A Love Letter to Count Dracula

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Body Count: Volume 3

Vampires are starting to make a come back, in case you haven’t noticed. Teenage girls seem to be swooning at the thought of gentlemanly “vegetarian” vampires that sparkle in the sunlight that should be burning their wretched husks to a crisp. A little while back, I did an article studying the contemporary vampire phenomenon for Geek Force Five and found that, for the most part, all I could talk about was Twilight and True Blood. I quite like True Blood but I really couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Twilight having read half of the first novel in preparation for that GF5 article. By the end of it all, I felt cheated. At no point did the popular portrayal come into the picture. I couldn’t even talk about Luis or Lestat! All I could talk about was Edward Cullen and Bill Compton. All at once, I felt as though the vampire that I recognize, the one that I know and love was under fire from Mormon vampires that are anything but predatory. My favorite vampire, Count Dracula, was on the verge of being usurped by a monster that had been scrubbed free of all malicious intent in order to appeal to lonely teenage girls.
I had to act.
Let’s all forget about Twilight for a minute. Those vampires don’t count. Haters to the left. This one is all about Count Dracula.
christopher-lee-as-count-dracula1As children, we probably hear about Dracula way before we ever see the classic portrayals from the movies. I suspect that it has something to do with a vampire that lives on Sesame Street but the cultural power of that character is so strong that it thrives to this day and even inspires a little fear. Over 200 films have been made that feature Count Dracula (this includes way-out inclusions like Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Monster Squad) and this is thanks to the original Tod Browning production starring the one, the only, Bela Lugosi, an actor so closely associated with the character that most people automatically associate the character with the manner of the monster even if Lugosi’s Dracula shared barely anything in common with the monster from Bram Stoker’s timeless novel. How many times has the character been portrayed with the slicked hair and Hungarian accent? Everybody loves the Lugosi Dracula! But would it surprise you if I told you that Bela Lugosi had only played Count Dracula in the movies twice? Once in the Browning movie and once in Abbot And Costello Meet Dracula. Weird, huh? Such a powerful performance and memorable character that this fact even surprises the most informed of horror fans. Lugosi played vampires in other movies that were clearly created to cash in on his fame as The Count, sure, but the official screen count is two.
nosferatu-4I was ready to tally up the totals when I compared Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee, the actor to play Count Dracula the most but given this piece of horror factoid, the point is moot, really. Universal set the pace for horror films and gave the genre enough momentum to coast all the way from the 30’s to the 50’s where it seemed to go belly up in the post-war wake of drive-in and matinee offerings. As much as I love the cheap crap from that era, there’s no denying that all the ill-conceived garbage from the time watered down the genre as a whole and left the giants of horror as little more than side-show goofballs parodying their own triumphs for rent money. It’s sad, really, but a UK production house, Hammer proved that you could make horror films, ape the genre’s best moves from 25 years ago, add some boobs and blood and produce an exploitation picture that was in the ballpark of greatness. Hammer’s outstanding Dracula films starring the monster’s second best known icon, Christopher Lee, breathed new life, so to speak, into the beast and in 1958, Horror of Dracula (known simply as Dracula in the UK), saw the light of a projector and sling shot the character into the consciousness of a new generation. Hammer was well aware that Lugosi’s portrayal of the character was so strong and carved into the granite mind of the public consciousness that there was just no point in trying to emulte the popular motifs of the Bela Lugosi Dracula but they still adopted certain classic themes and let Christopher Lee run wild with his chewing of the scenery. He’s a much more animalistic count and the script still takes wild detours with the source material but for all the reasons that the Lugosi Dracula is so great, the Lee Dracula is operating just to the left of them. But Lee isn’t alone in this picture. For all the strengths of the 1931 Dracula, the Terrence Fisher picture has a leg up on its predecessor in the casting of Peter Cushing in the role of Abraham Van Helsing. As Lee is often remembered as the perfect British Dracula, Cushing is the last word on Van Helsing, a character as important as Dracula yet living in the shadow of the vampire. So strong were these characterizations and performances that George Lucas would ransack the casting registries of Hammer when casting Star Wars. Other than Hammer, Lee would play Dracula in Jess Franco’s godawful adaptation of the novel.
No other actors but Lugosi and Lee would be so closely associated with the character. My earliest recognition of the character, I’m afraid to say, is actually in the form of Frank Langella. The film starring Langella is based on the same source material as the 1931 Dracula. The same play that featured Lugosi in the lead that would lead to his appearance in Browning’s adaptation. Langella, like Lugosi, had played the vampire on stage prior to taking this part, albeit Langella played him in the Broadway production of the 70’s. Langella’s take on the creature took The Count out of the bloody Hammer years and put him back in the sexy space that Lugosi was probably best known for. Dracula became less predatory and returned to the kinky symbolism of dominance and submission. Ultimately, the film isn’t something you should go out of you way for, but it’s an interesting crossroads for a legendary character. Also starring Lawrence Olivier as Van Helsing, it’s an unusually high budgeted picture for a character that had sunk into the ranks of horror’s schmaltziest tiers. Not until Francis Ford Coppola’s ultra-gothic approach, would the character be given this much respect and attention to detail.
oldman-gary-photo-gary-oldman-62000Coppola took the character in an entirely new and exciting direction. Where adaptations of the past chose the stage adaptation over Bram Stoker’s original text, Coppola answered the whining millions who had been waiting for years with fists clenched that neglected to take the wild deviations from the original materials and provide an actual account of the Bram Stoker vision. Coppola’s version draws strong ties to Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad The Impaler, a certain Transylvanian warlord on whom the character of Dracula is loosely based, yet Stoker never makes any explicit connections in his original novel to the Tepes personality. Here, Gary Oldman turns in the performance that makes his career. Unfortunately, his Dracula, ordinarily the centerpiece of any given Dracula production drowns among the ensemble cast that was assembled to create the epic blockbuster of 1992. It is easily the most ambitious of all the Dracula movies ever made and as great as it is as a whole feature, it fails to put the vampire front and center as previous productions had. Dracula, a character so heavily dependent on the decadent acting chops of whomever was portraying him suddenly slips through the cracks among a ballsy cast of newcomers and legends.
It would seem that the Dracula legacy seems to lurch forward every twenty or so years, adding a new link in the chain with each resurgence of the character. With clean teen vampires being all the rage at this moment and the last significant rendition of Dracula nearly seventeen years in the past, the time is almost right for a new production to come along and wipe all these sparkly vampires off the charts and put the evil, predatory and slightly kinky beasts back on the map. So what say you? Who is your favorite actor to portray to the vampire? I posed this question to my Twitter network and found that we’re all pretty much split down the middle. It is a clean division of favor between Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. To quote Tenebrous Kate of The Tenebrous Empire, “I’m going to have to vote Bela Lugosi, too. He defined Dracula-every other actor has to act around his portrayal.”

I couldn’t agree more. My favorite Dracula is Bela Lugosi.

Bryan White
Editor, Cinema Suicide
[email protected]
@CinemaSuicide on Twitter
http://www.cinema-suicide.com

7 Comments
  1. Prodosh Bhattacharya says

    Note that given the vast difference between Orlock and Dracula, in subsequent popular books and serials, ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘Dracula’ have appeared as distinct characters. Alas, ‘Orlock’ has rarely been used. One example is a potboiler I read in the UK called THE DRACULA MURDERS.
    I repeat, for me Christopher Lee is the ONLY Dracula, just as Sean Connery to me is the only James Bond, though Pierce Brosnan is a close contender.

  2. Prodosh Bhattacharya says

    I remember being grievously disappointed by Lugosi when I finally saw him on British TV. I confess, I remain a Christopher Lee devotee, though, barring his first 2 Hammer outings as the Count, he had the most awful scripts, a fact he himself confirmed. The first Dracula I was allowed to see in my pre-adult days was Schreck’s, but to my immature sensibilities, the silent film with its jerky movements was more funny than scary. Since then, I have reseen Murnau’s classic and recognize it for the brilliant work it is. My first big screen encounter with Lee was in the universally panned DRACULA A.D. 1972, but, at that time, I quite liked it. THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA wasn’t good, and, since then, I have tracked down and watched Lee in all his Hammer outings. Alas, whenever I try to download Jesse Franco’s version – said to be Lee’s favourite – it always does so without sound! I would say, in parting, that Jack Palance wasn’t too bad as the Count.

  3. Vlad says

    He’s ROMANIAN! i would know!i’m from romania. Heck, I’ve been to his castle. And for you geographical idiots transyvania is a region of romania

    1. Halak says

      I doubt you are from Romania “Vlad”. His castle is not open to the public. There is a castle still open and it is said to be Castle Dracula, or Castle Vlad, but it is not the castle of Tepes “The Impaler”. Vlad is a hero to Romanians and his castle, perched high in the mountains above the Argeș River, 40 miles north of Târgoviște, has been made available to few historians and such. I think the one you may or may not have not been to still has admission, a working kitchen/bar and a gift shop and it was one of Vlad’s many properties that he owned and sometimes stayed in. Good for tourism in a post-communist society I suppose. Oh, you also spelled Transylvania wrong, prostie mincinos!

  4. Nemo says

    And a quick shout-out to Willem Dafoe, brilliantly playing a vampire PLAYING Max Schreck PLAYING the vampire Count Orlock in “Shadow of the Vampire.” A perfect blend of horror, madness, and pathos. Not to mention a great look at filmmaking techniques of the silent era. John Malkovich is at his twisted best as F.W. Murnau, too….

  5. […] started a column for Sound on Sight, a Quebec-based blog/podcast site. His column is called The Weekly Body Count. Bryan’s also looking into starting his own podcast with Larry Clow and Steve […]

  6. Ricky D says

    I still prefer Graf Orlock played by Max Schreck over any of the actors mentioned above. Great article once again!

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