The Good, the Vlad, and the Ugly

When Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula first hit the shelves on May 26, 1897, few bookbuyers would have guessed that they were witnessing the birth of a potent modern myth. Now, more than a hundred years later, that creepy Transylvanian with the strange taste in beverages has become indelibly ingrained in the pop psyche, thanks in large part to his multitude of cinematic incarnations. So after you've read Stoker’s novel — and you have read it, haven’t you? — you may want to head over to the video store and check out some of the movie versions. Here’s a bat’s-eye overview of some of the more notable attempts to commit Dracula to celluloid. And on the way home, don’t forget to pick up some garlic butter for your popcorn …

Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

F.W. Murnau’s silent classic is the earliest surviving film adaptation of Dracula and probably also the best. Murnau had previously directed Der Januskopf (1920), a thinly-disguised version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that had been changed just enough to avoid having to pay royalties — the transformation of “Dr. Warren” into “Mr. O’Connor” was attributed to a statue of Janus. Murnau performed the same sleight-of-hand on Stoker’s novel, moving the setting to Bremen in 1838 and changing the names of the characters: Jonathan Harker became “Hutter”, Mina “Ellen”, Renfield “Knock”, and Count Dracula “Graf Orlok”. There were plot changes as well, but unlike the liberties taken in so many later adaptations, these were actually quite effective. Orlok’s arrival in Bremen is accompanied by a mysterious rat-borne plague (there really was an outbreak of plague in Bremen in 1838), and Ellen sacrifices her own life to destroy the vampire by welcoming him into her boudoir to nibble her neck and then detaining him until dawn, when he evaporates in the morning sun. Despite these attempts at obfuscation, Nosferatu was still obviously based on Dracula; and when Stoker’s widow Florence heard about it she was not amused. In the grand modern tradition she sued the filmmaker for copyright infringement, and won. All prints of the film were ordered destroyed, but fortunately for us bootleg copies of Murnau’s masterpiece ensured its survival.

The cadaverous Max Schreck as Count Orlok is still the eeriest Dracula ever to hit the screen; with his bald pate, hook nose, goggling eyes, and bird-like talons, he looks like a cross between Keith Richards and a startled sewer rat. This film also initiated the long-standing screen tradition of making Renfield a fellow solicitor in Jonathan Harker’s law firm, a plot device that appears in so many film adaptations of Dracula (including the Browning, Herzog, and Coppola versions) that first-time readers of the novel will be surprised to find that it is not in the original story, in which Stoker provides no account of Renfield’s previous life.

Trivia Tidbit: An ultra-hip review of Nosferatu by Jack Kerouac appears in Roy Huss and T.J. Ross’ Focus on the Horror Film (Prentice-Hall, 1972; reprinted from New Yorker Film Society Notes, Jan. 9, 1960). This is best appreciated by imagining Kerouac reciting it aloud in a smoke-filled beatnik bar to the accompaniment of a string bass. A sample: “The castle has tile floors: — somehow there’s more evil in those tile floors than in the dripping dust of later Bela Lugosi castle where women with spiders on their shoulders dragged dead muslin gowns across the stone. They are the tile floors of a Byzantine Alexandrian Transylvanian throat-ogre.” Cooooool, Daddy-o …

Dracula (1931)

In V Is For Vampire, David J. Skal calls director Tod Browning’s Dracula “the most influential bad movie ever made”, and he’s probably right. Browning basically did a filmed version of the Balderston and Deane stage play, and unfortunately it shows — to modern tastes the result is static, talky, and almost unbearably dull. Although Bela Lugosi’s Dracula bears little physical resemblance to the tall, gaunt, mustachioed Count of Stoker’s novel, he’s become so identified with the role that it hardly matters. Ask anyone to imitate Dracula and they’ll do Lugosi, whose melodiously accented delivery of classic lines like “I don’t drink … wine” still make this film a must-see. The mammoth sets of Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey remain impressive, and the brief appearance of the three vampire brides (two brunettes and a blond, just as Stoker described them) silently stalking towards their supine prey in perfect synch is one of the eeriest versions of that scene ever filmed.

The role of Renfield (Dwight Frye) is substantially beefed up in Browning’s version. It’s Renfield, not Harker, who journeys to Transylvania at the beginning of the film to finalize the purchase of Carfax Abbey; and later on, when most of the action takes place in Dr. Seward’s asylum, Renfield — now crazier than a sackful of squirrels — is constantly getting loose and interrupting conversations with his creepy asides (Frye as the mad Renfield, with his crazed stare and hideous croaking laugh, proves to be quite the little scene-stealer). Jonathan Harker’s role shrivels to that of a simpering lovestruck dweeb who runs like a girl. Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris are absent, not surprisingly, and Dr. Seward becomes Mina’s father, quite surprisingly. The story loses much of its atmosphere by being updated to the 1930s; Stoker’s Count doesn’t belong in a world of motorcars and telephones. It could have been worse, though — in the movie, as in the book, Dracula travels from Transylvania to England by ship; but in the stage play (which could not of course show a sea voyage) Van Helsing hypothesizes that Dracula made the journey by plane!

In 1936 Universal came out with a sequel to Browning’s film called Dracula’s Daughter, directed by Lambert Hillyer and supposedly based on Stoker’s short story Dracula’s Guest. The second film picks up right where the first left off, with two policemen showing up at Carfax Abbey and arresting Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, the only returning member of the original cast) for the murder of Count Dracula. The Count’s body is subsequently stolen from the police morgue by a mysterious beauty, who turns out to be Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), Dracula’s you-know-what, and just like Dad she doesn’t drink … wine. The film is best known today for its lesbian subtext, discussed for example in J. Gordon Melton’s The Vampire Book and Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet. In one scene the Countess, aided by her sourpuss servant Sandor (Irving Pichel, looking disturbingly like Harvey Keitel in Pee-Wee Herman makeup), lures a comely young miss to her artist’s studio, persuades her to partially disrobe, then makes a beeline for her jugular. Pretty tame fare, otherwise.

Trivia Tidbit: If you watch closely during Dracula, you’ll notice that Browning’s grasp of zoology leaves something to be desired — among the vermin creeping about Castle Dracula are opossums and armadillos. This is in the grand tradition of F.W. Murnau, who tries to pass off a hyena as a wolf in Nosferatu.

The Horror of Dracula (1958)

This production by England’s Hammer Studios was the first Dracula movie filmed in Technicolor. Stoker’s plot has been ruthlessly streamlined — Renfield, Morris, and Seward are gone, and all the action takes place in a generic Bavarian-flavored Euroland where Dracula’s castle is apparently located just down the road a piece from Miss Lucy’s house — but the credible performances by Christopher Lee as Dracula, Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, and Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood (that’s Alfred the butler in the Batman movies to you young’uns) are all top-notch. This is probably the only Dracula film in which Jonathan Harker is a librarian rather than a solicitor!

Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula (1970)

The next time somebody complains about Coppola taking liberties with Stoker’s text, point them to this badaptation, a joint Spanish-English-Italian-West German production directed by prolific Spanish schlockmeister Jess Franco, whose other films include Vampyros Lesbos and Ilsa, the Wicked Warden. The cast features Christopher Lee as Dracula, Herbert Lom as Dr. Van Helsing, and Klaus Kinski as Renfield, all of whom clearly wish they were somewhere else. The opening titles state that the film retells Stoker’s story “exactly as he wrote” it, an audacious claim considering that in this version Dracula’s castle has a huge floor-to-ceiling mirror in the guestroom, Lucy’s fiancé is the “young barrister Quincey Morris”, Van Helsing has a stroke (and who can blame him?), and Dracula lures Mina to the opera with some free tickets so he can pounce on her in the balcony. My favorite scene comes when Quincey, Seward, and Harker search Carfax for the Count, only to be attacked by Dracula’s supernaturally reanimated taxidermy collection. No, I am not making this up.

This is not to say that Franco got everything wrong. Here Christopher Lee’s Dracula beautifully matches Stoker’s description: tall, thin, black-clad, with aquiline features, white hair, and a long white mustache. Leonard Wolf states in a footnote to his The Essential Dracula, “That Dracula is an old man at the beginning of the story has been persistently forgotten in all but one of the many film versions of the tale.” Incredibly, Wolf does not follow up this assertion with the name of the film! He’s wrong in any event, for not only is Dracula an old man at the beginning of Franco’s film, he’s old at the beginning of Coppola’s too. And while we’re picking nits, Count Orlok is hardly a dewy-cheeked youth in either version of Nosferatu, though his depredations don’t seem to make him any younger, as they do in the other two films. Wolf also claims that Coppola was the first filmmaker to recreate the frenzied Wild-West chase to Dracula’s castle with which Stoker ends his book. Maybe so, if you’re talking about a relatively faithful recreation. But Franco does include a sort of alternate-universe version of the sequence, in which dirge-chanting Gypsies transport the Count in his box of earth back to the castle at a leisurely stroll, and instead of pursuing them on horseback Quincey and Harker stage an ambush by dropping boulders on them from the castle walls. A few of the Gypsies are squashed and the rest very sensibly run away, leaving our heroes to destroy the Count by setting him on fire and pushing him and his box off a cliff — exactly as Stoker didn’t write it.

Trivia Tidbit: This film achieves a level of technical ineptitude that almost rivals that of Ed Wood. Besides the fakey rubber bats, cheap costumes, and day-for-night scenes (“The Children of the Broad Daylight! What music they make…”), there’s one blindingly-lit scene in Renfield’s padded cell where you can clearly see the shadow of the camera as it slowly pans around Kinski.

Dracula (1973)

Produced by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame, this made-for-TV movie is better than one might expect, thanks to Richard Matheson’s script and a nice turn by Jack Palance as Dracula — Palance’s feral features and characteristic gasp-and-hiss delivery make him a natural for the part. In this version, Dracula stalks Lucy because she’s a dead ringer for his long-dead beloved, and fans of Dark Shadows will note the parallel with the Gothic soap’s Barnabas and Josette storyline, right down to the music-box-as-symbol-of-lost-love motif.

Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979)

Klaus Kinski worked off some of the karmic debt he incurred in Jess Franco’s cinematic abomination by starring in this stylish remake of Murnau’s Nosferatu, written and directed by Werner Herzog. Herzog follows Murnau’s film pretty closely, at times almost scene for scene, though he inevitably felt compelled to make changes. The names of Stoker’s characters are restored, though Jonathan Harker’s wife becomes Lucy while Mina is their friend (an odd reversal also found in the 1979 Dracula starring Frank Langella), and they live in Wismar, not Bremen. In Murnau’s film, Hutter (= Harker) is bitten by the Count in Transylvania, but nothing comes of it later. In Herzog’s version, however, once Harker (Bruno Ganz, looking like a young Anthony Hopkins) is back home he begins wasting away from the vampire-plague, until he’s reduced to moping feebly in an armchair. When Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) offers herself up as a meal to the Count (Kinski, in makeup modeled after Max Schreck’s) and keeps him up till dawn, Dracula falls to the ground paralyzed instead of dissolving in a puff of smoke like Schreck. But not to worry: Van Helsing arrives and finishes him off with a stake. Then the police conveniently show up too, and Harker hops up out of his chair and (shades of Dracula’s Daughter!) orders them to arrest Van Helsing for the Count’s murder! Harker, it seems, has now become a nosferatu himself, and as the film ends he rides off on horseback to spread his unholy plague throughout the world. Not only does this bleak ending rob Lucy’s death of any meaning, it’s logically inconsistent: why is Harker the vampire able to move about freely in the morning light when that same light renders Dracula completely helpless?

This leisurely supernatural tone-poem sustains a deliciously eerie atmosphere with powerful visuals, a spooky score by Popol Vuh , and a great performance by Klaus Kinski (in ratlike makeup recalling Max Schreck), who compellingly conveys the emptiness of Dracula’s undead existence.

Trivia Tidbit: According to The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, financial backers 20th Century-Fox asked Herzog to shoot this film in English, despite the fact that neither Herzog nor his cast spoke English. Herzog ended up filming two versions, one in German and the other in English (TPEF unjustifiably calls the latter version a “laff-riot”).

Dracula (1979)

The successful Broadway revival of Balderston and Deane’s play in 1977 led inevitably to this film version, directed by John Badham with Frank Langella reprising his stage role as Dracula. The Cornwall locations are lovely, and Langella is fun to watch as a romantic Dracula in the Byronic mode, but the inherent inanities of the stage play often mar the proceedings, and the new ending devised for the film is just too dumb for words — after Dracula is killed by being snagged on a cargo hook and hoisted into the sunlight, his corpse inexplicably turns into a bat-shaped hang glider and flies away!

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

This big-budget adaptation of Stoker’s novel, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and featuring a big-name cast — Gary Oldman as Dracula, Winona Ryder as Mina, Keanu Reeves as Harker, and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing — is a curious mixture of faithfulness to the original and utter disdain for it (in Coppola’s defense, the author’s name appears in the title because Universal, not Columbia, owns the rights to the simple title Dracula). This version turns Dracula into a sappy, overwrought love story in which Mina is the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife Elizabeta, who of old leapt to her death from the parapets of their castle. Now, some 400 years later, Dracula wants to pick up where they left off, and the feeling’s mutual. This is a far cry from the novel, in which Dracula’s victimization of Mina is motivated mainly by his malicious desire to harm those who are trying to thwart him. The movie’s posters claimed that “Love Never Dies”, but in this case you sure wish it had.

On the other hand, Coppola includes many elements from the book that are often omitted: all three of Lucy’s suitors are present (Holmwood, Seward, and Morris), Seward shoots up drugs (morphine in the film, chloral hydrate in the book) to get over his rejection by Lucy, and Mina’s forehead is burned by the Sacred Wafer. The faint blue flames that flicker over buried treasure on St. George’s Eve are also included, though Coppola makes them into huge roaring rings of blue fire, like a giant gas stove run amok.

But all questions of literary faithfulness aside, Coppola’s movie is a visual delight, a laudanum-laced Victorian hallucination overflowing with top-notch eye candy. Take Dracula’s M.C. Escher castle, for instance, where rats scamper upside-down along the bottoms of the beams, bottles are filled with mysterious elixirs that drip up, and ever-so-naughty vampire temptresses rise up out of the bedsheets like dead fish bobbing to the surface of a pool. And Gary Oldman, thanks to costume designer Eiko Ishioka, is the most stylish Dracula ever, transforming from a scarlet-cloaked Kabuki drag queen into a top-hatted Eurofop with blue John Lennon glasses and rockstar hair. Lucy is also a stunner, dying very prettily in a succession of diaphanous nightgowns carefully constructed so that the slightest movement results in one or more of her breasts tumbling out. She’s even prettier undead, leaving her glass coffin to prowl the night in frilly lace cerements like a Sugarplum Fairy gone horribly wrong. Coppola’s version of the “Lucy’s Tomb” sequence is perhaps the best ever filmed.

Trivia Tidbit: In the London street scene where Mina first meets “Prince Vlad”, if you watch carefully you’ll notice that she walks past a man wearing a sandwich-board advertising Sir Henry Irving in “Hamlet” at the Lyceum Theatre. Bram Stoker worked as Sir Henry’s right-hand man at the Lyceum for almost three decades. We can probably thank Leonard Wolf — author of The Essential Dracula (Plume, 1993) — for this little in-joke, since he served as an historical consultant for the film. Bonus tidbit: one of the vampire-temptresses is played by Monica Bellucci, who a decade later would get a second shot at seducing Keanu Reeves, this time as Persephone in The Matrix Reloaded.

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