Dracula at 100

There lay the Count...the mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran over the chin and neck...It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood; he lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion. -- From Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897).While scores of literary characters have managed to leap off the written page and invade other facets of our pop culture-saturated society, few have been as omnipresent as Dracula, the vampire created by Bram Stoker exactly a century ago. Robinson Crusoe may have journeyed to Mars in a 1964 cult flick; Tom Sawyer's name may have been invoked in a popular Rush song; and Long John Silver's moniker may have been modified to suit a well-endowed porn star. But what other fictional creation has been reincarnated on so many occasions and in such unorthodox manners that he's been depicted not only as a fearsome creature of the night but also as a grinning breakfast cereal cartoon and as a cuddly puppet on a children's TV show? For a guy who's been tagged the Lord of the Undead, Dracula has demonstrated that he still has plenty of life left in him.It was May 1897 when Stoker's Dracula was first published, meaning that you can expect all manner of moonlight madness to take place during this centennial celebration. A conference titled "The Dracula Centennial: The Aesthetics of Fear," featuring such notables as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, was held in March in New York. The Museum of Modern Art presented "CineDracula," a film festival that wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, while Los Angeles will host August's "Dracula '97," a conference in which close to 100 literary critics will read papers centering on the bloodthirsty Count. Other events are scheduled to take place in Boston and Philadelphia, while DC Comics will present a Young Dracula comic book later this year.Why has Dracula remained such a popular icon decade after decade? Leonard Wolf, for one, has some answers. Wolf, generally considered the world's most authoritative Dracula scholar, has spent close to three decades studying not only Stoker's character but the history of vampires in general. A New York resident, he helped organize the aforementioned MOMA film retrospective, and is the author of A Dream of Dracula (1972), The Essential Dracula (1993) and the newly released Dracula: The Connoisseur's Guide, a comprehensive tome that explores the legend's origins and analyzes its influence on western culture."The great works of literature are often those that seem relevant to each new age," states Wolf. "With Stoker's Dracula, we had what was perceived at the time as a fairly straightforward story about a creature who simply represented evil. He was basically like the villain in an adventure yarn. Over time, though, people of each generation have been able to rethink the meaning of the story in light of their own contemporary experiences. As a result, the novel has been laden with all sorts of symbolism.""The meaning of Dracula changes with the times," agrees John Crane, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at UNC-Charlotte and the author of Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film. "The character is no longer a figure of horror; instead, he's now a misunderstood romantic hero. But it's the same with the horror genre in general. When people pay $50 to see the play The Phantom of the Opera, they're certainly not going to see a horror story; they're going to see a romance. Likewise, Dracula is no longer a scary figure; he's now a Sesame Street character who teaches kids how to count."This dilution of the vampire legend can be blamed not only on the changing times but also on the way the myth has been perpetuated to American audiences by the entertainment industry. "What most of us know about vampires comes from the movies," assesses Wolf. "For example, the traditional vampire folklore in Central Europe holds that if you commit suicide, speak blasphemously of God, or even are mean to your parents, you might turn into a vampire and come back to feed on members of your own family. You rarely see this angle in movies; instead, they generally tend to romanticize the idea of vampires by presenting a sensual person who only preys on beautiful members of the opposite sex."Cinematically speaking, it didn't start out this way. The first Dracula film of note, F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, presents what is inarguably the most hideous vampire in film history -- a scrawny, slumped figure with deadened eyes punctuating a rat-like face. Played by the appropriately named Max Schreck (which means "terror" in German), this is a creature of pure evil, and Murnau's decision to present him in this light allows Nosferatu to retain its standing as the creepiest of all vampire flicks. (Even Werner Herzog's 1979 remake -- a fine film in its own right -- presents the bloodsucker as a creature to be pitied rather than despised.)But it was 1931's mellower Dracula that really launched the character as a viable movie icon. "Today, it's pretty much agreed that the 1931 version of Dracula is a bad film," offers Wolf. "The dialogue is stilted, and the movie itself isn't very well made: You can even spot two armadillos wandering across the set at one point. But this is certainly the film that stamped the definitive image of Dracula in our minds -- probably for all time -- and that's because of Bela Lugosi. He had those peculiar penetrating eyes, that marvelously resonant voice that suggested an ancient European wisdom, and an aura of suppressed exoticism."But what's interesting about this film," continues Wolf, "is that you can already see how Dracula is shifting from being this satanic monster to emerging as a romantic figure who's entitled to audience sympathy. Also, these vampire films were becoming more explicit in terms of their erotic content. For instance, Horror of Dracula (1958) starred Christopher Lee as this aloof and commanding vampire who was placed in warm, rich settings draped with marvelous Persian rugs and surrounded by beautiful young women with noticeable decolletages." Wolf himself has had some first-hand experience when it comes to celluloid horror yarns: He served as a consultant on both Kenneth Branagh's underachieving Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) and Francis Coppola's controversial Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). But even though he was involved with Coppola's interpretation of the classic novel, he's quick to point out that the movie has flaws. "Coppola's film is certainly the most explicitly erotic film ever made of Dracula," he explains, "but it fails to fulfill the promise of the original story. In terms of plot, it includes nearly all the elements found in the book, but it shifts the principal theme to make Dracula a sympathetic character. Suddenly, he's this hero who's been faithful to his one true love for hundreds of years. It's a wonderfully visual film, but it's not Stoker.""I think Coppola's version is one of the worst vampire films ever made," opines Crane. "It's embarrassingly mawkish. It's all about costumes and hairstyles: In those rare instances when Gary Oldman (who plays the title character) looks unappealing, it's not a matter of evil, it's simply a fashion mistake."For my money, Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of the most entertaining of all Dracula movies, a hyperkinetic, technically proficient experience that pays tribute to the motion picture form itself (as witnessed through Coppola's imaginative use of timeworn cinematic conventions) even as it reinvents the vampire legend for contemporary audiences. For example, the movie's talk of "tainted blood" can easily be taken as a metaphor for our AIDS-infected times -- a symbolic nod that Wolf is quick to note."As I've said before, this story endures because it has a different meaning for each generation. But if there's one overall reason for its continued popularity, I'd say it probably has to do with the meaning of sex in our own lives. For some people, the vampire's embrace is beautiful because it's a non-phallic gesture. The phallic expression of love can feel intrusive; by contrast, there's something awfully soothing about being able to unite with someone else through a tiny bite on the neck. It's an intimacy beyond an ordinary embrace: Through the blood exchange, it allows someone to enter someone else. On the other hand, some feel that it represents an attack on one's individuality. This physical intrusion makes us realize how powerful an element blood can be, which in turn fits perfectly into the reality of AIDS."Like Wolf, Crane notes how each era produces its own period-friendly Dracula pictures. "I think that both Blacula (1972) and Andy Warhol's Dracula (1974) are interesting because they appropriate the Stoker tale for completely different sub-cultures. Blacula manages to inject the legend into the black community, while Warhol's film makes it fit into the gay culture of 1970s New York. It's fascinating how each film managed to create its own version of the vampire myth."While numerous elements of Stoker's novel have been transformed over the years, one of its most powerful themes has been left largely within the confines of the printed page. "Dracula was actually a very religious book," insists Crane, "but that Christian theology has been lost over time. The only person who has maintained any measure of the original meaning is Anne Rice in her Vampire Chronicles. Unfortunately, her dedication has led to some God-awful writing."Wolf believes that the religious aspect has survived, albeit in a toned down manner. "Even in this secular age, many people find their religious hunger satisfied by this image of good people armed with crosses routing a creature of Satan. But Stoker was certainly very conscious of the religious content of the novel when he wrote it. Christian lore runs throughout it. For example, Jesus Christ promises eternal life in the service of heaven, while Dracula promises eternal life in the service of hell. Satan has to be invited into a person's heart before he can do damage; Dracula has to be invited into a person's home before he can do damage. And the character of Renfield (Dracula's crazed assistant) is constantly quoting the Bible and referring to Dracula as 'the Master,' in effect making him the antithesis of John the Baptist."The image of an anti-Christ of sorts can be handled as long as it remains safely in a fictional realm. Still, the obvious question persists: Do vampires really exist? Only in the mind, believes Wolf. "There are humans with deep, psychological problems who fancy themselves as vampires. In fact, they're members of a culture that's buried within other cultures. You see, there's something called the 'Gothic Scene' that's taking place mainly in cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. It's sort of a replay of the Beat Generation, where young people dressed in dark clothes and went around looking unhappy. And among this group, there are some who like the imagery of the vampire, and wear plastic fangs and such. And beyond that, there are a few who are sadists or masochists and practice blood-drinking in their sexual activities. That's the extent to which vampires exist."Crane agrees with Wolf's assessment. "Some of these people are very strange. But they've formed a lot of on-line groups, and their dialogues are often fascinating."As Crane notes, the mythology of the vampire has indeed invaded the computer age with a vengeance. A Web search turned up 17,764 stories that contained the word "Dracula," while a similar search for the word "vampire" yielded 46,955 results. There were sites devoted to vampire poetry, artwork, short stories (including one called "Prozac and Vampires: The Hidden Connection"), Vlad the Impaler (the historical basis for Dracula), the works of Anne Rice, and, for reasons unknown even to God, several spots touting Mel Brooks' rancid Dracula: Dead and Loving It. There were a couple of sites devoted to "psychic vampires" (who "suck the auras from around a being instead of sucking the blood out of the being"), and one area known as The Liquid Evil Darksite even went so far as to offer a "Human/Vampire Compatibility Test."As the wide range of sites attests, Dracula fans come in all shapes and forms, from the casual film fan with a fondness for Christopher Lee pictures to the diehard cultist who enjoys a little climactic bloodletting before dawn breaks. And like Dracula himself, these folks refuse to let their passion go quietly into the night. As Crane points out, "As long as these people can access AOL, the myth will live on."Sidebar: Down For The Count: Drac Dreck On Tape & TVWhen Bram Stoker passed away in 1912, he couldn't possibly have known that the motion picture medium (still in its infancy at the time) would go on to savage his most famous creation, apparently for all eternity. Here are 10 colorfully titled movies that have borrowed Stoker's basic premise and then set off down their own paths; most are guaranteed to have the author spinning in his grave.Andy Warhol's Dracula (1974). This isn't in the same atrocious league as Andy Warhol's Frankenstein (also 1974), but that's like saying that a month-old loaf of bread isn't as unappetizing as a year-old one. Inimitable Udo Kier (My Own Private Idaho, Breaking the Waves) plays the lustful Count, who hangs out in an Italian castle supping on virgin blood. Look for directors Vittorio De Sica and Roman Polanski in small roles.Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1965). Frequent Dracula impersonator John Carradine heads out West and rustles whatever he can get his fangs on. Crane represents the majority view by claiming this is a "truly horrible film," but Wolf admits that he has a "particular fondness" for it. For a logical video double bill, rent this in tandem with the same year's Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter; both were directed by the notorious William "One-Shot" Beaudine.Blood of Dracula's Castle (1967). One of the all-time worsts, this finds the Count and his mistress chaining shapely young women to the cellar walls in order to maintain a steady blood supply. This also features a werewolf, a hunchback, and living corpse John Carradine as the vampire couple's faithful butler.Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). Mel Brooks' 1974 Young Frankenstein is arguably the greatest horror comedy of all time, which makes this spectacularly unfunny film all the more depressing. Brooks himself plays Professor Van Helsing, while Leslie Nielsen portrays the bumbling Count. Where's Dom DeLuise when you really need him?Dracula's Great Love (1972). Spanish actor Paul Naschy was an international horror star during the 70s, appearing in every sort of genre flick known to man. Here, he portrays a rather hirsute Count in a low-grade film that also made the rounds under the titles Cemetery Tramps and Dracula's Virgin Lovers.Dracula Sucks (1979). As the title suggests, this is an X-rated feature starring such notables of the porn biz as Seka and Kay Parker. But it deserves trivia inclusion since its cast also includes Reggie Nalder, who portrayed the hideous vampire in the same year's effective TV mini-series Salem's Lot (based on the Stephen King bestseller).Old Dracula (1974). David Niven, looking too tired to be having any fun, chases Playboy bunnies around his castle; hilarity supposedly ensues when a blood transfusion turns him into a soul brother. Embarrassing and badly dated.Rockula (1990). A teen vampire (Dean Cameron) anxious to lose his centuries-old status as a virgin starts his own rock band in this would-be comedy that features appearances by real-life rockers Bo Diddley, Thomas Dolby and Toni Basil.Son of Dracula (1974). Not to be confused with 1943's atmospheric Son of Dracula (with Lon Chaney Jr.), this musical-comedy-horror yarn stars Harry Nilsson as a bloodsucker with a penchant for crooning. Ringo Starr (who also produced) heads up the supporting cast. This is the only title on this list not available on video; when is Comedy Central going to jump on it?Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (1978). Also known as Dracula's Dog, this finds a vampiric mutt heading to LA to search for the late Count's unsuspecting descendant (Michael Pataki). A bloodless bow-wow.-- Matt Brunson
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