DRACULA IN FILM: THE TOP 9 CINEMATIC COUNTS.
Perhaps just as important to the study of Dracula, the Gothic novel, are the dozens of cinematic adaptations which have been responsible for the book’s longevity and popular appeal. While Dracula has appeared as a character in an astounding 404 films (ca. 2014), for our purposes, we will filter the best gems from the dross (of which there is much) and briefly examine the qualities of what I believe to be the nine most noteworthy manifestations.
Without question, the vampire-king is more insolubly connected in the collective unconscious of our society with the powerful persona of Bela Lugosi, as performed in Tod Browning’s foundational 1931 classic, Dracula. The Hungarian actor invested the Count with a mesmeric intensity and willfulness that has never been successfully duplicated, and the film that housed his sinister smugness is an artistic masterpiece apart from its iconic role. Based on Hamilton Deane’s posh 1924 stage play – more Agatha Christie society-thriller than the Gothic grotesquerie of 1922’s Nosferatu – the film saw Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan reprise their critically acclaimed Broadway roles.
Despite a prudishness that dilutes the action, confuses the plot, and deadens an otherwise chilling screenplay, Tod Browning’s film earns its primacy in American culture through the leering confidence of its star, the high-wattage madness affected by Dwight Frye’s horrifying Renfield, and the unnerving chemistry that exists between the sensual Count and Van Sloan’s unparalleled Van Helsing, a cool, thoughtful observer who transcends Stoker’s verbose busybody, transforming the character into a polar force against Dracula – two forces which repel one another as much as they are magnetically drawn together. It is without a doubt a combination of Frye, Van Sloan, and Lugosi’s committed portrayals that have cemented the film in our collective imagination, but Browning also excels in introducing strands of recurring humor, social satire, sexual politics, and Freudian dynamics, which draw the supporting cast into a tighter, wider web that supports and recolors Stoker’s basic premise.
Arguably second to Lugosi in recognizability and cultural impact is the British actor Sir Christopher Lee, whose string of appearances as the Count in the gory and stylistic Hammer Films made him the face of Dracula for two decades. Most notably in Horror of Dracula (1958), Dracula A.D., 1972 (1972), and Jesus Franco’s non-Hammer production, Count Dracula (1969), Lee played a poshly aristocratic Count, whose total speaking time might amount to eight minutes – largely mute, Lee played off the vampire’s libidinous sensuality, using his commanding eyes, versatile range of nuanced expressions, and domineering body language to convey what speech could not. Lee’s ravenous, coldly clinical prince was well-bred and well-spoken (when he spoke), but his animalistic sexuality was decidedly carnivorous, dehumanizing, and powerful, ramping up the thunderous charisma rendered by Lugosi to a shuddering volume.
Frank Langella took imaginations and fantasies by storm in 1979 when his Dracula arrived in theatres. Less rapacious than the violent Lee, Langella was a sensual, suave, boyish Count, whose appetite for flesh was romantic and humanizing. His eyes betrayed an infatuated, adolescent passion for womankind that smoldered behind his polite, demur attitude and his fawning charisma – his is widely considered the Count’s sexiest portrayal. Based on John L. Balderston’s enticingly erotic stage play, and the accompanying set and costume designs by Edwardian-influenced master of the morbid, Edward Gorey, the tone of the film is dreamily polite, intimately exotic, and subtly hypnotic.
Langella’s Count is both repulsive (his bug-eyed attempt to break into a bedroom window while suspended upside down is genuinely terrifying) and alluring. Suavely sexual, his rendering goes a long way to humanizing the lonely foreigner, without cutting corners on the repulsive selfishness of his love affairs: after he tenderly strokes and suckles on his first victim, we later encounter her underground, a wasted, ghoulish abhuman – never was there a more apt metaphor for the remorseless carrier of venereal diseases (the pitiable Mina appears gruesomely syphilitic) whose kisses invite to know love even as they betray to know hate.
No rendering of Stoker’s arch villain has been more artistic, more loathsome, or more otherworldly than that in the novel’s first cinematic adaptation, Nosferatu: a Symphony in Horrors – starring Max Schreck (whose surname fittingly means “fear”) as the ghoulish, almost alien Count Orlok – a masterwork of German Expressionism directed by the visionary F.W. Murnau. Challenged by a copyright lawsuit (brought about by Stoker’s wife) which ordered the destruction of all the film’s prints it was mercifully spared, and an unquestionable masterpiece of dark romanticism from annihilation. Nosferatu is widely considered the most critically successful interpretation of Dracula – a bleak, convincing, starkly beautiful vision of the relationship between desire and demise, of simple goodness and elaborate evil.
The silent film, while sometimes washed out from daytime shooting and at moments plodding, still maintains an ability to titillate modern imaginations and plumb the dark pits of twenty-first century psyches. Pure, original, and unpolluted by the franchise of capes, widow’s peaks, and hammy theatrics, Nosferatu is invested with a mesmeric surrealism, making it – and Schreck’s rodentlike, abhuman Count Orlok – the first cult film. Roger Ebert neatly explained the film’s mass appeal: “Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés… The film is in awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires… Nosferatu remains effective: It doesn’t scare us, but it haunts us.”
At the same time that Tod Browning’s iconic masterpiece was being filmed, a Spanish production was mounted at the same studio, using the same scripts, sets, props, and equipment. The English-speaking crew would shoot during the day, and the Spanish cast – after having watched and critiqued the day’s filming – would attempt to improve upon their interpretations during the night. Carlos Villarias swings wide left from Lugosi’s restrained Svengali, playing a passionate degenerate boiling with psychopathic intensity. His electric gaze recalls Dwight Frye’s Renfield: piercing and explosive, it cackles maniacally with looks rather than lungs, and presents an unhinged, but heavily erotic interpretation of the Count. Indeed, Drácula is unquestionably the most erogenous interpretation of the novel before the era of Lee and Langella.
The actresses – including the sensual Lupita Tovar as Conde Drácula’s conflicted victim – are unquestionably attracted to the exotic foreigner; their décolletage alone is a far cry from the high necklines of the heavily repressed Browning production, and the Count’s brides (morose, unblinking funerary statues in Browning) are slithering, sexual, and openly seductive. The violence removed from the English film has also been preserved in the far more suggestive Latino plot: Lucy’s staking is openly described at a misty graveyard scene, and the Count’s wrenching death cries are loud and unmistakable. Even Renfield is more vocal: where Frye brilliantly enlisted his thousand-watt stare and wheezing laugh, Pablo Rubio screams with (and I say this seriously) genuinely disturbing laughter and glee as he watches Drácula consume the schooner’s crew. Most critics prefer the artistry of the Spanish version, and I concur: its photography, camera angles, enhanced sexuality, psychological complexity, and a deep commitment to terror and fear cause it to excel in areas which the English production either avoided or was suppressed.
Just as original and unique in his approach as Schreck’s malformed Orlok and Villarias’ demented Conde, Louis Jourdan presaged Langella’s sympathetic Count with what many consider to be one of the most expertly acted interpretation. In 1977 the BBC’s Count Dracula became what many consider to be the gold standard of authentic adaptations. While this television play merges Holmwood and Morris, transforms Mina and Lucy into sisters, and is haunted with hideously dated, psychedelic special effects, the overall impression is absolutely haunting, and is driven – if by nothing else – by exceptional acting. Frank Finlay’s Van Helsing follows after the tradition of Edward Van Sloan and Peter Cushing – a thinking rather than a speaking Van Helsing, whose wheels can be seen turning behind his darkening expressions – and may perhaps, despite his comparative youth, be the best actor to try the role.
Eerie, ominous, and crawling with restrained energy, Count Dracula makes the most of its cheap budget and odious special effects by managing a slow-burning terror that mounts by increments. Faithful to the novel, and redolent with quotations, the British teleplay is best served by Jourdan’s phlegmatic Count. Smiling, soft-voiced, dressed entirely in unbroken black, and much given to sweeping hand gestures, the French actor offers Dracula his first minimalistic, understated depiction – and it smolders. Perhaps most similar to Langella – whom he inspired with his kindly, sociopathic interpretation – Jourdan is nonetheless one of the best actors to don the cape (which, by the way, he didn’t), and his chilling civility will strike modern audiences as part Hannibal Lecter, part Ted Bundy, and part Uncle Scar. His power is in drawing us to him through his politeness, his apparent loneliness, and his soft-spoken desperation for companionship. No Dracula can proceed from the post-1977 era without feeling the influence of Jourdan’s tremulous portrayal.
Despite its detractors, Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is among the most artistic and most accurate interpretations of the Stoker text. It’s lush, baroque sets, vibrant, symbolic costumes, and shocking, unforgettable makeup leave an indelible impression once viewed. It is horrific, sexual, robust, and ambitious. It is the only credible version to honor the original characters – Seward, Morris, and Holmwood are all present; Harker is distinct from Renfield; Lucy and Mina are not related, nor are there any of the bizarre switching of character names (cf. Lee’s 1958 and Langella’s 1979 versions). From having the Count’s carriage being pulled by four horses abreast to depicting Seward’s morphine addiction, from portraying the Count – once old now young – strolling in London’s crowds in broad daylight to including Lucy’s chilling decapitation, the film remains – mark for mark – the most accurate portrayal, barely beaten by Jourdan’s BBC bid due to an unfortunate central plot point: the casting of Mina as the reincarnation of Vlad III’s mythical wife (a suggestion made in an earlier film of the same name, starring Jack Palance).
Although this choice has earned the vitriol of book fans, the film is resplendent with delicious use of color, symbolism, costumes, settings, and special effects – all but one of which were done using camera tricks and early Hollywood trade secrets (no computers need apply). Gary Oldman is compelling as the Count, not as urbane as Jourdan, as chilling as Lugosi, or as sensual as Langella, yet he channels all three, creating a dichotomous character: the repugnant, mummy-like Count Dracula, a Satanic wizard who teems with evil and rage, and the dashing, cultivated Prince Vlad, a Byronic hero who burns with loss and love. His powerful performance certainly owes much too all three pre-mentioned Counts, but his final brand is convincing and unforgettable. The film may suffer from Keanu Reeves cartoonish Harker, Winona Ryder’s English accent, and a plot which is more Beauty and the Beast than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it is an essential and unavoidable contribution to the Draculean canon of films.
Lastly I consider two homages to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu – a testament to the film’s importance to the canon – one an adaptation and one a fictionalized reimagining of the movie’s making. Made the same year as Langella’s sexy Dracula, Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (stylized in the United States as Nosferatu the Vampyre) was an even darker, bleaker remake of what was already a chillingly dark, bleak film. Often made shot for shot, the revision including an ending which dispelled the hope brought about by the 1922 film’s redemptive conclusion – one typical of its cynical director, the masterful Werner Herzog. Placing his hand on the pulse of Europe, Herzog detected nothing after the horrors of World War Two, and his grim, stylistic movies reflect this lack of hope and disgust of humanity. Headed by the eccentric and powerful Klaus Kinski – later to become a five-time collaborator of Herzog in such disturbingly beautiful films as Aguirre, the Wrath of God – as the rat-toothed, ghastly-hued Count Orlok, the production was a critical and financial success. Kinski, who had played Renfield in Jesus Franco’s Christopher Lee film, portrayed Orlok with grace, complexity, and pathos, and accomplished the impossible: rendered the ghoul a soul.
In 2000, Shadow of the Vampire recast Willem Dafoe as Orlok, this time, however, the fantasy surrounded Nosferatu’s making, and posited that Max Shreck wore no makeup: that Murnau (John Malkovich) had opted to hire a genuine vampire in pursuit of realism. Genuinely scary and heartbreakingly human, Dafoe’s Schreck channels both Kinski and the real Schreck’s Orlok. Lonely, humiliated, and manipulated, he is a pawn to the laudanum-sopped megalomaniac, Murnau (a fictional depiction that uncannily recalls the relationship between Seward and Renfield), but begins to reclaim his agency, and in the process tragedy and horror ensue. A parody of the dehumanizing forces of the film industry and an adoring homage to Murnau’s masterpiece, the film may merely be a meta interpretation of Dracula, but warrants the attention of Dracula’s fans – especially if they are fans of Nosferatu as well… as all of Dracula’s fans cannot help but be.