How did Dracula go from a terrifying, nightmarish figure to a romantic, tragic one? We trace his evolution.

Feature

David Crow

Feb 13, 2018

He’ll be back. Like a particularly nasty pair of puncture marks (or other skin irritants spread by oral infection), the mysterious and most illustrious of vampires can never be hidden away for long. And why should he be? It is he who served the cross, he who commanded nations hundreds of years before you were born! Does anybody really think a mediocre Stephen Sommers or “untold” origin story would be the last we would see of the good Count?

Indeed, recent iterations of the character have vanished in a red mist, yet followers of the iconic fictional fiend can never forget the basics. A Carpathian serpent and tragic figure descended from Transylvanian royalty, Dracula has cut a bloody path across pop culture with his fangs, appetites, and image as a Byronic hero in the same bloodless vein as Heathcliff or Lord Rochester. He may be a monster, but he is a lovelorn one who is often seeking the reincarnated soul of his lost love from centuries past.

Oh, if only author Bram Stoker could see what became of his creation—I bet he would drive the stake through it himself.

Dracula was never meant to be seductive, much less romantic. Often described as a demon and a creature of darkness throughout Stoker’s original 1897 novel, it could be said that the greatest trick this devil ever played was convincing popular culture that he is the hero of his own story. How did that happen? The immediate impulse for some disgruntled fans would likely be to blame Stephenie Meyer or the latest vampire fad, which is already beginning to wither in the harsh sun. However, the truth goes back much further and deeper than that. I would even daresay that nobody has ever truly attempted an adaptation of the unholy beast conjured up in Stoker’s original mind. Rather, all have preferred in varying degrees the Count’s bleeding heart, which is now little more than a flutter.

An oft-retold myth about the original literary Dracula is that he is based on Vlad Tepes, aka the Wallachian Prince who had a bit of a fetish for sharp wooden trees going into his enemies’ flanks. Sadly, the truth is more bloodless. Stoker was already deep into writing his vampire novel when he came across the story of Prince Vlad and the Order of the Dragon. Originally called “Count Wampyr,” the biggest influence Vlad III had on Stoker’s vision of vampirism lay in a few dropped lines about his warlike past to protagonist Jonathan Harker early in the story, which also coincidentally is the only portion of the book that the Undead monster is prominently featured.

Despite being titled Dracula, I would conservatively estimate the Count appears in less than 20 percent of the actual narrative, which is primarily an allegory for all that haunts white, educated men’s dreams in the twilight of the British Empire. Consider that Stoker supposedly gained his inspiration for the story after he dreamed of being nearly seduced and eaten alive by comely succubi (perhaps he read Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 cautionary lesbian-vampire tale Carmilla once too often?). This striking nightmare served as one of the most iconic sequences in the novel, and also its only passing flirtation with the eroticism (or “love”) often now attributed to his book.

The rest of the novel deals with far more complex issues, such as the role of careerist women in English society, an issue that Stoker comes out somewhat progressive on for his time. It also contemplates the wonders of technological progress during a time of immigration from Eastern Europe, of which the book’s implicit xenophobia has not aged quite as well. Yet, on the issue of sexuality, there is no mistaking what Dracula is: A monster of wanton destruction. His subsequent attacks on virginal Lucy Westenra (Latin for “Light of the West”) and eventually Mina Harker are vicious, cruel and ultimately akin to rape, particularly when he physically forces Mina, in her husband’s bed, to put her mouth to an open wound in chest from which blood pours. Gone with the Wind, this ain’t.

Yet, today I would venture that Dracula and Mina are as synonymous with Gothic romance as Erik (the Phantom) and Christine Daée of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. This is mostly due to the fact that the domestication of vampirism began long before Edward Cullen glittered onto the scene.

The first attempt to turn Dracula into a cinematic force, ironically, is the only to take from Stoker’s ideas. While F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is one of the crowning achievements of German Expressionism, it is also rooted in the Gaelic mythology around the vampire from which Stoker drew liberally. The vampire is not a creature of the night: He is a creature of death.

Throughout Stoker’s book, Dracula is never anything less than a corpse. While he originally appears as bald, decrepit, and a man in need of a shave for his long moustache (and his even hairier palms), his Benjamin Button-like ability to grow younger does little to change his red-eyed dead looks. Similarly, Nosferatu’s Count Orlock is a walking cadaver, a corpse who is closer to a rat than human after so many centuries of decomposition. The rat, one of Dracula’s many literary forms of transformation (which also includes the bat, the wolf and the night’s fog) becomes his ultimate ideal in the German film when his appearance brings plague to German shores.

This fidelity, if at least to the fiend’s appearance, is truly a star-crossed twist of fate, as all but one print of Nosferatu was destroyed following a copyright lawsuit filed by Stoker’s widow who viewed the unauthorized adaptation as anything but flattering. And so it would be from that moment on that the popular image of Dracula would come to be defined by four specific adaptations.

Yes, for clarity’s sake, I am going to risk angering the B-movie gods by stating that there have been only four interpretations of the character Dracula that have had a lasting impact on our collective imagination. This is not to say that there have not been a variety of interpretations and takes on the character worth evaluating, as Tony Sokol did wonderfully with this article. However, there are only a few that each generation tends to cling to as “theirs.” And those are the ones that have unsurprisingly had the most impact; the ones that are still felt today.

The most obvious, not to mention influential, of these caped zeitgeists is Bela Lugosi, the man who’s bite on the character still leaves a mark. The tight, malevolent smile; the alluring eyes hiding the flames of Hell; the practiced and mannered English, all accompanied by his formal evening wear, he IS Dracula. At least as how we imagine him. This iconography is in large part thanks to a play that predated his performance: Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s Dracula (1924) was little more than a touring Vaudeville production in England, which for convenience’s sake turned Dracula into a parlor room mystery with the count attired in the traditional cape of theatrical villainy. Yet, Lugosi gave it something more when it became a glitzy Broadway production in 1927. He gave it sex.

Reportedly, women would come to Fulton Theatre to swoon at Lugosi’s exotic voice and precise movements. Apparently, one to love an audience, Lugosi took great satisfaction in the effect he had over the women, as did Hollywood when they immediately invited him to California after the production closed (though he would not be offered the part of Dracula on film until Lon Chaney Sr. died). This culminated in Tod Browning’s 1931 horror show, Dracula.

Little of the plot, or even characterizations, remains from Stoker’s book. But what is lost in those details is made up for in atmosphere. Borrowing heavily from the Germans, Browning (or cinematographer Karl Freund, according to the cast) breathed a truly haunted affect upon their audience in the movie’s first act set in Transylvania.

Watch Dracula (1931) on Amazon

As Hollywood’s first talkie supernatural creature, American audiences as a whole either trembled with fear or titillation from Lugosi’s labored delivery in those early sequences (supposedly he originally learned the part in New York phonetically). Even after the film takes a nosedive in quality once Dracula and the wonderfully demented Renfield reach English shores, the movie still soars whenever Lugosi makes eyes at Lucy, Mina or that creepily underage flower girl on the side of the street.

While timid self-censorship ensured that Dracula would never be seen putting tooth to flesh, his predatory sexuality was even more explicit than it ever was in the novel. Stranger still, it was presented in a way that audiences could find desirable. In the right light. But that is just icky…

Despite a number of low budget imitators reaching for Lugosi’s crown in the following decades—including Universal giving it a play themselves with John Carradine as Dracula in the Avengers-esque WWII monster mashes where the vampire butts heads with Frankenstein’s monster or the Wolf Man at various points—nobody really left a mark, much less two, on pop culture’s throat. At least not until British studio Hammer Film Productions decided enough time had passed that they could color in their own variation on the Stoker classic.

Horror of Dracula (1958) is a wonderfully lurid B-movie that likely would have been destined for obscure trivia if not for director Terence Fisher’s sharp eye for shiny horror and even sharper casting. With a cast of once-and-future respected thespians like Peter Cushing as the heroic vampire hunter Professor Abraham Van Helsing and Michael Gough as the dithering Arthur Holmwood, the picture already would have worked no matter who played the monster. Fortunately, they still got Christopher Lee, who remains to date the only potential contender for Lugosi’s supremacy.

Watch Horror of Dracula on Amazon

An Oxford and Wellington College scholar, a World War II veteran and a distant relative of Ian Fleming, Christopher Lee is a far cry from the likeness of the Hungarian actor he succeeded in the role of Dracula. However, Hammer worked mightily in joining the two by giving Lee Lugosi’s cape, as well as his well-groomed etiquette. But Lee, a student of the classics (as well as an enthusiast for things occult), preferred pulling in theory more stringently from Stoker. His Dracula was mean, violent and treated his victims like the cattle that they were.

Nonetheless, under the shockingly bright color palate of the Hammer films (all the better to accentuate the red splatters), Lee’s classical approach was forcibly evolved (or undermined) by something vital to Hammer’s mostly teenage male audience: Nubile young victims. If Stoker viewed the vampire as a metaphor for the destructive power of sexuality (saintly women once bitten would turn into fallen street-walking angels), and Lugosi’s hand gestures made theatergoing female patrons swoon, Lee would give boys something to gaggle over as well when Dracula’s mere presence would send the countless, buxom young peasant women into frenzied ecstasy. One need not be Freud to take an educated guess at what the image below could be construed as by both genders of an audience on the cusp of the sexual revolution.

Indeed, by the end of Lee’s nine(!) film run as the Count in 1973, his victims were little more than promiscuous one-night stands; the Dracula girls that EON passed on for their 007 adventures. Dracula was still pure evil incarnate, but eventually it felt as if the writers did protest too much. Seeing Dracula punished for his diminishing crimes was like witnessing the last visage of Victorian restraint clinging to its crucifix.

In a world that had moved well past Woodstock, such square morality was as unhip to audiences as Van Helsing’s unending Bible thumping. In the “Me Decade,” audiences were ready for a Dracula that didn’t apologize after sticking his fangs in. In fact, when you turn your head just right, there is even something sweet about the old, awkward loner who always comes calling in his Sunday best…

Watch Dracula A.D. 1972 on Amazon

When Frank Langella took on the Broadway role of Dracula in 1977, the times were a-changin’. Besides the aforementioned shift in view about the “evils” of promiscuity, even vampires were actually becoming pretty decent folk when you opened a bottle of O-Negative and got to know them. The year prior to the second and last time Dracula would cross the Great White Way as a play, Anne Rice saw her first novel published: Interview with the Vampire. Suddenly the walking dead of European folklore were pretty, pretty young men who were just…like so totally misunderstood. While Rice’s Lestat is French, what he really might be is a Dracula in touch with his feelings. Yeah.

Hence when Langella and company dusted off the old Dean and Balderston play, the basis for the Lugosi film, it was done with a sense of camp and irony. If Lugosi’s magnetism packed the house, Langella’s easy-going smile and bare-chested V-shirts had them lined out the door and around the block.

It’s no surprise that Hollywood came calling too with Universal ultimately remaking the play a second time in 1979 with Langella as the undead gentleman and Sir Laurence Olivier as the entirely unreasonable Van Helsing. Director John Badham (mistakenly) left out the kitschiness of Langella’s stage production and instead drowned his movie in harlequin melodrama. The final flick is a wild mismatch of Grand Guignol horror for whenever Dracula is in “murder mode,” and proper period piece romance when he’s Mr. Darcy with fangs the rest of the time.

In previous adaptations, Jonathan Harker had never exactly been cast as a strong presence. In spite of being Stoker’s romantic hero (though frequently overshadowed by his exceptional wife and the good professor), Harker’s always found himself upstaged by an unwanted rival onscreen. In 1979, that rival became anything but unwanted. Instead of being a love story about the matinee idols overcoming the temptation of a foreign evil, Dracula was now a love triangle, and the sad truth is that Harker never stands a chance.

For most of Langella’s charismatic screentime, he wears the Hell out of that tux, particularly when he comes to woo Lucy (Kate Nelligan), who has replaced Mina as the female lead, in a sequence so steamy that fog machines are inexplicably present throughout. Dracula takes a willing and un-hypnotized Lucy in a kaleidoscopic love scene ridiculously underscored by the rarest of things: A misjudged John Williams score.

Unfortunately, the movie is a muddled mess that wants to be both scary and romantic, but it is clear that when Van Helsing kills Dracula, the last place Lucy wants is to be is in Jonathan’s arms. Not when she is watching with wistful longing the “dead” Dracula’s cape drift in the morning dew. Bedham later said it was because she knew that she was pregnant with the vampire’s baby. Now THAT would be a sequel to the Dracula story worth exploring!

Watch Dracula (1979) on Amazon

The same year of Langella’s Dracula came Love at First Bite, which was a far more successful romance, albeit a comedic one, that pitted George Hamilton as Dracula in modern New York where he sweeps working gal Susan Saint James off her feet. Whether played for yucks or dreams, it was all a laugh when Dracula, still wearing Lugosi’s cape, became a romantic fantasy. Would it be too much to ask for a good one?

With pop culture finally leaving the “Universal pantheon” in the past after Hammer died out, the 1980s went relatively Dracula free (save for supporting schtick like in Monster Squad). Curiously, the mutual fantasy of the vampire seducing young starlets to Hellifre had been replaced by the entirely frustrated male gratification of a masked killer skewering naked young things with machetes, kitchen knives and other pointy objects. By the early ‘90s, vampires, werewolves, and mummies were mostly the realm of Scooby-Doo TV specials, making it all the odder when Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, volunteered to make a Dracula picture.

Coppola had hit a rough spot by 1992. After some questionable business (and artistic) decisions over the last decade, the American auteur found himself in the single last place he wanted to be: Making The Godfather Part III. As the sequel nobody truly wanted, even audiences, the 1990 film helped save Coppola’s American Zoetrope production company from bankruptcy, but did not exactly leave him in a strong financial position. And the less said about the last-minute casting of his daughter, Sofia Coppola, in the crucial role of Mary Corleone the better.

However, it did prove Coppola’s good geniality when he didn’t hold that fiasco against the young starlet who dropped out of the role so close to production, one Ms. Winona Ryder. Already an audience darling for off-color comedies, many of them directed by Tim Burton, Ryder was looking for her first “adult” part in a transition to movie stardom. She found it in a script intended for television (the current realm of Transylvania), titled Dracula.

Written by James V. Hart (Hook), the would-be teleplay re-imagined Bram Stoker’s novel as an epic love story between the Count and Mina Murray/Harker. And as luck would have it, Coppola grew up reading the Stoker novel many, many times as a camp counselor. The director saw the film as an opportunity to have a mainstream hit, as well as the chance to return to Stoker’s text with more reverence than any filmmaker before him.

Indeed, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) would be the first theatrical film to actually include the book’s third act of a Western-like chase across continental Europe that returned the narrative to the Count’s snowy home for a climactic showdown. Also, it would be the only film version to include all three major suitors of Lucy (Arthur Holmwood, Jack Seward, and American Quincy P. Morris for those keeping track).

He would explore most of the subtexts of the book via the dawning of the technological 20th century versus old world mysticism and the fear of sexual diseases in a more progressive time. His Dracula, like the book’s iteration, could even walk in the sunlight! How strange it is then that his movie, with the original author’s moniker no less, would be the one to most drastically and permanently carry the Count away from his literary roots.

The one aspect that stemmed more from Hart’s script and Ryder’s wishes that Coppola’s vision, the romance, would become the defining aspect of the film, which was marketed as “Love Never Dies.” As portrayed by Gary Oldman and Ryder, Dracula and Mina were star-crossed lovers cheated by history and circumstance on the level of the Capulets and Montagues. Before she was Mina, she was Elizabeta, the real-life wife of Vlad III who committed suicide by throwing herself in a river that to this day is still called Râul Doamnei (The Lady’s River).

Watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula on Amazon

In history, she did this because she thought she was to be captured and raped, but in the film it is because she has been falsely told of her beloved prince’s death. When Vlad is then informed that his bride will roast in Hell for taking her own life, he angrily renounces God and sells his soul to Satan by drinking the blood of a Holy Roman Cross that he pierces with his sword. It’s all very Italian.

These changes created two drastic influences on the image of Dracula in our culture: First, he IS Vlad the Impaler made immortal, and second, he did it all for love. Coppola’s film successfully attempts to be a ghoulish erotic nightmare, which would have made real Victorians faces turn red. The implication of sex becomes explicit, and the Hollywood vampire trope has never been more lurid.

Yet, even if this is the sole Hollywood Dracula to feed a crying baby to his ravenous naked brides, this is also the first to view him as a romantic anti-hero. Reworked as a muddled personification of Coppola’s views on Catholic Church hypocrisy, Dracula is a victim of religion and love, which nearly excuses him doing the most evil things of any big screen iteration. This Dracula is indeed an old man turned young (when he isn’t molesting Lucy in werewolf form), but he is a handsome, vivacious young man who never once dons a cape. He instead prefers flowing long hair to Lugosi’s widow’s peak, and a charming accent.

Oldman plays this Dracula as a monster, but one who was betrayed by the Church he swore to protect, and thus somewhat justified in his crimes. This message is softened when Van Helsing (Sir Anthony Hopkins) proves to be as ruthless as the Undead in his killing of vampire Lucy and later the brides. Also, when Jonathan Harker is again cast as a block of wood, this time via Keanu Reeves with the best-worst English accent ever, it is somewhat understandable that Mina would be conflicted when she willingly drinks from Vlad’s gushing chest.

The result is a luscious and staggeringly well made movie with a rather conflicted center. The end of the film is both Stoker’s “kill the beast” and a tragic conclusion to Vlad and Elizabeta’s tale. Mina still loves Jonathan, but she cannot help but passionately kiss Dracula goodbye when she fondly decapitates him under the sight of God and on the altar of a church. Again…it’s Italian.

The mixed messages of the film still don’t make too much sense, but Coppola had the last laugh. Written off in the trades as another blunder (“Bonfire of the Vampires” was Variety’s turn of phrase), Bram Stoker’s Dracula became the biggest horror movie of 1992 and a bonafide hit. This was propelled by stunning cinematography, costumes, music and special effects rooted in Vaudeville stagecraft, which seemed eerily creepy and skin-crawling in a modern film. And at the center of it all was a raucous Oldman, cutting through the frames in crimson-red robes, funny wigs, and decidedly sweet tears. Forevermore Dracula would be a creature of romantic tragedy and never quite so evil.

There has not been a Dracula film or show that has captured the imagination of audiences quite like that one in the last 21 years, though many have tried. Oldman, along with Lee and Lugosi, has generationally defined the (now) good demon. Consider that when Broadway did attempt another Dracula production in 2004, this time as a musical, it was one where Dracula longed for his long-lost reincarnated love, Mina Harker. It flopped in New York, but has since become a hit on European stages.

When Wes Craven slapped his name on an utterly forgettable Scream-ized Dracula 2000 with Gerard Butler (the future Phantom of the Opera), it was again a love story that brought the vampire and Mina together, albeit in an even more Biblically confused plot. Hell and damnation, when the Stoker family finally cashed-in with the “official sequel” novel Dracula The Undead (2009) by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, it was entirely conceived as a sequel to Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where the Count is even more of a romantic victim who killed no one—it was Elizabeth Bathóry all along! Dracula instead teams up with Mina, the love of his life, to kill the witch after she proves Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing are nothing more than perverted alcoholics easily seduced into vampirism. Seriously Dacre, do you hate your great-great-grand-uncle that much?

The truth is that Dracula has evolved with the times, because we never truly want to view ourselves as Victorian. For that reason, it is unlikely that he will ever be portrayed as a true monster, save for in crappy comic book movies like Blade Trinity (2004) and Van Helsing (2004). To adapt the entity of literature would mean making the humans the main characters and the titular brand a rarely-glimpsed freak. In the age of the Geek [looks around website], the freak is the far more interesting protagonist.

Ever since Anne Rice humanized the archetype, the vampire is not really seen as an Other, but as an outsider. By virtue of being different, we as a culture find one more intriguing, at least narratively. Further, the sexuality infused into the vampire myth, primarily by Stoker and Victorian contemporaries like Le Fanu, is no longer viewed as dangerous save from certain political and religious groups.

If the vampire is a metaphor for sex, then why should they be viewed as monstrous? And if we’re going there, why not talk about love as well? After all, Dracula has been nothing but a tall dark stranger since Lugosi first glared. Ironically, the most popular vampire story of the moment, Twilight, is the only one to embrace that original Puritanism by equating “abstinence is good” to “vampires are bad.” But as Dracula has yet to be co-opted by a Mormon author, that approach is likely getting nowhere near this tale anytime soon.

The Victorian values that created one of English fiction’s great villains are gone, and we really don’t have a need for pure evil anymore. Ambiguity is far more interesting than absolutes in fiction and in a world where even zombies are getting anti-hero makeovers, you’d have a better chance of becoming an actual vampire than to stop Dracula’s bleeding heart from growing 10 more sizes too big.

***This article was first published Oct. 24, 2013.