The Count and the Camera (Part One)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a fantastic book, well worth reading in its own right, and doubly significant in light of the way it introduced the vampire to the popular culture. I recently listened through a series of lectures on the novel given by Corey Olsen, otherwise known as the Tolkien Professor. In the course, he first takes the listener through the book itself, and then through five film incarnations of the infamous count’s reign of terror. In each telling we see wildly different takes on vampirism, Dracula’s character and motivations, the significance of Christian imagery, and the characters of erstwhile victims as presented in the original novel.

Here is a quick refresher on the plot of the novel. Clerk Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to help a reclusive count buy property in England. While there, he discovers that the count is a monstrous bloodsucking fiend, and he is held hostage for over a month until making a miraculous escape. Meanwhile, in England, Jonathan’s fiancée, Mina, corresponds with her friend, Lucy. Lucy is proposed to three times in one day. Her first two suitors are an insane asylum doctor, John Seward, and an adventurer from Texas, Quincy Morris. She accepts the proposal of the third, Arthur Holmwood, soon to inherit the title of Lord Godalming. Into this mess comes Dracula, who drains Lucy of blood over the course of weeks, killing her and turning her into a vampire. Dutch renaissance man Abraham Van Helsing correctly diagnoses the cause and drags the three suitors and the recently recovered Jonathan Harker into a hunt for the count. Soon Mina is bitten by the vampire, but they drive him back to Transylvania, where our heroes pursue him back to the castle and dispatch him, thus redeeming our damsel in distress.

Keep all this in mind, because the film guys are going to take that plot and go nuts with it.

Bela Lugosi: The Definitive Dracula

The 1931 Dracula is the version every American is born knowing, even if they’ve never seen it. Do you imagine Dracula as a tall man in a suit and cape with a high collar? You can thank Universal Pictures. That weird accent you associate with Dracula? One hundred percent pure Bela Lugosi. Is the Dracula in your head clean-shaven? Don’t thank Bram Stoker, thank director Tod Browning and the 1931 Dracula.

And this version of Dracula is definitive for a good reason. From start to finish, this movie is nonstop tension and chilling atmosphere. All the chief actors got their start on the stage, and they have a presence that doesn’t depend on camera angles, multiple takes, and a well-done cut to captivate audiences. Aware of this, and relying on it, the director allows the camera to linger on each character, soaking up their every expression, their every stance, their every movement. Lines are delivered with an unhurried deliberateness that draws the audience in, and the occasional pause allows the characters to size each other up.

One scene in particular highlights this—a heart-stopping battle between Van Helsing and Dracula. Where later movies are quick to give us hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, or special effects, both budget and artistry pushed the 1931 version towards a far different scene. Dracula’s hypnotic powers play a major part in this adaptation. When he discovers that Van Helsing is quite aware of what he is, they engage in verbal sparring before Dracula simply tries to tame him with psychic power. The viewer watches, spellbound, as the doctor tries to resist with nothing more than his will. Such an unseen struggle relies heavily on the skill of the actors, and both these men deliver.

Of course, neither this scene nor the rest of the movie would be half so tense if it were not for the score that backs it. Behind Dracula’s every glowing-eyed gaze, behind every attempt to resist him, behind the battles of will and the trips to crypts in castles and in Carfax abbey—behind it all lies the steady thrum of strings, the inevitable piercing high notes that sound as if a scream had become a refrain in a song of horror. At times, the score is so powerful it seems like we are watching an early music video instead of an early movie. Yet, as overwhelming as that eerie tune is, it only adds to the overall tension of film.

The story is, oddly enough, a far less interesting one than in either the novel or in most other Dracula adaptations. Based on a stage play that was itself a reworking of Stoker’s own stage version, it has cut out many of the characters and most of the locations. It is Renfield, rather than Harker, who visits Castle Dracula. Arthur and Quincy are gone, Lucy’s part is reduced, and Mina is Dr. Seward’s daughter. The narrative is thus simplified, and in some ways does not make a whole lot of sense. Very little is added in the way of themes or iconography, and much that was in the book is muted. Yet despite all this, the film still succeeds as a film.

In the clearing away of the story, we may have lost the complex portraits of the characters and their journeys that existed in the novel, but we are given instead something else very worth having. That haunting tableau of Castle Dracula, with the silent emergence of the count and his brides from their tombs, and the slow procession towards the upper world—we have time for that. We lose travel notes and discussions of science, folklore, and theology—but we gain Renfield’s long introduction to the broken ruin, and the count’s lines delivered in such a lingering, strange, powerful, and ultimately iconic fashion.

“I do not drink…wine.”

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”

I… am Dracula.”

And indeed, he is Dracula. Everything this movie does have is presented with such care, cultivating a mood of rising tension, of creeping horror, that the images haunt your memory long after you have forgotten the plot. And in so doing, it’s fantastic. Watching this, from the silent stares to the slow advances, it’s no wonder it struck a chord with pop culture, and no wonder Bela Lugosi became known as the master—the definitive Hollywood Count Dracula.

The Horror of Dracula: The Hunt for Christopher Lee

This movie is absurdly cool—but cool in a very 1950’s way.

Nosferatu and Lugosi gave us Dracula on the silver screen in a time when movies—and talkies—were becoming a very big thing. Lugosi’s version of the count in particular took pop culture by storm, inspiring Universal to make five more movies featuring the caped creeper over the next twenty years. By the time Hammer Films decided to try their hand at the tale, the vampire was no longer new to movie-going audiences and Dracula himself was a household name. There was a risk the whole thing was going stale. If they were going to be successful, they would have to adopt very different tactics.

And they did.

The movie begins in a manner far closer to the novel than either the 1931 version or Nosferatu. It is actually Jonathan Harker who goes to meet the count, and we are told this in a voiceover of his diary—the same epistolary format as the book. But things quickly turn in another direction. Jonathan is not here to help Dracula with real estate matters, but to organize his library. He is, it seems, a renowned librarian. Dracula himself is a dashing Christopher Lee, without any of Lugosi’s affectations, who welcomes Jonathan in a business-like manner to a very clean and well-kept castle. He leads him up to his room, and departs.

Then comes the reveal. As Jonathan scribbles away in his diary, the voiceover informs us that this is all an elaborate ruse. He is here to infiltrate Dracula’s castle and, “forever end this man’s reign of terror.” Cut to a caped Christopher Lee billowing down the pathway outside. Like he owns the place. Darth Vader, eat your heart out.

So Jonathan is apparently a man on a mission, a genuine vampire hunter. This was not a profession that existed in the previous major films, and I’m tempted to think this one invented it. Harker has no personal stakes in this struggle that we know of, but plenty of stakes for Dracula and his bride. (puns) As he sets about exploring the villain’s lair, there is an encounter with a bride of Dracula—parallel to the encounter with three of them in the book—but it results in Jonathan’s own vampirization. Yes, our protagonist is down halfway through the movie. Now you know they’re serious. Just like Hitchcock. This, by the way, includes the all-time best surprised Dracula face, and the fact that it’s not a meme disgusts me.

The second half of the film shifts to Van Helsing. Van Helsing, like Jonathan, is a more or less professional vampire hunter, who has studied with some of the greatest authorities in Europe on the matter. He explains this to Arthur while donning his shnazzy suit jacket. Everybody in this movie has a shnazzy suit with a shnazzy jacket. Arthur was somewhat skeptical, but confronted with Jonathan’s diary and the oh-so-impressive monologue of the world’s most confident, most British Van Helsing, he has to relent.

The sheer, respectable, professional, 1950’s coolness of Harker and Van Helsing is of course matched by Christopher Lee for the remainder of the film. He has no more speaking lines, instead electing to run around in his cape, brooding and looking remarkably youthful in comparison to the middle-aged monster hunters. The sexual reading of vampirism starts bleeding in here, with Dracula’s victims looking both excited and terrified as they throw open their windows and await the coming of their tall, dark, and handsome visitor. After transformation, the ladies also adopt a far saucier countenance than the blank-eyed victims of Lugosi’s era.

Again, this film is decidedly 1950’s. You can see this in the competent, take-charge menfolk, in the somewhat mindless and helpless women around them, and in the dangerousness of the handsome youth who comes around to turn their quiet domestic scene on its head. But you can also see it in the way religious elements are handled.

The novel constantly contrasted the Eucharist with Dracula’s anti-communion, and Christ’s self-sacrifice and giving of life with Dracula’s parasitic feeding on the life of others. On the one hand we have a holy resurrection, on the other an unholy, eternal un-death. This movie keeps the imagery of the cross and its ability to repel the vampire, but robs of it of its distinctly Christian meaning. We are explicitly told that it strength comes not from being a depiction of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, but from the fact that it is a symbol of the generic, “power of good over evil.” In a very 1950’s way, Christian imagery is kept as a cultural symbol of goodness, but robbed of any specific religious content. Because, of course, if we paid too much attention to specifics—say, the difference between a Protestant cross and a Catholic crucifix—then we might have sectarian conflict. And we can’t have that. If we have that, the commies win.

Speaking of crosses and crucifixes, the ending of this movie is just as cool as everything that goes before. Van Helsing has a showdown with Dracula in serious fight scene reminiscent of early action movies. The central portion of the climax was actually so horrific that it was cut from most releases, and only re-inserted later. The final shots are also filled with significance, but I’m not quite sure what said significant shots signify. Let’s just say you can’t do certain things with the set and the camera and not mean something by it.

A few things are notably different from the book: no Quincy, Seward, or Renfield. Harker and Holmwood swap wives. Also, Lucy is Mina’s sister. Everything is in Germany, or maybe Austria. Even the Romanian location uses its German name. There is one vampire bride, not three, and her relationship to Dracula is a bit more ambiguous. Dracula never transforms, and is probably a freak of nature rather than a freak of supernature. Nobody weeps, and everyone is cool.

Overall, this was a very fun spin on the Dracula tale. It was far less interesting than Nosferatu, and far less iconic than Lugosi. It spawned eight sequels, six starring Christopher Lee, and is exactly the kind of 1950’s horror movie that would. Pop some popcorn, grab a coke, and watch this one with your good buddies or your spouse. Just don’t go in expecting something deep. All it wants to be is cool, and it succeeds.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula: The Metal Twilight

Do not take your kids to see this. Maybe don’t take yourself. For decades academics have insisted that Dracula is all about sex, and Francis Ford Coppola is the man who set out to prove them right.

The premise of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—a wildly inaccurate title if ever there was one—is that Dracula’s entire vampiric existence is motivated by the loss of his one true love, the princess Elisabeta. In life he was a warrior for the cross, who set out against overwhelming odds to face the might of an invading Turkish army. He succeeds, but his enemies trick Elisabeta into believing that Dracula has died, and she plunges to her death from the castle walls into the river far below. Upon learning this, the count renounces God and politely informs some priests that he will rise from the grave with all the powers of darkness to avenge his lost love. They are understandably taken aback. As is Winona Ryder when she finds out that she is Elisabeta reincarnate, and Dracula has come all the way from Transylvania just for her.

Before I kick this puppy, let me say some nice things about it. The cast is fantastic. Dracula is Gary Oldman at his best—and Gary Oldman has to be at his best here. He plays old Dracula, young Dracula, three kinds of monster Dracula, good Dracula (kinda), in love Dracula (definitely), distraught Dracula, arrogant Dracula, and angry Dracula. Every Dracula in the book. Opposite him is Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, very pointedly hunting down a cannibal the year after he played the iconic Hannibal the Cannibal. Winona Ryder, playing opposite the count in a very different sense, is Mina/Elisabeta. Cary Elwes makes a delightfully punchable Arthur, and Keanu Reaves is a terrible but amusing Jonathan Harker. The cast is great, and this was the only one that messed with the pictures of the characters I had in my head.

In addition to an awesome cast, this movie was finely crafted. Francis Ford Coppola paid extraordinary attention to all sorts of visual minutiae. One cut brings us from a woodcut of Dracula dining on his enemies to Dracula waiting for Mina at a fancy restaurant. Another has Dracula rise dramatically from the grave just before Lucy flies down the steps in the same screen-space shouting, “I love him!” Over the course of the movie, Mina’s dress and hairstyle slowly change to more closely resemble Elisabeta’s from the flashbacks, and her seduction by Dracula is intercut with her fiancée falling into the river below Dracula’s castle. The attention to detail is stunning—from the opening flashback to the closing Christological imagery. A+, Francis.

But when I compare this to Twilight, I’m not joking. Dracula is, in this movie, quite the heartthrob. The central thread is a tragic love story, from the frenzied despair of the count’s renunciation of God, to the struggle between his desire to be reunited with his love and his fear of condemning her to an eternity of torment. Mina too is caught between her love of the monstrous count and the life she chose before he came along, before he made her realize who she was. Dracula is driven by the agony of love lost, and his entire performance is charged with both bestial sexuality and a more tender, human passion. If only Gary Oldman could sparkle.

That bestial sexuality absolutely destroyed the other characters. For the only time on this list, every major character from the book is present in the film adaptation, but most are unrecognizable. Lucy has become an innuendo-dropping, constantly topless sex kitten, absolutely delighted by the range of men fawning over her. While she adores Quincy’s big… knife (not my joke), she apparently prefers Arthur’s wallet. The three suitors are all apparently there just for her skankiness, and any trace of their honorable character or respect for Lucy as a person is entirely removed. Mina, by the way, wishes she could be more like Lucy, and have all the boys fawning over her. She is, in fact, deeply disappointed with her Jonathan, who insists on waiting until their wedding night. What a shmuck.

You might expect Van Helsing to bring more of an adult presence and sense of restraint to these randy young folks. You would be wrong. Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing is something of a dirty old man, though a more defining trait is his cold-heartedness. He does not care about Lucy, feeling free to belittle her after her death, and shows no compunction about needlessly distressing Mina. A grandfatherly figure in the book, here he is more monstrous than the vampire he hunts. Which is, one suspects, exactly the point. This adaptation is designed to humanize Dracula, and what better way than by making his chief antagonist as unsympathetic as possible? Those with a keen eye, by the way, will find what appears to be Hopkins in another unsympathetic role earlier in the film.

By that standard—rendering Dracula sympathetic—does this movie work? I’m not sure. In some ways, most definitely. Gary Oldman lends a whole lot of complexity and nuance to the character, and the film definitely puts the tragic love story up front. That defines the count far more than his vampirism. However, his vampirism, because it is sexual, is far more rapey than in other adaptations. One might object that Lucy clearly appeared willing, but this doesn’t help. Even ignoring his psychic whammy powers, that only turns the apparent rape into a very creepy liaison with a woman who is most definitely not Elisabeta. And judging by his harem back at the castle, Dracula apparently thinks nothing of regularly sleeping around on his beloved, and this continues well after he realizes who Mina is. Are we supposed to think his love is as powerful as he pretends? His faithlessness cheapens his character, and Mina’s own flakiness when it comes to her two lovers doesn’t make me want to root for her either. If that makes me stodgy and old-fashioned… I don’t really have a problem with that. Rape’s not cool, and neither is sleeping around on your lady.

Overall, I was fascinated, repulsed, and ultimately disappointed. Francis Ford Coppola made an excellent film, but one that gutted the characters of all the chivalry and virtue they possessed in the book. His project—making us sympathize with Dracula—is interesting, but could have been done in a far less slimy way. I feel like I got the same sort of mixed messages one gets from watching Fight Club. Maybe the lesson wasn’t supposed to be “love justifies being a dirtbag,” but it sure feels like that’s what we came away with. So overall, much respect, but no thanks.

Stay tuned for a very different take on vampirism, and a very different kind of sympathetic portrayal. Nosferatu, Dracula 2000, and Shadow of the Vampire will be dealt with in Part Two.

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