Articles and Essays

Vampire Movies Bite Back

Filmgoers can't get enough of this legendary bloodsucker


Tom Soter

The lid of the coffin creaks open. Slowly, ever so slowly, thin, bony fingers grab the side of the box. Evil hangs in the air like a cobweb. The lid comes up - and suddenly, an elegantly dressed man in a tuxedo and flowing black cape is before us. His piercing eyes are red and his smile is inviting as he speaks with the silky manners of a well-heeled diplomat. "Good evening," he purrs in an oh-so-odd yet familiar accent. "I…am Dracula." He smiles again, this time showing his teeth. "I bid you welcome."

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. The vampire is back.

Ever since Bram Stoker introduced Dracula to the world in 1897, the undead count and his followers have literally refused to stay down, appearing in books, plays, radio programs, ballets, cartoons, comic strips, TV series, commercials, and of course, movies. Next month, Tom Cruise stars in a big-screen adaptation of Anne Rice's best-selling 1976 novel, Interview With the Vampire. This will be followed by A Vampire in Brooklyn, starring Eddie Murphy, and possibly a sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), reportedly about vampire-slayer Van Helsing.

Interview With the Vampire tells the story of an 18th - century Louisiana plantation owner Louis, who is 'vampirized' by a bloodsucker named Lestat. The book, a soap opera in which all the main characters are undead, substitutes blood lust for sexual desire, as Louis and a female vampire named Claudia roam the world in search of happiness.

One critic called the hugely successful novel "Lolita with fangs," but the screen version may be less dense. Rice herself has complained about the movie, especially the casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat ("Hollywood is destroying my book," she said). Nonetheless, the Warner Bros. Release will generate sparks, if only because it's directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game).

Nearly a century after his first appearance in print, Count Dracula and his legions continue to fascinate. At the 1977 Broadway opening of the play Dracula, starring Frank Langella, a woman was overheard saying, "I'd rather spend one night with Dracula, dead, than the rest of my life with my husband, alive."

Certainly Bram Stoker never dreamed that his creation would attain such popularity. But vampires touch a subconscious nerve. As Walter Kendrick noted in his book The Thrill of Fear, vampirism makes "the horror of death and dying…safe; it is turned into a celebration of being permanently alive, forever immune to decay."

Vampires are part of a long, literary tradition (The Vampyre, 1819; Varney the Vampyre, 1847) in which eroticism was closely associated with horror. In choosing vampirism, Stoker was also tapping into myths that had held sway for centuries as explanations for plagues and other illnesses.

But in the Victorian era, the idea of vampires took on other meanings as well. "To enter the castle of Dracula is to enter the Victorian mind, upstairs and downstairs, with all its sexual contradiction and complexities," wrote David J. Skal in Hollywood Gothic. "Dracula read today is first and foremost the sexual fever-dream of a middle-class Victorian man, a frightened dialogue between demonism and desire."

Stoker, an Irish born stage manager, had been writing for years before he concocted Dracula (original title: The Un-Dead) in 1897. The name for his villain came from the 15ht century Prince Vlad V of Wallachia, known as both Vlad the Impaler (because he impaled foes on stakes) and Dracula (Rumanian for "son of the devil"). The details of Dracula's native Transylvania, which the author never visited, actually came from a guidebook.

The novel was an immediate success, but Stoker died before seeing what he wrought. The first great vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922), was based on his book and set the creepy mood for future tales, but it was Dracula (1931) that established the traditions.

It was here that we were first shown the vampire as a disarming creature of the night, quite unlike Stoker's cadaverous old man with pointed ears, bad breath, and hairy palms. As played by Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi, the count "glides across drawing rooms and crypts with equal aplomb; no charnel house air clings to him," Kendrick observed. "Lugosi attempted to evoke ideas of aristocratic corruption rather than the literal rot of the grave."

Lugosi himself was a far cry from the creepy count. In private, he was the quiet and soft-spoken, a man who liked good cigars, longed to play comedy, and wept when he heard Hungarian folk melodies. Nonetheless, the actor effectively transformed himself into the eerie character.

In the process, however, he ruined his career. After Dracula, he was hired for nothing but ghouls. "Where once I had been the master of my professional destinies, with a repertoire embracing all types of men…..I became Dracula's puppet," he lamented. After many vampire roles and even the indignity of a Las Vegas act in which he stepped out of a coffin, he died in poverty in 1956.

Although Stoker's novel laid out the vampire legend, Lugosi's film popularized it's now familiar elements: the coffin in which the vampire sleeps during the day; the young women who must be saved from becoming a vampire; the disbelief of vampires until women and children start dying, drained of blood; and the mesmerizing power of the count, who can also appear as a bat or a wolf but cannot be reflected in a mirror.

It was also Dracula that first made general audiences aware of the many ways to ward off or kill vampires (garlic, the cross, the stake through the heart, sunlight) and heard the lines that have since been much parodied ("I do not drink….vine").

But success soon bred excess, and vampire films appeared by the score in the following decades. Overexposure made the horror hackneyed, causing the vampire more damage than any ray of sunlight. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) poked fun at his habits (Bud: "You make enough noise to wake the dead." Lou: "I don't have to wake 'im up. He's up"), and TV's "The Munsters" turned him into a Jewish grandpa. One movie even included a title song that warbled, "My son the vampire will leave you pale / He drinks your blood because he doesn't like ginger ale." By Blood of Dracula (1957), the vamp had gone camp, as a neurotic teenage girl finds herself transformed into a bloodsucker by her mad science teacher.

It took England's Hammer Studios to save the count, transforming him into a sexy seducer, a James Bond with fangs, whom women eagerly embraced. With tall, slim Christopher Lee as Dracula, the character became the ravenous creature of the night. "Dracula is tremendously sensual," explained director Terence Fisher. "This is one of the great attractions of evil."

Indeed, Horror of Dracula (1958), the initial film in Hammer's series, explicitly lays out what was implicit in Stoker's vampire novel: the danger of giving in to sexual desire. It also offers blood-drenched chases, a wild fist fight and spectacular effects, including an ending in which the vampire, forced into the sun, explodes into dust. Critics were appalled ("This film disgusts the mind and repels the senses," said one), but the movie made a mint, and more quickly followed.

By the 1970s, however, the novelty of sex and violence had grown thin, so some producers decided to make the vampire sympathetic. He was shown as an angst-ridden character cursed with a compulsive disease not unlike alcoholism. The TV soap opera "Dark Shadows" (1966 - 71) transformed the undead sinner into a near saint, depicting its popular vampire star Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) as a heroic figure, his predicament separating him from the one he loves.

Other films followed suit. In Blacula (1972), a centuries old black vampire (William Marshall) is a noble figure with an incurable disease that forces him to kill or die. In The Hunger (1983), starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, vampires are seen as seductive but lonely outcasts, frightening but frightened of being alone. And in the parody Love at First Bite (1979), the courtly George Hamilton's romantic, Old World values make him less a force of evil and more an oasis of sanity among the chaos that consumes urban life.

Even Christopher Lee felt that Dracula had changed with the times. "I think he's a very sad person," observed the actor. "He's not a hero but an anti-hero in many ways. He has a tremendous ferocity and power, but he doesn't always have it under control."

By the 1992 and Bram Stoker's Dracula, the vampire had become a Byronic hero, a fanged Romeo searching for his Juliet among the bloodless corpses he leaves in his wake. "Above all, it is a love story between Dracula and Mina - souls reaching out through the universe of horror and pathos," claimed the director Francis Ford Coppola. "He's been portrayed as a monster or as a seducer, but knowing his biography made me think of him as a fallen angel."

Such were also the feelings a Anne Rice, whose Interview With the Vampire and its sequels introducing a new generation of walking corpses. Stoker's vampires, she wrote in Psychology Today, are "presented as close to animals. But I always saw them as angels….finely tuned imitations of human beings imbued with this evil spirit."

Devil or angel, Dracula and his ilk will always hold an ambivalent, deep-rooted fascination for audiences. Who can ever forget the thrill and the fear at seeing Lugosi's voluminous cape engulfing one sleeping woman after another? Or fell the disgust and the excitement as Lee's bloody mouth rises from his willing victim? Was there ever a nightmare more haunting than a good-looking monster that attacks while you sleep?

"Dracula is attractive precisely because he represents the dark side of our own natures," explained Leonard Wolf in Dracula: The film and the Legend. "We live in an age that admires energy and power, and we know more about erotic fantasies than may be good for us. No wonder we look up in fear at Dracula."

Dr. Dracula

Dracula lives - and in his latest incarnation he's a neurologist. Published last month, The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula (Hyperion) is an unusual take on the vampire mythos from an unusual source: first time novelist Roderick Anscombe, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Anscombe got the idea for the book after seeing a still of Bela Lugosi in the 9131 Dracula. "What did it take to bite through the neck to the carotid artery?" he remembers thinking. "I had been involved in head and neck surgery during my internship as a surgeon in London, and as I recalled the anatomy of the area around the sternomastoid muscle, it was clear to me that drawing blood would be a formidable task, even with fangs."

Using such realism as his benchmark, Anscombe has created a Dracula who is not supernatural but a tortured soul driven by love and strange obsessions. "I wanted my Dracula to be a full human being," he notes.

To make a vivid murderer sympathetic is not easy, but the author had a leg up on the task: He worked for two years as a staff psychiatrist at a maximum security hospital for the criminally insane. "I've had a couple of patients who had the same relish for blood," he told Publishers Weekly. "A number of s-called serial killers are interested in spilling blood or acquiring blood or seeing blood flow."

But he was also able to see the man behind the murderer, which ultimately helped him paint his realistic Dr. Dracula: "During breakfast, I would read the newspaper stories about a violent crime and then go to the hospital and talk to the man who committed it. I was struck by the disparity between the public accounts and the humanity. I was aware that the murderer was just another human being."

After watching 19 vampire movies for this article, freelance writer Tom Soter hopes his next assignment will be on the legend of Heidi. This article originally appeared in the October 1994 issue of Diversion.

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