In 2009, Dublin City Council announced that Dracula by Bram Stoker was that year’s One City One Book choice. It was the fourth year of that excellent initiative, which is designed to get people reading a book associated with the capital during the month of April.
Its selection, made from suggestions by librarians and the general public, finally confirmed what many ordinary readers — but not always the snootier critics or the professional tastemakers — felt all along: that Stoker’s 1897 Gothic-horror masterpiece about the vampiric Transylvanian count, who comes to England in search of fresh blood, is this country’s greatest and most influential literary export.
Joyce and Beckett may have attracted more rarefied critical attention over the decades, but neither of them has sold as many books or had the staggering cultural reach of Stoker’s novel, especially on the screen.
There have been more than 200 films featuring Dracula. None of them has really been a completely faithful adaptation, instead cherry-picking elements of the novel, simplifying the plot and either combining or excising several characters. But the impact of the best of them is enormous and enduring. In fact, I’d wager many people were first exposed to the character in his various screen incarnations and sought out the book later.
That was certainly the case with me. My first Dracula, so to speak, was Christopher Lee in the Hammer films, usually shown late on Saturday nights on BBC One. But before Hammer’s 1958 Dracula (released in the US as Horror of Dracula) came along and injected as much blood and sex into the story as the censorship of the day would permit. The movies’ pre-eminent Dracula was Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Universal version that began the studio’s cycle of horror films.
In truth, the film hasn’t aged well. After a superbly eerie opening 20 minutes, it settles into a creaky, talky filmed version of the stage play, in which Lugosi had made his Broadway debut. Even Dracula’s death happens off-screen. Despite that, it’s a cinema landmark.
A decade earlier, there was German director FW Murnau’s extraordinarily creepy 1922 silent Nosferatu, an unauthorised version, starring the terrifying Max Schreck as the nightmarish, rat-faced Count Orloc. Stoker’s estate (the author died in 1912) sued for copywright infringement and won. Thankfully for film history, the court order that all copies of Nosferatu be destroyed wasn’t strictly observed and several prints survived.
Post-Hammer, there have been an awful lot of terrible big-screen Draculas, but also two dazzling ones: Universal’s lavish, gorgeous-looking 1979 version, directed by Saturday Night Fever’s John Badham and starring Frank Langella (see panel below), and Francis Ford Coppola’s grandly-titled 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (even though it was nothing of the sort), featuring a deliciously fruity Gary Oldman as the Count.
When people talk about Dracula on screen, they usually mean the big-screen films. What’s received less attention, however, is how Dracula has been a notable presence on television for more than 50 years. He’s set to be one again this Christmas/New Year when Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s lavish three-part version, starring Danish actor Claes Bang, hits BBC One. More about that presently.
British television’s first Dracula adaptation was a 1968 black-and-white episode of the ITV anthology series Mystery and Imagination. Denholm Elliott, more associated in his later years with avuncular characters, might seem an unlikely choice to play the vampire, but he made a very effective Dracula.
The play on the whole, on the other hand, is just middling. It’s a severely compressed version of the story and loses its way a little towards the end. It’s a fascinating curio, though, and is available in full on YouTube.
In 1973, American television producer-director Dan Curtis, most famous in the US for creating the vampire soap Dark Shadows, made an outstanding TV-movie version starring Jack Palance as Dracula. Sometimes known as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was written by the great Richard Matheson and was the first version to reposition the character as a tragic, romantic character who’s mourning his lost love, and to link Dracula to Vlad the Impaler.
Two decades later, Coppola borrowed these elements, as well as the title, for his own film. Trivia corner: the creators of the 1970s Marvel comic Tomb of Dracula, based the look of the character on Palance.
The most faithful television version — and for my money, still the best — is the BBC’s epic 1977 Count Dracula, by Gerald Savory. French star Louis Jourdan was imaginatively cast as Dracula, giving the character an air of world-weariness as well as menace. Frank Finlay was an excellent Van Helsing, while Irish actor Bosco Hogan played the hapless Jonathan Harker.
Count Dracula, which is available on DVD, is three hours long and follows the plot of the novel virtually to the letter. It also contains a scene from the book that no other adaptation up to then had featured: Dracula scaling the wall of his castle like a giant bat.
To modern viewers used to CGI wizardry, the practical effects used by the production, which was shot on video with filmed inserts for the exterior scenes, will inevitably look dated. But it’s gripping and powerful, and the woozy, dreamlike moment when Harker witnesses Dracula presenting his giggling brides with the gift of a baby to feast on is deeply unsettling.
Unfortunately, Stoker’s novel hasn’t been so well treated by television in the years since then. There was a two-part Italian miniseries version, alternately know as Dracula and Dracula’s Curse, in 2002, starring Patrick Bergin as a modern-day Dracula. It’s largely terrible.
Four years later, the BBC gave us a dreadful 90-minute version starring a wildly miscast Marc Warren, who’s too slight to be anyone’s idea of Count Dracula. In this pointless and nonsensical “revisionist” take, Dracula arrives in England on the pretext of curing Arthur Holmwood, a secondary character in the novel, of syphilis.
The short-lived 2013 NBC series Dracula, starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, also trampled all over the novel. Here, Dracula poses as suave American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson, who supposedly wants to bring electricity and other modern scientific wonders to Victorian London. In reality, he’s there to take revenge on those who betrayed him centuries earlier. It was axed after one season.
So what can we expect from television’s latest Dracula, which consists of three 90-minute episodes and has been made in conjunction with Netflix? According to Moffat and Gatiss, the primary aim is to make Dracula scary again.
This Dracula, said Gatiss in a recent interview, will be “the hero of his own story”, rather than a shadowy figure who flits in and out of it and is perceived mainly from the point of view of the characters who are trying to destroy him. It will follow Dracula from his origins in Eastern Europe to his battles with Van Helsing’s descendants and beyond.
We can probably take it, then, that it won’t be a completely faithful rendition of the book. But if Moffat and Gatiss can make good on their promise to recapture the primal horror that many adaptations have failed to, this could be a real treat.
Judging from the trailer, which comes with an advisory and features several extremely gruesome and creepy moments, they might just have pulled it off.
BBC’s three-part Dracula series starts on New Year’s Day, showing on consecutive nights
Universal’s lavish, big-budget 1979 film Dracula — which emphasised the romantic elements of the story as well as the horror — was released to great acclaim but only modest box-office. The critics were particularly taken with three things: the striking, charismatic lead performance by Frank Langella, who, like Bela Lugosi, had made his name playing Dracula on Broadway; the stunning set design by Edward Gorey, and the beautiful use of rich, deep colours.
Director John Badham, fresh off the success of Saturday Night Fever, originally wanted to shoot the film in black and white, to recapture the feel of the 1931 version, but was overruled by the studio.
When the film was re-released on widescreen laser disc in 1991, Badham altered the colour timing in order to desaturate it, giving the film a near-monochrome look. As someone who saw the original version in the cinema, I think Badham destroyed it.
On the rare occasions the film showed up on television, it was in this version, which was the only one available. The good news is that American video and music label Shout! Factory acquired the rights to the film from Universal and has just released a restored copy of the cinema version on DVD and Blu-ray.
For the first time in 28 years, one of the great, overlooked versions of Dracula can be seen the way it should be seen, in living (or if you prefer, undead) colour.