Before the advent of the worldwide web and instant communications, only a tiny handful of pop culture characters achieved universal recognition, known to people in every corner of the globe. From their genesis on the printed page to cinematic interpretations on the silver screen, the names Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and James Bond became instantly recognizable to folks from Kalamazoo to Katmandu and all points in between. The fame of these fictional heroes greatly eclipsed that of their creators and those who played them on radio or film. But not just heroic figures attained such iconic status… Two villainous characters became household names, too: Frankenstein’s Monster, the stitched-together being brought to life by an unholy application of science, and that undead nobleman from the dark and mysterious Carpathian Mountains, Count Dracula.
Dracula, the vampire, was introduced to the world in the pages of Bram’s Stoker’s 1897 novel thusly: Within stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white mustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of color about him anywhere. He held in his hand an antique silver lamp, in which the flame burned without chimney or globe of any kind, throwing long quivering shadows in the draught of the open door. The old man motioned me in with a courtly gesture, saying in English but with a strange intonation: “Welcome to my house. Enter freely of your own will!” Later in the text the Count is described further: His face was a strong – a very strong – aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere… The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy mustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor. Stoker goes on to reveal Dracula’s horrible breath, so rank as to cause protagonist Jonathan Harker to shrink back in disgust, and that the palms of the Count’s hands are covered in thick, course hair. His ice-cold handshake is that of a dead man.
My own initial encounter with Dracula came as an 8-year old, in 1970, sitting cross-legged in the glow of the cathode ray with soda pop and Crackerjacks at hand. One of the local TV stations was running Horror of Dracula (1958) as a Friday night creature feature. From the moment Christopher Lee burst into the library of Castle Dracula, all fanged fury and glowing, hell-red eyes, hissing his wrath with bloodstained lips, I was totally hooked… and at such a tender age, just a little bit scared, too. I’d already seen Creature from the Black Lagoon and War of the Worlds but they hadn’t given me the willies quite like this. Perhaps it was because the monsters in those films were special effects or men in rubber suits, mere movie trickery obvious even to an impressionable child. But Dracula was different. He looked and acted like a human, like a man – although one who drank blood and slept in a coffin. Unlike Godzilla or Frankenstein’s creature, here was a monster one could become. As a vampire one wouldn’t even look all that different from one’s normal self. Family and friends would be the first victims… Would eternal life be worth such a nightmarish existence? On the other hand, would it really be all that awful to be Dracula? He has superhuman strength, dresses to the nines, has his own castle and a bevy of sexy vampire babes at his beck and call. Cool! Appropriately enough, that long-ago first viewing of Horror of Dracula made me a both a horror and Dracula fan for life. I sought out every vampire film running on TV (this was long before cable or even VCRs), eventually encountering such black and white classics as the original 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. (To be truthful, the old Universal monster flicks had far less of an impact on me than the Hammer horrors did. They just didn’t seem as scary. The blood wasn’t red, when there was any blood at all, and Drac never even showed his fangs! As a young kid I was in no position to appreciate their aesthetic qualities or historical significance within the genre.) I vividly recall sneaking out of bed on school nights to watch Dracula – Prince of Darkness and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave whenever they were run on the CBS Late Movie. Soon I was old enough to go to the movie theater by myself, where a steady stream of flicks like Blacula and The Return Of Count Yorga (two of the better Dracula imitators) were playing. Thirty-five years later the fascination – and fun – continues.
Literally hundreds of Dracula films have been made all over the world since F.W. Murnau’s silent Nosferatu in 1922. The popularity of the character alternately waxes and wanes with the times but, like the Count himself, can never truly die. Dracula has been such a permanent fixture of the culture that he’s long since become a ripe, and all too easy, subject for parody. Yet even muppets (Sesame Street’s “The Count”) and breakfast cereals (Count Chocula) couldn’t put a stake in his black, undead heart. This is due the best of the Dracula films, which give the character his lasting power and immortality. Of all those who’ve played him, the two actors most identified with Dracula are Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. For the majority of Baby Boomers it is Lee who made the greatest impression in the role, playing the part seven times for Britain’s Hammer studio between 1958 and 1973. Lugosi officially played Dracula only twice (in the 1931 film and the 1948 comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), yet his portrayal remains the cinematic icon. He was technically the first, branding the character with his own weird charisma. (Nosferatu used Stoker’s novel as a template but its rat-faced vampire was named Count Orlok, not Dracula.) Show a photo of Lugosi in high-collared cape and tuxedo to just about anyone on Earth and the name “Dracula” will instantly spring to their lips.
There is some degree of irony in this. Of the many, many Dracula films made over the past eight decades, only one (to my knowledge) actually attempted to physically portray the Count as his creator Stoker envisioned him. Lugosi’s Dracula and the Dracula of the Hammer films do not look like the character as described in the passages from the novel presented above. Despite the title of the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola version, it was Spanish director Jess Franco who truly brought Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the screen. In his 1970 film El Conde Dracula, the Count is shown as the black-clad, mustachioed old man of the novel who later, as he preys upon his victims, grows steadily younger-looking. Christopher Lee played the part for Franco in between Hammer gigs, chiefly because it was to be a faithful interpretation that hewed as closely as possible to Stoker. The script didn’t exactly work out that way, though, taking a few liberties, and the production was hampered by an inadequate budget. The 1977 BBC telefilm Count Dracula remains the closest of all film adaptations to the original source material, though French actor Louis Jourdan, in the title role, looks nothing like Stoker described.
Another made-for-TV version, the Dan Curtis-produced Dracula (1973) starring Jack Palance, began the trend of blurring the fictional vampire with his historical namesake, a 15th Century Rumanian warlord who fought the Ottoman Turks. Stoker took the name (which translates to “Son of the Devil”) and approximate geography as inspiration for his novel, but very little else. The Palance film and Coppola’s opulent 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula give a tip of the hat to historians Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, whose first work on the “real’ Dracula was published in 1972. Films in this vein posit that the historical Dracula became a vampire after death; in the Coppola version he’s a Christian warrior fighting against Islam, only to be damned for cursing God.
In more recent offerings, filmmakers have made the most (too much, really) of CGI to emphasize DracuIa’s shape-shifting abilities. Elaborate makeup effects, which turn vampires into almost werewolf-like beings, have remained a staple of horror flicks ever since Fright Night and The Lost Boys in the 1980s. But regardless of how he’s presented, or what technologies are used to do so, Count Dracula will enjoy a long, long life on the silver screen – not to mention books, stage plays, comics and videogames. I have no doubt that a hundred years from now, when the likes of 007, Harry Potter and Tarzan the Ape Man are but dim, distant echoes in the pop culture zeitgeist, people will still be reading Stoker’s novel, still be watching Dracula films. After all… he’s immortal.