Monday, October 31, 2011

Seven Deadly Draculas

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A Halloween FilmFest!

It’s Halloween! A perfect time for remakes since the horror genre is replete with remakes. To celebrate the occasion, I figured what could be better than to examine not only one of the most remade films of all time, but one of the most iconic figures in horror cinema: Dracula.

There have been practically countless films made about Dracula, but I wanted to focus only on theatrical releases based on the original Bram Stoker novel. You know, to narrow it down a bit. Well, that still left me with seven films. Yes, seven. But what could be more appropriate considering there are the same number of Deadly Sins?

While the variance between the movies is rather great, I must say I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was not one bad picture in the bunch. I thought for sure at least one would be a slog, but I actually found each film rather engaging, albeit in different ways. It seems that Stoker’s original text is only to be approached with respect. Perhaps the fear of nosferatu inspires it.

However, I don’t want to lavish unyielding praise, either. Each film has its shortcomings as well as its strengths. So, I thought it would be fun to assign to each of the films one of the Seven Deadliest Sins. Shall we?

Note: this article assumes at least a passing knowledge of the source material, Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, and thus will not provide a synopsis as other articles do. Thus, any discussion of the films’ deviations from the source is written as if understood. For a quick synopsis, click here. Also, one might simply assume that Dracula dies at the end of each of these films. That would be wrong.

Nosferatu (1922) – This, the first film adaptation of Stoker’s novel, decisively set the standard for all future Dracula films. Done in the German Expressionist style by director F.W. Murnau, the style would become customary for nearly all horror cinema to come.

The film was an unauthorized adaptation and many details were changed to circumvent obtaining the rights to the novel. The most striking deviation is the appearance of the Count. Described and generally depicted as dashing and handsome, this first appearance of the Count portrayed him as wan and ghoulish with bat-like features and gruesome claws. Max Schreck, who portrays the Count, was known for portraying grotesque characters, and here it is easy to see why. Setting aside the costume and makeup, Schreck’s gait and movement are alone disturbing.

It’s fun to see the skillful treatment given to those shots that were then unprecedented but are now so iconic they are duplicated in countless films since: Nosferatu rising from his coffin as though on hinged heels; the low-angle shot of him menacing with great glaring eyes aboard the schooner; the bent shadow ascending the staircase with no Count in sight. Cinematically, Nosferatu holds up very well for a silent-era film and in spite of the technical limitations of the time.

Deadliest Sin: GREED I think it is almost unjust to apply any of the sins to the film that influenced if not inspired all the rest of the films on this list. However, because the source material was stolen, Nosferatu commits the sin of Greed most prominently.

Dracula (1931) – Here is the film that launched Béla Lugosi’s screen career and, along with Frankenstein, cemented Universal as the premier studio of the horror genre for the next three decades. Iconic doesn’t even begin to describe this film. While some of the visuals are clearly inspired by Nosferatu, such as Lugosi’s contorted hands, this version has, in its own right influenced not just portrayals of Count Dracula, but most vampire movies. Lugosi is quite literally the original suave, sophisticated film vampire, from his slicked back hair to his patent leather shoes. Lugosi’s Hungarian accent was his own, but it, too, became an affectation of countless players to follow.

Lugosi’s performance may overshadow the other players in this film, but Edward Van Sloan should not go overlooked for his portrayal of Van Helsing. Their combined efforts make a simple scene wherein Van Helsing resists the Count’s attempt at hypnosis unbearably tense and electrifying, in spite of there being no score, no effects, nothing but facial expressions and scant dialogue to carry it off. So, too, should Dwight Frye be acknowledged as a most outlandish Renfield.

While more faithful to the source material, this Dracula still deviates quite a bit. A typical treatment is to combining characters and events, and that is what is done here.

Deadliest Sin: PRIDE This one was very difficult to assign, but after thinking it over, it seems to me that early filmmakers (like filmmakers today) underestimate their audiences. While I understand some of the reasons for simplifying the script, I think they were made condescendingly.

Horror of Dracula (1958) – The first thing one notices about this version is that it is in Technicolor, in the most vibrant sense of the word. It is quite a beautiful movie and, after the initial shock wears off, one easily settles into the story, thought it may not be quite as vibrant as the filmstock.

This version marks the first in the series of Hammer Studios’ foray into the horror genre which included many subsequent pairings of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula. I can only assume that this was because the two had a good chemistry, because their interactions were quite minimal in this film. In fact, Dracula is somewhat of a minor role.

Though this is a decent Dracula film overall, the deviations left more of an impression than anything. Instead of a solicitor, Harker is a fellow vampire hunter to Van Helsing. And he dies right very early. This version also portrays the least powerful Dracula of any of the films. Dracula does change into a wolf or bat and his powers seem limited to hypnosis prolonged life.

Deadliest Sin: SLOTH This version simplified the story more than any of the others and culled the cast of characters to the point of omitting Renfield altogether. Also, the musical score was distracting and seemed to be used to drive the tone of the movie rather than having it come through dialogue and action. For both of these reasons, this film is guiltiest of Sloth.

Count Dracula (1970) – If you ever wanted to invent a drinking game to go along with a Dracula movie (and be honest, who hasn’t?), this is the one to pick. There are so many zooms to close-up in this film, they start to get funny in the first twenty minutes. If I weren’t trying to stay coherent through seven films, I’d be on the floor instead.

This film has Christopher Lee reprising his role as Dracula and, I think, doing a much better job. Of course, doing a ton of other Dracula movies for Hammer Films probably honed the role a bit. To be fair all around, Lee had a stronger script to work with this time as this version draws much nearer to the source material than any film before it. It is the first to show Dracula as an old man at first, growing younger as he takes victims and the first to include all three of his brides. (I don’t know that his handlebar mustache comes from the novel, though.)

It also takes a cue from the Lugosi version and turns the music off quite a bit, letting silence and ambient sound build tension. This is smart because the movie’s theme is rather repetitive.

A new interpretation is that of a brooding and quiet Renfield portrayed by Klaus Kinsky who would later go on to portray Nosferatu in a later film.

Deadliest Sin: GLUTTONY Okay, so nothing in this particular film really qualifies as Gluttonous. Well, nothing but Christopher Lee himself. You see, by the time he joined this independent project, Lee had already done four Dracula films for Hammer. Then he went back and did four more. He only started to get worried about typecasting after shooting Dracula AD 1972 but did one more film before he quit.

Dracula (1979) – Two Dracula films were released in 1979, and both are probably more closely remakes than anything preceding them. This version, starring Frank Langella as Count Dracula, was released by Universal, the same studio that produced the Lugosi version. Like the Lugosi version, this one draws inspiration from the stage play as well as the novel. That may explain Lucy’s and Mina’s names being reversed, but changes to the characters relationships may be just as accountable.

While the major plot points are mostly true to the source material, the characters themselves are largely altered, more so than any other version. The Count, while striking and suave, has lost much of his overt spookiness. Alone, that might be negligible, but Lucy (in the role of Mina) is much more aggressive. Rather than being seduced by Dracula, she might actually be the one seducing him. Other character changes have Mina as Van Helsing’s daughter. When she dies, the normally detached man of science, here portrayed by Laurence Olivier, becomes entangled and emotional.

Aesthetically, the film is beautiful. The colors are muted so that the scenes seem to slip between color and black and white, combining modern and classic moods. John Williams provides the score, which fits seamlessly into the film—the only score I can truly give that praise to. The pacing is a bit off, seeming rushed at first, then lulling in the middle, but finishing at a nice jog.

Deadliest Sin: WRATH That might seem like I am running out of deadly sins (which I am) but it does fit. Several things about this version could make one think it was trying to tread over the Lugosi version. I don’t think that every Dracula must have a Romanian accent, but Langella gave the count no sense of foreignness whatsoever. Also, several classic lines (like “I never drink…wine”) were kept but delivered as throw-away conversation rather than nuanced entendres. And while I normally don’t object to tweaking the characters, it is a bit much tweak the whole lineup, especially such a familiar one. I assign Wrath because this film does violence to the original that it could have just as easily built upon.

Nosferatu the Vampire (1979) – Here is the other remake from 1979, but this is intended as a remake to the 1922 silent German film. It is an interesting concept to build upon the things that set Murnau’s film apart from Dracula rather than those that make it similar. The pacing of this version was a bit slower than other, but it felt right for this film. Of all the Dracula films, this is probably the one I enjoyed most. Just a quick aside, Lucy and Mina are reversed in this film, too.

So much of this film is striking, from the beautiful mountain landscapes to the darkly majestic musical score; the detailed costumes to the only usage of live bats among all the films. The roles of Lucy and Mina are always played by attractive young ladies, but I daresay this film has the most beautiful Lucy of them all. The ghoulish appearance of Nosferatu is preserved, and is all the more ghastly in color and in better quality. But the most fearful aspect of the Count is his soft spoken manner and melancholy demeanor. Not at all what one expects from such a creature, and it makes it all the more startling when he lashes out.

Deadliest Sin: ENVY This actually doesn’t apply to the film, but to all the other films. While certainly any film can be picked apart for its flaws, this gem is so wonderful that I was simply taken into it and rendered incapable of criticism. Bear in mind, I watched five Dracula films just before this, so I was been primed to criticize. But this film disarmed me and for that reason, all the others ought to be Envious of it.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1993) – Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, and Keanu Reeves performing a script more true to the original novel than anything preceding it, this film should have been nonpareil. Instead, we get a film that, while dazzling, is marred by flaws which cannot be ignored.

Coppola does not disappoint in his sense of aesthetic, and from that standpoint, this may be his masterpiece. The effects, the lighting, the editing, all combine to establish a refined society precariously perched on the brink of madness. At least, I assume he meant to do that. The film very nearly keeps the viewer locked in a state of tension throughout by cleverly keeping things disjointed, rather than cheaply threatening a pop-scare at any minute. Performances on the parts of Oldman as Dracula and Hopkins as Van Helsing go far to contribute to that tension. Sadie Frost as Lucy, in my opinion, logs a terrific performance, in spite of a forthcoming criticism.

Unfortunately, there is much in the film to break that tension. Reeves put the worst British accent to film in cinema history. Ryder, normally strong in macabre roles, logs a merely passable performance. And then there are just some bad decisions. Like Vlad’s red muscle armor. What? Or the Count’s bouffant. Huh? Or Carey Elwes. Okay, that might just be me.

Deadliest Sin: LUST What can I say? This version has all the gratuitous sex that the others tastefully left out. That isn’t to say that the others were bereft of sexuality—quite the contrary—but they engaged it in much the way the novel had. This film just writhes and bears its breasts.

So, there you have it. Seven Deadly Dracula films in one installment of Attack of the Remake. If any of these versions are new to you, I definitely recommend seeing them. Or revisit the ones that you have seen. And have a happy and safe Halloween!


Dracula: Dead and Loving It! (1995) – Why include a parody on a list of remakes? Well, in spite of being a spoof, this Mel Brooks comedy is very faithful to the source material, better than some of the others on this list. All the characters are there, all the situations are followed, even key dialogue is spoken, just in a funny way.

Story-wise, the film follows the Lugosi version most closely, but many of the jokes and gags are at the expense of the Coppola film. Probably owing to nothing more than Leslie Nielsen in the title role, this happens to be the only film where Count Dracula remains old throughout the film. Peter MacNicol, channeling Frye's performance, probably makes for a better Renfield than any serious attempt. Of course, Brooks inserts himself into the film, here as none other than a most outlandish–and incompetent–Van Helsing.

Not every joke might hit, and in fact, many of them are just corny (Yes, we have Nosferatu! We have Nosferatu, today!) but that is the charm of any Brooks treatment. Hey, they're called "yuks" for a reason!


  1. I have to admit to not really being a fan of the Dracula stories. Somehow, the story itself just doesn't seem horrific enough to be horror or dramatic enough to be drama. And the films feel so cliched to me that I never get the sense I'm seeing anything more than a very generic remake of everything that's come before it.

    Not to mention, this idea has been remade from so many angles and in so many forms (even lousy Sci-Fi) that it feels rather over-used to me by now.

  2. That's why I subject myself to the you don't have to.

    I do seriously recommend Nosferatu the Vampire (1979), though. You may be pleasantly surprised as I was. Plus, you know German, so you might get more from it than I did.

  3. Thanks for taking the bullet for me tryanmax! LOL!

    Klaus Kinskey... that's one ugly dude!

    I'll check it out. I don't think I've see that one.

  4. I've been thinking a little bit more about Dracula films in general, and one thing they almost all have in common is heavy influence from the 1927 stage play. This is unfortunate because 1) it is heavily compressed, omitting several characters and rearranging names and relationships, and 2) it is essentially a melodrama.

    Relating to our previous conversation about films without villains, I came across this quote by Ayn Rand: "A drama involves primarily a conflict of values within a man (as expressed in action); a melodrama involves only a conflict of man with other men." So it could be stated that the vast majority of cinema today is still melodrama.