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The Complete On-Screen History of Dracula

The Complete On-Screen History of Dracula

Universal Pictures was a champion of horror in the 1930s and ’40s, building a rogue gallery of creeps known as the Universal Monsters. They included Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the hirsute Wolf Man. Now, the studio is returning to these complicated villains, hoping to build a new shared universe with filmmakers Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan. The first, Kurtzman’s The Mummy starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella, debuts in June of 2017. In anticipation, we are revisiting the history of Universal’s supernatural antagonists, beginning with horror’s most famous vampire, Count Dracula.

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Dracula became a household monster in 1931, when Universal released its seminal horror flick of the same name, directed by Tod Browning and starring Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi in the title role. It is Lugosi’s Dracula that spawned legions of cape-wearing devotees and what some consider the first true goth rock anthem.

Dracula’s origins, at least as a vampire, begin with an Irish writer and theater manager named Bram Stoker, who, in 1897, released one of the gothic horror genre’s most important novels. Simply titled Dracula, the novel is an epistolary work, told in the form of letters and journal entries penned by various characters. The story follows Dracula’s move from his castle in Eastern Europe to England, where he preys on the friends and fiancee of Jonathan Harker, the very solicitor that trekked all the way to his castle to help him with his real estate deals. Rude! With the help of vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, Harker and his friends are successfully able to defeat Dracula and save Harker’s betrothed, Mina Murray, from becoming Dracula’s immortal bride.

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Stoker’s novel took inspiration from other vampire fiction, likely including The Vampyre (1819) by John Polidori—a contemporary of writers Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelly and Frankenstein author Mary Shelly—and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), in which the titular character is a vampire who lusts after her best friend, Laura. Stoker snagged the name and pieces of his vampire’s origin story from a voivode (ruler) of Wallachia (once a region of Romania), Vlad III Dracula. This particular prince, who derived his name from his father, Vlad II Dracul, was perhaps better known as Vlad the Impaler as impalement is allegedly how he dealt with his enemies.

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As Stoker was not the first writer to delve into vampire lore, Universal was not the first studio to attempt a Dracula picture. In 1922, filmmaker F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was released, starring actor Max Schreck as Count Orlok. Though the name of the key villain was changed, and though the film used the word “nosferatu” in place of “vampire,” the plot was very similar to Stoker’s work. It was so similar that Stoker’s widow, Florence Stoker, sued and demanded every print of the horror masterpiece be destroyed. (Fortunately for us, a print survived.) Universal sought the appropriate licenses to make their film, which they, in part, based on another appropriately licensed and successful stage play written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. When the play hit Broadway in 1927, Bela Lugosi had been cast as the eponymous bloodsucker. Both Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan, who portrayed vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, reprised their stage roles in the Universal film.

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Stoker described Dracula as an old man with a long, white mustache; a thin nose; a domed forehead; bushy eyebrows; and a “cruel-looking” mouth with “peculiarly sharp white teeth.” Yet after Dracula feeds, Stoker noted, he appears younger. Nosferatu‘s vampire, on the other hand, was a weasel-faced beast with long, gnarled fingers. But Lugosi’s Dracula was an alluring and mysterious Transylvanian aristocrat with a penetrating gaze. He wore his now iconic suit and cape, his dark hair slicked back off his forehead, his eyes expertly narrowing when Van Helsing presses him about his hatred of mirrors. (Vampires, of course, do not have a reflection.) Also notable was Lugosi’s delivery: slow and deliberate, with much mimicked pauses.

For instance, the film and the novel differ in that in the film, it is the character Renfield, not Harker, who first visits Dracula’s castle. Renfield is presented as a solicitor, like Harker, who goes mad after his encounter with the vampire. In both versions, Dracula treats his guest to dinner and a glass of wine. In the novel, Dracula tells Harker, “You will, I trust, excuse me that I do not join you, but I have dined already, and I do not sup.” Yet in the film, Lugosi simply informs Renfield, “I never drink…wine.”

Get it? Dad-ula only drinks blood. This line, with Lugosi’s key pause, was so popular that it worked its way into the play, as well as into Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). In the latter film, Dracula (Gary Oldman) issues an even longer pause before uttering “wine.”

Dracula was a commercial and critical success, which led to more films surrounding the vampire. Universal released a sequel titled Dracula’s Daughter in 1936 that commences directly after the events of Dracula. In the film, Dracula’s daughter, Countess Marya Zeleska (Gloria Holden), tries to free herself from the vampire curse. In 1943, Universal released Son of Dracula, in which Lon Chaney Jr. plays vampire Count Alucard. (Flip Alucard around and see what you get.) In 1944 and 1945, Universal released House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, respectively. These films feature several of the Universal monsters, but Chaney, Jr. plays the Wolf Man while John Carradine portrays Dracula. Both films revolve around a “mad scientist” character and his interactions with the monsters. Bela Lugosi was cast as a different vampiric count in MGM’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) and reprised his role for Universal for the last time in 1948, but this time in a horror-comedy: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

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While Dracula the character flourished, Lugosi felt type-cast by the role, often only appearing in horror films thereafter. “I am definitely typed, doomed to be an exponent of evil, but I want sympathetic roles,” he once lamented. “Then parents would tell their offspring, ‘Eat your spinach and you’ll grow up to be a nice man like Bela Lugosi.’ As it is, they threaten their children with me instead of the bogey-man.” Towards the end of his life, Lugosi began working filmmaker Ed Wood—often considered one of the worst filmmakers of all time—with footage appearing in Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. Lugosi died of a heart attack at age 73 in 1956, and is buried in Culver City. He was buried in his Dracula cape at the request of his wife, Lillian.

Over two decades later, in 1979, rock band Bauhaus released their first single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” It is an ominous, sparse, yet insistent track in which the chorus repeats, “Bela Lugosi’s dead” followed by “undead” several times. Writer AJ Ramirez rhapsodizes the track, saying, “Listening to ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ provides the rare opportunity to hear a style of music emerge fully-formed. Sure, there were clear influences (David Bowie) and important predecessors (Joy Division). But on that 1979 release, Bauhaus pulled all that had come before it together to present something unique: goth.” And to be fair, there is little more enduring in the counterculture of goth than the immortally lonely vampire. 

Luke Evans in Dracula Untold. (Universal Pictures)

In the 1950s, Hammer Film Productions took over the Dracula machine, featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in several films. Gary Oldman portrays him in the sexier Coppola version of 1992, in which Dracula’s infatuation with Mina is tied to the loss of his love when he was still human. In Dracula 2000, Gerard Butler plays an even sexier Dracula. The film is set in 2000, and features a descendant of Van Helsing who must track the vampire down after a group of thieves unknowingly awaken him. The tale mostly unfolds in New Orleans, the same city where much of Anne Rice’s vampire lore takes place. And yes, there is a Dracula 3000. It takes place in space, because of course it does, and Coolio is in it. Luke Evans plays Vlad the Impaler in Universal’s Dracula Untold (2014), which tells the story of how Vlad became a vampire and leaves the door open for a modern-day sequel.

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Of course, Dracula hasn’t always been a serious foreboding presence, as Universal presented in their Abbott and Costello vehicle. Leslie Neilson plays the Count in the 1995 Mel Brooks comedy Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Count Chocula sells cereal to children, while Sesame Street’s Count Von Count teaches kids—what else?—how to count. Voice actor Jerry Nelson modeled Von Count’s voice after Lugosi. In perhaps this writer’s favorite iteration, Rudolf Martin played Dracula in the season 5 premiere episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fellow vampire Spike mocks Dracula’s powers, claims Dracula owes him money, and asserts that the legend of Dracula has done more harm for the vampire community than a vampire slayer ever could. “His story gets out, and suddenly everybody knows how to kill us,” Spike complains.

Yet through all iterations, Lugosi’s performance and the 1931 film remain the most iconic. The film was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2001, who called it “one of the all-time horror greats.”

Which Dracula is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below. 

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