Dracula (1931) – a Horror Movie Without Horror Movie Music

It may be sacrilege to add music to the 1931 Dracula, and it might also be a great idea. It wasn’t until ten or fifteen minutes into a sound-check/run-through last year that I realized…hey, this is gonna work.

The two shows I did last year at both the Library of Congress Packard Campus Theater and at the Rivertown Film Society went extremely well. Both times, people came up to me afterwards who’d seen the Bela Lugosi-Todd Browning Dracula several times and thought that the film worked even better than it had for them before. Adding musical underscore to a film from the early 1930s may not be for everyone, but my hunch seemed to be right.

I’d done this before, but for a comedy short that had been made by Educational Pictures, where there absolutely was no budget or technology to add music. Buster Keaton’s One-Run Elmer (1935) has no music, and hardly any dialog. Maybe a dozen years ago or so we ran it at The Silent Clowns Film Series in NYC and I played to it, and the short came to life. I may have tried this with one or two other similar shorts and found it worked.

Now that I work with a portable digital theater organ set-up, the notion of adding musical underscore to Dracula was more possible. The fact that there really aren’t a lot of silent films that fit the horror genre — they’re gothic and macabre, but not necessarily sca-a-a-ary— made the idea of pursuing this worthwhile, if only to add another title to the canon of silent films shown every October. Every film accompanist, as well as rock bands and church organists who only do a silent once a year, winds up playing for these.

Dracula 1931 Bela Lugosi main title
Music greets the audience in the opening titles of Dracula (1931), and then disappears for the rest of the film. Except for a brief moment when Dracula arrives at an opera house. For reasons that must have made sense to a 1931 audience, the main title music is the swan theme from Tschaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”.

Scoring the 1931 Dracula also fits my interest in bridging the gap of the era the films was made in with a contemporary audience’s expectations from the film’s score. Why doesn’t the Lugosi-Browning version get shown more at Halloween-time? Could it be that it doesn’t hold up for today’s audiences as well as it could because all the key dramatic and scare moments are presented in dead silence to audiences who’ve seen Psycho and Halloween who expect music there?

Was this the idea behind commissioning Philip Glass to write a score for Dracula in 1999? The Philip Glass score may go too far in the direction of contemporary music for some fans, who are expecting horror movie music from a classic horror film.

My score for Dracula is not wall-to-wall music, the way a silent film score is. It stops and starts, like a regular film score would, and only fills in the musically-mute spaces where music would go. The moment we see Dracula’s wives walking slowly through a room. A bat changes into Dracula, approaches a sleeping woman and bites her neck. Dr. Van Helsing pulls out a crucifix and Dracula recoils. The long slow ending where the two lovers ascend a very long staircase and we fade into the “The End” title. And several others.

Todd Browning may very well have wanted things this way, but as Universal was a late-adopter to sound the lack of available technology to them to add musical underscore meant that even if Browning had wanted a score he wouldn’t have been able to have one. Universal’s Frankenstein, from the same year but with a different director, has the same lack of music.

The 1931 Dracula not a silent film, but it’s very quiet, and deserves to be shown more than it is currently at Halloween season. If having an appropriate musical score performed live helps it get shown, then I hope what I’m doing can help contribute to that.

You can hear a more detailed discussion of this as well as a couple audio samples on episode 31 of my Silent Film Music Podcast.

I highly recommend Michael Slowik’s excellent book After the Silents, about Hollywood’s musical underscoring practices during the first half dozen years of talking pictures.

You can watch a slightly schmeary-looking upload of One Run Elmer here.

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Richard Ward

I’m sure you provide a great and appropriate accompaniment, Ben, and I hope to hear it someday. My problem with the Glass score is that to my ears it seems so monotonous, like listening to someone sawing wood for an hour and a half.

Joseph Andolina

I had the misfortune of hearing a Phillip Glass live orchestra rendition to one of his pieces at a movie themed performance show in Seattle. It was one of the most tediously repetitions pieces I ever heard, what was maybe a ten minute piece seemed more like an hour. I don’t even remember what move the music was originally from.

Michael Schlesinger

Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach, once described Glass as “1% inspiration, 99% repetition.” And I say that as a great admirer of Glass (and Schickele, too).

todd harrell holmes

Okay, I get it, you wanted to “improve” a classic film. But I watched the film last Halloween and you totally ruined it. If Tod Browning wanted music running all the way through it, he would have done so. You even had the misfortune of replacing the original Swan Lake title score with some other abomination. The impending doom of the story was made more evident in the silent sequences, such as the interior of Dracula’s Castle, and the scene with his wives creeping up on Jonathan Harker. Thanks for ruining my Halloween!

todd harrell holmes

It’s possible I may have seen another version, and I certainly don’t mean to insult your obvious love of great films, or your musical talent. Currently I live in an independent living retirement community, and Dracula was shown on our local in-house television channel. Still, the inclusion of a soundtrack in the silent scenes was most disruptive. What I do remember is Wagner’s musical score used as incidental music in the opera scene in which Count Dracula introduces himself.

todd harrell holmes

Well I do apologize, but on the bright side, I found a site that loves the silents as much as I do.