, Browning had a wonderful ability to inject humour – both straight and surreal – into even the darkest crevices of the horror canon.