Friday, October 30, 2015

Ranking the Dracula Film Adaptations

According to Guinness World Records, Dracula is the most portrayed literary character on film. As of 2012 he has appeared in 272 films. Of course, since then he has appeared in a few more. Some of the films in which Dracula has appeared have actually been adaptations of the original novel, Dracula by Bram Stoker. I rather suspect everyone has their favourite adaptation of the novel, and as someone who has read the book several times I am no different. I then thought it would be fun to rank what I consider the major adaptations of Dracula in order from best to worst.

Here I have to say that for obvious reasons I have only included movies that I have personally seen. I also have to say that I am only including theatrical releases. No television movies are included in this list. As much as I love Dan Curtis's excellent 1973 TV movie Bram Stoker's Dracula (which starred Jack Palance in the title role), it's not included on this list for that reason. Finally I am only including films that sought to adapt Bram Stoker's original novel, even though all of them strayed from it in some way, shape, or form. For that reason films that feature Dracula but aren't really adaptations of the novel (Universal's Son of Dracula, Hammer's Dracula: Prince of Darkness, et. al.) are not included.

Without further ado, here are eight adaptations of Dracula from the best to the worst.

1. Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922):  Nosferatu is the oldest surviving adaptation of the novel and was possibly the first film adaptation as well (there are reports of a 1920 Russian film Drakula, but its very existence has been questioned). It was also an unauthorised adaptation of the novel. The names of the characters were changed (Dracula became Orlok, Joanthan Harker became Thomas Hutter, and so on) and the bulk of the plot was moved from England to Germany, but it is still very recognisable as Dracula. In fact, it was so recognisable as Dracula that Bram Stoker's widow, Florence Stoker, was able to sue for copyright infringement and win.

While Nosferatu was a fairly blatant act of plagiarism, in my opinion it also remains the best Dracula adaptation ever filmed. Although the film is often counted as an example of German Expressionism, Nosferatu is actually a very naturalistic film that used actual locations and in which the actors' performances were rather subdued.. At the same time F. W. Murnau gave the film a dream-like quality in the scenes in which Count Orlok appears. This blend of naturalism and fantasy resulted in a film that was much more frightening than if it had been a purely Expressionistic film.

2. Dracula (1958--released in the United States as Horror of Dracula): In 1957 Hammer Films released The Curse of Frankenstein, a colour adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. The Curse of Frankenstein proved to be a hit, so they followed it with their own adaptation of Dracula. Dracula (1958) was the first colour adaptation of the novel. As if this was not enough to set it apart from previous adaptations of the novel, Dracula (1958) featured a good deal of blood (in glorious Eastman Colour at that) and a strong current of sexuality that ran throughout the film.

Aside from being different from any adaptation of Dracula released before it, Dracula (1958) also boasted impressive production values despite its moderate budget. Along with The Curse of Frakenstein, Dracula (1958) established the look of Hammer Films that include lush colours, lavish sets, and on location shooting. The film also featured the debut of the actor I consider the quintessential Dracula in the role. As Dracula, Sir Christopher Lee could be menacing, intimidating, sensual, and charming all at the same time. He would go on to play the role seven more times.

3.   Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979--released in the English speaking world as Nosferatu the Vampyre): Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) is essentially a remake of and an homage to Nosfeartu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Quite naturally this makes it an adaptation of Dracula as well. Like the original Nosferatu, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht moved the action of the novel from England to Germany. Unlike the original Nosferatu, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht retained the names of the characters from the novel: Count Dracula instead of Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker instead of Thomas Hutter, and so on.

So often remakes of beloved classics turn out to be bitter disappointments, but this is not the case with Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht. The film boasts both impressive production design and a great music score. It also has an excellent script, which retains the horror of the original film, but at the same time expands the plot so that the characters are more developed (including Dracula). Klaus Kinski gave a great performance as Dracula, so much so that he should be considered one of the quintessential screen Draculas despite playing the role only once.

4. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992): In some respects Bram Stoker's Dracula is a much more faithful adaptation of Dracula than previous versions. It retains more elementa of the novel's original plot than many of the adaptations, which often veer from it dramatically. Indeed, it featured major characters from the novel (such as Quincey Morris) who almost never appear in film versions. In other ways it departs dramatically from the novel, particularly with regards to the portrayals of some of the characters.

Regardless, Bram Stoker's Dracula stands a remarkable achievement in bringing the often-adapted novel to the screen. The film has incredible production design, as well as impressive cinematography. It also has some impressive performances, particularly with regards to Gary Oldman in the title role. Here I feel have to defend Keanu Reeves in the film, whose casting as Jonathan Harker was much criticised. I will agree that Mr. Reeves's performance as Harker leaves much to be desired (he boasts one of the worst accents in movie history). That having been said, having read the novel repeatedly I can honestly say that Jonathan Harker is one of the blandest, most unremarkable characters in literary history. I'm not sure anyone can do very much with the role!

5. Dracula (1931--Spanish Language Version): In the early days of talkies the American studios often shot foreign language versions of their films, using the exact same sets as the English language version. In addition to an English language version, then, a film made in the early Sound Era might have a Spanish, French, German, or Italian version as well. This was the case with Universal's 1931 adaptation of Dracula. By day the English language version was shot. By night a Spanish version, with a different cast, was shot on the exact same sets. Long thought missing the Spanish version was rediscovered in the Seventies and restored. Since then there has been continuous debate among classic horror fans as to which is truly the better movie.

Personally, I think the Spanish version is the better of the two myself. It has much tighter editing than the English language version, as well as better use of camera angles and lighting. It also has much more interesting costumes. I think the cast is superior as well, with Lupita Tovar giving a more convincing performance than Helen Chandler in the same role. Now there are those who argue that the English language Dracula (1931) has a better Dracula, but I have to disagree there too. Granted Carlos Villarías looks a bit like an evil Carl Reiner, but his performance is much more subdued than that of Bela Lugosi (more on that in a bit). The Spanish version of Dracula does have some problems. It does tend to drag, but that is also a flaw shared with the English version as well.

6. Dracula (1931): Universal Pictures' 1931 adaptation of Dracula is for many the quintessential film version of the novel. There are some fairly good reasons for that. It was the first sound version of the novel in the English language, and it was also very successful at the box office. Its success would spark a cycle towards horror films that lasted until 1936 and produced such classics as Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Freaks  (1932) King Kong (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It also helped established Universal as the best known maker of horror movies until Hammer Films emerged in the Fifties.

Dracula (1931) certainly did have a good cast. Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye gave particularly impressive performances as Professor Van Helsing and Renfield respectively. It also boasted some remarkable sets. The opening sequence in Transylvania and the climax of the film are impressive. Unfortunately Dracula also has quite a few flaws. Once the action moves to England the film begins to drag a great deal. It seems much more like a filmed stage play than an actual motion picture. And while many consider Bela Lugosi the quintessential Dracula, I've always thought his performance in Dracula (1931) was a bit too hammy and over the top. Bela Lugosi  would go on to give some truly great performances (including Tesla in The Return of the Vampire, who was Dracula in all but name, and Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). Regardless, Dracula (1931) had a huge impact that continues to be felt to this day.

7. Count Dracula (1970): Sir Christopher Lee starred in the title role in Count Dracula, but it was not a Hammer Film. Instead it was produced by independent film producer Harry Alan Towers and was directed by Jesús Franco. Count Dracula had a great cast in addition to Sir Christopher Lee. Harry Lom played Professor Van Helsing and Klau Kinski (who would go on to play Dracula himself) played Renfield. Count Dracula was much more loyal to the source material than most films. In fact, it is the first adaptation of the novel to feature the character of Quincey Morris. It even has Dracula beginning the film as an older man and then growing younger as he feeds on more and more blood, just as took place in the novel.

Unfortunately the film is flawed despite the great cast and loyalty to its source material. Made on a shoestring budget, the production values of Count Dracula are very low. The lavishness of other Dracula films (particularly the Hammer Films) is entirely missing . A more serious flaw is that the film does tend to drag at times, to the point that it can be heavy going. Regardless, fans of Sir Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, or the original novel will want to give it a look.

8. Dracula (1979): In 1977 Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston's stage version of Dracula was revived on Broadway. Starring Frank Langella in the title role, the revival of the play proved very successful. That success lead to Universal's 1979 adaptation of Dracula. Like the 1931 film version, the 1979 version drew heavily upon Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston's play.

Dracula (1979) boasts impressive production design and is among the most stylish of any of the adaptations of the novel. Frank Langella also gave an impressive performance as Dracula. Dracula (1979) had a very strong current of sexuality running through the film as well, more even than Hammer's 1958 adaptation. Unfortunately the film shares the flaw of the 1931 version of dragging severely in parts. Worse yet, at least one scene (if you have seen the movie you probably know the one I'm talking about) is so over the top that it not only makes it hard to take Dracula (1979) seriously, but it makes it blatantly clear the film was made in the Seventies. Dracula (1979) saw some success on VHS in the Eighties, but now seems to be nearly forgotten.

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