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

PrintE-mail Written by Phil Beresford

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When Christopher Lee finally hung up his cape after 15 years in 1973, it would give other studios and film makers the opportunity to reinvent Dracula, in many cases radically redefining the character’s motivations and appearance. This was an understandable approach, given that Lee was so clearly associated with the role in the public's consciousness but it also provided an opportunity to take a fresh look at Stoker's original tale.

Over the next 5 years Jack Palance, Udo Keir, Frank Langella and Klaus Kinski, amongst others, all delivered unique and interesting takes on the Count although, looking back now, it seems that one of the main challenges Dracula faced in the 1970s was getting a decent haircut. Many of these interpretations were unfortunate enough to be realised in a decade in which the influence of mainstream trends often meant that Dracula ended up looking like those black and white photos of male models that used to hang in barber's shop windows, advertising a variety of gruesome and offensive blow-waved mullets. Don't believe me? Then Google Frank Langella in Dracula (1979), and tell me that you'd ever be caught (un)dead with a haircut like that.

But haircuts aside, this was a decade that saw a huge degree of variety in the way that the Count and Stoker’s tale were presented. In Dracula (1974) Palance echoed the malevolence and swagger of Lee's earlier films while adding a savagery to the role that few actors had matched. George Hamilton in Love at First Bite (1979) embraced the 70s preference for light hearted or exploitation skewed portrayals of the count, a trend that included films such as the Blaxploitation movies Blacula (1972) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973), along with Blood for Dracula (1974), Zoltan: Hound of Dracula (1978) and the nadir of 70s adaptations that was Dracula Blows His Cool (1979), in which a descendant of Dracula's turns his castle into a disco and the Count comes into contact with lots of very nubile and very, very naked flesh.

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Langella's Dracula meanwhile, centre stage in John Badham's exceptionally atmospheric 1979 adaptation, gave us one of the most memorable incarnations of the Count as brooding lover boy. However, effective and enjoyable though the film is for much of its running time, Badham's film anticipated Coppolla's by portraying the Count as some kind of anti-hero; a dashing, good looking rascal who really doesn't seem to need the hypnotic mind control he employs to seduce Lucy and Mina. Also, although the film had all the trappings (castle, gargoyles, blood, bats) it looked like an exercise in creating mood rather than terror. Consequently, it was no horror film, the sort of Dracula it was concerned with best summed up by the movie's tagline, "The story of the greatest lover who ever lived, died, and lived again". Its dilution of the Count from a demonic monster into a dark seducer who looked a bit like David Copperfield was (along with the proliferation of light hearted or comedic depictions) another step in a journey that was seeing Dracula gradually losing ground to the new kids on the horror movie monster block.

One such character was Michael Myers, the bogeyman antagonist of John Carpenter’s Halloween who first appeared in 1978, quickly joined by Jason Voorhees two years later in Friday the 13th, while Freddy Krueger would round out this triumvirate when he first appeared in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. All three characters shared Dracula’s traits in so far as they were almost unstoppable, somewhat supernatural killers, terrorizing a new set of characters in each film before being dispatched by a lone survivor or two. But like Dracula they would somehow survive, ready to wreak fresh mayhem in the next instalment and between them they would appear in 29 films over the next 32 years. These were characters who would flourish in the era of the slasher movie, films that were designed to deliver a requisite amount of inventive kills (something that the Elm Street series did best) but which became increasingly derivative and repetitive. However, when they first appeared they were new and exciting and offered something different to the more traditional movie monsters. Such characters would even develop into something like anti-heroes in later films as audiences were encouraged to applaud and cheer their actions as a succession of brainless teen fodder was served up to them, and we were even encouraged to pick a side in the ultimate movie monster face off that was 2003’s Freddie vs Jason. But perhaps the most successful serial killing anti-hero was one who in many respects resembled Dracula himself. Hannibal Lector, as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in 1992’s Silence of the Lambs combined a similar veneer of sophistication with a brutal savagery, eating his victims rather than drinking their blood but always capable of charming them first. The following year Hopkins would win the Oscar for this role, something that would have been difficult to imagine for such a character and movie had it been made 20 years earlier.

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But back to Dracula in the mid-1970s, and one of the most intriguing Dracula movies of this period, at least in terms of its concept and take on the character, was Blood for Dracula (otherwise known as Andy Warhol's Dracula, the bewigged doyen of the pop art movement lending his name to the production for promotional purposes). The story focused on Dracula (Udo Keir) having taken the decision to move to Italy, a decision based on the rationale that it’s a Catholic country and would therefore have far more virgins for him to prey on than other nationalities. However, much to his surprise and increasing frustration, the women who he was assured were virgins turn out to be nothing of the sort, his health consequently suffering into the bargain. The film itself was gratuitously camp, featuring a highly dubious scene in which a young girl is raped in order to protect her from Dracula's advances. Trashy, sexually explicit and very rough round the edges, it nonetheless had in Keir's Dracula one of the most overt screen representations of the vampire as a drug addict, the Count spending large portions of the movie looking as though he was in the throes of cold turkey.

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This was an aspect of the Count's personality that was realised even more successfully in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, a 1979 remake of Murnau's silent classic, in which Herzog cast his bête noir Klaus Kinski in the lead role. One of the strongest and most distinctive Dracula films of this period, Kinski's interpretation remains one of the very few capable of eliciting both revulsion and pity and if ever Dracula's existence was depicted as a curse then it was done so here. Kinski’s chalk white, bat eared Count lives a life similar to that of a junkie, one who will clearly die without the life force of blood/love (in this film they were close to being the same thing) that he needs to sustain him. This was a theme that extended to the movie’s production design, Dracula's empty and soulless castle an abode that would have given even the direst and most squalid drug den a run for its money. Nowhere is the junkie's utter enslavement to his drug better encapsulated than in the scene where Jonathan Harker cuts himself, alerting Kinski's Dracula to the sight and smell of his blood. In that instant all matters of real estate and social formalities are forgotten as the Count is transformed from a distant, dreamlike figure into a predator intent only on satiating his hunger. It's an extraordinary scene that highlights both how dangerous and utterly lost this Dracula is. At other times Kinski visibly wilts, his voice whining, almost pleading as his torment becomes all consuming. Dracula has rarely seemed so pathetic yet horrific, the sight of him feeding on Lucy, his eyes glassy, his throat pulsing steadily as he drains her of life, the closest on screen representation yet of Stoker's personification of Dracula as a loathsome leech. Another notable aspect of Herzog's movie was that it ended on a complete downer, with Harker's wife (in this case Lucy) sacrificing herself just as her Ellen did in the Murnau original. Not only that but this time Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is transformed into a vampire and the film ends with him having Van Helsing arrested and then disappearing on horseback, obviously with the intention of getting up to no good elsewhere. A strange, haunting and oddly beautiful version of the tale, Herzog’s film was a slow paced and surreally dream-like adaptation featuring a Dracula who was the very antithesis of the suave, attractive figure embodied by the likes of Langella.

While Herzog's film ensured that Dracula finished the decade on a high, in retrospect it seems as though Dracula had been living on borrowed time since the moment George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed the horror landscape in 1968. Although many of the changes that would occur in horror throughout the next decade wouldn’t take place overnight, many of them would ultimately leave Dracula looking rather dated (but conversely would help to reinvigorate the vampire sub-genre of horror films). There were of course exceptions but prior to Romero’s movie, traditional horror films would end with a sense that good had overcome evil and that whatever sacrifices might have had to be made along the way, all was once again right with the world when the credits rolled. However, as well as being instrumental in ensuring that happy endings would be far less common in horror movies ever afterwards, Night of the Living Dead also suggested that there wasn’t much of a world worth saving anyway and this sense of nihilism would be more profound and pervasive in horror films from this point on. There must have been something in the water that year because, as well as Romero’s genre defining low budget zombie flick, 1968 was a particularly strong year for the horror film with the down beat ending, including Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General and Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf. However, none of them could match Romero’s film for its sense of despair and complete lack of hope.

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Rosemary’s Baby would act as a prelude to a decade of film in which the Devil meant huge box office for some film makers, with Polanski’s success being replicated by William Friedkin in The Exorcist (1973) and Richard Donner with The Omen (1976). In all three films the theme was the corruption of a child by a profound force of evil and their success inspired Hammer films to make To the Devil a Daughter (1976). Hammer was by now attempting to move away from its associations with the old movie monsters as they seemed archaic in comparison with some of the movies from across the Atlantic that were proving a phenomenon. Unfortunately, To the Devil a Daughter was a commercial and critical failure for the studio and did as much to drive the final nail into the Hammer productions coffin for over 30 years as any other film. However, whether they were a success or a failure, all of these films featured downbeat, pessimistic conclusions in which the Devil endures as a corrupting influence. Even if he didn’t ‘win’, the audience was left unsettled and given no reassurances, unless it was that the Devil finished the movie just as strong and just as present as he appeared to be at the very beginning.

Such a nihilistic and pessimistic world view does not sit well with the story of Dracula, one in which Mina and Jonathan Harker’s love endures and survives their encounter with the vampire, and this may explain why so many directors since have felt the need to change that relationship. The next significant film to do exactly that was Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation in 1992, when Winona Ryder would be cast as a Mina who was the reincarnation of Dracula’s long lost love, while Keanu Reeves' Jonathan Harker suffered the indignities of the cuckold. However, in the 13 years between that film and the Badham version, Dracula would keep a very low profile indeed. The 1980s didn’t see a major screen adaptation at all and the character would only crop up in light hearted fare such as The Monster Squad (1987), a Goonies-esque caper that featured many of the classic Universal Monsters. What the 80s did give us though were some of the most enduring vampire movies released in the last 50 years, films that in many cases laid down a template for how vampires would behave and be portrayed over the next three decades. Movies such as Fright Night (1985), Vamp (1986), The Lost Boys (1987), Near Dark (1987), Lair of the White Worm (1988) and Vampire’s Kiss (1989) all delivered memorable and distinctive takes on vampire mythology.

One of the most prevalent traits in vampire films of this era was their portrayal as hedonistic hoodlums and wanderers, who chose to spend eternity partying and terrorising those who crossed their path in equal measure. Fright Night, The Lost Boys and Near Dark in particular depicted their vampires as outsiders who established their own social groups and surrogate families that would provide an acceptance they couldn’t find elsewhere. What’s more, it was presented as a lifestyle that looked very attractive. When Evil Ed, a bullied geek and misfit is offered the life of a vampire by Jerry Dandridge in Fright Night, it’s actually rather moving as Dandridge tells him “You don't have to be afraid of me. I know what it's like being different. Only they won't pick on you anymore or beat you up. I'll see to that. All you have to do is take my hand.” It would prove an enticing offer, and one that would appeal to any teen who had ever felt excluded and vulnerable. The vampires of Near Dark led the life of western outlaws, their vampirism seeming almost incidental, as they indulged in motel shoot outs and wrought havoc in bars across the mid-west. And the party-on lifestyles of the stripper vampires in Vamp and the motorcycle gang in The Lost Boys showed how each of them subscribed to a ‘live now, don’t pay later’ philosophy. Meanwhile other vampire films focused on the more thoughtful, existential approach to the genre popularised in the novels of Anne Rice. Catherine Deneuves’s eternal search for companionship and subsequent sacrifice of her lovers in The Hunger echoed Louis and Lestat’s preoccupations in Rice’s novel Interview with The Vampire, while Klaus Kinski played a vampire despairing of immortality and searching for death in Augusto Caminito’s Vampire in Venice. Vampires with a tendency to talk about their lot and sup blood in equal measure would become even more widespread in the following decade.

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By the time Coppola got round to giving the world his version of the Dracula story in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) audiences were more familiar with vampires who could party or parley but it was exciting nonetheless to see a film maker of his stature attempting to deliver the definitive take on the novel. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring Gary Oldman as the Count, has much to recommend it, not least the first third when Jonathan Harker finds himself taken prisoner in Dracula’s castle. It also featured an Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) who was as close to the character as written by Stoker as has ever been depicted. Highlights in the early part of the film saw a suitably malevolent Dracula drive Harker to the edge of sanity and featured some stunning production design and delightful visual touches (Dracula’s shadow creeping up on Harker while the Count himself remains motionless; Dracula slyly licking Harker’s cut throat razor clean of blood) that make it amongst the best adaptations of the early part of the novel ever filmed. And while Hopkins’s Van Helsing was criticised in some quarters for being over the top and the epitome of the ranting, eccentric, foreign scientist, that is exactly how Stoker portrayed him. However, it was when the story reached England that Coppola’s film took several missteps, the romance between Mina and Dracula failing to convince as the performances of Keanu Reeves and Wynona Ryder destroyed any chance it might have had to do otherwise. It also employed some very inconsistent logic as Dracula appeared in full daylight early on but then was only able to emerge from his coffin to defend himself near the film’s conclusion once the sun had set. However, it looked fantastic, Oldman was superb and the link to the legend Vlad Tepes (the original Vlad the Impaler) was done with a degree of wit and ingenuity.

Since Coppola’s film there has been no major big screen adaptation of Dracula that has enjoyed a significant degree of theatrical and commercial success. The 1990s and 2000s did however see Vampires becoming ever more popular with their success on the big screen being matched on TV. Cronos (1993) Interview with The Vampire (1994), 30 Days of Night (2007), as well as the From Dusk till Dawn, Blade, and Underworld franchises were among dozens of vampire movies that enjoyed critical and commercial acclaim during this period. Meanwhile, television gave the world the phenomenally successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003) and more recently True Blood (2008 - ), The Vampire Diaries (2009 - ) and the British TV series Being Human (2008 - ) which takes social realism about as far as it can go with a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost living together in a flat share. The most successful film series of recent years within the genre has been the Twilight films starring Robert Pattinson, films that take the romantic aspects of the vampire’s appeal and weave it into fantasy narratives that owe much but not all of their success to a comparatively new (at least in genre terms) and needlessly patronised demographic of young women in the 12 to 18 age groups.

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Nevertheless, while the vampire movie continues to flourish Dracula continues to flounder, and (with the odd exception) modern vampire movies generally tell their stories in a contemporary setting while Dracula is rooted firmly in the turn of the century. The urge to set the Dracula story in the modern world is one that overall has been strongly resisted, and when it has been attempted has had a tendency to fail miserably. Perhaps the story is so strongly woven with Victorian era sensibilities and conventions that audiences would no more accept Dracula at large in 2011 than they would Oliver Twist. After all, some fictional characters belong to the time and place in which they were created more than others and perhaps Dracula is fundamentally such a character.

As for Dario Argento and next year’s Dracula 3D, it’s true that his more recent fare has not, to put it mildly, been well received. Mother of Tears (2007) was a poor successor to the brilliance of Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), while Giallo (2009) was responsible for getting more laughs than almost any film I’ve ever seen in a cinema. Trouble was, it was showing at FrightFest 2010 and was supposed to be a thriller. However, I’m not quite ready to accept that Argento’s film will be the unmitigated disaster that some fans are already predicting. For one thing, Argento expert and film journalist Alan Jones has already been making some very encouraging noises on his blog having been in regular attendance on set through production. Despite his friendship with Argento, Jones has never pulled his punches when it comes to some of Argento’s later work so if he sees something to get excited about on Dracula 3D then here’s hoping it all carries over onto what we see on screen. Regardless, one of the great horror directors taking on one of the great screen monsters promises to be a must see.

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So what of the future for Dracula post 2012? Will Argento’s movie restore him to his former glory, paving the way for further adventures? Can Dracula once again achieve the same levels of success currently being enjoyed by other vampires in film? I have my doubts given that the character is so firmly mired in the past, both cinematically and historically. Multi-layered, unsettling and original films like Let the Right One In (2008) and Thirst (2009) have taken the vampire movie into territory where, based on past experiences, Dracula seems ill equipped to tread. However, here’s an idea that has never been tried in any of the film adaptations of the novel: how about somebody just adapt it as it was written? No name changes, no love story, no tweaking. Just a straight up film version of an undead noble who has bided his time, gathered his strength and is now ready to unleash his evil on a world that won’t know what’s hit it. Because perhaps it’s time to remember that Dracula is fundamentally a horror story, that we should therefore allow the Count to crawl back into our nightmares and whisper outside our windows, once again becoming the unmitigated monster that Bram Stoker clearly intended him to be.

Find part one of 'Dracula on Film - Is He Dead and Buried?' here.


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