By: Ali Moosavi
As Netflix’s Dracula TV series debuted recently, it’s fitting to look at the origins of the vampire count in cinema and evaluate his latest reincarnation.
Count Dracula, the Prince of Darkness, is one of the most enduring screen antagonists. He came years before Michael Myers, Jason, Freddie Kruger, et al and has outlasted all of them. Furthermore, unlike the aforementioned characters, he has been the subject of many distinguished film makers including F.W. Murnau, Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola. After the publication of the Dracula novel by Bram Stoker in 1897, the first cinematic introduction of the count was in Nosferatu (1922) by F.W. Murnau. He had to use an alias for Dracula and other characters in the novel because Stoker’s widow would not give him the rights to the novel. Max Schreck played Bram Stoker’s Count, renamed Orlok in this version, which is one of the prime examples of German Expressionist Cinema.
The first time the name of Bram Stoker’s creation was included in the title was in Dracula (1931) directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi. For cinema goers of my generation though the definitive Dracula was, is and forever will be Christopher Lee. He first appeared in the title role in Dracula (1958). I cannot think of any other actor who has so singularly been defined with one role. Lee has played characters as varied as Frankenstein’s Creature, The Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Rasputin and Mohammed Ali Jinah, the founder of Pakistan. But once anyone mentions Christopher Lee, the first image that comes to mind is him wearing a cape, with bloodshot eyes and opened mouth revealing fangs ready to bite the neck of a beautiful girl! One of the main reasons for the longevity of this image is the influence of Hammer Films. This studio, whose main product became known as Hammer Horror, was so effective in conjuring an atmosphere of true dread and horror that the images from their films tended to stick in the mind and psyche of cinema goers for a very long time. Hammer Films benefited from having a regular core team who were experts in the horror genre. These include director Terence Fisher, screen writer Jimmy Sangster and cinematographer Jack Asher. The first Hammer Dracula film adapted Bram Stoker’s novel in a brisk 82 minutes. It was so successful that Christopher Lee reprised his role a further nine times, mostly for Hammer Films. These included a couple of comedies sending up the famous vampire character: One More Time (1970) directed by Jerry Lewis and, in Lee’s last appearance as the Count, in Dracula and Son (1976) directed by Edouard Molinaro of La Cage aux Folles fame.
In the height of the Black Exploitation movies in the seventies, Blacula (1972) was made by William Crain with William Marshal as the title character. It was a hit and was followed by Scream Blacula Scream (1973). William Crain also went on to make Dr Black, Mr Hyde (1976)!
Dracula also provided a character to poke fun at by comedy writers. In addition to the aforementioned films by Jerry Lewis and Edouard Molinaro, Love at First Bite (1979) directed by Stan Dragoti and starring the suave George Hamilton as the count, proved a big hit. Hamilton’s usual deep sun tan however somehow conflicted with the character of a vampire afraid of the sun! Mel Brooks also had a go at satirizing the Count in Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) with Leslie Nielsen as Dracula and Brooks himself as Dracula’s nemesis, Van Helsing.
In 1979 two films about Dracula received critical acclaim. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre with Klaus Kinski as the Count and Draculadirected by John Badham which received plaudits for Frank Langella’s portrait of the infamous vampire. This latter film also started a trend of distinguished actors playing the role of Dracula’s chief nemesis Van Helsing, here played by Laurence Olivier.
One of the most elaborate, and both critically and financially successful film featuring the vampire Count was Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) with Gary Oldman as Dracula and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing. At 128 minutes it was also one of the longest to that date. Though relatively short on scares and placing more emphasis on romance, it had many pluses, among them Wojciech Kilar’s atmospheric music, the rich and expressive photography by Michael Ballhaus and the performances of the leading actors.
We then had Dracula 2000 (2000), later re-titled Dracula 2001!, with Gerald Butler as Dracula and Christopher Plummer as Van Helsing. The first TV serialization of Bram Stoker’s novel, Draculawas done in 2013 as in ten parts with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the Count. Dracula Untold (2014) followed with Luke Evans playing the title role.
Now we have a new TV series in three 90 minutes parts, simply titled Dracula with Claes Bang of The Square fame playing the very enduring Count. The writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have a long track record in writing of crime/fantasy TV series including Sherlock, Doctor Who, Poirot, Jekyl, League of Gentlemen, etc. Each episode of Dracula has a different director. The creators of this new series were given ample screen time (270 minutes) and I guess a sizeable budget to make the definitive screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 415-page novel. So, what are the results?
Gatiss and Moffat have not so much adapted Stoker’s novel as re-written it. What remains from the novel is some of the main characters, with one major change in one of them, plus the first part of the book and one or two of the locations described in the novel. The three parts of the series could be titled “Meet Count Dracula”, “Dracula aboard a ship” and “Dracula in present day London”. Some of the basic laws pertaining to vampires, which have existed throughout the years, have been quashed or simply ignored. There is not a clove of garlic to be sniffed anywhere, crosses are only mildly deterrent, and vampires can see their image in the mirror, tough this image will be very different to that taken in a selfie! The most fundamental change though is in the character of Dracula. He is still a vicious, blood-sucking vampire but with a sense of humour, not too dissimilar to Hannibal Lecter. Also, being a Count, he is very eloquent and stylish. After a few bites though his behaviour becomes quite predictable, draining the series of suspense and scares. Lecter, on the other hand, had some unpredictably in his characteristics and actions which provided the Lecter films, specially The Silence of the Lambs (1991) with the high level of suspense which was a major contributor to their success.
Claes Bang portrays a handsome, charming, well-spoken, womanizing and ruthlessly brutal Count. On scare level though he is a few notches below Christopher Lee. One of the reasons is that he is in so many scenes that we get used to him and his behaviour. We know what to expect. This robs the series of the element of surprise. The second part is the most successful because of the claustrophobic atmosphere that the single location of a ship provides. By contrast, the concluding part, set in present day London, is the weakest. It focuses more on humour such as Dracula’s introduction to internet, WIFI and other facets of modern day living. This part becomes like any of aforementioned crime series that Gatiss and Moffat have penned. The blood and gore quota are very high while suspense and scares are at a premium. Claes Bang’s Dracula keeps uttering quotable pontifications about love, life, death and other earthly matters but this wears thin after a while. This Dracula is entertaining with high production values and a lead actor who brings a certain mix of charm, humour and brutality to the role. But, from my viewpoint this is very much an opportunity missed and I would not be looking forward to Season two.