A Dracula Retrospective: From Devil Incarnate To Tragic Lover
“I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.” –Dracula (1897)
It’s practically a truism that Count Dracula is the King of Vampires, and for good reason. Bram Stoker’s original creation sprang off the page followed by a gush of blood and flash of fangs. He was the violent underbelly of Victorian society, the invasive disease, the walking corpse come to carry off wilting Victorian maidens and drive grown men mad. He was violence, sex, and sadism incarnate, covered by a thin veneer of aristocratic respectability. He was the greatest vampire of them all, and his lore has carried through the ages of page, stage and screen. He’s been played by actors as diverse as Gary Oldman and Bela Lugosi, Klaus Kinski and Gerard Butler. Yet modern versions of Dracula often rob him of his terror and exchange it for palpitating romance. How on earth did Dracula go from evil monster to tragic lover in just over a hundred years?
The Vampyre (1819)
Dracula might be the most popular and well-known vampire story, but it was by no means the first. Much of the Count’s popular characterization does not come from Stoker’s source novel, but rather from the tales that came before it.
John Polidori’s Gothic narrative The Vampyre bears a startling resemblance to many versions of Dracula. The Byronic anti-hero Lord Ruthven (based on Polidori’s friend Lord Byron) is an attractive but cold aristocrat who appears in London society from seemingly nowhere. Ruthven befriends a young man named Aubrey and travels with him in Italy and then Greece, followed by a series of seductions and strange deaths. Ruthven finally preys on Aubrey’s sister, but not until he’s died once, drawing a desperate promise from his friend to not reveal Ruthven’s death for a year and a day.
Polidori’s description of Ruthven might as well be a description of Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman:
“In spite of the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion, though its form and outline were beautiful, many of the female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions, and gain, at least, some marks of what they might term affection.”
His attractiveness to women is exceeded only by the danger he poses to them; he is the seducer of other men’s wives and the source of everlasting destruction to all he comes in contact with.
Polidori’s work is one of the first ‘gentleman vampire’ narratives, and more closely parallels incarnations of Dracula than Stoker’s later novel. Ruthven is what we think of when we think of the gentleman vampire: a charming aristocrat prone to dissipation, wandering the drawing rooms of London seducing lovely Victorian maidens only to drink their blood.
Bram Stoker appropriated some concepts from Polidori, but he did not give his titular count the same cold-blooded charm when he wrote his only famous novel. His Dracula is not a seducer of women, but a rapist, a violator, a force of pure and malign evil. He has not sold his soul to Satan; he is as close to a modern incarnation of evil as a monster can be.
If all you’ve ever seen of Dracula is Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman or any other bloodsucker in a big cape, then you have not truly experienced the character’s original terror. Dracula is told through a series of journal entries interspersed with newspaper articles, beginning with the adventures of Jonathan Harker in the Carpathian Mountains. The union of sex and death becomes obvious in Harker’s victimization by Dracula’s three vampiric brides. Unlike later film and stage versions, the sexual attraction of vampirism manifests itself in the female vampires or victims, not in Dracula himself. Stoker establishes his Dracula as an otherworldly, ancient monster, an old man dreaming of an epic past:
“His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.”
Dracula is far from the pretty foreigner women dream of at night. One might almost mark out Dracula’s character from what he is not. He isn’t a gentleman, well-dressed and attractive. His power does not reside in seduction, but in force: he all but rapes both Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra. He is not attractive: even when he begins to grow younger, he’s described as cruel and animal-like, compared to bats, rats and wolves. His death, when it comes, is not a tragic release from a hellish existence, but a violent and bloody end that he fights every step of the way. He manages to corrupt even his complacent Victorian enemies, as they indulge in dark rites, crypt-robbing, violation and murder to rid the world of his presence. Dracula is not an anti-hero or a romantic figure; he’s the darkness at the heart of Victorian society.
Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror (1922)
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is the first proper cinematic tale of the vampiric undead, the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s work, and perhaps one of the few adaptations to do justice to the original character of the Count. Due to a lawsuit between Stoker’s estate (headed up by his widow) and the production company, the film was forced to change the names of the vampire and his victims. Dracula becomes Count Orlok, Harker becomes Hutter and Mina becomes Ellen. But there’s not a shadow of a doubt that Nosferatu is a Dracula adaptation. The plot, the characterization, and the political and sexual undercurrents are all well in keeping with Stoker’s original vision.
The centerpiece of the narrative is Max Schreck’s Orlok – his long curved nose, sharp incisors, pointed ears and long fingernails are all a part of cinematic legend. Murnau’s film takes the notion of invasion and disease (an undercurrent in Stoker’s novel) and instills it in the physical being of Orlok. Orlok arrives like a pestilence, his shadow extending over the countryside, leaving death in his wake. His shadow stretches and grasps at the hearts of young women, infecting them. His physical appearance recalls rats, but also contains vaguely racial undertones (the film has been criticized for giving Orlok stereotypically Jewish features). He’s defeated not by a combination of intellects and brute force, but by the love of one woman.
In order to save her husband – and by extension the entire country – Ellen gives herself to Orlok, offering up her throat as sacrifice. Attracted to her purity and beauty, Orlok cannot resist her. She keeps him in her bedroom until the sun comes up and Orlok crumbles into dust. It’s a pathetically sublime moment as Schreck writhes into nothingness, his death symbolic of the death of disease and the ultimate sacrifice of a selfless woman. With shades of German Romanticism cascading over the film, Nosferatu’s Expressionist appearance brings the Gothic into cinema and Dracula onto the screen.
If Nosferatu seemed an inauguration of the vampire as diseased corpse, it was short-lived. Dracula remained cinematically dormant for almost ten years following Nosferatu and Mrs. Stoker’s subsequent attempts to get the entire film suppressed for copyright violation. Then John Balderston and Hamilton Deane had the opportunity to turn the novel into a play, and did so with Dracula in 1927. It was here that the Count transformed from a disease-ridden monster into the foreign lover who offers all the seduction of death.
Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula came on the heels of Lugosi’s appearance in the stage version of Dracula, on which the film was largely based. Balderston and Deane created a sort of social psycho-drama out of Stoker’s more kinetic Count, giving Dracula the space to flow in and out of the drawing-room rather than the crypt. Lugosi’s Hungarian accent and dark good looks made him perfect for the cinema: he was Rudolph Valentino with fangs. Dracula here is a foreign aristocrat seducing wispy London maidens, this time in the present day. Browning’s Dracula takes the notion of plague, pestilence and whispers of racism and folds them into an attractive package. Dracula is a seducer, not a rapist, enfolding and engulfing in his black opera cape.
Lugosi’s portrayal combines the stylization of Expressionism and romantic notions of the foreign aristocrat. This translates into sexual attraction and the dissipation of the Other. Lucy Weston dreams of a dark Gothic castle and mysterious lover; the Count subsequently breaks into her bedroom and drinks her blood. We never see the actual act of biting – it is as though penetration is sexual act, and the scene fades out before the audience can see it.
The 1931 Dracula might look dated now, but we must remember that it’s one of the first talking monster movies produced by Universal, alongside Frankenstein and The Mummy. Lugosi’s stilted speech was a result of a combination of his own thick accent, the necessities of early sound films, and extreme stylization, giving Dracula a halting and otherworldly intonation, as though he’s not used to talking to living people. Borrowing Expressionist elements from films like Nosferatu, Browning created an attractive vision of the living dead.
The Horror of Dracula (1958)
After Lugosi, not much happened to old Drac for about twenty years or so. In fact, the titular monster slowly began to transform into a figure of fun. Lugosi only played Dracula in two films, Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. His performance was so iconic that it inspired a slew of imitators, including semi-sequels Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula, all of which have almost nothing to do with the actual vampire. The notion of the attractive aristocratic vampire was ingrained in the culture. Yet for all that his ubiquity, Dracula wasn’t much of cinematic force. He would not really return properly until the mid-1950s, thanks to Britain’s Hammer Studios.
Dracula came back with a vengeance in 1958’s The Horror of Dracula (or just Dracula, depending on who you ask). It’s a rehashing of the basic Dracula narrative: Harker’s arrival at Castle Dracula, the Count preying on lovely Victorian damsels, and the face-off between Dracula and his superb nemesis Van Helsing (played to perfection by Peter Cushing). While there are some notable differences between the film, the 1931 version and the novel, the plot is essentially the same, giving Van Helsing a major role in the destruction of the nasty vampire.
What sets The Horror of Dracula apart from the 1931 film is the indulgence in blood and bodices. The film was so explicit that it earned an X rating in Britain. The connection between vampirism and sadistic sexuality comes to the front, no longer subsumed under fade-outs or whispered implications. The Horror of Dracula makes Dracula a powerful and sexual monster. As played by Christopher Lee – back then a very tall, very handsome young man, even with red contacts – Dracula’s attacks on both Lucy and Mina are more explicitly comparable to intercourse. The Horror of Dracula touches on Stoker’s thematics in a more direct way than ever before, combining the urbane charm of Lugosi’s portrayal with the violence/violation motifs present in the novel itself.
Lee and Cushing would appear in a handful of increasingly more bizarre and explicit Dracula features for Hammer Studios, including Taste the Blood of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, and Dracula A.D. 1972. By the time the late 70s rolled around, Dracula had gone back to being a caricature and the films an excuse for gyrating breasts and buckets of blood. Hammer succeeded, however, in establishing the Count as a force of violence and malevolence; he’s not someone to be pitied or sympathized with. Dracula is evil, and evil he shall remain.
Until, that is, the advent of disco.
Browning’s 1931 Dracula hints at the vampire as a semi-tragic or romantic figure, giving Lugosi a short but poignant speech about how wonderful it must be to be truly dead. But it never makes him into aught but a monster, and Lee’s performance solidified the attractive but unsympathetic evil. Then Frank Langella came along.
If Lugosi imbued Dracula with a hint of romantic tragedy, Langella went full frontal in Dracula (1979). His Dracula is no longer a monster, but a Byronic hero much closer to Lord Ruthven, complete with feathered hair and unbuttoned shirt. He sweeps into frame with eyes already glowing in passion, and climbs through Mina’s window like a dark knight. The film looks like an Evanescence music video, full of Gothic corridors and heaving bodices, as Dracula meets, seduces and falls in love with Lucy Seward. The romance is the focus of the film, right down to the disco-style love scene as Dracula sweeps into Lucy’s bedroom. Their love is a tragic romance, not a tale of terror.
While it’s easy to make fun of the over-stylization of Langella’s performance in Dracula, the film is the final transformation of the character from otherworld monster to tragic lover. Dracula finds solace with Lucy; he falls for her, and more than once he intimates a horror at himself and what he must do to survive. He is the monster in need of saving by the love of a woman; Lucy longs to join him in his torture. Their Gothic romance is consumptive and passionate; even Dracula’s destruction has a sort of sexual release to it, and the film promises that Lucy will carry on his diabolical work and join her lover in the great beyond.
Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (1979)
If Langella was not enough to make Dracula into the romantic and tragic figure, even Nosferatu had its own kind of transformation.
1979 seemed a year for Dracula remakes. Werner Herzog took on a remake of Murnau’s Nosferatu, giving it the subtitle Phantom of the Night, and the lead role to his favorite actor Klaus Kinski. The plot follows the same trajectory of the original Nosferatu, as Harker travels to Transylvania and brings back Dracula. In many ways simply an excellent remake of the original silent film, Herzog’s Nosferatu evinces even more sympathy with the monster.
Kinski’s performance as Dracula mirrors Max Schrek’s in appearance – the long fingernails, pointed teeth, bald head and hairy ears – but imbues the character with far more tragic sympathy. Kinski’s version is indeed a walking corpse, but the film is also a romance, a love story between the hideous monster and the beautiful woman. Dracula is distracted by Lucy’s purity, inspired by her beauty. Kinski plays Dracula as a sympathetic if undead creature, longing for love he can never obtain except through force. He’s cut off from human interaction, but he deeply desires it. He wants to be loved, and knows he never can be.
While Murnau’s film hinted at these elements within the Dracula character, Herzog’s remake highlights a sympathetic (if still horrible) monster. His monstrosity is a compulsion – he cannot stop living, but he truly wants to die. Dracula sacrifices himself to Lucy’s salvation; he joins for a moment with pure love and is released from a terrible existence. His death seems more a relief than a vanquishing of evil.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Dracula (1979) would have been the nail in the monster’s coffin, but you can’t keep a good vampire down. Francis Ford Coppola’s poorly named Bram Stoker’s Dracula completed Dracula’s transformation from consumptive monster to tragic lover. After losing his beloved wife to suicide, Dracula rejects the Catholic Church that tells him she’s damned for all eternity. He stabs a cross, drinks the blood that flows from it, and … I guess becomes a vampire. As ludicrous as the opening sequence might appear – and it is ludicrous – this new equation of Dracula as a vengeful martyr on the altar of love is the same tragic vampire narrative that comes back again and again into the future. He’s not bad; the Church made him that way.
There’s no doubt that large swathes of the film are pulled directly from the book, from characterization to dialogue, and certainly it is a film that comes closest in plot details to Stoker’s original work. However, there the resemblance between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Bram Stoker’s Dracula ends. Coppola could not resist keeping Drac a tortured lover, his evil created not by himself but by his abuse by the Church. Van Helsing (played with remarkable insanity by Anthony Hopkins) is himself a reincarnation of a churchman who angered Dracula in the first place. Even beyond the problems of adaptation, the film is a royal mess that never quite decides on its tone, shifting from surreal fantasy to romance to horror and, in one memorable and largely pointless sequence, near-pornography.
Still, much credit must be given to Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula. His Count is both the diseased corpse of Nosferatu and the urbane gentleman of Lugosi and Langella. He’s associated with blood disease – there are some uncomfortable parallels with the AIDS crisis – and comes back onto the screen as an elegant corpse, decayed but still walking. By the time he’s reached England, Dracula has absorbed enough new blood to transform into a dashing gentleman, and it is in this guise that he seduces Mina and rapes Lucy. He unites all the concerns of the previous films into one massive, end-all vampire: a tragic hero, a lover, a villain, a murderer, a seducer, a rapist, a corpse. Bram Stoker’s Dracula might have little to do with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it serves as the ultimate representation of our favorite Count.
The Future of Dracula
One might almost have hoped that Oldman would be the last word in Dracula performances. Alas, it was not to be. Dracula has returned in various guises, all of them increasingly camptacular. He was pretty much Judas incarnate in Dracula 2000, and a shrieking over-actor in Van Helsing. A number of ‘true’ tales of Vlad Dracule have popped up, most them highly fictionalized. Contemporary vampire stories like True Blood and Twilight have the Count to thank for 3/4s of their lore. Most recently we can see Dracula in Dario Argento’s Hammer-inspired Dracula 3D, though even that has received paltry reviews and confused glares.
Now NBC has a new and bloody version of our favorite Count hitting the airwaves with a limited series Dracula, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. While we’ve yet to enjoy the first episode (that’ll hit on October 25), the trailers and clips have given us far more the dashing gentleman with a taste for blood than the walking cadaver that Stoker wrote. Rhys Meyers’s Count will pose as an American businessman seeking vengeance for the death of his wife centuries before. There will be sex, vengeance and fangs. In other words, this bears no resemblance to Stoker’s creation, but a resounding one to Coppola’s.
Stoker’a Dracula was an ancient evil who destroys and corrupts, but has no need for seduction. Dracula is sexual, but it is a sick sexuality, and it is centered on the violation of the female characters, not the mad-hot Count. Dracula has now been fully transformed into the romantic figure of darkness, a tortured vampire who’s not really so very evil. The Count is a cliché, a Halloween costume, and on-screen iterations have entirely stripped him of what horror he once possessed. At best he’s a romantic figure set up for indulgence in sex and blood. Stoker held up a monster that was a reflection of the dark underbelly of his society. Over the years, it’s amazing how quickly they de-fanged him.
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