• Dracula

    The 1967 Modern Library dust jacket of Dracula

  • Author:  Bram Stoker  (1847-1912)
  • Rank:  #95
  • Published:  1897
  • Publisher:  Archibald Constable and Company
  • Pages:  382  (Signet Classic)
  • First Line:  “JONATHAN HARKER’S JOURNAL  (Kept in shorthand.)  3 May, Bistritz.  Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late.”
  • Last Lines:  “This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is.  Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.”
  • ML Edition:  #31  (first edition in 1932 – three dust jackets – 1932, 1941, 1967)
  • Read:  December, 1989

The Novel: Dracula is one of the novels that taught me how to write.  The very idea of the epistolary novel, with that variety of viewpoints, learning how to speak with different voices and express different thoughts and modes of communication; it made me expand my horizons beyond what I thought of as writing at the time.  Then there is the other aspect of it, the blending of the erotic with the horrific, the perfect example of Victorian literature, for what else could so exemplify that period other than something which would make eroticism frightening.

For anyone who is familiar with any of the film versions, they will have the basic gist of the story.  The young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, travels to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula, who is purchasing property in London.  While at the Castle, he is attacked by a vampiric woman and saved by Dracula, only to be more frightened of his host and realize that he is trapped.  Dracula goes to London and becomes interested, first in Lucy Westenra, then, after her death, in her close friend (and Jonathan’s fiancee), Mina Murray.  Just before Lucy’s death, Dr. Seward, one of three men who loves her, calls his mentor, Abraham Van Helsing.  Van Helsing, though unable to prevent death, recognizes the vampire signs and after Lucy’s death they must destroy her as she rises again as a vampire.  Eventually, with Jonathan and Mina reunited and married and joining with Seward, Van Helsing and Lucy’s other two suitors, their trail leads to Dracula.  Pursuing him to his home (lead on by a telepathic connection to Mina, whom Dracula has bitten), they drive him from London and pursue him back to Transylvania.  There, in a final battle, Dracula is killed and Mina is freed from the vampiric curse.

But those are just the bare bones of the plot, the kind of thing you can (mostly) learn from any of the film versions, though sometimes Mina and Lucy are reversed and only the Coppola version makes use of all of Lucy’s suitors.  The story, in and of itself, is fascinating.  But there is so much more there than the story.  If you simply want a compelling vampire story that will make you keep reading, you could pick up an awful book like The Historian.  Stoker is so much more than that.

Consider the encounter with the vampire women: “The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating.  There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth.”  Harker is simultaneously repulsed and attracted to what is going on.  By writing the novel in epistolary form, we get the full effect of the Victorian narrator, someone who can not push away what he has been taught to avoid.

There is also the eroticism of death itself.  Lying at death’s door, Lucy is described by Dr. Seward as such: “In a sort of sleep-waking, vague, unconscious way she openede her eyes, which were now dull and hard at once, and said in a soft, voluptuous voice, such as I had never heard from her lips.”  It is Mina who is able to resist, even forced upon Dracula, she recognizes him for the horror that he is and only drinks of the blood because it is a choice of that or suffocation.  And the horror begins to dawn upon them all, as is made clear when the men confront the undead Lucy.  “Lucy’s eyes in form and colour; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew.  At that moment the remnant of my love passed into hate and loathing; had she then to be killed, I could have done it with savage delight.”  This is the unconscious level of the Victorian Era, the savage delight that could come from dispensing death.  For even death can bring peace as can be seen when Mina gives the magnificent description that accompanies the final destruction of Dracula: “I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.”

The Films:

Nosferatu -  1922 / 1929 (U.S. release) – dir. F.W. Murnau  -  ****  (#1 film of 1929)

see my review here

Dracula – 1931  – dir. Tod Browning  -  ****

see my review here

Dracula – 1931  -  dir. George Melford – ***

In the early days of sound, it was quite common for films to be made twice, for two different languages, using the same sets and costumes.  This Spanish language version of Dracula was made at night while the Browning version was being filmed during the day.  There are those who consider it superior to the Browning version.  They are wrong.

Hell, it’s not even close.  It’s not just a question of the casting, though that is a primary problem.  But this version is an example of how two people doing the same kind of things can be different.  There is a subtlety to the Browning film, a slow mysterious mist that hangs over the film.  It was shot by Karl Freund, who would later turn to directing (most notably the original Mummy), but was an Academy Award winning cinematographer.  While the Spanish version might have used the same sets, it didn’t have the same shots, the same creepiness of Browning’s direction and Freund’s camera work.  It couldn’t achieve the same effects.

Then of course there is the acting.  Bela Lugosi’s performance in the Browning version is iconic and no matter who else does it, it is not quite the same.  But Carlos Villarias is simply terrible.  While Lugosi’s European accent added some mystery, Villarias seemed to have the idea that hamming everything up was the appropriate way to go.

As someone who hates to hear anything dubbed, I can’t blame other countries for wanting films made in their own language.  I just feel bad for those people in Spanish speaking countries who to endure this mediocre mess when they could have had the Lugosi version.

Dracula -  1958  (U.S. title The Horror of Dracula)  -  dir.  Terence Fisher – ***

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing forces Dracula, played by Christopher Lee into the deadly light in The Horror of Dracula (1958)

From the start, this is a different kind of Horror film.  As the opening credits end, and the camera slips inside the castle, we zoom in on a casket with the name Dracula, and then we see blood, a very bright shade of red, dripping down upon the name.  This is Dracula in full color and we will get the glory of a Horror film.  While The Curse of Frankenstein, the previous year, might have been the birth of Hammer Horror, this was the crown jewel, the magnificent casting of Christopher Lee, the man who would come to define Dracula to many generations, and Peter Cushing, the best of all the Van Helsings.  And we have that great moment where Jonathan Harker looks up and sees Count Dracula standing at the top of the stairs.  Through the rest of the opening 20 minutes, it follows a similar storyline to the book — Harker’s arrival, the attack on him by the female (1 in this version), saved by Dracula, his horrible sense of being trapped.  Then, we have a great departure from the book.

The next scene is the arrival of Van Helsing, much earlier in this film than in most versions.  Perhaps it is because Van Helsing is played by Cushing, the top billed actor in the film (Cushing, of course, would later be in Star Wars and isn’t the only connection between this and more modern culture, for Lee is in both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and Michael Gough, who plays Arthur Holmwood was Alfred in the four Batman films of the late 80′s and 90′s — the only person to be in all four films) and perhaps because Cushing is the best of the Hammer actors, but Van Helsing is moved right to the center of the story right away.  He must kill a vampiric Harker that he finds in Castle Dracula.  From there, he returns to his city and the structure follows the novel a bit better, but with strange changes.  The Lucy and Mina roles are reversed.  Many of the lesser characters don’t exist at all.  When the final confrontation comes, it is sunlight that disperses of the vampire.  Many of the inspirations in the story line, even down to the German setting, seem to be inspired more by Murnau’s film than the novel itself.

This is not a great movie.  It lacks the craftsmanship of the best Dracula films, of the two Nosferatus, of the Lugosi classic and of the Coppola version.  Hammer was blessed with two great charismatic actors in Cushing and Lee and they worked wonderfully together in many films, but aside from that, the pure pleasure of Hammer is in pleasure itself.  They are fun films to watch, so many of them through the years.  They re-made many of the films that Universal Films had put out during the Golden Age of Horror and made many sequels, and while none were the measure of the Universal originals, nearly all are worth watching.  And certainly, with the advent of color, they ramped up the gore.  They truly ramped up the horrific aspects of their films and Dracula was no exception.

The strangest thing, looking back, is to remember how little Christopher Lee is actually given to do.  He has a handful lines, all of them during that first twenty minutes.  In fact, as he doesn’t speak at all in the first sequel, he goes nearly two whole films before he gets another line.  But he has presence, and he is a very commanding Dracula, and in the end, he is the one that is most remembered in the role.

Count Dracula -  1970  – dir. Jesus Franco – **

By the late 60′s, Christopher Lee had come to feel a bit trapped by what Hammer Horror was doing for his career.  So, in a rather bizarre career move, he went to Spain and made a film with Jesus Franco (the same man who would later make Vampyros Lesbos).  And what did he do?  He played Dracula.  I’m not certain how that makes sense.  Supposedly it was going to be a more faithful adaptation of the novel (and thus would actually give some lines to Christopher Lee — at one point he goes through a good film and a half of the Hammer films without actually speaking a line).  There were two problems with this.  The first is that it didn’t out to be a particularly faithful version of the book.  The second is that it’s an awful film.  Granted, by the time Lee went off to make this, Hammer was also making a number of awful films as well.  But they had the advantage of being shot in Britain and with his friend, Peter Cushing.  So it isn’t too surprising to learn that he went back to Hammer and made several more Dracula films for Hammer before they finally gave up the ghost in the late seventies.

Nosferatu -  1979  – dir. Werner Herzog  -  ***.5

Made in the same year as the John Badham version, this is a direct re-make of the original Nosferatu, and thus only bears some resemblance to the novel.  What makes it so interesting, is that while the Badham film stresses the sexuality of the story, the Herzog film, like the Murnau before it, stresses the horrific nature.  This Dracula is a truly horrifying creature, bald, ugly, deformed (and, played by Klaus Kinski, perhaps the most frightening version of Dracula).  Rats move in response to him.  Plagues come to the town when he arrives.  This is not the romantic vampire.

By the time they made this film together, Herzog and Kinski already had a long and tortuous history.  They had both threatened to kill the other during Aguirre and they were fresh off Woyzeck.  But of all his performances, all his thundering across the screen, Kinski has never been more subdued than he is here.  He is perhaps the only person in the history of film to underplay Dracula and it works so well.

Dracula -  1979  – dir. John Badham – **.5

Going back to the film for writing this, I was stunned at how disappointing it is.  First of all, it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the novel.  We miss what is often the most important part of the film: the introduction of Dracula on his home soil.  Instead, the film opens with the shipwreck and the arrival of Dracula in England.  But the deviations from the novel (including a finale that also occurs on ship, with Dracula managing to kill Van Helsing before being pulled up to die in the sunlight) are only part of the problem.  The film itself is just so disappointing.

Here we are, almost 50 years after the Lugosi / Browning film and the special effects aren’t any better.  We have a castle that is in a state of disrepair and filled with webs, yet with no explanation, since Dracula has just moved there and seems to be living there.  We have lackluster performances, and while Langella might have been the first Dracula to overtly suggest the sexual aspect, Lee’s more subtle approach, brought forth a more interesting sensuality to the role.  The production values of the film aren’t impressive in the slightest.  Nothing has progressed since the earlier versions, and by lasting a good half hour longer than previous versions, without the benefit of the opening scenes, it drags in a way that a Dracula film never should.

Then there is the truly ludicrous ending.  In this film, a dying Van Helsing manages to sink a hook in Dracula’s back and then Harker yanks him up through the ship into the sunlight.  With happens then is a truly ridiculous performance of over-acting, as Langella twists and turns (and unlike Lee, who instantly turns to ash in the sunlight, he doesn’t seem to be affected at all until he actually realizes he is in the sun, almost like the way Wile E. Coyote doesn’t start falling until he actually notices that he is violating the laws of physics).  Then comes the actual death scene, and damn, does it go on too long.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula -  1992  – dir. Francis Ford Coppola  -  ***

Gary Oldman as Dracula, interrupted drinking the blood of Mina (played by Wynona Ryder) in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Such a frustrating film.  The opening moments are so wonderfully dark, with sumptuous art direction and costumes, dark forebodings of the story to come.  But then comes the title Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the notion that this is the version of the book on film and we think, wait a minute, none of the stuff about Vlad Dracul is actually in the book.  It’s great fun, it plays into the legend of Dracula that has risen up in the last forty years that connects the literary character with the historical figure.  Which is a shame, for two reasons.  The first is that some of them, the feel, the history, are so perfect, but the enduring, eternal love story, with the connections with the other characters (not just Mina, but the little subtle throw-in of Anthony Hopkins playing the priest implying a connection to Van Helsing as well) goes overboard and the moments in London when they stress that eternal connection are some of the weakest of the film.  The second reason is that this really is the closest version of the book that we have on film.

It is a good film, at times a very good film, for Coppola, of course, is a gifted director.  It looks great, winning three Oscars (for Sound Effects Editing, Costume Design and Makeup), with another nomination for Art Direction.  In fact it deserved to win for Art Direction as well and should have been nominated for Score and Visual Effects.  The opening music perfectly sets the scene for something that is part love story / part horrific nightmare.  And aside from the occasional drifting off to the love story, it is well written.  It even incorporates a number of voice-overs, continuing the feel of the epistilary nature of the novel.

Where the film has faults is in its acting.  There is no problem with Gary Oldman, unless it is that some of his performance gets lost in his makeup.  And Anthony Hopkins, while hamming it up, is in a role that requires a bit of hamming up.  Even Sadie Frost has the right mix of sexual appeal and danger that is required from Lucy.  The problem is the casting of Keanu Reeves and Wynona Ryder.  It’s strange to look back now and realize that Reeves and Ryder were both on the edge of their careers, Reeves descending into dreadful action performances that made him a star and proved him incapable of acting, while Ryder would spend the next several years giving some of the best performances of the decade, in The Age of Innocence, Little Women and The Crucible before her career fell off the map.  Here they are both dreadful, attempting British accents (barely), but unable to pull it off convincingly.  Ryder comes to life a bit at the end, where she is allowed to do more and she was only here because she had to drop out of the third Godfather due to exhaustion.

But overall, it is a good film.  It has moments of sly humor, such as when Van Helsing, asked about an autopsy, tells a grieving Jack “No.  I just want to cut off her head and cut out her heart.”  Or that Dracula walks past a sign for a performance by Henry Irving.  It does have the great technical aspects and it is fun to watch.  And perhaps that’s all that really needs to be said for any film.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary -  2002  – dir. Guy Maddin

Maddin’s version is a black and white, partly staged, partly filmed performance of the Winnipeg Ballet.  As such, there is no dialogue.  I suppose that if you are a ballet fan, I could recommend it, but I find it more than a little boring and the fact that it is the Dracula story really doesn’t lend much to it.  There are some interesting moments, such as when Lucy dances around to the men who stab her in the crypt scene, but other than that, there isn’t much to be said for it.

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