*atmospheric organ music plays as you enter a spooky-ish mansion to find me wearing a cheesy cape I got from a dollar store.*
The world needs monsters. They’re our fears incarnate, and they allow us to face the weird, creepy recesses of our brains and come out stronger in the end. A great many of our daily fears and trials (student loan debt, unemployment, depression, etc.) seem reassuringly teeny tiny when placed next to a living, breathing (unless they’re undead) denizen of the supernatural. Laugh if you will, but one of my favorite monsters is the vampire.
Elegant, mysterious, and lethal, they speak to a weird place in our brains that wishes we could jump off this wild spinny top called The Real World and be transformed into something both powerful and Other. Plus, you get to wear really fantastic Victorian coats and capes and stuff. The king of all vampires is, of course, Count Dracula. *organ music intensifies*
Now, ol’ Drac has sadly become something of a joke in recent years (it’s OK, buddy, I still love you), but we keep returning to him every so often because it’s almost like we feel this obligation to pay this pop culture juggernaut some sort of homage, acknowledging that, yes, he is important even if he’s not quite so relevant any more. So let’s go…oh wait hold on…
*puts in fake teeth and readjusts cape*
…ahem, let’s go back loooooing ago to a time when vampires were actually scary. Mwahahaha! *cue bats and lightning sound effects*
Enter the Count
Bram Stoker’s creeptastic villain would be completely unrecognizable to us today. He was not only an unholy, shape-changing bloodsucker with weird hair, corpse-like skin, and, of all things, a long mustache, but he was also representative of how the “civilized,” scientific Victorians viewed the denizens of Eastern Europe with their (in the Victorians’ minds) backwards superstitions, untamed landscapes, and old dusty dynasties of obsolete nobles in crumbling castles (Victorian England must have conveniently forgotten much of their own history). He does grow young once he returns to England, but it’s a facade. Dracula is alluring to Mina Harker only because he has taken control of her mind. It’s not a love story; it’s a story of rape. And Abraham Van Helsing, famed paranormal expert, represents the knowledge of the Victorians striking back at the gruesome vampire, defending Mina’s honor by finding a way to kill her attacker.
I looooooove this novel immensely. The vampire himself is more often offscreen (offpage?), but the epistolary format (in which the novel is presented as a scrapbook of letters, newspaper stories, and diary entries) allows us to see Dracula’s influence on the minds of the characters. It’s spooky, complex, and a lot of fun.
Black and White and Red
Stoker’s terrifying creation grew more refined and less icky when he made the jump to the screen, save for Nosferatu, whose title vampire is a grotesquely deformed predator of the creepiest sort. But by the time horror legend Bela Lugosi donned the now iconic cape in 1931, Dracula’s unholy thirst was masked by an exotic but seemingly charming exterior. Vampires today are portrayed as fast and deadly, but Lugosi’s uncomfortably slow movements really gives his character an unearthly quality that works really well. Also, this is off topic, but this version’s Renfield (played by Dwight Frye) is my all time favorite portrayal of the character. His manic intensity counterbalances Dracula’s unhurried elegance marvelously.
If you ever get a chance, take a look at the Spanish version of Dracula that was made at the same time as Tod Browning’s version we all know. It uses the same script, the same sets, and since they only had access to everything after the other crew was finished, the whole film was done at night, which actually gives it a much darker atmosphere. I think Bela Lugosi is the better Dracula, but the Spanish Dracula is actually the better movie, overall. It’s more intense, and I like the dynamic directing style, better.
A number of sequels followed this film and, aside from the fantastic Dracula’s Daughter (1936), they’re mostly kind of eh. But in 1958, screen legend Christopher Lee brought the legendary vampire back to (undead) life with Hammer Films’ The Horror of Dracula (originally just named Dracula), which played up not only the Count’s charm and elegance, but also his manic intensity when he reveals his true nature. This version is where we get the “stereotypical” Dracula costume (red-lined cape, gaudy medallion around his neck, etc.). This was the last age of Dracula as a villain. Later forays into his mythos will either give him a tragic backstory or will turn him into a heroic figure in an effort to get inside his head and garner sympathy for the poor Transylvanian Count. Some will accomplish this better than others, but in stripping away his outer coverings, perhaps too much will be revealed.
He’s Just Misunderstood
Years ago, I took a film studies class in college, and our textbook had this almost religious obsession with Francis Ford Coppola’s opulent Dracula from the early 90’s. Now, admittedly, it’s a gorgeous movie. Coppola only uses old-school film techniques, avoiding the computer technology that was taking the industry by storm at the time, and the visual complexity is at times staggering. But it’s also the film equivalent of that episode of I Love Lucy where she tries her hand at being a showgirl and ends up staggering down the steps in a massive dress and a huge feathered headdress that is too heavy to gracefully move in. From tearful romantic moments surrounded by a million candles to scenes where there are literally gallons of blood exploding everywhere, it’s a study in narrative excess.
It’s no wonder that Mel Brooks decided to spoof this film with Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) which took such excess and ran with it. Florid though it is, Coppola’s film just manages to keep itself together (unlike Kenneth Brannagh’s take on Frankenstein which tripped and fell headlong into the realm of the ridiculous).
But what it does very well is the lead vampire himself. Gary Oldman’s portrayal is probably the closest to the book, and so, when you first meet Dracula, he is squirmingly unpleasant, which is marvelous.
Later in the film, though, once the Creepy Count comes to England and is able to gleefully drink a whole ship’s crew dry, he regains his youthful appearance and what a youthful appearance it is! Forget the creepy grandpa in the first act, this version is so charming and lovely, you forget to be afraid of him when he’s putting the moves on Mina (the fellow has serious game). He ceases being a villain at this point and the story morphs into a Gothic romance wherein the audience totally forgets that this man earlier fed a baby to his brides (eew…). The OTP of Dracula/Mina doesn’t quiiiiite work, but it’s had a profound impact on Dracula’s characterization. Future versions will put a lot of effort into making the audience like or even love the newly re-vamped (see what I did there?) romantic figure.
Coppola’s film probably marked the beginning of the end for a serious Dracula film. It was too over-the-top to be outdone, and too faithful to the novel to be repeated. Even if another director could do better by the original novel, they probably wouldn’t bother. After the late 90’s, the focus was not on adapting the story but taking the character and doing cool stuff with him. Hammer studios did that very thing in the 60’s and 70’s, but their Dracula sequels never really gained much pop culture clout, preferring to lurk in the background to be enjoyed by fans of shlocky horror.
This is where Dracula becomes the purveyor of Cheesy-but-Delightful-Movies-That-I-Shouldn’t-Admit-To-Liking.
In Dracula 2000, we learned that, inexplicably, Gerard Butler makes a pretty good vampire (either that or he’s just pretty and the audience just sort of extrapolates the “good vampire” part). This movie is so dumb, but darn it, I love it so much. Dracula is once again sexy, but open shirts and various states of undress have replaced top hats and manners (which is a shame, I suppose). He’s the “bad guy” but he’s so cool that he’s more of an anti-hero type. You don’t really care about the actual cast. You just want to see Dracula doing stuff.
A few years later, while Gerard Butler was getting his Phantom of the Opera on, we got to meet Dracula again in the unabashed cheese fest that is Van Helsing. Richard Roxburgh takes on the role of the Count with so much sassy, flouncy glee that you can’t help but love him. There is nothing “horror-ish” about this one. It’s a cheesy parody of all the old Universal monster movies and another excuse for Hugh Jackman to attain a state of Muscular Undress, which he does quite often. As for Dracula himself, I’m not sure if this really adds anything to the mythos aside from a bunch of homoerotic subtext, but to be honest, THAT’S been there since the beginning. It was just much more couched in layers upon layers of Victorian lace and boning (hehe, boning…that was used in corsets must have been super uncomfortable to the ladies wearing them…I’ll stop).
I’m going to time travel a bunch because this post is already way too long. *gets in time machine*
*steps out of time machine* Hello from the future! Well not really.
The most recent Dracula film of note is Dracula Untold (2014) which…isn’t a “Dracula” movie, really. It’s a superhero movie set in the 15th century that just happens to feature a character named “Dracula.” Plot-wise, it’s kind of The Little Mermaid in which Vlad goes to the actual really cool Dracula-ish vampire (played delightfully by Charles Dance) and asks to be transformed into a vampire (to save his people). But, before the sun sets on the third day
he has to get the prince to kiss him he has to avoid drinking any blood. His vampire powers turn him into The Bat Lantern in which he can summon up huge spectral fists made of…bats (I kid you not). This variation of the character is much more noble, but he’s basically Anakin Skywalker, wanting dark power to keep the ones he loves from dying and surrendering to the darkness in the end. The only option left for the character in future incarnations would be to move back towards the villain end of the spectrum, but I feel like it will be a long time before that happens.
And so I leave you with this final thought: do you think it’s possible for Dracula to actually be scary again, or has our pop culture obsession with him robbed him of his edge? I’d like to see Dracula actually be a villain, but I don’t think it could work since the name Dracula conjures up only the goofy stuff in people’s minds. Maybe we don’t need to remake his story again. Between Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Gary Oldman, perhaps we’ve already done the story justice enough. We’ll see.
Also, if you get a chance, go read the book! It’s awesome!
Alright alright, I’ll leave you alone. I hope you all have a most happy Halloween! Eat all the candy! *shoos you all out so I can go play the pipe organ in peace*
See you next week!