Throughout the history of cinema, set design and its representation within the rnise en scene has played an integral role in creating a psychological atmosphere within the diegesis of the film, as well as contributing somewhat indirectly toward the development of the film’s thematic and narrative devices. In many ways, the use of setting to convey external meaning can most clearly be seen within the horror genre, a genre that tends to propagate several key examples of this use from film to film, though often to different effect. A key depiction of this concept can be found within the 1931 film Dracula, one of the most prominent films within the genre.
In her book, The Haunted Screen, Lotte Eisner devotes a large portion of her analysis to the discussion of the role set design plays within the German Cinema of the 1910’s and ’20’s. Architecture and setting, Eisner argues, were used throughout this period to great effect as a way of both conveying their own symbolic representation within the diegesis of the film as well as complimenting the heavy use of chiaroscuro lighting that permeated German films of the first quarter-century. Staircases and corridors, as well as arches and vaulted ceilings, all were used extensively to represent the Expressionist themes of abstraction that infused the early German Cinema, as well as assisting in the depiction of thematic and symbolic representations within the narrative itself
Throughout Dracula, architecture and set design is used in much the same way, signaling a clear relationship between the German Expressionist Cinema and the early Hollywood horror films being produced in the late ’20’s and early ’30’s. Dracula’s use of set design and architectural representations within the film’s diegesis serve as a way of deepening the rift between good and evil, working parallel to the narrative methods being employed to accentuate the basic conflict between the vampire and those who would stop him. The set’s architecture works in tandem with the use of light and shadow to serve as a sort of leitmotif, clearly marking the delineation between good and evil within the film.
In order to create this dichotomy within the mise en scene, Dracula is largely set in two contrasting settings, namely the clean, civilized world of humanity and the untamed and ruinous wilderness inhabited by the title character and his fellow “creatures of the night.” While the hospital inhabited by the protagonists is well ordered and clean, Count Dracula’s abode is in shambles, replete with collapsed pillars and frayed curtains. Where the humanity is safely contained within the white-washed walls and fences of civilization, the evil vampire has mastery over the pervasive and dominating outside world.
In creating two contrasting and conflicting worlds and tying them to respective characters within the narrative, the film is able to accentuate, through use of a given scene’s set design, the emotional and thematic representations at work in the scene. By placing the vampire within natural and animalistic sumoundings, the character of Dracula is given a beastly and dangerous nature, his aristocratic manner masking the underlying savagery and cruelty threatening the destruction of humanity. At the same time, the natural world itself is cast in an ominous light, the evil of Dracula being transferred upon the wilderness to such an extent that the few small bastions of humanity in the film, the small town in Transylvania and the hospital in London, seem to be constantly on the verge of being enveloped and lost forever. In this regard, set design and the architectural construction of the scene plays a key role.
Spidery tree limbs and an oppressive mist laying over the land are often used to frame Dracula as he stares in the direction of the hospital, offering a sort of protection and kinship with the vampire. The outside world is tied to the vampires in the film in such a way that the vampires, while outdoors, seem to blend in with their surroundings. This can be seen most noticeably during the sequence in which a diaphanously clad vampiress seems to drift through the forests of the English countryside, the trees forming a sort of tunnel, limbs arching submissively above her as she walks. Toward the end of the film, after Mina, the female lead, changes into a vampire while out on the porch, the shot abruptly changes to one in which trees and vines dominate the upper part of the screen. Cast in darkness and mist, nature here seems to threaten to push the porch itself and the civilization and humanity it represents out of the shot entirely.
The porch in this scene is, in many ways, representative of a gateway between the two worlds, the lone barrier between the unkempt wilderness outside and the sterility and sanctity of the hospital. This representation is marked on an architectural level by the railing around the porch, the bars fencing in and enclosing the hospital. Straight vertical and horizontal lines form the majority of the sets within the building itself, creating the illusion of bars, boxes, and other similar objects used to contain and protect. The bars on the window from the minion Renfield’s cell window serve the dual function of preventing him from leaving and preventing physical access to him from Dracula. Doorways in the hospital are, for the most part, square, blocking entrance, forcing the vampire to enter through an open window. The town in Transylvania is protected by a fence composed of vertical bars, the gate that is square in construction.
In sharp contrast, the construction of Dracula’s domain, both in his castle and the abandoned abbey in which he takes up residence in London, is largely devoid of straight lines, relying instead on arched doorways, vaulted ceilings, and curved staircases to fashion the interior of his abode. The very nature of the curvature in the construction of these buildings lends itself to parallels with the outside world, the sinuous lines resembling living things, plants and animals. As a result, the interior of the castle takes on an almost jungle-like quality, particularly when combined with the variety of fauna, spiders, bats, and armadillos, that inhabit the same space as Dracula. The farther the camera delves into the space of Dracula’s home, the more oppressive and lifelike the buildings become, ultimately culminating in the underground crypt of the abbey.
It is this room that calls to mind the most significant sense of life within the ruins, resembling in many ways an animal warren or hive. At the same time, this chamber calls to mind the chambers of the human heart, marking its position as the physical and spiritual center of the castle as well as paralleling both the centrality of Dracula’s power over the natural world and his ultimate demise, a stake through the heart. In essence, the multiple layers of the final scene’s symbolism act as a way of accentuating the impact of the film’s culminating events. The protagonists have to venture deep into the heart of Dracula’s evil control, into the heart of the castle, to plunge a stake into the heart of the heart of all evil and suffering. Because of the way the architectural construction of this scene, the viewer is able to connect the world of Dracula with the Count himself, emphasizing his control over it.
There is a strong juxtaposition of life and death throughout this film, centering on the very setting in which the characters inhabit. The protagonists, the living representations of humanity, live in a world in which cleanliness and purity seem to override any sense of life within the walls of the hospital. Humanity in this film blocks itself off from the natural world, science and technology at odds with nature, in many ways inviting the assault from Dracula. Dracula’s world, however, is quite the opposite, though it juxtaposes life and death in much the same way. Vampires, the walking dead, inhabit a world in which life is ever present, in the trees, animals, and seemingly in the very construction of their home. Their world is earthy and wild, threatening yet embracing, the castle in which Dracula lives is less a man-made construction than it is a product of a more natural creation. While Dracula and his minions are the very representation of the unnatural in every way, their existence would be impossible without the presence of the living world.
Dracula is a film whose narrative and thematic existence is centered on the conflict between good and evil, and set design and the architectural construction of the film plays a key role in the creation of this dichotomy. Much in the same way as the German Expressionists of the 1910’s and ’20’s used architecture as a way of accentuating the symbolic importance of their films, so too did the directors of early horror films in Hollywood attempt to achieve meaning. The techniques of visual consffuction within the mise en scene developed by the German Expressionists found a home in the horror genre in America, propagating the themes and ideas originally developed to represent the fear that captivated the German people during this early period.