Let us take a journey through some of the King of Vampire’s – Count Dracula’s most memorable film and television incarnations over the years.
In 1897, on the streets of London, a monster had been born. This monster would eventually extend his grasp out from Victorian England, growing stronger with each passing year, casting his shadow across the entire globe. This monster, of course, was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a fictional vampire introduced in his gothic novel published at the turn of the century. Stoker was not known as a literary master in his time, but in the chilling tale he had written, he had unwittingly created something immortal. For even today, over a century after Stoker’s death, Dracula has become a pop culture icon, and remains the most adapted literary character of all time. The Count, or sometimes the Prince, has appeared in theatrical productions, graphic novels, tabletop roleplaying games, movies, television series, books, video games, ballets, music and even a popular cereal brand. To go through all of them would take more time than any mortal human has; so, since we are none of us immortal creatures of the night here (hopefully), let us take a journey through some of the Count’s most memorable film and television incarnations over the years.
MAX SCHRECK, NOSFERATU (1922)
Ironically enough, one of the most critically acclaimed adaptations of the book was, as well as an iconic work of the German Expressionist silent film movement, a piece of extreme copyright infringement. Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, sued the director, F.W. Murnau for his blatant plagiarism; and after her victory, all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Luckily for us, several bootleg copies survived—for while F.W. Murnau may not have been an expert on citing his sources and paying the appropriate dues, he is not considered one of the greatest film directors of all time for nothing. The movie is as chilling today as it was when he made it, even for audiences used to pictures with sound. Schreck’s eerie performance as an inhuman, rat-like vampire (renamed Count Orlok) is one for the ages, and the artistry of the cinematography is as lushly gothic as anyone could wish for. It is today considered a classic, and rightfully so.
BELA LUGOSI, DRACULA (1931)
The image most people have in their heads upon hearing the name “Dracula” is one we owe directly to Bela Lugosi. The elegant tuxedo and manner, the piercing gaze, the accent… All of it derived from the Hungarian actor’s iconic performance in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, which solidified Dracula’s place as the king of the Universal monsters. After being forced to leave his native country due to the failed Hungarian Communist Revolution of 1919, Lugosi pursued acting in Germany and the United States before landing the part of the Count in the first Broadway production of the play. From there, he was cast in the film based on the play—where is performance is still considered the excellent key to the film’s lasting acclaim—and the rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, Lugosi was never able to escape typecasting in the early Hollywood studio system because of this magnetic performance and his heavy accent. But his talent and charisma remains immortalized in the film, and he remains intrinsic to the pop culture image of Dracula, and though the film is undeniably campy, and has its flaws, it is still a delight to watch.
CHRISTOPHER LEE, HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
Arguably as famous and acclaimed in its own right as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is Christopher Lee’s version, a far more blood-stained and outwardly sexual one than was allowed onscreen in Classic Hollywood. The first of Hammer Horror’s takes on the classic monsters, filled with Technicolor blood and heaving bosoms, this cinematic version of Dracula was the first to give the Count his iconic fangs. This film is loosely adapted from the novel, but the plot was almost entirely concocted by Hammer Horror. Also featuring Peter Cushing as a coldly determined Professor Van Helsing, the film centers around Christopher Lee at his sinister best, going from a refined nobleman to an irresistible seducer to a bloodthirsty beast from one scene to the next. Like the 1931 film, this version’s somewhat dated production values and direction is utterly redeemed by the compelling performance at its center—and, for appreciators of camp, only heightens the experience.
FRANK LANGELLA, DRACULA (1979)
Like Lugosi, Frank Langella also played the role of Dracula in a stage production before being cast on the big screen. However, as the film was made in the 1970’s and not the 1930’s, the seductive nature of the Count’s character was not only allowed to remain, but was expanded upon. Most agree that Langella’s Dracula is the first truly “sexy” Dracula, and definitely the first romantic portrayal of the role. In this film, the characters of Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra finally achieve some hint of the significance they had in the novel—though their names are inexplicably switched, and their relationships with other characters relegated to those of the play. This is notable for being the first film where Dracula and the Mina character share something of a love story, and Frank Langella’s masterful performance as the Count is not only handsome and charming, but also hints at the vampire’s frightening power. The film also features Laurence Olivier in some fine work as Dr. Van Helsing.
GARY OLDMAN, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)
This film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (best known for his classic Godfather series of films and Apocalypse Now), is significant in two ways. This is the first movie to explicitly characterize Dracula as Vlad the Impaler, son of the Dragon, and Mina Murray as the reincarnation of his lost love. It is also—despite its many deviations from the source material of the novel—technically the film most faithful to the source novel it is adapted from. Featuring a star-studded cast—Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Tom Waits, and Keanu Reeves, to name a few—Gary Oldman turned in a memorable, mesmerizing performance even through the heavy prosthetics and beautiful, but impractical costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka. The film is also notable for Coppola’s choice to use only practical, in-camera effects, which is impressive and, at times, incredibly effective; and for its focus on Mina as well as the male characters. Some book purists may disagree with Coppola’s direction and his decision to make some scenes resemble an “erotic dream”, in his own words, and with some of his more “weird” choices; but the film is certainly visually stunning, and worth watching to hear some of Stoker’s original words so well performed.
LUKE EVANS, DRACULA UNTOLD (2014)
One of the more recent incarnations of the king of vampires brings audiences a Dracula truly for the modern age of cinematic universes, inspired as much by blockbuster superhero films and sweeping medieval epics as by the Dracula legend itself. Though the film itself received negative and mixed reviews upon its release, Luke Evans’s performance as Prince Vlad—who will become the infamous vampire—was almost universally praised. Though the character he plays is far more tortured anti-hero than the actual monster we know today, the film’s status as an origin story does leave open the possibility for further evolution. As well, the movie stars Sarah Gadon as Vlad’s wife Mirena, a kind, lovely princess who is not only the film’s moral center, but also a driving force of the story in her own right. With undoubtedly the most spectacular portrayal of the vampire’s immense, dark powers and his weaknesses as we understood them in the novel, the film is more of a dark fantasy action movie than the gothic literature tale the original is—and admirably, it never pretends to be anything else. The film’s greatest strength, alongside performances from leads Luke Evans and Sarah Gadon, and a creepy cameo by Charles Dance, is that it never takes itself too seriously, and peppers in delightful nods to its source material.
CHRISTIAN CAMARGO, PENNY DREADFUL (2016)
Though perhaps too recent to be considered iconic, Christian Camargo gave an excellent performance as Dracula in Showtime’s series Penny Dreadful, where the vampire acted as the main villain in the show’s third and final season. The show had already gained critical praise not only for show-runner John Logan’s masterfully weaving a gothic story featuring some of the most famous and beloved horror characters of all time—including Dr. Frankenstein, his monsters, and Dorian Gray—but also its stunning cinematography, exceptional performances from its entire cast, and painstakingly executed production value. With Dracula cast as one player in an eternal war for the fate of the human race and all the world, Camargo played his part to perfection, displaying both the monstrosity and effortless power of the Count and his deeper feelings and nature with committed grace. The show made its Dracula complex, chilling, and compelling, and returned him to what seems his natural setting—as a gothic villain, looming over fog-covered Victorian London.
BONUS! — DRACULA: THE MUSICAL (2004)
Having read this far, you presumably care enough about Dracula to be either horrified or intrigued by the news that his story has indeed been adapted into a stage musical. Let that sink in. A musical. With singing. And a tap-dancing scene… No, there is no actual tap-dancing scene. But there are indeed sung numbers, composed by Frank Wildhorn, best known for his musicals Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The musical’s plot includes the love story between Dracula and Mina that has become so popular in recent years. The musical had only 154 performances on Broadway in 2004, and received mainly negative reviews; but, after being revised somewhat, came to Europe, where it enjoyed some success. I was going to include some pictures from this as well, but after a Google search for images, I… I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
GOOD NIGHT, NIGHT CHILDREN
We all have our favorite incarnations, but there is no denying that whatever shape he takes, whatever face he wears, Dracula has conquered the real world in a way he never managed to conquer Stoker’s fictional one… A thoroughly masterful monster, the King of Vampires.
(Anna Strauss – @citzncinematrix)