“Count-less” films have been made about the antics of Count Dracula, the quintessential vampire who sleeps in a coffin in a couple inches of soil from his native land and only comes out at night. For many, Bela Lugosi is our first exposure to this icon, who has haunted our cinematic dreams for decades. But, what are the origins of this character in film? From whence does he hail? What are his dreams and aspirations? And, why is he not the poster child for the Red Cross? Let’s open the lid and shed some light on the vampire. Of course, not sunlight.
While the concept of a vampire can go back to the 12th Century, the cinematic character of Count Dracula begins in 1922, in Germany. While other films predating 1922 use the term “Vampire”, they are about women who seduce men and run off with their money. The term of the day was “Vamp”, not to be confused with the 1986 Grace Jones’ movie “Vamp”, which was about female vampires. None made any reference to Count Dracula.
Please note that there are rumors of a 1920 Russian version of Dracula and a 1921 Hungarian version as well. Little is known of either and both films are lost. A three-minute piece of film thought to be part of the Russian version surfaced in 2013, but there is nothing to identify the players or the studio, and there are no title cards in the scene.
Before we get started on a full discussion of the film legacy, I’d like to say a few words about the actual novel “Dracula”:
As fair warning, it is not written in a narrative form, but rather as a compilation of journal and diary entries, police reports, newspaper articles and letters between characters. It is often difficult reading, as it was written in the Victorian era, meaning lots of words, lots of description. But, it is a great piece of literature. If you are a fan of horror, it should be gracing a shelf in your house. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” should be right next to it, along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Gaston Laroux’s “Phantom to the Opera” is optional.
We begin with “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” (a Symphony of Shutters), directed by F.W. Murnau, starred Max Schreck as the vampire Graf Orlok. About Murnau: he was a bit of a thief back in those days. Earlier, he pirated the story of “Treasure Island” and filmed it, changing names and places. This film is no different. It is completely the story told in Bram Stoker’s book, published in 1897. Stoker had passed away in 1912, so, maybe he saw the story as fair game.
However, Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe was still alive and upon finding out about the film, sued Murnau for what would be termed today “copyright infringement.” The lawsuit was finally decided in favor of the Stoker estate and every print of the film was supposed to be destroyed. The film seemed to be a total loss. However, some were saved, as the film premiered in New York City in 1929, and turned up in the United Kingdom in 1930, exhibited with a musical and sound effects track.
The story then became a stage play, running on Broadway and touring from 1927 to 1930. Soon, another movie version was bought forth. Universal Studios owned the rights to the story and gave the film to director Tod Browning. Browning was well known in horror circles at that time, having directed ten mostly silent films with Lon Chaney, Sr., including the fabled “London After Midnight”, which today is lost and only exists in production stills and title cards.
Bela Lugosi had worked with Browning in the movie “The Thirteenth Chair (1929)” and portrayed the Count on Broadway and in the traveling company. He wanted to play the lead role in the film. According to Wikipedia, Lugosi was not the popular choice by the studio heads, and had to lobby to get the part. He was also paid very little for the performance.
This brings up a sad side note about Bela Lugosi. The character of Dracula would prove to be a major part of Lugosi’s undoing, as he would be typecast. The Count and his thick Hungarian accent would help to keep him in the horror movie division of Universal Studios. In 1936, the United Kingdom would ban horror movies from their screens. At this time, US movie studios made more at the box offices in Europe than they did in America. The loss of a genre meant a shutdown. Lugosi found himself getting bit parts during the ban. His career would never really recover.
One of the practices of the studios of that time was to make a foreign language version of movies, using the same set, but with non-English speaking actors and actresses. This was done with Dracula. During the night hours, a group of Spanish speaking actors, actresses and crew would work with the set and produce the film in Spanish. Carlos Villarias played the Count. For many years, no prints of this film could be found; that is, until it resurfaced in the 1970’s and was restored. One of the first showings was on the cable station Univision. Turner Classics would also distribute the film. Some critics have said that this version is a bit racier than the English version. (I didn’t notice)
The character of Dracula would appear several times during the 1940’s. They would include portrayals by John Carradine (House of Frankenstein, 1944 & House of Dracula, 1945), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Son of Dracula, 1943) and Lugosi (Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein, 1948).
In the 1950’s, Great Britain would re-introduce the character as a vicious monster and not the suave creature of the night seen in the 1930’s and 1940’s. “Horror of Dracula (1958)” would give the world a vampire whose lust for blood was insatiable. Christopher Lee would tower over the others. Hey, he was six foot five! Lee would portray the role of Dracula in nine films, seven of which were for Hammer Studios. Often, Peter Cushing would play opposite him as Dr. Van Helsing. Although, not named as Dracula, Lee would also appear in the Italian comedy “Uncle was a Vampire (1959).”
By the 1970’s, a number of the Hammer Dracula films would become somewhat silly with such titles as “The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)” and “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974, without Lee).” Lee, too, would feel that he and Peter Cushing were being typecast as horror stars only.
There would be other performances during Hammer’s glory years. Some would be inspired, many would be odd. John Carradine would reprise his role in “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966).” Here, Hollywood attempted to put together two popular genres and add teenagers into the mix. This film could be found on a double bill with the equally absurd “Jesse James meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).” Both were directed by William “One-Shot” Beaudine.
In 1970, the blood-letting was ramped up in the gory “Dracula vs Frankenstein”, with Zandar Vorkov as the Count. The ending battle between the two has quite a few torn limbs and spurts of blood. The only redeeming part of the film are the cameos by J. Carroll Naish, Lon Chaney Jr. and Forrest J. Ackerman.
In 1972 & 1973, William Marshall would play Blacula in the black exploitation films “Blacula” and “Scream, Blacula, Scream.” Marshall was very good in the role and played the character as close to Christopher Lee’s interpretation as possible. And if you think you don’t know William Marshall, look for him the next time you watch a rerun of “PeeWee’s Playhouse.” He is the King of Cartoons.
In 1973, Jack Palance would play the role in a telemovie, produced by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) and written by Richard Matheson.
In 1974, Udo Kier would spend a good deal of time throwing up in “Andy Warhol’s Dracula.” In this film, Dracula needed to have the blood of virgins. If he got non-virgin blood, barf-city. This was usually on a double bill with “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein.”
In 1977, the BBC would produce one of the better versions for television, with the Count played by Louis Jourdan. In my opinion, this was one of the best adaptations of Dracula ever.
In 1979, heartthrob Frank Langella would give a better performance as Dracula, with the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. In the same year, the first Dracula spoof would appear with “Love at First Bite,” starring George Hamilton. Of course, this makes little sense as Hamilton is well known for his perfect suntan. How would Dracula get a suntan?
From that point on, Count Dracula makes few noteworthy appearances. Francis Ford Coppola would have Gary Oldman portray “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” in 1992. The second Dracula spoof would come from, who else, but, Mel Brooks with “Dracula, Dead and Loving It (1995)” starring Leslie Nielsen. In 2004, the battle against Dracula would be told from the other side in “Van Helsing”. And a more historical version of the origin of Dracula would be told in “Dracula Unbound” in 2014.
I know that these aren’t the only Dracula films out there. I didn’t even discuss the concepts of movies like “Countess Dracula” and “Lemora, Lady Dracula” (which contains some very suspicious scenes that I really don’t want to go into.) I don’t have an answer for these films, as the moniker of Dracula was merely there for the sake of the title. But, if Dr. Who can be a woman, why not Dracula? And just because I call a film “silly”, don’t take that to heart. Many of those “silly” films are treasured memories of my cinematic childhood. Your movie-going experiences may vary.
I would like to thank various parts of Wikipedia and IMDB, both of which are always valuable to an article like this. The story about the Bram Stoker lawsuit is courtesy of my lifelong friend, “A Pictorial History of Horror Movies” by Denis Gifford, my first and favorite horror movie tome.
In the upcoming weeks, there will be a sense of déjà vu by some of you, as I plan on a piece on the cinematic Frankenstein and will be referencing several of the films mentioned here. Don’t worry, it’s my mind that has been lost, not yours.