Oct 6, 2016
Genre: Classic Horror
Director: Tod Browning
Summary: This is the origin of horror in cinema – the first blockbuster horror movie, the first sexy vampire, and one of the first major adaptations of a book that had a couple character names in common with the book and little else.
Engage, if you will, the idea of a time where vampires weren’t automatically debonair, suave, and sophisticated. Where casting a leading man as the vampire in a film wouldn’t just be unusual, but totally out of the question. Up until 1931, this was the world of fiction. The seminal vampire film at that time was Nosferatu, which had been withdrawn from publication following a lawsuit by the estate of Bram Stoker. Count Orlock –the villain of Nosferatu – was a hideous monster in line with the description of Count Dracula in the titular novel.
Universal first obtained the rights to Stoker’s novel to avoid a similar fate. Universal was hesitant to allow director Tod Browning the freedom to create a more artistic, less marketable film, leading to Browning being director only in name as he allowed the cinematographer to assume most directorial duties. To supply a market-ready story, they bought the rights to the successful stage production of Dracula to use as the basis of their movie, and they also bought a very different vampire. The lead actor was a tall Hungarian national with a voice like brushed velvet, and the plot revolved around romance more than horror. Universal wanted to cast a more well-known star as the count, but a combination of dogged persistence on the part of Bela Lugosi and the financial situation of the studio led them to cast the unknown stage actor.
And, thus, the modern vampire was born for $500 a week.
First things first – Dracula (the movie) and Dracula (the novel) have the following in common.
- A Transylvanian Vampire named Count Dracula
- A real estate agent name Renfield who is now in an asylum
- A doctor with expertise in the occult named Van Helsing
- A man named John Harker
- A Dr. Seward who runs the asylum where Renfield lives
- A woman named Mina
- A woman named Lucy
The rest is up for debate – there’s no complicated love quadrangle with Lucy and her suitors (in fact, Lucy doesn’t have any suitors), Dr. Seward is Mina’s father rather than one of Lucy’s paramours, Van Helsing and Dracula have far more interaction, Renfield is comic relief rather than a background menace, alongside many other alterations. But the movie is good; an over-the-top celebration of early cinema, with Lugosi chewing scenery and necks in equal measure. The film brought in more than twice its budget, and set the stage for the Universal Horror period by showing that horror was big business.
In the decades since, Dracula has been brought to the screen countless times, from Werner Herzog’s nihilistic adaptation of Nosferatu, to an updated adaptation of the stage play starring Frank Langella, to the hypersexualized – yet more faithful to the book – Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Moreover, vampires have become part of pop culture whether they’re punk rock Lost Boys or sparkling teen heartthrobs, whether upholding a Masquerade or telling the world their secrets as a French rock star. Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and even the late David Bowie took their turns as a silver screen vampire, and they have been hunted in turn by acclaimed actors from Olivier to Hopkins. Graphic novels have used vampires in their pages, both as antiheroes like Blade, and as a way of adding new layers to old characters – X-Men standard Jubilee is now a vampire, torn between her upbeat personality and need for human blood to survive.
Where the early literary vampires of Stoker and Polidori were monstrous in behavior and appearance, the vampire has since become a symbol of forbidden desire, a beautiful promise of eternal life and power at great personal cost. Some are tragic, romantic figures like Anne Rice’s Lestat, others are depictions of powerful predators – like the villainous Deacon Frost in Blade. All, however, owe a great debt to Bela Lugosi’s performance in the original vampire film, communicating sensuality and danger, familiarity and alien distance, all through an exotic accent and intense stare.