There’s a big difference between Dracula movies and vampire movies. Dracula is always a vampire, but not every vampire is Dracula. That’s a bit of an understatement. Ever since Nosferatu was made in the silent era, people have been perennially fascinated with bringing Bram Stoker’s historic and histrionic novel to cinematic life, with wildly varying results.
The story is now a part of the larger pop culture zeitgeist. Jonathan Harker, Mina, his fiancée, Quincy the Texan, and Van Helsing are the original monster hunters and their exploits are not unfamiliar to us, thanks to movies, TV, comics, radio, stage plays, and of course, the novel itself. Written in the form of epistolary correspondence from person to person, the novel is accused of being overly romantic, and is most famously analyzed as Stoker’s reaction to the influx of immigrants to Great Britain at the time and a cautionary tale of the dangers of these dark, mysterious, swarthy men ravaging the fair maidens of England.
Xenophobia and Jingoism aside, the novel is a great read, and the movies are...well, a mixed bag. I don’t think of them as scary; not anymore. I know the story too well. So, I’m basing this list on how well the story gets across in the movie as an adaptation from the novel. That puts all of these movies on a relatively level playing field. Comparing them this way really highlights the author and director’s intent in an objective way that is easy to compare. Mind you, none of them get it totally right, but maybe if we mashed them all up together, we’d get a Frankenstein version of Dracula that would hit every note.
For many, this is the gold standard. Bela Lugosi, reprising his role that won him acclaim on the stage, became is most identifiable character, so much so that he is the de facto face of Dracula for Universal Studios to this day. His stilted accent, the most famous lines, and even his almost affected mannerisms remain staples of the character in nearly every incarnation.
No effort was made to give the story any sense of history. Instead, this Dracula is set in the 20th century. And in the interest of time, characters are combine or dropped entirely. As adaptations go, it’s pretty loosey goosey, but what it has going for it is the gravitas of being the first real source of inspiration for all of the other Dracula films. The special effects are pretty rudimentary, and so Todd Browning wisely decided to lean heavily on Lugosi instead.
One of the best scenes in the movie is when Van Helsing and Harker are observing Mina and in walks Dracula, a wolf amongst all of the sheep. It’s here that they repositioned the gag about vampires not showing up in mirrors, and it works well. The Dracula/Van Helsing early meeting would show up again and again in other movies, but we never get to see it in the book. For upping the tension in an already tense moment, you can’t get much better than having your villain pop into your living room.
This lavish adaptation starring Frank Langella as Dracula and Sir Lawrence Olivier as Van Helsing has a lot going for it; a musical score by John Williams, a screenplay co-written by W.D. Richter, and some really gorgeous visuals that fill up the screen. But this Dracula is very self-aware and presents a kind of post-modern commentary on what had become at the time a number of hoary old clichés. This is a little ironic to me, because the screenplay is much less an adaptation of Stoker’s novel and much more yet another version of the stage play that created all of those hoary old clichés in the first place. Just listening to Van Helsing and Dracula banter, and hearing Langella’s quip-like reply to Van Helsing’s offer of wine, is a real strong indicator that they are doing it different than before, and on purpose.
Langella, his collar open wide at the throat and his perfectly coiffured hair, looks more like David Copperfield than a turn-of-the-century aristocratic nobleman. Whilst keeping up the pretense that Dracula is a historical epic, Langella looks more like he wandered in from some Deney Terrio disco movie. The movie is much more emphatically romantic rather than scary, even though there are some startling special effects shots that still hold up.
I like this Dracula precisely because it’s a reaction to the stereotype. If you watch all of the sequels that Lugosi and Lee made, you can get a little numb to the idea. This version of Dracula was supposed to be the antidote to that repetition.
The Horror of Dracula (1958)
Now we’re getting somewhere. Christopher Lee played Dracula more times than any other actor. I’m not really sure that he added overmuch to the role, especially after that fifth or sixth turn, but one thing is certain: he nailed the character right out of the gate with his first effort, The Horror of Dracula.
Hammer Studios were a legendary and storied studio of the 1950s, easily as influential as Universal was in the 1930s and 1940s. They used color, blood, and sex to capture the teen-aged dollars of the day, with great success. And really, if you’re going to do Dracula any justice, it needs all three to really work. In all honesty, it seems that there’s one or two scenes in every single Hammer film that drag on interminably, so some heaving bosoms and garish crimson blood are just the thing to wake you up after all of the talking.
Lee’s Dracula revels in his power, taking full advantage of creative make up to change him from a member of the aristocracy to a bloodthirsty monster. And opposing him, in conversation and combat, is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing; it’s note perfect, and they would do this dance over and over again in various sequels. As far as accurate, well, the castles are better, and London more fully realized, but it’s still light on the book and heavy on the play and the Universal movie, which had entered into the popular culture lexicon by this time.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974)
This TV movie version of the story is also known as “Dan Curtis’ Dracula” and with good reason; at the time this movie was made, Dan Curtis was the guy behind a little soap opera called Dark Shadows. He directed this version, using a script provided by Richard Matheson at the top of his game and, unbelievably, Jack Palance in the role of Dracula.
You can tell, almost right away, that it was directed by a soap opera guy. Every meaningful glance is preceded by a zoom in to a tight close-up, and a musical sting, just in case you missed the swoop in. So, yes, there’s romance galore in this version as well. But there’s also some stuff from the books that makes it into the screenplay for the first time in a Dracula film. Matheson has to condense the story (they all do), but he managed to get a lot into a tight story, starting with setting the movie in the 1890s. I also like that the standard meeting between Van Helsing and Dracula is absent once he gets to London. Now they are just chasing the vampire, just like in the book. Of course, Matheson was just coming off of a massive success writing The Night Stalker, so everyone’s vampiric bona fides were in order.
You might think Jack Palance an odd choice for Dracula, but wait until you see him. He’s an imposing physical presence almost at once, and his saturnine features are more like Lugosi’s than you might expect. His strength is considerable, and he frequently crashes through doors instead of turning into mist or a bat, and that only adds to his ferocity. There are even a couple of genuinely chilling moments when Dracula reveals himself to Jonathan Harker. Matheson provides a clever tie-in at the end of the film to the historical Dracula, as a nod to Stoker’s influence, and because, well, he’s Richard Matheson and that’s what he does. If you haven’t seen this version and you’re a Dracula fan, go check it out, as it does not disappoint.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Well, nearly. This one is certainly the closest to the book version of Dracula, and yet, it’s also the furthest away. It’s probably the most successful Dracula movie in recent times, largely thanks to an all-star cast that includes Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, Gary Oldman as Vlad the Impaler, Tom Waites as Renfield, Winona Ryder as Mina, and lest we forget, the director of this epic was none other than Francis Ford Coppella.
This Dracula is wildly entertaining and draws its vampiric shenanigans from nearly every other Dracula movie that preceded it. There’ Nosferatu-like shadow play, bright red blood and bodices in the Hammer tradition, and method acting out the wazoo as Oldman rocks a Hungarian accent that never becomes a parody of Lugosi, but is obviously meant to connect this movie to its roots.
What does it get right? Well, for starters, we get Quincy the Texan and the rest of the gang, a first for something like this. He’s even got his bowie knife. The production values are of the highest caliber, and the whole movie feels like a lavish historical period piece, which it certainly is. That’s unfortunately where everything starts to go awry.
Remember how I talked earlier about the interpretation of Dracula being a polemic railing against foreign men ravishing White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Women? Well, that’s the road this version of Dracula takes, only instead of sublimating those fears, they laid a thin veneer of sex down over the entire movie. Lucy and Mina are initially seen giggling over the naughty woodcuts in The Arabian Nights. Harker (underplayed by Keanu Reeves) is seduced by Dracula’s brides rather than fed upon. Lucy isn’t taken by Dracula so much as she’s mated with Dracula—in wolf form, no less. Dracula seems to excite the women to a noticeable frenzy before feeding on them. Coppola’s point being that the Victorians may have been hung up on things like sex, but they were also inundated with it. This is a facile and immature handling of the material, and I find it more distracting than helpful.
Some of the imagery is inspired and violent, but again, not very scary. I think Coppola’s stunt casting, mostly in form of Reeves and Tom Waites, gets in the way of just telling the story. And while we have connections to the historical Dracula, which is nice, the emphasis lies on Dracula reclaiming his reincarnated bride in the form of Mina. Despite all of the above problems, Oldman’s Dracula is intense, complex, and terrifying as well as charming and urbane. Easily the most complex portrayal of the character to date.
For the newcomers: This is part of a larger series of articles. You can find all of them here.