Dracula: The Prince of Darkness and his journey to the silver screen

Vrykolakas. Strigoi. Nukekubi. Penanggalan. Nosferatu. Call them what you will, the concept of vampires – undead beings who roam the night in search of human blood – is virtually as old as humanity itself. Ancient Persian pottery shards depict horrific demons drinking the blood of men, and the Babylonian Lilitu (known in Hebrew mythology as Lilith) was often portrayed as imbibing the blood of babies.

The vampire as we know him today, however, is almost entirely a creation of later European folklore traditions, with the word “vampire” itself – derived through French, German, and ultimately Slavic roots – first recorded in an English travelogue dated 1734. In these older legends, vampires were generally thought of as bloated corpses, dark in color, often clad in their burial shrouds, sporting long nails and long hair. As can be clearly seen from this description, the European concept of vampires was highly informed by the natural stages that the body goes through during the process of decomposition. Of course, beliefs varied by region, such as the Bulgarian vampires who sported a single nostril, the Albanian version that wore high-heeled shoes, and the Rocky Mountain variety that sucked blood through its nose from the victim’s ear.

It wasn’t until 1748 that the vampire made his literary debut, in the poem The Vampire by Heinrich August Ossenfelder. A short piece of only 22 lines, it tells of a man whose protestations of love have been rebuffed by a virtuous maiden. He promises to pay her a visit in the night, during which he will drink her blood and carry her off as she lays dying. The decidedly erotic overtones in the piece caused a scandal in the eighteenth century, but, not surprisingly, also led others to take up the pen to write about these intriguing undead figures. Poems such as The Bride of Corinth by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Bride of the Grave by Johann Ludwig Tieck, The Vampire by John Stagg, Lamia by John Keats, and The Giaour by Lord Byron all expanded on and developed the vampire mythology.

The first prose vampire tale, and the first vampire story written in English, John Polidori’s The Vampyre, was first published in 1819. Interestingly, this story was conceived and written during the same Genevan retreat, in 1817, which produced Mary Shelly’s immortal novel, Frankenstein. The suggestion was made that, to alleviate the boredom caused by unpleasant weather, everyone in the group – which consisted of Polidori, Mary Shelly, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire Claremont, and Lord Byron – should write a supernatural tale. Only Mary and Polidori completed theirs, the rest making half-hearted attempts and abandoning the project. The fragment that Byron wrote was picked up by Polidori and provided the basis of his groundbreaking short story.

Polidori’s story – mistakenly attributed to Byron upon its first publication – is significant for several reasons. Not only does it codify, for the first time, many of the vampiric traditions that are now an inseparable part of the myth of the nosferatu – superhuman strength, a need for human blood as sustenance, nocturnal hunting, etc. – it also portrays the vampire as a nobleman, a concept that would later become integral to the character’s popularity.

1845 saw the publication of Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer, originally issued in a series of “penny dreadfuls” – so-called due to their graphic content, low production values, and low price – and later collected in book form. Varney was a vampire in the more familiar style, with long fang teeth that leave a pair of puncture marks on his victim’s throat, as well as superhuman strength and hypnotic powers. Varney was also the first “sympathetic” vampire, a creature who abhorred his condition but was, at the same time, trapped by it, a type that has become even more popular in recent years. After 220 epic chapters, Varney finally ended it all by throwing himself into Mount Vesuvius.

Drawing upon all that had gone before, and adding inspiration from the real-life horrors committed by Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary, the Bloody Countess, who murdered hundreds of children so that she could bathe in their blood to retain her youthful appearance, and Vlad Tepes of Romania, popularly known as “Vlad the Impaler” due to his predilection for mounting his enemies on sharp wooden poles, among other atrocities, Bram Stoker began work on a novel he had originally titled The Un-Dead. Written during the time that Stoker served as stage manager at the Lyceum Theater in London, it is the single most significant vampire story ever published.

The bare bones of the story are familiar to virtually everyone: Solicitor Jonathan Harker travels from London to Transylvania to meet with the enigmatic Count Dracula, who wishes to buy Carfax Abbey as his residence on Great Britain. Harker discovers that there’s more to Dracula than meets the eye, but too late to stop the Count, now revealed as a vampire, from traveling to London and beginning his campaign of terror. The situation grows more personal as the Count menaces Harker’s fiancée, Mina Murray and her friend Lucy Westenra. As it grows more and more obvious to all that something is amiss, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing is called in to aid in the destruction of the monster. And thus the stage is set for an explosive battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil which climaxes in Dracula’s death by impalement (perhaps a nod to Vlad?).
The book was well-received upon its original publication in 1897, favorably compared to such popular works as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mystery of Udolpho, all considered classics of the then-current Gothic horror genre. It would take several decades, however, for the book to reach blockbuster status.

That status would come after the release of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in 1922, an unabashed – and unauthorized – adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Although the author died in 1912, the work was protected under copyright in Europe until 1962, leading Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, to bring suit against Murnau for copyright infringement. The courts ruled in Stoker’s favor, and Murnau was ordered to destroy all the prints of his film. Fortunately, a number of copies had already been shipped abroad – out of the reach of the German courts – so the movie survives for us to view today.

schreck - count orlock - nosferatuNosferatu is a truly chilling film. Count Orlock (Max Schreck) – Murnau changed all the character names in his picture, no doubt realizing that he was treading on thin legal ground – looking more like a pale, hairless rat than a human being, enlists the aid of Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), a real estate agent, in finding a home in the fictional German city of Wisborg.  As in the book, Hutter discovers Orlock’s true nature, but too late to stop him from setting off for Germany. Hutter is injured trying to escape from Orlock’s castle, and spends an unspecified amount of time convalescing in a local hospital. Meanwhile, Orlock boards a ship and soon reaches Wisborg. Concurrent with his arrival, a terrible plague breaks out in the city, turning the town into a charnel house (the “plague,” of course, is Orlock feasting on the townspeople).  Hutter makes his way back to Wisborg and reveals what he knows about the Count. His wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder), learns that the only way to destroy a vampire is for a woman who is pure in heart to make the fiend forget the first crowing of the rooster. Placing her life and soul at risk, Ellen invites Orlock into her bedchamber. As he drinks her blood, the rooster crows and Orlock, caught in the sun’s rays, disintegrates, leaving nothing behind but a puff of smoke. 

Schreck, whose name in German means “terror,” brings the rat-like Count Orlock to vivid life, aided by director F. W. Murnau’s striking use of light and shadow. In a famous shot, we see Orlock’s shadow, clawed fingers outstretched, climbing a staircase.  The scene is far more effective as filmed than it would have been had Murnau chosen a more prosaic shot of Orlock merely walking up stairs. The result is a picture that, alongside such classics as The Golem (1920), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Destiny (1921), is seen today as one of the cornerstone films of the German Expressionist movement.

The next stop on Dracula’s silver screen journey was the incredible film that launched Bela Lugosi’s career.  Lugosi had already appeared in the lead role in the 1927 hit Broadway play Dracula, by John Balderston and Hamilton Deane, but he was far from a lock for the role in the film version, as studio brass wanted a bigger, more recognizable star to play the Transylvanian Count. Conrad Veidt, who had made a name for himself in such prestigious silent pictures as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), was the studio’s first choice, but his heavy German accent made him unsuitable for a leading role in a sound film. Paul Muni, who had received considerable acclaim and a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his very first film role in The Valiant (1929), was also considered. Lugosi lobbied aggressively for the role, and was finally cast only after agreeing to work for a mere $500 per week for the seven week shoot. Even in the dark days of the Depression, this was an insultingly low sum, but Lugosi’s gamble paid off and he was, virtually overnight, a superstar, and Universal’s reigning king of horror. His reign was brief, however, lasting only until bit player and character actor Boris Karloff stepped into the oversized boots of the Frankenstein Monster, a role Lugosi rejected, but that’s a story for another time.

It’s widely believed that Lon Chaney Sr. was originally intended for the title role in Universal’s  Dracula, especially as his frequent collaborator, Todd Browning, was slated to direct, but this seems unlikely. At the time, Chaney was rival studio MGM’s biggest star and it’s unlikely that they would have loaned him to Universal for the film, or that Universal would have incurred the costs necessary to retain Chaney’s services (at the time, his weekly salary was $3,750) for what they saw initially as a fairly low-budget movie. Of course, Chaney’s untimely death on Aug. 26, 1930 – a month before filming on Dracula began – makes the issue a moot point.

Reportedly, this production had been in the pipeline for quite some time, ever since 1914, when studio head Carl Laemmle moved Universal from the East Coast to Hollywood. The original plan was to stick closely to the plot of Stoker’s novel, a sprawling affair that criss-crosses Europe, but the realities of a Depression-era budget caused the studio to scale back their plans and adapt the more limited Balderston-Dean play instead. That explains the heavy use of drawing room scenes in the movie that never appeared in Stoker’s book.

Nevertheless, the film, which premiered in New York City on  Feb. 12, 1931, was a sensation and, along with Frankenstein, released later that same year, established the Golden Age of Universal Horror, a franchise that gave the movie-going public such immortal classics as The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy, just to name a few. It was a time of silver-screen terror that would only be topped by the real-life horrors of World War II a decade later.

As an interesting aside, a Spanish version of this movie was produced at the same time as the original, shot at night on the same sets the English-speaking actors used during the day. Starring Carlos Villarias as the Count, Lupita Tovar as Eva (Mina), and Barry Norton as Juan Harker, this version does not slavishly follow its English cousin, and, in fact, runs nearly 30 minutes longer than the Lugosi vehicle. As the Spanish crew had the advantage of watching the footage filmed during the day before shooting their scenes, they were able to adjust camera angles and reconsider lighting based on what they had seen, resulting in more camera movement and more atmospheric lighting. Additionally, the Spanish version is a bit more intense, both in terms of violence and sexuality, than the English version. Many consider this version to be the better of the two.

As much as he was identified with the character, Lugosi only played Dracula twice, once in the first talking film of the series, Dracula, and again in the film that many consider the final picture in the franchise, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). It’s fitting that this iconic actor was given the opportunity to bookend this great series of movies.

Of course, in discussing Universal’s Dracula, we’d be remiss not to mention his celluloid offspring: Dracula’s Daughter (1936), and Son of Dracula (1943).

With the huge success of the 1931 film Dracula, it’s not surprising that the studio wanted a sequel. Hot from his success on Frankenstein, and that film’s follow-up, Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale was now Universal’s fair-haired boy, and he was approached about helming the Dracula sequel. Whale was amenable, but reportedly his ideas, embodied in the script he turned in, were so outrageous and over-the-top that he was taken off the project. Numerous scripts and treatments were then received, both solicited and unsolicited, and several directors were considered. Originally, the entire cast from the first film was to appear in the sequel, but as time wore on, everyone save for Edward van Sloan, who reprises his role as Professor Van Helsing, drifted away. Interestingly, even though he only appears in a few pre-production publicity stills, Lugosi received a hefty fee for this picture, thanks to a unique “play-or-pay” clause in his contract.

Finally, all the pieces were in place: Lambert Hillyer directed a film set immediately after the events of Dracula, wherein the Count’s daughter, played by Gloria Holden, arrives to claim the body of her father and, at the same time, free herself of the blood curse she has inherited from him. One of Universal’s lesser entries in the horror genre, the film, which was released in 1936, would have benefitted from Lugosi’s participation.

With a story by Curt Siodmak, who had scored a hit with his screenplay for The Wolf Man in 1941, Universal released Son of Dracula in 1943, with Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. Actually, in the context of the film, a familial relationship between Dracula and Chaney’s Hungarian-born Count Alucard was never established, but Universal obviously wanted to tap into the popularity of their premiere franchise one more time. A relatively weak entry in the series, Chaney, who had given an outstanding performance as the cursed Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man, was woefully miscast in this role. He was best-suited to character parts that required the audience to feel some degree of empathy or sympathy for him, like that of Talbot or Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939), a trait no doubt inherited from his father, the famous Lon Chaney Sr., who specialized in epic, tragic figures. Unfortunately, while Lon Sr. could, at the same time, project an appropriate air of menace and fear, as in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Lon Jr. rarely gave a truly chilling performance, a failing that greatly hampered his career as a horror star.

Traditional monsters began to fall out of favor during the war years, and by the time World War II was over, with the coming of the Atomic Age, filmgoer’s interests increasingly turned to science fiction as words like “radiation,” “fallout,” and “mutant” began to enter the language on a widespread basis. Gone, for a time, were the vampires and mummies and creatures cobbled together from rifled graves; now America looked to the skies and saw flying saucers behind every cloud and giant behemoths behind every skyscraper. It was a new form of entertainment for a new age.

However, just as Dracula and Frankenstein and their ilk never truly died at the end of their movies, this latest shift in public tastes proved to be more of a respite than a true death. In 1955, London’s Hammer Film Studios, a small production company founded in 1934 and known primarily for a series of low-budget, but finely-crafted, pictures, released The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his hapless creation. Filmed in a decidedly gothic style, the movie was obviously inspired by the Universal original, but upped the blood and gore quotient exponentially, all presented in glorious Technicolor.

The success of The Curse of Frankenstein led, inevitably, to Hammer’s second gothic chiller, Dracula (retitled Horror of Dracula in the U.S. to prevent confusing it with the 1931 film, which was still being booked into theaters at the time), this time starring Lee as Dracula and Cushing as his chief nemesis, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. Again, this version was far more violent, and far sexier, than its Universal counterpart, so much so in fact that certain scenes were censored by the British authorities. Nevertheless, the film was a major success both in its home country and abroad, paving the way for numerous sequels. Hammer easily dominated the gothic horror market during the 1950s and 1960s, while Hollywood focused primarily on science fiction and giant monster fare. Their vampire films became increasingly violent and erotic as the years progressed, reaching their climax in the “Karnstein” trilogy. These three films, The Vampire Lovers (1970) – based on the gothic vampire novella Carmilla by J. Sheridan LeFanu, which predated Stoker’s Dracula by some 25 years – Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971), all revolved around the character of Mircalla Karnstein, a beautiful female vampire whose preference for the necks of nubile young women introduced a decidedly lesbian tone to the films.

Christopher Lee returned to the character of Dracula in a 1970 Spanish production directed by Jesus Franco, which hewed very closely to Stoker’s novel. Unlike previous versions of the character, this Dracula was introduced as an old man who grew progressively younger as he drank the blood of his innocent victims. Herbert Lom was cast as Dracula’s nemesis, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, while Klaus Kinski played the fly-loving Renfield.

(Although Dracula himself is nowhere to be found, an interesting entry in the vampire film canon during the 1970s was director Michio Yamamoto’s “Vampire” trilogy for Toho Studios; Yûreiyashiki no kyôfu: Chi o suu ningyô [1970 – The Night of the Vampire], Noroi no yakata: Chi o sû me [1971 – Lake of Dracula]; and Chi o suu bara [1974 – The Evil of Dracula]. Although Yamamoto’s directing career was short – his filmography only lists six movies that he helmed – many consider these pictures an interesting addition to the vampire legend. Anyone watching any of these movies will instantly recognize the strong influence that the Hammer films of the period had on director Yamamoto, as the blending of Euro-gothic settings and Japanese actors and locations is highly original, to say the least.)

The Transylvanian Count made several small screen appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, first in an American TV adaptation called, simply, Dracula, starring Jack Palance in 1973, and then, in 1977, in the BBC production Count Dracula featuring Louis Jordan. However, the next big move forward for Stoker’s famous vampire would come from the Great White Way.

draculaDracula (Universal, 1979). One Sheet (27" X 41") Style B. Horror. Starring Frank Langella, Laurence Olivier, Donald Pleasence, Kate Nelligan, Trevor Eve, Jan Francis, Janine Duvitski, Tony Haygarth, and Teddy Turner. Directed by John Badham. An unrestored poster with bright color and a clean overall appearance. It may have general signs of use, such as slight fold separation and fold wear, pinholes, or very minor tears. A poster graded Very Fine+ may still be on Linen, but this is the highest grade allowed for a poster in this state. Grades on all restored items are pre-restoration grades. Folded, Very Fine.

October 20, 1977, saw the opening of Dracula at the Martin Beck Theater. A restaging of the Deane-Balderston play that catapulted Lugosi to fame, this well-received show did the same thing for a young actor named Frank Langella. As Dracula, Langella was hypnotic, captivating not only his intended victims but the audience as well, and receiving a well-deserved Tony nomination in the process. Taking full advantage of the play’s success, Langella starred in a lush remake of the 1931 Lugosi movie in 1979, opposite Sir Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing and 1970s horror movie mainstay Donald Pleasance as Dr. Seward.  Although not nearly as compelling as the stage version, the movie was a great success, and launched Langella on an impressive career that continues to this very day.

In that same year, Klaus Kinski starred in a remake of the very first vampire film, Nosferatu. Now that the Stoker novel was fully in the public domain, writer/director Werner Herzog was able to restore the original names to the characters without fear of reprisal, while maintaining the dark tone of Murnau’s vision. Filmed simultaneously in German and English, the movie is hauntingly faithful to the original silent version, which Herzog has stated he considers “the greatest German film,” going so far as to actually re-create some of Murnau’s own shots. The result is a wholly satisfying experience, taken both on its own merits and when viewed as an homage to a timeless classic.

Turning the genre on its ear, Dracula became the object of parody in 1979’s Love at First Bite, with the gloriously tanned George Hamilton as the Count, this time set in modern-day New York City. Written by Robert Kaufman (who was also the screenwriter for 1965’s Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machine), the movie also features Susan St. James as supermodel Cindy Soundheim, Richard Benjamin as Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg (an updated Van Helsing-type role), Arte Johnson as Renfield, and Dick Shawn as NYPD Lieutenant Ferguson. Goofy and fun in a very 1970s way, a sequel is reportedly in production.

Dracula’s next big-budget appearance was in director Francis Ford Coppola’s retelling of the Stoker novel, this time with Gary Oldman in the title role. Released in 1992, the project was actually brought to Coppola by actress Winona Ryder, who had been asked to read the script by her agent.  Taking up the project with enthusiasm, Coppola cast Oldman as Dracula, Ryder as Mina Murray, Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, and Anthony Hopkins as Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Beginning with a prologue set in the 15th century, this version attempts to tell the origin of Dracula – by explicitly linking the fictional character to the historical Vlad the Impaler – as well as provide some much-needed depth of character for the tragic bloodsucker. A markedly ambitious project, and one that opened to both critical and commercial success, time has not been kind to this film, which inspires mixed reactions among viewers today. While some see it as a stunning visual feast, others view the film as flat and pretentious, pointing to the obvious dramatic shortcomings of both Reeves and Ryder, and the alarming overacting by Anthony Hopkins, as well as other stylistic and structural issues. While there’s no doubt that the film has its problems, it is an enjoyable picture overall, one that every fan of the legendary Count should definitely see.

Mel Brooks was the next to set his sights on Stoker’s creation, in the 1995 spoof Dead and Loving It, starring Leslie Nielsen as Dracula and Brooks himself as Dr. Van Helsing. How one feels about this film depends, to a great degree, on how one feels about Brooks’s brand of humor. Like his earlier parody, Young Frankenstein, Brooks takes quite a lot from the 1931 Universal classic and lampoons it lovingly, while also borrowing from such latter-day pop culture icons as The Munsters. While certainly not in the same league as some of the director’s earlier classics, including The Producers and Blazing Saddles, Dead and Loving It is certainly a fun film.

In a film that updated Stoker’s story to contemporary times, Gerard Butler donned the fangs in Dracula 2000, an effective retelling of the familiar tale. Butler, who would gain greater acclaim several years later as Leonidas in the popular movie 300, makes for a scary and convincing Count Dracula, this time opposed by Christopher Plummer as the Count’s eternal nemesis, Van Helsing.  Fast-paced and exciting, this movie pays homage to its predecessors on several occasions, and postulates a unique origin for Dracula: that he is actually Judas Iscariot, cursed with eternal life for his betrayal of Jesus. The movie spawned two sequels; Dracula II Ascension and Dracula II Legacy.

In 2004, Professor Van Helsing was promoted to superhero status in the person of Hugh Jackman as the title character in the special-effects laden Van Helsing. In addition to the Frankenstein monster, an enormous Mr. Hyde, and an unfortunate lycanthrope, Van Helsing, complete with gadgets that would make James Bond proud, contends with Count Vladislaus Dracula, played in an embarrassingly over-the-top and unrestrained manner by Richard Roxburgh, a performance that almost certainly has Stoker rolling in his grave. No matter how one feels about previous wearers of the cape and fangs, at least most of them brought some sense of dignity to the role. Not Roxburgh. Directed by Stephen Sommers, who also helmed the highly satisfying remake of The Mummy in 1999, this iteration of Transylvania’s most famous citizen is best avoided.

An adaptable character, the blood sucking Count also headlined a musical, composed by Frank Wildhorn, that debuted in Canada in 2001 and made it to Broadway in 2004. With Tom Hewitt in the lead role, the show was universally panned, with critics commenting on hollow lyrics, derivative music, an almost total lack of horror or suspense, as well as a plot that, while sticking closely to Stoker’s original, was presented in such a way as to be virtually unintelligible. It closed after only 154 performances.

Far more successful was Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, a ballet realization of Stoker’s novel, directed by Guy Maddin and set to the music of Gustav Mahler. Filmed in the style of a silent movie, complete with title cards, black and white film stock (although spot color effects are used in certain instances), and scene tinting, the production was staged by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and starred Zhang Wei-Qiang as Dracula. Playing to both critical and popular acclaim, it stands as one of the most unique treatments of Stoker’s influential story.

Since then, Count Dracula’s appearances have been limited to the small screen, including a made-for TV Italian production in 2002 starring Patrick Bergin, and a BBC version filmed in 2006 with Mark Warren in the lead role. Just like a vampire sleeping in his coffin during daylight hours, however, there’s no doubt that Dracula will once again rise from his crypt to sink his fangs into the waiting throats of eager movie goers sooner rather than later.