Monday, March 6, 2017

The Unholy Films of Dracula

There have been 1000s of films with Dracula as a character in them, maybe 10s of 1000s. The idea of vampires had existed in legends for centuries but the titular character in Bram Stoker’s book created a sensation that continues to this day. With all these interpretations out there, do any honour to the original story? Over the years some do, most do not. Many, though loosely following the plot at best have managed to create something outside Stoker’s original vision. The cinematic impressions have taken over our memories of Dracula and vampires and superseded the novel’s version almost completely. 

So here is a list of some of the major films that in their own way cover the origins of the Transylvanian Count.

La Mort de Dracula (1921)
This film takes place in an insane asylum and involves an inmate that may or may not be  the undead count. So it has nothing to do with the book but it does have the distinction as the first appearance of Dracula on the screen. 

Nosferatu (1922)
Maybe one of the most iconic telling of the tale.The legendary director Murnau has created a tour de force of surreal horror and loosely follows the original story here and there but goes off the track as it approaches the end and takes on a less action oriented finale in lieu of one where Harker’s wife sacrifices herself by tricking the monster to forget the time and be destroyed by the first rays of dawn. 
It’s a miracle we can see this movie at all. The producers did not get the rights from Stoker’s estate and were ordered to destroy every copy. Luckily for humanity, some people managed to hide copies throughout Europe and we are still trying to put together a complete version to this day. The look of the vampire in this film is so iconic and frightening it rivals even the Lugosi idea of the undead.
In the 80s, this was remade with Klaus Kinski by Werner Herzog in both German and English. Well worth seeing. 

Dracula (Todd browning and Spanish version 1931)
Speaking of Lugosi, Universal studio’s entry of the classic tale is likely the most famous and imitated since it’s release. I have to say, and many would disagree I’m sure, that this version is not so great. Lugosi saves the film with his charismatic performance but the often amazing director Todd Browning’s work on the film is terrible. He was apparently drunk or passed out through much of the filming and the Spanish version, lensed at night on the same sets, is a vastly superior film, in my opinion. The actor playing Dracula is fantastic, the editing better and this version even as more effects that Browning never bothered to add into the English version. We never would have been able to see the Spanish take if it wasn’t for a pristine copy being found in Cuba not too many years ago. All other copies had disappeared over the decades. 
Neither version of the film follows the storyline very closely but this version has become the de facto plot most people have come to expect. 

Horror of Dracula (1958)
The first in Hammer’s long series of Dracula films that launched the horror careers of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Again, the plot of this film cuts and pastes elements from not only the book but from previous films and adds a little more sexiness and blood to the mix. A low budget endeavour, this film benefits from interesting sets and cinematography and the performances of its main actors. It created it’s own look and in a way it’s own horror universe that translated to other Hammer monster films, like Frankenstein and the Mummy

Dracula (BBC 1977)
Louis Jordan plays the count in what is the most faithful of all Dracula films by my estimation. Its overall production value is good and the performances are as well. It’s well worth checking out even though it suffers from some unfortunate effects techniques that take away from the otherwise gothic feel of the project. Specifically, the terrible solarization of Jordan’s face now and then. It seems to be saying, we can do this weird thing with video so why not use it? Because it’s terrible and inappropriate would have my response if I was asked. 

Dracula (Frank Langella - 1979)
In many ways, this production is reminiscent of the Hammer films from a few years earlier in style and substance. The story is a hodgepodge of Dracula lore and mixes and matches from previous efforts. Where the film stands out is in Langela’s take on the count (which he had perfected by playing him for years in the stage production), the music and the set pieces. The film fails in pacing and by not delivering what audiences really wanted at the time, which was a movie version of the hit play. A play, which despite the huge success it was world-wide at the time, has never been revived, at least not so far. I would also say the film is murky in style and lighting - making it difficult to figure out what is happening at points. It sounds a little odd to say, but I think movie lacks a soul - something that would make it relatable and new when it’s a typical gothic horror done in a competent manner that sort of sleep walks its way through the story. One thing it had going for it in spades was the John Williams soundtrack. Haunting, romantic and desperate sounding, it’s worth a listen on it’s own merits. Langella's hair might be a little too feathered....

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppala’s sumptuous and, face it, batshit crazy adaption of Stoker’s signature novel is visually stunning. Gary Oldman’s over the top performance is worth seeing alone, the rest of the cast seems to sleep walk through their roles and for something called Bram Stoker’s Dracula there is a lot of stuff in it that has absolutely nothing to do with the source material. It adds needless backstory and tries to make the count a victim of his fate, looking for his lost love though the centuries. Oldman has a lot to work with in the role and his vampire walks in the daylight, turns into some sort of bat human thing, has a shadow that (as in Nosferatu) has a life of its own and at one point transforms into some sort of rape-y werewolf - thing. Annie Lennox and Diamanda Galas sing on the sound track which is like a wet dream - for me, anyway. The movie is earnest in its presentation, to say the least, which makes it a little beyond normal criticism. It’s worth checking out but I would have to say, all it’s wonderfully made pieces do not add up to a coherent whole. 

*This film seems to take elements and inspiration in some ways for the 1973 Dan Curtis TV movie of Dracula starring Jack Palance, which is not a bad version of the story but adds in the elements of the historical Dracula and the idea that Lucy is a reincarnation of his lost love. 

Like most film versions of classic tales, Dracula’s legacy is spotty in terms of faithfulness to the author and the original concepts in the book. Also like many adaptions from book to movie, a faithful adaption isn’t always the best one or even possible. I do think the bloodthirsty villain of Stoker’s imagination has fared much better than Shelly’s Frankenstein. Most of those adaption don’t even try to capture the subtle nature of her story and opt for forgetting who the real monster in the story really is. Dracula at least keeps something of his written personality much of the time. 


T' said...

Good overview, though I think you liked Coppola's version better than I did. Ryder and Reeves were SO bad it was hard to take the rest of the film, and Oldman was so hidden in all that makeup it kind of wasn't possible for him to do anything decent. I've never seen a Hammer film. Crazy, I know! Perhaps I should seek this one out. Langella is just SO 70s. Palance? Really? Didn't know there was a Spanish 1931 Dracula. It's really that good? Nosferatu has some GREAT visual stuff, especially for the time. Think I should go search some of these out. Thanks!

Behemoth media said...

I agree 100% Ryder and Reeves were awful, and most everyone else, but that film is sort of a beautiful train wreck to me. NEVER seen a hammer film? Who are you? They have a certain charm, low budget but something about them is compelling. The Spanish 1931 Dracula is well worth checking, or remind me to show it to you next visit. It's so much better put together than the Lugosi version. I would recommend the book Hollywood Gothic for some really interesting Dracula history as well!