Vamping It Up

by Jennifer Makowsky

30 October 2006

From folklore to fright icon, a certain naughty neckbiter remains one of literature -- and film's -- most fascinating fear factors.
Bela Lugosi as Bram Stoker's Famous Count 

Whenever the air turns crisp—pricked with a hint of chimney smoke—and the kiddies start pulling out their Halloween costumes, I usually reach for films that suit the surroundings.  This year it’s Dracula; the book and the films.  The atmosphere just demands it.  Besides, is there anything more romantic than a vampire as the highlight of the pagan calendar approaches? 

Even though Bram Stoker didn’t actually create the vampire, his 1897 work of fiction is undoubtedly the most famous bloodsucker book ever written. As a result of his efforts, Dracula and the ‘vampire’ are synonymous in our collective consciousness.  From the time it was first published, Stoker’s novel has been responsible for infusing Western culture with a character of great enigmatic strength: one who frightens and enchants us simultaneously.

So it should come as no surprise that the Count and some version of his saga has been filmed more than any other character in literary fiction—apart from Sherlock Holmes, that is. Interestingly enough, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a friend of Stoker’s, and is said to have praised the book, calling it “the best story of diablerie” he had ever read. There have reportedly been over 160 film adaptations of Dracula made since the turn of the 20th century, with such a significant showing demanding some manner of cinematic scholarship. Said acknowledgement came in the form of a book entitled Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy) written by James Craig Holte (Greenwood Press, 1997).

When we hear the word ‘vampire’, the first image that’s most likely conjured up is one of famed Hollywood icon Bela Lagosi dressed as the Count in the first official Dracula movie from 1931. It is indeed probably the most well known version of the monster myth ever. Directed by Todd Browning, the movie was based on a stage play written in 1927 by Hamilton Deane (and later reworked by John Balderston).  Lugosi, who had starred in the Broadway adaptation, later landed the lead role in the film version, but only after silent superstar Lon Chaney, originally chosen to play the lead part, grew ill and passed away.

Lugosi’s spooky and strange way of speaking in the movie was rumored to be the result of a Hungarian actor having to learn his English dialogue phonetically.  Although this has since been discounted as an urban myth, Lugosi did not speak the language while starring in the play, and had to learn his lines in the aforementioned fashion. Unfortunately for the classically trained thespian, he was so good at playing the devilishly dark character that he would forever be pigeonholed as the Count. After he died, Lugosi’s son and wife had him buried in the black cape he had donned in the original play.

Interestingly, while the 1931 movie was being filmed, a Spanish language version was simultaneously being shot by director George Melford.  Even though he used a different cast and crew (Carlos Villarios played Dracula), he used the same sets Browning did.  Melford filmed at night, and had the benefit of watching the dailies shot by Browning.  This allowed him to learn from the daytime crew’s mistakes and wind up with a film that some critics have hailed as more visually dynamic than Browning’s adaptation.

Sixty-one years later, it was Francis Ford Coppola’s and his film entitled Bram Stoker’s Dracula that attempted to resurrect the original source material. According to some, Coppola’s version is the most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel ever.  Unfortunately, Keanu Reeves was cast as Jonathan Harker and Winona Ryder as Mina Murray.  Coupled with both actors’ unauthentic British accents, their mediocre acting talent gave the film an unbalanced feel. Hard to imagine, especially when you consider that this is the same man who gave the world the ‘70s mob masterpiece The Godfather.
Even though there were some good actors lending their abilities to the film (Anthony Hopkins plays Van Helsing and Gary Oldman is otherworldly as Dracula), the final product takes itself far too seriously, earning extra points for melodramatically meddling with the novel by incorporating an over-the-top romantic subplot.  In this uninspired plot twist, Mina turns out to be Dracula’s true love reincarnated, and it’s even intimated that the Count was indeed once the infamous—and factual—Vlad the Impaler.   

While the two movies mentioned above are just a couple in a sea of hundreds of stories influenced by Stoker’s original work, there have also been over 400 movies made where the mythical creature was merely just an inspiration.  These offshoots include well-known features like Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, and The Lost Boys as well as interesting lesser-known titles like Dracula Is Dead and Well and Living in London, Vampyros Lesbos, Dracula in Vegas, and Zoltan, Hound of Dracula.

A scene from Nosferatu

A scene from Nosferatu

Possibly the most famous Dracula inspired movie, and my personal favorite, is F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent black and white version titled Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror).  The German film does indeed stray from the original storyline, but that’s because Murnau was unable to obtain the copyrights to Stoker’s novel.  While following the basic plot, Murnau altered some of the original components; minor storyline elements are restyled, including the emphasis on rats.

In addition, a few characters’ names are changed (Dracula is called Graf Orlok, Jonathon Harker is called Hutter, and Mina is called Ellen); and London becomes Breman. In the final version of the film, Orlok (played by Max Schreck) is a creepy cadaverous character with coiling talons who scampers around in a long black coat, keeping diseased vermin as company—quite different from his charming, black-caped literary counterpart. 

These alterations, however, were not enough to keep Stoker’s widow, Florence, from taking legal action, claiming Murnau had stolen her late husband’s story.  As a result of the claim, showings of the film were initially banned in Germany. Luckily some copies of the movie had already been shipped overseas.  Years later, after Florence Stoker’s death, the film was released into the public domain on 8mm stock and endures as one of the most famous vampire films ever made.

Nosferatu’s power lies in its appearance.  The cinematography relies on shadow and light to bring out the film’s dramatic visuals and bleak ambiance. This is what is most memorable to me when thinking of the film.  I saw it for the first time in a theater 19 years ago, and then began renting it repeatedly ever since.  The bold macabre visuals have always held a certain appeal to me.  They seem more fitting to the book than the unblemished treatment of many of the modern Dracula films that ensued. A very worthwhile exception was Werner Herzog’s splendid 1979 remake of Nosferatu, starring Klaus Kinski. The gorgeous and spooky production serves as testimony that Orlok remains a beloved fixture in horror cinema history, and can stand up easily to the more mainstream interpretations of the ghoul.

Go to any store to purchase a Halloween costume this year and you’re sure to run across a black cape that comes with a pair of white plastic incisors, and perhaps even some black makeup to help create a widow’s peak on your forehead.  Or maybe you’d prefer the go the ‘bald skull cap and two hand’s worth of looping fingernails’ routine.  It really doesn’t matter. However you slice it, dice it, cleave it, or bite it, Dracula is a mainstay symbol in popular culture and a reigning influence on our imaginations. It endures thanks to one author’s unmatched work of frightmare fiction and said novel’s seemingly endless ability to inspire ‘count’less cinematic adaptations. This is why Stoker, and his story, remain as immortal as the nasty little neckbiter he created over a century ago.

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