Sunday, October 31, 2021

Going the distance with Lon Chaney, 'Dracula' at Somerville Theatre, and one more 'Nosferatu'

'Where East is East' (1929), screening today at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, Wilton, N.H.

It's silent film aerobics. Three more! Two more! One more!

That's the feeling you get when accompanying nine separate feature films in six days.

Physically, it's not that demanding. I'm basically sitting and moving my fingers.

But mentally, it can be taxing. You're concentrating sometimes for hours without a break, again and again.

The trick, I think, is to pace yourself—take the films one a time, do the best you can with each, and always keep something in reserve.

It's like a 10-round boxing match. If you're in Round 7, you don't think about Round 10. You need to stay in the moment, or you'll get in trouble.

One odd effect of accumulated screenings is that the "silent film accompaniment" instinct sometimes keeps going even after a film has ended. 

I find myself opening the car door and thinking "okay, F minor chord here." 

It's like the old gag in which a punch-drunk boxer responds to any bell-like sound by instinctively going into a crouch and coming out swinging.

Well, the bout continues—in fact, it's actually heading toward something of a climax, this being the actual day of Halloween itself. 

Today's action include a round with Lon Chaney in 'Where East is East' (1929), the actor's final collaboration with director Tod Browning. The bell rings at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Then I head down to Somerville, Mass. this evening to create a live score for a 35mm print of 'Dracula' (1931)—another Browning film, but this one a talkie, with Bela Lugosi in the lead role. 

It's my first time back at the Somerville since accompanying a Rin Tin Tin double feature on March 15, 2020, the day before the venue shut down due to the pandemic.

I've never done music for the talking Dracula, but I think I have some good stuff ready. My aim is to bob and weave with the movie, to find opportunities where music can augment the movie without getting its way. We'll see how it all comes together this evening.

And I'll try to avoid getting too punchy in the process. Once the film starts, it's like the bell rings, and you must stay focused and in the moment to go the distance.

But then maybe boxing is the wrong analogy. Silent film accompaniment is more like ballet: the film and the musician dance together in the hopes of creating something exciting, absorbing, and perhaps even beautiful.

Or maybe it's a little of both.

Either way, see you at 2 p.m. in Wilton for Chaney is 'Where East is East' and then this evening in Somerville for 'Dracula' at 7 p.m. 

More details in the press release below:

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Bela Lugosi as Dracula menaces Helen Chandler in the 1931 classic.
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Halloween special: Lugosi's 'Dracula' on big screen in 35mm with new live score

Horror classic to be shown at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31 for one screening only

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Do you dare spend Halloween braving 'Dracula' on the big screen?

That's the question at the Somerville Theatre, where the classic 1931 version of 'Dracula' will run for one showing only on Sunday, Oct. 31.

The movie, starring Bela Lugosi in the title role, will be shown using a 35mm film print from Universal Studios, which released the early horror classic in 1931.

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $15, with senior/student discounts. Tickets are available online at or at the box office.

The screening will feature live music by Jeff Rapsis, the Somerville Theatre's silent film accompanist.

Although 'Dracula' is a talking picture, it was released with virtually no musical score, a common practice during the transition period from silent to sound pictures.

Rapsis will perform original music live during the screening using a digital keyboard to recreate the texture of a full orchestra.

Directed by Tod Browning, 'Dracula' was a sensational box office success and has mesmerized movie audiences ever since with its eerie visuals and Lugosi's iconic performance.

The story opens in far-off Transylvania, where mysterious Count Dracula hypnotizes a British soldier, Renfield (Dwight Frye), into becoming his mindless slave.

Dracula then travels to England and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon the Count begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires.

When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to Dracula's never-ending bloodlust.

Located in Davis Square, the Somerville Theatre is one of the few first-run venues in the region committed to preserving the ability to screen movies using 35mm film prints.

"We feel it's important to show films on actual film when possible, the way classic movies were intended to be shown," said Ian Judge, creative director of the Somerville Theatre.

The Somerville recently reopened after a 17-month hiatus for the pandemic, during which significant renovations were made to the 1914 theater.

The Halloween screening of 'Dracula' will include live music by Jeff Rapsis, a local composer and performer who specializes in creating accompaniment for silent films.  

'Dracula' was released when Hollywood and movie theatres were still undergoing the transition from the silent era to pictures with synchronized sound and dialogue.

During the silent era, studios did not produce official scores for most films. Instead, accompaniment was left up to local musicians, and could vary greatly from one moviehouse to another.

When studios converted to talking pictures, the tradition of recording a musical score was not well established. In the case of 'Dracula,' Universal omitted music in part to save production costs.

As a result, after the opening credits, the 1931 'Dracula' contains no music except for a brief scene in an opera house.

In recent decades, composers have experimented with creating original music for the movie—most notably Philip Glass, who composed a score in 1998 for the Kronos string quartet.

Rapsis sees 'Dracula' as closely linked to the silent-era tradition of films shown with live music.

"Tod Browning was a prolific director of silent films, including many thrillers that anticipate 'Dracula,' " Rapsis said. "So even though 'Dracula' is a talking picture, Browning's filmmaking style is strongly rooted in the silent era, when it was assumed that local musicians would be important collaborators in a picture's effect on an audience."

Unlike the Glass score, which plays almost continuously during the movie, Rapsis will use music only in certain places where he feels it will either enhance the mood, heighten tension, or signify a change in the emotional line of the story.

Although 'Dracula' is not a silent film, there are definitely places where the silence speaks volumes and remains very effective," Rapsis said. "I hope to leave those intact, but enrich other parts of the film in the way that only music can."

Silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Yes, those are his real teeth!

Rapsis works largely by improvising as a film plays in the theater, in the tradition of theatre organists of the 1920s.

"There's something very special about the in-the-moment energy of a live improvised performance," Rapsis said. "It's never the same, and at its best it really can help a film connect with an audience and make the whole experience come together."

The original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi will be shown in 35mm and with live music for one screening only on Halloween night, Sunday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Tickets are $15 per person, with discounts for students and seniors. For more info, call the theater at (617) 625-5700 or visit

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