Bram Stoker’s nineteenth-century novel ‘Dracula’ continues to live on in the movies

In the works: two new adaptations of the vampire novel and a prequel novel that will be made into a film.

Bram Stoker’s legendary 1897 creation Dracula is perhaps one of the most filmed fictional characters in history, appearing in no less that 272 movies as of 2012. More than a century after the original novel was written, two adaptations of Stoker’s Gothic horror are currently in the works. Sherlock writers Steven Moffat and Mike Gatiss will work on a BBC adaptation. The Witch director Robert Eggers will also take a crack at the material with a remake of FW Murnau’s German Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922), an unofficial version of Stoker’s novel.

Stoker’s great grand-nephew, Dacre Stoker, is also co-writing an authorised prequel, in which 21-year-old Bram Stoker meets some of the strange creatures that he later writes about. The movie adaptation rights for the book, which is expected in 2018, have already been sold. It director Andy Muschietti slated to helm the project.

Contemporary audiences might never have gotten to see Murnau’s horror classic if Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe, had had her way. Murnau and Nosferatu’s producers decided not to buy the rights of Stoker’s novel, and changed the movie’s setting from Victorian England to 17th century Germany. The original ending was altered too. Vampire hunter Van Helsing was edited out and Count Dracula became Count Orlok. One of the changes contributed to the most well-known cliche of vampire movies: that the undead die when exposed to sunlight (they only weaken in Stoker’s novel).

However, Balcombe sued the producers, who were already bankrupted by Nosferatu’s poorly planned marketing campaign and couldn’t mount a legal defence. A German court ordered all prints of the film to be destroyed. But just like the titular bloodsucker, Murnau’s Nosferatu refused to die, surviving through bootlegs and eventually going to be recognised as a bona fide classic.

Nosferatu (1922).

Director Robert Eggers was attracted to the film for the haunting performance by Max Shreck as Nosferatu. “I saw a picture of Max Schreck as Count Orlok in a book in my elementary school and I lost my mind,” Eggers said in an interview. German iconoclast Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu in 1979 as Nosferatu The Vampyre, about which he said there was “no better German film” as a way to connect with his grandfather’s generation.

“Because the German film-makers who preceded us were all either exiled or put in concentration camps or sided with the Nazis,” Herzog explained in an interview, “my generation had no fathers and no legitimacy: we were orphans.” The director’s version also had a fantastic performance at the centre by Klaus Kinski as Orlok. The film includes several shot-for-shot recreations of the original, a haunting atmosphere and surreal sequences.

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu.
Werner Herzog's Nosferatu.

Herzog’s version was achieved without the hardships faced by Murnau’s film. By then, the Stoker novel had fallen safely into the public domain.

Lucy is portrayed by French actor Isabelle Adjani. Herzog was able to increase the violence and heighten the novel’s sexual undertones, which Murnau was unable to do because of censor codes. The film’s ethereal atmosphere is further aided by the otherwordly tones of score by Florian Ficke (of the Krautrock band Popol Vuh). All of these elements come together perfectly in the film’s best sequence, in which 11,000 rats were used to simulate the effects of plague and complete destruction.

Herzog later explained the allure of the vampire: “For me, genre means an intensive, almost dreamlike stylization on screen, and I feel the vampire genre is one of the richest and most fertile cinema has to offer. There is fantasy, hallucination, dreams and nightmares, visions, fear, and of course, mythology.”

Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979.

An urban legend attempted to explain the power of Nosferatu. Was Max Shreck in fact an actual bloodsucker? “Who hides behind the character of Nosferatu?” film critic Ado Kyrou asked in 1953. “Maybe Nosferatu himself?”

This premise was used as the basis of the meta horror comedy Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Murnau (John Malkovich) is depicted as a dictatorial erfectionist who will go to any lengths to get the perfect shot, even offering his leading lady to a real-life vampire so he can get a realistic performance from Willem Dafoe’s Shreck.

There have been several more faithful versions of Stoker’s novel. In 1931, Tod Browning, who would go on to make the cult classic Freaks (1932), made Dracula. Six sequels followed, but none were as iconic as the original which cemented Bela Lugosi’s image as a sympathetic vampire and brought the hidden sexual undertones of the novel to the surface.

Dracula adaptions have always needed a charismatic actor to tie everything together. Dracula (1958), starring Christopher Lee, is no different. Before his acting career flourished, Lee was told that he was too tall to be an actor and too foreign-looking to make it in Hollywood. Both those features were perfect for the vampire from Transylvania. Lee went on to portray the coffin-loving creature from the undead in close to a dozen movies.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
Bela Lugosi as Dracula.

Perhaps the oddest incarnation of Stoker’s aristocratic creation came in the blaxploitation classic Blacula (1972). Many things could have gone wrong with a film with such a jokey title. Instead, the vampire myth becomes a smart metaphor for the slave trade. Eighteenth-century African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) travels to meet Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) to sign a petition against the slave trade and help him bring his country into the modern world. The vampire is, in fact, a closet slave trade supporter, and turns Mamuwalde into a vampire and locks him inside a coffin. In 1972, two antique dealers bring the coffin to Los Angeles, where Mamuwalde chases the reincarnation of his long-lost love while wreaking havoc on the landscape. The film sparked off a chain of blaxploitation versions of Gothic horror classics, such as Black Werewolf (1974), Dr Black, Mr Hyde (1976) and Blackenstein (1973).

Blacula (1972).
Blacula (1972).

The closest adaptation of Stoker’s novel is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version, featuring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves. Coppola used inventive tricks to create the special effects. The sumptuous costumes were by Japanese costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who won an Oscar for her effort.

Because Coppola wanted to do all the special effects, which he said numbered a million, on camera without post-production, he wasn’t taken seriously. He fired his camera department and hired his 24-year-old son Roman Coppola, a magic enthusiast, to perform the complex stagecraft. The duo used techniques that would not be out of place at the time of Nosferatu’s production: using mirrors to create different perspectives, rear projection, and playing the film backwards.

The script by James V Hart preserves the epistolary nature of the original by including multiple narrators and constantly changing the point of view from which the story is told. However, it is not entirely faithful to the original, swapping the novel’s men-on-a-mission arc for a Gothic romance.

The greatest strength of Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is Gary Oldman’s tragic performance as Count Dracula. Oldman’s vampire transforms from what looks like a 90-year-old woman to a mysterious young man prowling the streets of London for his love Mina (Ryder). The movie proved once again that the beating heart of all Dracula films is the prowess of the man who plays the vampire.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).
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