People can’t seem to get enough of vampires, these days. I used to dislike them when I was a kid, as I thought of vampires as the most “boring” of the horror movie archetypes (Frankensteins, Wolfmen, Creatures from Black Lagoons, etc). In recent years, however, I’ve come to appreciate vampire movies a great deal more, after delving into the glut of blood-sucker flicks that Hollywood’s been churning out since the 1920s. There’s a surprising variety of interpretations of the vampire, some more off-beat than others, and so I want to focus on a few of my favorites (and not-so-favorites) in this series of articles.
The earliest ones are pretty well-known, so I doubt I’ll hit you with many surprises in this first installment, but let’s get through this semi-chronologically…
Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)
Though F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu wasn’t technically the first vampire film, I don’t think anyone will argue that it was the first one that mattered.
An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it tells roughly the same story in a highly condensed fashion, opting only to change the names of the characters and the settings (Count Dracula became “Count Orlok”, Jonathan Harker became “Thomas Hutter”, etc). In fact, it nearly became a lost film when Stoker’s widow won a suit against Murnau which ended in the verdict that all copies of the film were to be destroyed. Copies survived and a landmark in cinema history was preserved. Suck it, bitter old lady.
The dichotomy between Nosferatu and the modern interpretation of the vampire in Hollywood (see: Twilight) is startling and it’s a juxtaposition you’ll find a lot of folks making. Count Orlok (portrayed by Max Schreck) is a vile and verminous creature with positively no sex-appeal whatsoever. It’s a stark contrast to the sympathetic, pale-faced pretty boys than Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer have popularized over the last few decades, but an interpretation closer to the classic myths about vampires and the undead. These are shambling corpses, not crybaby teenagers that need a tan, after all.
It’s hard to say anything that hasn’t already been spoken about Murnau’s Nosferatu; it’s perhaps my all-time favorite horror movie and a beautiful, chilling masterpiece of cinema from any objective point of view. Murnau’s use of shadow and substance is remarkable and, though you might not think of it this way 90 years later, but it is a veritable special effects bonanza. Well, for the ‘20s, anyway. It harkens back to a time when the medium was still in its infancy and savvy filmmakers were innovating visual trickery every day. In one of Murnau’s most clever implementations of visual effects, he takes Orlok’s black coach and drapes it in white for a single scene, then films it rushing through a forest in inverted, negative colors, creating a bizarre, spectral appearance.
If you’re planning on picking up a copy of Nosferatu, be warned: It’s a public domain film and that means you have to wade through a LOT of shit to find the best version. Avoid any budget releases that run for a $1 buck or as part of one of those “50 movies for $10” box sets. The most prominent public domain version is un-tinted and nigh-incomprehensible in picture quality, and even has a bizarre translation that reinserts the “Dracula” names for the characters.
The two best versions currently available are from Kino International and Image Entertainment (the two best companies when it comes to releasing silent films). I own both versions, and between them, I’d insist that you go with Kino’s release. It has more bonus features, but more importantly, it offers a better-written English translation of the original German intertitles. Both translations are accurate, but Kino’s uses more appropriate language, while Image’s translation tends to overuse words such as “creepy” that just don’t mesh with the setting. Additionally, Image’s version of the film has an obnoxious CG-animated opening sequence and if there’s one thing that should NEVER be added to a silent film, its CG animation. Go with Kino’s “Ultimate DVD Edition”. You’ll be glad you did.
Though it was released a year after Universal’s genre-defining film, Dracula, I prefer to think of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr as a necessary stepping stone between Nosferatu and the aforementioned Dracula. As a matter of fact, it was filmed in 1930 and 1931, and it’s being released after Dracula resulted in it getting booed out of cinemas and panned by critics because it did not fit with Hollywood’s new interpretation of the vampire. (Plus the fact that it was practically a silent film released in the age of talkies didn’t help.)
The story of Vampyr follows Allan Grey (Julian West), a young student whose studies in the field of devil worship (here we go) has drawn him to the rural village of Courtempierre. The village appears to be haunted like you wouldn’t believe, with ghosts and shadows running around all over the place. While following the shadows, Allan finds himself at the home of an old man (Maurice Schutz) who has just died under mysterious circumstances. Allan sticks around to keep his two sick and grieving daughters safe, but also to keep an eye on the creepy village doctor (Jan Hieronimko). Allan’s suspicions prove correct, as the doctor is actually a minion of an ancient vampire named Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard).
Dreyer’s Vampyr is all about setting a mood with subtle, discomforting imagery and bizarre surprises that will catch you off guard. In a way, the film almost feels “haunted”, as Dreyer includes spooky effects that will take you several moments to notice, but were there all along. One of my favorite sequences involves the camera following a stream, where the reflection of a person walking along the bank can be seen in the water. Your attention is so captivated by the reflection that it takes several seconds for you to notice that there isn’t anybody there for it to reflect.
Other sequences of note involve a scene where Allan enters an old house where the vampire Marguerite (who is more like a witch) brings all the shadows to life, and a very famous and elaborate scene where Allan has an out of body experience and witnesses his own funeral.
As I said before, Vampyr is practically a silent film, with minimal dialogue and music. That isn’t to say sound is ignored, as it plays an important part in emphasizing certain unearthly noises (if you hear anything, that’s usually because it’s important).
Like Count Orlok, Marguerite Chopin is of the “unattractive” variety, being pre-Lugosi and all. She’s more of a phantom than anything else, though the film makes it a point to illustrate that she’s a corpse escaped from her grave.
Vampyr has also fallen victim to shitty public domain releases here and there, but if you’re looking for the best version, snag The Criterion Collection release (#437). It comes with a lot of great bonus features, including a gallery of classic paintings Dreyer used as macabre inspiration for the film, and even a copy of Carmilla, the classic vampire story from Through a Glass Darkly which was another source of inspiration for the film.
Okay, I imagine most of you have seen this one, and if you haven’t, you probably ought to.
Tod Browning’s Dracula is quite a departure from the vampire films produced before it. In the original novel by Stoker, the Count began as a ghoulish old man with hairy palms that gradually became more attractive as he fed. Universal’s interpretation of the Count ignores that first half of his character arc and starts him out as a suave, alluring foreign dignitary. While I greatly prefer my vampires to be hideous monsters, I can’t deny the charm to this approach, as the handsome exterior hides the nightmarish creature within.
Browning’s Dracula is a visually mellower experience, too. Gone are the abundant special effects seen in Nosferatu and Vampyr which illustrated, on camera, the width and breadth of the vampire’s supernatural powers. Whenever Count Dracula does anything outrageous, it always happens off screen with the characters observing and describing it to the audience (“Wow! He just turned into a giant dog! You should really see this! It’s incredible!”). Dracula is often cited as bringing glamour and excitement to the horror subgenre, and while that first part may be true, it’s actually a less effects-heavy film than previous vampire flicks.
What Dracula really is, is a film defined by its performances; performances so memorable you’ll still find their influences lingering to this very day. Lugosi owned the role of Count Dracula, injecting a charisma into the character which the book never had (once the narrative leaves Transylvania for London, Dracula almost completely vanishes from the pages, at least directly). Dwight Frye’s Renfield, also, defined the character of “Dracula’s sniveling henchman” and you’ll usually see a parody of his performance clinging to most Dracula media.
Dracula actually isn’t my favorite of Universal’s “Classic Monsters”, in either characterization or film, but there’s no denying it’s a very good movie. Just not Tod Browning’s best movie. Browning’s best movie will always be Freaks.
Interestingly, there are a few different versions of Universal’s Dracula to choose from, but for convenience, they can all be found in the “Legacy Collection” DVD set released to coincide with that shitty Van Helsing movie we’d all be better off forgetting about. The original release of Dracula had no musical score, which made it a film that relied heavily on ambient sound, which was quite effective. Decades later, composer Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet performed a newly written score for the film, which is quite good, though occasionally a tad intrusive.
Lastly, there’s Spanish Dracula! Directed by George Melford, it was filmed simultaneously with Browning’s English language version, using the sets each night when he was done with them. It stars a Spanish-speaking cast (Carlos Villarias as the Count) but uses the same script and story flow. While the performances aren’t as memorable, the technical direction of the film is actually more exciting and elaborate than Browning’s Dracula, prompting many to cite the Spanish version as superior.
Whatever version you choose, you should probably be aware that the old “Legacy Collection” DVDs from Universal have been known to suffer from an accelerated deterioration issue; many have flat-out stopped working in recent years. On the bright side, there’s a Blu Ray coming out this year which I believe will have all three versions on it, plus Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.
Universal’s Dracula sequels
Following Dracula, Universal was quick to turn their most popular monster movies into sprawling franchises. While I enjoy the first four Frankenstein films and the Wolf Man has a surprisingly solid arc throughout his installments, Dracula wound up getting the proverbial shaft.
They followed Dracula up in 1936 with Dracula’s Daughter. It tells the tale of Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who hopes to cure herself of her vampire curse now that her father is dead. But she doesn’t and ends up dying at the end. Also, she’s bisexual, which was kinda weird for a movie from the ‘30s.
While it gets a lot of credit for its sexual themes (especially surprising, as this was a year after the Hayes Office’s Code took effect), it suffers from being really, really boring. Though Edward Van Sloan reprises his role as Van Helsing, he spends most of the film in jail for the murder of a Transylvanian Count (fun fact: “But the foreign diplomat was a vampire, I swear!” does not hold up well in court) and it’s up to the new leads to keep the story going. And they’re dull as dishwater.
1943’s Son of Dracula is the only one of Universal’s sequels that I enjoy, as it brings in a lot of fresh visual effects to the table and plays around with the typical vampire formula. In this one, Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.), the son of Dracula, comes to the American South to, I dunno, suck blood and stuff. He ends up taking a wealthy plantation heiress, Katherine (Louise Allbritton), into his thrall… But actually, it’s the other way around. She’s playing him so that she can obtain immortality, with plans to dispose of Alucard the moment she gets what she wants.
In an era where the only thing women were good for in horror movies was screaming, fainting and showing off their ankles, Son of Dracula turns the genre on its head by having the female lead outwit and manipulate the villain of the picture. It’s a welcome change from the usual vampire movie trope, where women are constantly victimized and relegated to hypnotism fodder.
There’s also a great deal of special effects involved in Son of Dracula, with this being the very first vampire movie to ever show the transformation from “man to bat” and vice versa on-screen. It’s a dated effect, sure, but very impressive for its day. There are also some other great moments, such as bullets passing through Alucard and killing the person behind him, a scene where he transforms from a cloud of mist and hovers over a swamp, and a grim death sequence for the villain at the end. Chaney’s performance isn’t very… good, but it doesn’t have much of a negative impact on the film.
The next two sequels are Universal’s two “House” movies, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, in which they bring Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man together. Incidentally, they bring them all together in a single movie and yet somehow manage to keep them from ever meeting one another. It’s remarkable.
By this point, Universal’s writers were playing very loosely with the continuity of the series, ignoring parts of earlier films that proved inconvenient. So even though Dracula’s corpse was cremated at the beginning of “Dracula’s Daughter”, it still shows up staked to a coffin in a carnival sideshow in “House of Frankenstein” for ease of resurrection. And even though he dies in that movie by exposure to sunlight, he appears dapper and none the worse for wear, without explanation, in “House of Dracula”. If you’re watching the films in sequential order, it might be a little irritating.
John Carradine plays Count Dracula and he tends to get some flak strictly for “not being Bela Lugosi”. That’s a tad unfair, and I felt he played the Count competently, but it’s just that he didn’t get a whole lot to do (especially in “House of Frankenstein”, where he’s barely in the picture at all). Sadly, he just doesn’t leave much of an impression, even with his snazzy moustache.
Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the last on the list for today, and famous for being the only time Lugosi ever reprised the role of Count Dracula. Unfortunately, it’s a goofy parody picture and his talents are really wasted on the part. Like the “House” movies, it also brings in the Wolf Man and the monster of Frankenstein, so he has to play second fiddle to not only Abbot and Costello, but those two other monsters, as well.
As a comedy, parts of the film are funny, but many of Lou Costello’s antics stretch on way too long and get really old, really fast. There’s also an extended sequence where Dracula stands in front of a mirror and has a reflection, which will no doubt bug the Hell out of you for the duration.
Honestly, I was more pleased with Vincent Price’s brief reprisal of the Invisible Man (he played the villain The Invisible Man Returns) than I was with Lugosi’s reprisal of Count Dracula.
Well, that’s a start. There are other good vampire flicks of the era well-worth checking out, such as Lugosi’s Mark of the Vampire from 1935, also directed by Tod Browning. Next time, though, I’ll dig into Hammer’s vampire output of the ‘50s through the ‘70s.