Sunday, October 30, 2005

Dracula on Film

Tomorrow eveining is Halloween, so I thought it would be fitting to talk about a sujbect pertinent to that holiday, namely the character known as Dracula as he has appeared on film. I am not going to discuss every single movie in which he has appeared, as that would take an entire book. But I will discuss the major releases.

It was in 1897 that Dracula by Bram Stoker was first published. The novel became a bestseller both in Britain and the United States. The novel was successful enough that it eventually made it to the stage. Stoker himself had hoped to bring the novel to the stage, but it would not be until after his death that Hamilton Deane would successfully adapt the book as a play. Debuting in London in 1924, the play was a success. Nonetheless, when it came to the United States in 1927 it was rewritten by American playwright John L. Balderston. Cast in the lead role in the American production was an actor named Bela Lugosi.

The play would have an enormous impact in shaping the public view of Dracula for years and was pivotal in Dracula as conceived in the Universal horror movies. But a movie adaptation of the play would not be the first film to feature Dracula. Instead it would be German director F.W. Murnau who would bring the legendary vampire to the big screen, although he had to skirt the law to do it. Released in 1922, Nosferatu was a very loose adaptation of the book featuring a vampire named Count Orlock (more or less Dracula under another name). It was also one of the greatest films ever based on the novel. Shot in striking black and white and influenced by both the Expressionist and Romantic Movements in art, the movie is simple, yet stunning to look at. It is also a fairly creepy movie. Rats seem to follow Orlok everywhere. In fact, Orlok's image is one of the creepiest in film history. Possessing pointed ears, fangs, and long fingernails, Orlok is not the romantic figure that Dracula would be portrayed as in later films. In creating Nosferatu Murnau openly plagiarised the novel Dracula, the movie following the plot of the book somewhat roughly. Bram Stoker's widow realised this and sued. She won the right to have all prints destroyed. Fortunately for horror fans everywhere, some prints survived.

Of course, the most famous film about Dracula is Universal's movie of the same name, released in 1931. The movie was based on Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston's play and even featured the star of the American production, Bela Lugosi. It proved to be one of the biggest box office draws of 1931 and started the entire cycle of horor films in the Thirites. Many today still regard it as a classic. As for myself, I am not so sure it has stood the test of time. It shows its stage origins all too well, often seeming like a play simply shot on film. This makes the movie somewhat static. There are times when very little action is taking place and times when the movie is rather talky. And while Bela Lugosi would forever become identified with the role, I don't think he did a terribly good job with it. At times he seems to overact to the point that the movie comes off as camp. This is particularly noticeable to me in the scene in which he tries to hypnotise Van Helsing. Regardless, Dracula would appear in many films produced by Universal over the years, from Son of Dracula to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

It was in 1958 that the next signficant Dracula film was released. Hammer Films had a huge success with their loose adaptation of Frankenstein. For their follow up they did a loose adaptation of Dracula. Called Dracula in Britiain and The Horror of Dracula in the United States, it was perhaps the first Dracula film shot in colour. What's more, it was the first Dracula film to bring sexuality to the forefront. As Count Dracula, Christopher Lee was simultaneously commanding and charming. One gets the feeling that he did not hynotise his female victims so much as overpower them with sheer animal magentism. Indeed, it features one of the sexiest scenes in a vampire film, one in which Dracula enters Lucy's bedroom. It was also one of the earliest vampire films in which blood is actually shown. While minimal by today's standards, the little splatters of blood in the 1958 version of Dracula were considered downright gory at the time. It is also one of the first films, if not the first, in which a vampire is burned by a crucifix. Despite its innovations, perhaps the movie's strongest point is its cast. Besides Christopher Lee as Dracula, there was Peter Cushing as Prof. Van Helsing. Intelligent, rational, calm, and collected, he is easily a match for the ancient vampire. Hammer would make many more Dracula films over the years, all but two starring Christopher Lee.

While Hammer's Dracula brought sexuality to the forefront, the 1979 Universal version of Dracula made it the centrepiece of the movie. In 1977 a new stage version of Dracula opened on Broadway, this time featuring Frank Langella as the count. This play differed from others in making the Count an openly sexual creature. The 1979 movie followed the play's lead. The film makes it clear that Dracula is irresistable to women. When Dracula makes his first appearance in the film, both Mina and Lucy virtually swoon over him. Indeed, the 1979 Dracula may be the first Dracula movie to feature a sex scene between Dracula and Mina! The film did poorly at the box office and received mixed reviews from the critics. Personally, I don't think the movie has ever gotten its due. While not a perfect film, it is a very good one. Frank Langella plays a marvelous Dracula, while Sir Laurence Oliver was a very good Van Helsing. The film also has some beautiful shots of various locations in England (where it was almost entirely shot).

So far most of the films I have discussed have departed from the novel a good deal. This is not the case with the 1992 film known variously as Bram Stoker's Dracula or more simply Dracula. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the movie stays loyal to the book for the most part, with but few changes. Indeed, it is the only Dracula movie I know of which features Quincy P. Morris (my favourite character in the book)! In my opinion Gary Oldham gave the quitessential performance as Dracula. He is not only romantic and sexy (as Frank Langella was) and commanding (as Christopher Lee was), but he is also dark, mysterious, and genuinely frightening. The film also benefits from Coppola's direction and some of the best editing in any vampire film. Sadly, it seems to me that Bram Stoker's Dracula has always been underrated. Critics did not give the movie its due and it did not do terribly well at the box office. I find that a shame, as it is perhaps the best Dracula movie outside of Nosferatu and the 1958 version of Dracula.

The novel Dracula entered the public domain on both sides of the Pond long ago. As a result anyone who wants to can make a Dracula movie. He has appeared in everything from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (one of my favourites) to clinkers like Dracula 2000. One thing is certain, the old Count will never stay off the silver screen for long.

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