When most people think of Dracula, they think of a sexy older man with a tuxedo and widow’s peak. But were vampires always sexy beasts or was this iconic vampire figure pure Hollywood magic? Tonight I review two iconic vampire movies.
I’d like to say that I’ve always had my nose to the ground re: vampires I’ve written college papers on them, I write a comic with one and more than a few writing projects (which might one day see the light of day) feature my favorite monster: VAMPIRES. They were one of my first fears, and one of my first fascinations. From Bela Lugosi to John Carradine, to Leslie Neelson, I adored every incarnation of Dracula (save the Wes Craven version. Sorry.). How then had I not until this point see where cinema first met Dracula.
Thanks again to TCM’s ever wonderful October Lineup. I got a chance to finally see Nosferatu for the first time. It’s a silent film that came out of Germany in 1922. It was very much based on the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula, but being unauthorized, the creators changed the names of all the characters, set it in 1850 Germany and hoped no one would notice; Stoker’s widow noticed and sued the director. Courts ordered that all versions of Nosferatu be destroyed. But a few copies in the United States escaped destruction due to legal loopholes and thankfully saved this brilliant film.
It’s your typical silent film, where actors are hugely pantomiming everything in the manner of Victorian stage actors. The Rennfield Character “Knock” was a hoot, and the Johnathan Harker character, Hutter was suitably tragic and pathetic. In this, we see Dracula as closer to how Stoker envisioned him: Ugly, old, repellent and devoid of all charm. Up to this point, barring a few Penny Dreadful novels (cough Byron), this is how vampires had been portrayed for centuries. Crude rough slavering beasts with demonic visages. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Orlok fits this character to a tee and is genuinely creepy and horrifying. In this version, he’s a bringer of plagues and wanton destruction. He uses his long filthy nails to pierce his victims neck. And sure, it’s all goofy as all getout, but scares are there, especially Hutter’s stay in Orlok’s castle.
I highly recommend this film if you’re looking for a different sort of Dracula story, and wondered how our culture envisioned vampires before Hollywood gave them a makeover.
As iconic as Nosferatu was for the cinema, so is Bela Lugosi for vampires in general. As I said, vampires for centuries were always seen as rough hairy cannibalistic monsters. In fact their lore was almost intertwined with werewolves, and Lycanthrope was the name used to describe both types of monsters. Stoker even mentioned things like how hairy Dracula’s hands were, how heavy his eyebrows were, his pointed sharp nails, snoutish nose, and rank breath.
Bela Lugosi changed all of that. He was our first introduction to the dapper gentleman vampire. Lugosi started his career off by playing Dracula on Broadway in an authorized stage adaptation of the book. It cut out a lot of characters (mostly the Lucy storyline), had the genius idea to make Rennfield Dracula’s ill-fated realtor and later his thrall, and cut out the final chase back to Transylvania. Hollywood decided to use this tailor-made version in their movie and the sexy cinema vampire was born. Younger Bela (who, lets face it, was pretty enthralling) had the presence, the voice, the double jointed fingers, the whole package. And the trope of vampire was never the same. Now the vampire was charming, mysterious, alluring.
The new vampire didn’t necessarily need magic to captivate people, he had a smoldering stare doing half of the work. A wonderful contrast to his brother, the smash-and-grab werewolf, here was a patient monster who could bide his time. After all, he was irresistible. And with that trope, came the new form of vampire story, the story of the siren song of pure lust, suppressed passions longing for exploration, and the fear of the unknown and unrestrained. When handled subtly and deftly, it can be crafted into beautiful stories of love and longing and darkness.
When handled poorly, we get soppy romance books like Twilight, and spanking material like Wes Craven’s Dracula. So, as we see, the sexy gentleman vampire is a double edged sword.
Closing remarks: I love both of these films, but for closeness to the book and best feel-good vampire movie? Mel Brook’s Dracula Dead and Loving it. It keeps in the Lucy storyline (which I think is pivotal to the plot), keeps the Mina story with the right amount of tension, and has the very best Van Helsing. Just my two cents.
I leave you with Dwight Frye’s Laugh. Sweet Screams, everyone.