Dracula on Film - Is He Dead and Buried? (Part One)

PrintE-mail Written by Phil Beresford

During the most recent run of the BBC comedy The Armstrong and Miller Show, there was a sketch featuring two old school vampires in a pub on the look out for virgins...

One of them (Count Anton Schleisinger van Hoekenhoek von Horschtadt) is modelled on Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula while the other (High Prince Alto Pharius) is clearly based on Gary Oldman's. Bemoaning the arrival of a group of more modern, trendy vampires in the bar, The Prince reminisces to his companion about the good old days: “Twas on this very day in 1862 I seduced the Comtesse di Vittoria to the soaring violin of Johann Strauss himself. I drained her body of life on the balcony of the Schloss Charlottenburg while the crowned heads of Europe thronged below.” To which the Count replies "I ended up with Pat from Barnsley the other night". The scene ends when they spot an attractive virgin at a nearby table and glide slowly across the floor in her direction, fangs bared and talons raised, only to be beaten to the punch by the superhuman speed of one of the younger vampires who gets there first. Prince Alto deadpans "Since when could vampires do that?"

Amusing though the scene is it highlights just how much vampire movies have evolved over the last three decades and the extent to which Dracula has in many ways been outgrown by his own brethren. A character who could once lay claim to the title of the undisputed Movie Monster of all time has, since the late 1970s, retreated into the shadows while others of his cinematic ilk have thrived in contemporary settings, looking as though they’re having a great time doing so into the bargain. Since the character’s heyday from the 1930s through to the end of the 1970s, the once copious amounts of blood that would accompany the release of yet another Dracula film have dried up to a trickle, the only major cinematic release to feature the Count in the last 20 years being Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). The only other versions have been spoofs (Dracula Dead and Loving It, 1995), duds (Dracula 2000 and its straight to video sequels Ascension and Legacy, 2003 & 2005) and a ballet (Dracula Pages from a Virgin's Diary, released in 2002 and filmed in the manner of a silent movie set to the music of Mahler). Of course, Dracula has popped up in other stuff, making guest appearances of variable success in the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2000), Van Helsing (2004) and Blade Trinity (2004) but nonetheless, an honest assessment of the character's history on film over the last century or so would have to conclude that (yes, I am going to say it) fangs ain't what they used to be and, compared to how things were back in his pomp, Dracula just isn't as popular as he once was.

However, in May of 2010 it was announced that there would be a new version of Stoker’s tale, scheduled for release in 2012. Since then, Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D has generated considerable interest not least because it brings together one of the great screen villains with one of the horror genre’s greatest directors. Despite any misgivings fans may have regarding his more recent output, as well as reservations over the fact that it will be filmed in 3D, Dracula is an interesting choice for Argento and it will be fascinating to see how he brings his distinctive style to bear on a story that has been told so often. Also, if there is one director who knows how to utilise colour (and all I’m really thinking of here is red) it's him. But if he is to deliver something that can stand alongside the very best Dracula films, Argento will have to negotiate a graveyard of clichés housing over 200 tombstones, each of them marking the resting place of a different on-screen incarnation of the eponymous Count (The Internet Movie Database carries 274 entries for actors who have played the role on film or television since 1922). Not only that but he faces the challenge of rehabilitating the Count and making him into a figure who is worthy of a place in our darkest dreams once more. Although the supernatural still flourishes on screens big and small, the Count very rarely features and while other vampires seem suited to the 21st century, Dracula is looking very much a 20th century boy. Therefore, Argento’s film will also be interesting because it may tell us, one way or the other, if the 20th century is where Dracula should have stayed.

There was a time when it seemed audiences couldn’t get enough of the old parasite. Vampire films had actually been a fairly popular staple of the silent era throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, the first example, Georges Méliès’s Manor of the Devil, appearing in 1896 (a year before Stoker’s Dracula was published). A whole series of shorts and features were released throughout the 1910s, stories that were often concerned with predatory female vampires who drained the life from unwary men too weak willed to resist their seductive advances, while others featured Svengali type figures who exerted a hypnotic influence over their victims. Some weren’t actually vampire films at all, at least not in the supernatural sense, films such as Louis Feuillade's 10-part serial Les Vampires exploiting the aesthetic of the genre but applying it to very human villains. Musidora, as the catsuited Parisian thief Irma Vep, was a vamp who looked like a vampire; a seductive, dangerous femme female whose allure was the antithesis of the wholesome hero and heroine of the tale. Although many of these films have now been lost, those that do survive show that European film makers in particular were intent on exploring and exploiting the eroticism inherent in the vampire mythos, and that from the beginning this was something that had huge popular appeal.

It wasn’t until the early 20s that Dracula made his first appearance on screen, the earliest surviving version being F W Murnau’s Nosferatu (Hungarian and Russian films featuring Dracula that were made the year before Murnau’s film are now lost). What is remarkable about Murnau’s picture is that it remains one of the most effective adaptations of the story ever put on screen, with Max Schreck’s Count Orlok (they couldn’t use the name Dracula due to copyright issues) enduring as the stuff of nightmares. His eerie and unsettling performance is enhanced by a film imbued with a haunting, dreamlike quality, where events unfold with a hallucinatory feel, all of it exacerbated by the fact that it is a silent film. A movie to be watched alone in the wee small hours, there are several scenes still capable of eliciting goosebumps: Orlok emerging from his coffin bolt upright, his spindly frame defying gravity; the shot of him framed within a window as he stares across the street at a sleeping Ellen (Mina in the book); and the iconic moment when his shadow is seen preceding him up a staircase as he makes his way to Ellen’s room. It’s worth noting as well that this was a portrayal of the Count, not as a dark seducer but as a repulsive monster, an approach that has rarely been taken since and although there is nothing seductive about Shreck’s Count, that is not to say that sex and sexuality was wholly absent from Murnau’s film. Orlok’s undoing turns out to be his yearning for Ellen as she entices and seduces him so successfully that he is unaware of the approaching dawn and pays the price for his desire by dying in the rays of the early morning sun. She dies as well unfortunately but hey, this was German expressionist cinema folks and she did at least give Orlok the distinction of being the first on screen vampire to prove susceptible to sunlight (Stoker wrote that Dracula’s powers were diminished in the day time but he was otherwise unharmed). About as serious a Dracula film as has ever been made, Nosferatu remains a true horror film in terms of its themes, its aesthetic and its central character and although there have been more commercially successful Counts there have been none as disturbing.

Thanks in part to rights issues and the take no prisoners approach of Stoker’s widow (she managed to have most copies of Nosferatu destroyed for copyright infringement) it would be almost 10 years before Dracula returned to the screen but when it did it would be in the most famous version of the story ever made. Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi in the lead role, was a film that (along with Frankenstein) kick-started a whole new cycle of monster movies for Universal Pictures, many of them going on to generate highly lucrative and popular sequels. Although the pace of the movie is rather slow, one of its most striking aspects is the way Browning films Lugosi, often framing him in close up and lighting him so that the viewer’s gaze is inevitably drawn to his eyes and a stare that pierces to the core. The first time Lugosi is seen this way is on the horse drawn coach that goes to fetch Renfield to his castle and it remains a chilling piece of film making, something that may surprise those whose only experience of Lugosi is the “I vant to sack your blad” stereotype that has endured for over half a century. It is certainly the case that only by going back to the original film is it possible to appreciate the impact of Lugosi’s performance; melodramatic maybe and occasionally mannered but it is never anything less than thoroughly mesmerising. Something Browning’s film has in common with Murnau’s is a somewhat unnerving physicality in many of the performances, something that once again lends proceedings a distinctly dream like quality, a scene early on when Renfield faints and Dracula’s brides move slowly and silently into his room being a notable example. The lack of a musical score at such moments increases their impact.

With Dracula Universal created a phenomenon and their subsequent run of monster movies largely defined what cinematic horror was for well over a decade. With The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy and Phantom of the Opera, Universal created a sort of Justice League of horror, and in Dracula of course they had their very own Batman (chortle). Indeed, it’s possible that the character remained popular partly because he was a member of this cadre. As creatures that all belonged to the same fictional universe and who came as a pack, the success of the Frankenstein, Invisible Man and Mummy films enhanced rather than diluted each other’s appeal. However, considering how inextricably linked Lugosi now is with the role, he only ever played it one more time in 1948’s Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, this being the first real indication that, no matter how strong the initial impact, there seemed to be something about all of these monsters that would inevitably lead to comedy.

In retrospect it is easy to see how Lugosi and Schreck established a template for many of the subsequent portrayals of Dracula and vampires in general, offering two very different interpretations that have proven difficult for others to ignore. As memorable as John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman would be in years to come, Lugosi is present in all of them. Say the name Dracula today and it is still Lugosi that many people will immediately think of, despite the fact that it is unlikely they will have seen the actual film. His physical appearance was especially influential and he made it almost impossible for anybody else to play the role with an East European accent without sounding like a poor imitation. As for Schreck's Orlok, vampire characters such as Kurt Barlow of Salem’s Lot (1979), the Gentlemen of the Buffy episode Hush (1999) and even the feral creatures of 30 Days of Night (2007) and Stakeland (2011) would all draw to some degree from the well of a monster born way back in 1922.

Before and during Dracula's Universal years other vampire movies remained popular, one of the most successful being Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927), starring Lon Chaney as a Mr Hyde type figure in the tale of a creature who turned out to not actually be a vampire at all but a policeman in disguise. Hugely popular, Browning remade it in 1935 with Bela Lugosi in the Chaney role. The 1930s also saw Carl Theodore Dreyer tackle the genre with The Vampyr (1932), Fay Wray star in The Vampire Bat (1932) and Humphrey Bogart attempt to quench a thirst for the red stuff in The Return of Doctor X (1939). Yet none of these made anything like the sort of impact of Lugosi's Count.

Dracula then went into a period of relative hibernation throughout the forties as did the vampire film itself, only a handful of productions (the 1944 Lugosi vehicle Return of the Vampire being one) making any sort of impact in a decade when more immediate horrors were occupying the minds of many. This lull was broken in spectacular style from the late 1950s through to the late 70s, with Dracula films averaging just short of one a year, the majority of them released in the 10 years between 1965 and 1975. The catalyst for this golden period was the success of 1958’s Dracula (or Horror of Dracula as it was known in the U.S.). Starring Christopher Lee in a role that redefined the character for a generation, Dracula and its sequel Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), were thrilling movies of real pace and excitement, possessing a look, a sound and a cast that has rarely (if ever) been bettered since. Each has a swashbuckling appeal that many versions have lacked, the first movie moving towards a frantic and thrilling crescendo as Van Helsing (the peerless Peter Cushing) pursues Dracula through his castle in the film’s final act. They also feature scenes that, although tame by modern standards, shocked audiences at the time who were used to more anaemic and stately fare when it came to mainstream horror. For instance, Christopher Lee’s disintegration into dust when exposed to sunlight at the conclusion of Dracula was too much for many, as was the scene in Prince of Darkness where his ashes are soaked in the blood of a human sacrifice hung upside down over his sarcophagus, the victim’s throat cut with casual indifference by Dracula’s underling as he attempts to resurrect his Master. Moments like this were a radical departure from the approach taken by Universal, the contrast provoking reactions such as a review in The Daily Worker, when film critic Nina Hibbins wrote “I went to see Dracula prepared to enjoy a nervous giggle. I was even ready to poke gentle fun at it. I came away revolted and outraged. This film disgusts the mind and repels the senses.” She wasn’t alone and if there had never been a reaction to a Dracula movie like it before, there certainly hasn’t been one like it since.

Meanwhile, Mario Bava was taking horror and vampires further than even Hammer was daring to go, directing The Mask of Satan in 1960, a film that depicted atrocities such as a spiked mask being hammered into Barbara Steele’s face. Steele’s role as the Vampire Witch Asa Vajda also conveyed a powerful subtext about the power of female sexuality, something that acted as a driving force enabling her to return from the dead to carry out her revenge on any who would suppress it. It would take Hammer another 10 years before they would tackle vampires and sexuality as overtly and in the meantime Bava also made Black Sabbath (1963), a portmanteau film in which Boris Karloff starred as a father who returns home to his family one evening as a vampire. Both of these movies, along with Roman Polanski’s affectionate Hammer spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) (also known as Dance of the Vampires) were set in a historical milieu that mirrored that of many of the Hammer films, a world of atmosphere and superstition in which vampires seemed to thrive. However, when such movies attempted to set their characters in the modern world it felt as though a spell was broken, especially so for Dracula whose potency (in Dracula AD 1972) seemed to diminish, not as the result of a crucifix or a stake but rather the film’s groove-tastic proliferation of hot-pants (AD 1972 being a movie that possesses many charms but an effective horror film it is not).

However, the series had already  ran out of steam before then and from the third film onwards (1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) Lee’s Dracula appears far less impressive each time he returns, a succession of writers and directors struggling to find new and interesting things to do with the character. In particular it became increasingly difficult to find ways of both killing Dracula off and then reviving him for another set of adventures, a problem that in the manner of its resolution sometimes has the effect of making him appear rather inept and even comical. After his relatively straightforward death by sunlight in the first film, he subsequently comes a cropper as a result of running water (stranded on a frozen moat as the ice is shot up around him), impalement (falls off a church roof and is skewered on a crucifix), faith (distracted by the Lord’s Prayer, he collapses onto an alter and turns to dust), wooden stakes (falls into a pit of the things prepared by wily old Van Helsing) and a hawthorn bush (he becomes entangled in one long enough for Van Helsing to finish him off). This was Dracula as Wile E Coyote, the nadir coming in 1970’s Scars of Dracula when he is electrocuted by lightening just as he’s about to launch an iron spike at a cowering Dennis Waterman. Lee’s horrified and incredulous expression as Dracula is fried to a crisp is the perfect visual articulation of the thought “You’ve got to be kidding me?” Thankfully, Hammer didn’t go the whole hog and have him run off the edge of a cliff, hanging in mid air only long enough to look forlornly into camera before plummeting to the ground, his demise signalled by a puff of dust far below. But they came pretty close.

Despite the huge variations in quality across the Lee/Hammer Draculas, one of the most enduring (and refreshing) aspects of Lee’s portrayal is the way he combined the debonair with the savage. His switch in Dracula from an aristocrat of sophistication and charm to a snarling red eyed demon is wonderful, and although the latter aspect of his performance would come to dominate subsequent films, he managed to convey the beast beneath the veneer better than any actor before or since (Lee also starred as a Dracula physically similar to Stoker’s original description in Jess Franco’s 1970 adaptation). In stark contrast to the love lorne, more sympathetic figure Dracula would cut in subsequent outings from other studios, Lee’s Dracula remains one of the most outright malevolent and evil the cinema has produced. It’s an aspect of the character that has been softened over the years, the compulsion of many actors and directors to portray him almost as a lover rather than an outright villain contributing to his increasing impotence as a figure of menace within the horror genre. Some women may have entertained dark fantasies about Lee’s Dracula and the predatory, sexual element was always there, but for all his Mediterranean good looks and regal bearing, his was a portrayal that never invited sympathy and he certainly never looked like he was nursing a broken heart. He was Ghengis Khan with fangs, a warrior noble who was also an undead monster with a thirst for human blood.

As Hammer’s Dracula films descended into self-parody their popularity declined while that of another sub-genre of vampire films grew. Jean Rollin had already set a precedent with titles such Rape of the Vampire (1969) and The Naked Vampire (1970) and Hammer’s lesbian vampire films (The Vampire Lovers in 1970, and Countess Dracula, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil all in 1971) were also movies that obviously felt sub text was for wimps, the eroticism of many earlier vampire films now transformed into outright titillation. Not without their merits (and I am talking about atmosphere, characterisation and story here) they did confirm two things about vampire movies at the start of the 1970s: firstly, that the genre was really about sex and second, that Hammer wasn’t taking Dracula seriously any more.

So at the beginning of a decade in which Dracula was about to go off in all sorts of weird and wonderful directions, it seemed like there were only two ways Dracula could go: embrace the comedy or go back to the source and begin again. However, radical changes were about to take place across the horror genre. A new breed of monster was about to emerge that would provide a challenge for the old guard unlike any they had encountered so far, The Devil himself was ready to emerge as the ultimate bad guy and horror films in general were about to get very messy indeed. As for the rest of the vampire world, it would soon undergo a brief period of moody introspection before the dawn of the aspirational 80s, when vampires seemed to decide along with everybody else that all they really wanted to do was have fun.

In next month’s part two: Amongst other things, Dracula gets a blow wave, vampires move in next door, the aristocracy makes a come back and the return of Nosferatu. Meanwhile, the Titty Twister opens for business, audiences go crazy for Mad Men and the Oscar goes to… [Click HERE to read]


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