The following was written for episode 26 of The HorrorCast Podcast, where Marknado, Walshy, and I delved into Universal’s first three Dracula films, 1931’s Dracula, 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and 1943’s Son of Dracula. The full episode can be listened to through iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud through the Phantom Podcast Network.
Legends of vampires and their countless variations can be found worldwide and they essentially share the same basic formula: a corpse rises from the grave to drain the blood of the living. Certain beliefs surrounding the vampire are likely the result of a misunderstanding of the decaying process: blood trickling from mouths of a corpse is actually decaying fluid leaving the orifices, drawn back lips emphasize the canines, gases can create a hazy, ghostly-looking fog over recently buried graves. If someone had a dream that the recently deceased returned, should they open the grave they would find ample evidence that the dearly departed has been up to some iron-infused shenanigans. The remedy was generally to stake the body – not to kill it but to nail it to the coffin, and to cut off the head and place it by the feet so the reanimated corpse couldn’t sit up to retrieve it. Sometimes the ribs would be broken to fetch the heart to burn it or a brick was placed in the mouth to keep it from feeding. In movies, and in particular Dracula films, these practices are seen as long forgotten and archaic remnants found only in the remotest reaches of Eastern Europe. However, few realize that these practices happened in America too, including in my own home state of Connecticut (in Griswold and Jewett City) where many bodies have been excavated and found to have been desecrated in a manner consistent with vampire killing. These bodies date from the 1830s and 1850s – hardly ancient history.
And of course, blood has always been seen as life-giving, from the Aztecs painting their temples with it to appease the Sun-god so as to make him rise to the Countess Elizabeth Bathory bathing in young women’s blood to attain everlasting youth.
The vampire was conceived in literary form on the same stormy night as Frankenstein’s abomination. While Mary Shelley planted seeds of her masterwork her host Lord Byron conjured up a vampiric tale. His doctor, John Polidori, took the reins and published The Vampyre in 1819. The vampire seemed modeled on the libertine Byron himself and no doubt influenced Stoker in his creation of the Transylvanian aristocrat. Female sexuality of a particularly lesbian variety entered vampire literature in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, published in 1872.
Stoker took inspiration from these earlier works and created one of the single most iconic characters in all of fiction. No other novel has been adapted for the screen than Dracula, published in 1897, on the cusp of the 20th Century, and only Sherlock Holmes has appeared as a character more often. Rather than a backward looking work of fiction, as many adaptations have seemed to characterize it, Dracula was actually a novel that dealt very much with new technology entering contemporary life. Victorians were obsessed with the idea of progress and civilization in opposition to our base humanity and our beastial desires. Robert Louis Stevenson tapped into this in his 1886 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Instead of one man’s struggle, Stoker pits modern civilization and its gadgets against an ancient evil, bred from the shadows of superstition, which has come to prey upon and corrupt good, sensible Englishmen and, of course, English women and their delicate, chaste sensibilities. Unfortunately too few films depict the best parts of Stoker’s novel, such as Lucy Westenra’s transformation into the “Bloofer Lady”, preying upon children.
Dracula, at least in name, first appeared on film in the now lost 1921 Death of Dracula, a Hungarian film which bore little to no resemblance to Stoker’s tale. The first true adaptation was F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, Nosferatu, with Max Schreck playing the iconic, rat-like Count Orlok. Murnau keeps the basic structure and makes Dracula even more animal-like than he is in the novel. Unfortunately for the brilliant filmmaker, the adaptation was unauthorized and he lost a legal battle with Stoker’s widow, and all copies were ordered destroyed. Of course, not all copies were and we can still enjoy this haunting masterpiece today.
In the 1920s Stoker’s novel was adapted for the stage and became a smash hit. Carl Laemmle Jr., who had recently been given control over productions at Universal, had a love for horror that his father didn’t share. Jr.’s first big project was to put Dracula on the big screen, and soon investors were excited when director Tod Browning and the celebrated Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, both signed on. Unfortunately, Chaney died of a throat hemorrhage before filming could begin, and the studio settled for the very cheap Bela Lugosi to play the Count, a role which he had played to great acclaim on the stage. The film would take its cues from the Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston stage version, stripping the story down to its barest elements. Though certainly not the strongest of Universal’s horror films of the era, 1931’s Dracula is the first talky horror film and gave us so many of the Gothic tropes we’ve come to associate with the genre – elements like spooky castles, cobwebs, and bats which would have been familiar to 19th Century Gothic literature but had yet to make their proper debut in American film. It also marks the first American horror film which plays the supernatural straight – Dracula is not an imposter, and this is not a dream. American films had had a habit of explaining away the supernatural through worldly means, unlike their European counterparts.
Dracula was an enormous financial success and Bela Lugosi became the defining image – in looks, sound, and manner – of the Count, despite being more suave and debonaire than the literary version. The theme of an aristocrat exploiting and preying upon working class victims struck Depression era audiences, however subliminally. Lugosi’s vampire was a mix of Stoker’s creation and the sexual connotations that the word “vampire” had in film up until that point. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s “vamps” were predatory, seductive women – Lugosi created the predatory, seductive man. It appeared to work, as women fawned over Lugosi, and even the actress Clara Bow initiated a sexual affair with him.
The film would spawn multiple sequels: Dracula’s Daughter (1936), starring Gloria Holden; Son of Dracula (1943), with Lon Chaney, Jr.; House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), both with John Carradine; Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), with Lugosi once again donning the iconic cape.
For a decade after, the character Dracula lay mostly dormant before being resurrected in vivid colors by Hammer films, this time being depicted by Christopher Lee. Adding more blood, fangs, and, thank the dark lords, cleavage, increased the coupling of sexuality and violence – is there really any wonder as to why Dracula has remained so popular?
The Hammer cycle would last nearly two decades before Universal again returned to the Count for 1979’s Dracula, starring Frank Langella in the Count’s most romantic, reputably sexiest outing – and the farthest cry yet from Stoker’s ugly, almost beastial creation. The same year saw Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu. In between, Dracula would battle everyone from Billy the Kid to Batman, and even receive a blacksploitation counterpart in the form of William Marshall as Blacula (1972). Dracula or his likeness (or at least Bela Lugosi’s likeness) have appeared in every other form of media, from television to comic books. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola produced and directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Gary Oldman, with stunning visuals and an operatic sensibility, it remains one of my personal favorites.
Dracula is a character that is redefined for every generation – sometimes he’s sympathetic, even attractive, and sometimes he’s a repulsive monster. Vampires reflect different fears at different times, from Victorian fears of damnation through the sinful temptations of the flesh to more modern fears of sexually transmitted diseases or commentaries on class conflict, where a parasitic oligarchy drains the life and resources of the lower classes.
In the 1920s Sigmund Freud introduced two opposing concepts that would come to be called Eros and Thanatos, Eros being the drive for survival, sex, and other creative pursuits and Thanatos being the death drive, which goes against our instinct of self-preservation and leads us to acts that would bring about our demise. Like many of Freud’s ideas, controversy surrounds this concept today, but it nevertheless has a poetic element which at least in part seems to ring true, and perhaps no monster offers a corporeal form to these contrary but nevertheless powerful drives more than the damned, cold-wrapped corpse of the vampire.
Vampires can both repel and attract us. Despite knowing it’s wrong, that hurting people just to perpetuate our own existence or to satisfy our urges is morally reprehensible, there’s that part of us that considers giving into the curiosity, even at the peril of our life, soul, should it exist, or ethical self-worth. Perhaps an undeath outside of God’s salvation is worth the promise of immortality, power, and profound appetites with the abundant resources to satiate them. Light, after all, can be oppressive, exposing, judgmental, whereas the dark can offer freedom, obscurity, and solace. If Milton can make a hero of Satan in Paradise Lost, can we not make a hero of the vampire? What other monster do we regard with as much fear as we do jealousy? Who better embodies these contradictions more than the Count himself, Dracula?