The yearning words, delivered in a lisping Hungarian accent, really
sum up the whole story of Dracula on the screen: "To die
be really dead
that must be glorious." For however many
times an actor has expired I the obligatory orgy of cosmetic blood,
his heart transfixed by a wooden stake, pointed crucifix, hawthorn
bush or arrow, there will always be another who will arise to
take his place. Bram Stoker's fictional vampire hunter was wrong.
No power on earth can destroy Dracula or his fascination and popularity;
he has indeed joined the immortals.
Bram Stoker's book was astonishingly successful in the last years of the nineteenth century, and when the author died in 1912 he left behind one of the two great figures in horror literature (the other being Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ), a little known sequel, Dracula's Guest (published in 1914) and a heritage of horror that would be mined enthusiastically and gainfully for decades. Mysteriously, the full commercial possibilities of his creation were no realized for a considerable time. The story was not dramatized for the theatre until 30 years after publication (1924), and no movie called Dracula was made until 1930.
However, vampires had appeared, infrequently, on the screen. Alice Eis had followed in Theda Bara's mold with The Vampire in 1913, but nothing of note had been accomplished until 1922, when German director of genius, F.W. Murnau, produced Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (A Symphony of Horror). This most extraordinary silent film - one of the classics of the German Expressionist cinema - was the Dracula story transferred to Germany with some names and details changes to avoid copyright infringement. It was made on a tiny budget which made no allowances for payments of rights or royalties. Stoker's widow sued, nevertheless, and won. All copies of it were ordered destroyed; but, fortunately, prints were pirated and this masterwork survives. Dracula became Orlok, undoubtedly one of the most visually repulsive and spine tingling creations of the cinema, a skeletal, ratlike creature of terrifying aspect played with heart stopping relish by Max Schreck.
Murnau's magnificently evocative use of locations close to the
Carpathians, his ability to summon atmospheres of brooding, mist
ridden, shadow thrown evil, and his consummate skill at suggesting
menace and terror through lighting and camerawork set a high standard
for others to follow. But superb though Nosferatu was,
the true Dracula legend was waiting for another dimension to add
terror. It was waiting for the baying of maddened dogs, the creak
of un-oiled hinges, the scream of a ravened victim, the swish
of a bat's wing. To really chill the blood, Dracula, and
horror films in general, needed sound.
Sound brought, in 1930, the howl of rapacious wolves and a Dracula who intoned breathily, "Listen to them..children of the night what music they make!" Bela Lugosi's characterization in Tod Browning's Dracula (1930) was the blueprint against which all future attempts would be judged. He very nearly didn't get the part, however. It had been intended for Lon Chaney, who died before filming began. Casting around for a substitute, Universal decided to give a break to the man who had been playing the part onstage. He was a heavily accented Hungarian whose dapper, continental looks, slicked back hair and rather oily charm became horribly manacing when given a cloak and fangs. He looked and sounded like a Transylvanian Count, and he instantly made the part of Dracula his own.
Tragically, Dracula was to be Lugosi's highest peak and
greatest albatross. He became so firmly associated with the role
and with horror that he could not break the stereotyping. His
heavy accent didn't help either, and he quickly slid into third
rate B movies, living off a glorious memory.
But if Lugosi declined swiftly, vampires and in particular Dracula, did not. Two years after Dracula came what has been described as "arguably the masterpiece of the genre" - Vampyr. This German movie - based on Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (the source for a later series by Hammer Films) - concerns itself less with the more bloodcurdling aspects of Dracula legend than the psychological/sexual undertones.
After an initial run of excellent vampire movies - including Dracula's Daughter (1936) - the series slid into a slow decline, and the Count got lost in 'Sons of .' And acting as the butt for Abbott and Costello gags that limped throughout the war years. By the fifties, vampires where out of favor, replaced by the science fiction nightmares of a generation living with the real horrors of an atomic age and the devastation it could wreak. Hollywood remembered them only by intermittent reissues of Lugosi's masterpiece.
Dracula's mantle - or rather cape - now fell on Britain, and enterprising film company called Hammer and the second actor who would be inextricably linked with the role - Christopher Lee. He made a lithely suave, mesmerically attractive Count and was much aided by the fact that there was no censor to order that the camera cut away from bloodletting in glorious living color.
Although the series eventually fell into a rut, Hammer has shown the way, and other filmmakers were keen to exploit the vampiric potential by devising ever more bizarre and permissive variations on the old theme. It didn't take long for the symbolic sexuality of the vampire to be made more overt by directors keen the cash in on falling censorship barriers. Some managed it in a jocular, jugular vein like Roman Polanski, whose The Fearless Vampire Killers (Dance of the Vampires in Britain, 1967) introduced a number of twists on the theme, including a Jewish bloodsucker ("boy have you got the wrong vampire!" he chortles as his female victim uselessly thrusts a crucifix towards him), some remarkably enthusiastic girl victims, and - because the two heroes are male - a homosexual vampire. The mixture of thrills and laughs was patchy but marked a new departure in that the conventions of the genre were affectionately lampooned as opposed to the cheap cracks of Abbott and Costello, who reduced Dracula to an inept straight man.
Soon there was a bandwagon onto which directors jumped. In 1970 The Vampire Lovers - based on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla - took the love/death bite analogy a stage further, and the same year saw topless lesbian vamps in Lust For A Vampire. As a result of Shaft, the growing cult of black-oriented movies could not ignore the Count, who re-emerged as Blacula (1972) which crudely exploited blacks, homosexuals, sex, and sadism. This coupled with increasingly shoddy cash-ins, marked the lowest point to which Bram Stoker's inspired creation sank. Perhaps the final twist was supplied by Andy Warhol in his Paul Morrissey- directed Blood For Dracula (1974). This version had the Count as a vegetarian! Visually faithful to the Lugosi concept of the smooth Continental, it was bloodier and quirkier than any other version, with Dracula a sad figure, undead long past his rightful era, perplexed by a permissive and corrupted world.
Dracula and his vampiric acolytes had come a long way from that
castle in Transylvania; has preyed on many and varied victims;
assumed many forms; died many deaths; achieved many miraculous
resurrections. But no matter what liberties filmmakers took with
him, he retained his power to thrill and disgust and shock; to
strike at man's most fundamental fear - that of having the life-blood
drained away from him while, all unknowing, he sleeps.