Monday, October 17, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: Dracula Films That Hate the Source Material

by Rustbelt

Remember when Andrew took a bullet for the team and reviewed Twilight? Well, this week I took not one, but two silver bullets and, by the end, I was begging to be vanquished by the dawn.

A few years ago, fellow film aficionado tryanmax reviewed Hotel Transylvania. In the comments, he and I discussed several adaptations of Dracula and he sent me a link for reviews he had done on various Dracula films. You can read his reviews HERE. We both agreed that one of the films I’m looking at here didn’t like the book; hence the inspiration for today’s review.

There’s been a noticeable trend in recent decades to not only alter the plot of Dracula, but to basically defecate all over Bram Stoker’s legacy. In Interview With the Vampire, Anne Rice (through her characters), claims that Stoker had no idea what he was talking about. Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 had the Van Helsing character refer to the novel as the “ravings of an Irish madman.” So, why all the hatred for the man who wrote a great story and pretty much established the vampire genre as a literary staple? Sadly, I don’t know, but I can tell you with full confidence that Dracula will still be talked about long after Louis, Lestat, and Freddy Kreuger are long forgotten.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (a.k.a. Dan Curtis’ Dracula) (Latglen Ltd., 1973)

This TV film is the brainchild of director Dan Curtis. Curtis was the producer of the 60’s supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. One of that show’s main characters was Barnabas Collins, an 18th-Century vampire who had come back to find his long-lost love. It seems Curtis believed in the old adage of, “if it worked once, why not again?” So, he decided to update the story of Count Dracula by adding a love story and making the King of Vampires a tragic figure. What went wrong? The answer is: “Everything!”

The film starts with one of the most rushed Transylvania scenes of all time. The film jumps from Bistritz to the carriage ride to Borgo Pass to Castle Dracula in almost record time. Then, in even less time, Harker (Murray Brown) and the Count (Jack Palance) complete the business deal, Harker is trapped, and the brides attack and kill Harker. It all happens at breakneck speed (if that’s a pun, I’m fine with it).
The odd part with all of this is that after the hurry-up feel to relocate the story from Transylvania to England, (the wrecking of the ship Demeter and Dracula killing its crew is finished in seconds), everything almost grinds to a halt.

Basically, Dracula saw a picture of Lucy (Fiona Lewis) that Harker had on him and found her to look exactly like his long-dead wife. Believing she’s the reincarnation of his lost love, Dracula seeks her out to vamp her and live wickedly ever after. Of course, the plan is thwarted when Dr. Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) and Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward) stake Lucy in the crypt. In an act of jealous revenge, Dracula goes after Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Penelope Horner), while the men stand around and do nothing. The chase ensues and ends in the castle with Van Helsing stunning the Count with sunlight and impaling him with a spear. Credits roll. Oh, yeah. And Harker got turned into a vampire, attacks Arthur, trips, falls, and get impaled on a stalagmite. You know how it is.
Dracula: Jack Palance

In researching for this film, I was surprised to learn that Palance was widely sought after at the time to play Dracula in several potential adaptations. This was a shock because he just didn’t look comfortable in the role. Palance is best known for playing tough guys, either unhinged or just about to lose it. Here, he seems to be holding back in just about everything he does. He wants to yell at Harker, but doesn’t. He wants to seduce Lucy, but just doesn’t pull it off. He wants to be angry, but acts like he’s trying to build up the desire to do so. He just seems completely miscast. Harrison Ford in K-19 The Widowmaker miscast? Not quite. But not too far from it, either.
But if you like surprises, try this one: while searching around Youtube, I came across an obscure interview with Christopher Lee. When asked who his favorite Dracula was, he said it was…Jack Palance! Well, that certainly was a shock. I’ll just try to comfort myself with Lee’s performances and try to forget this opinion.
Yes! The Script Annoys Me! Yes! The Direction Annoys Me! And, Yes! You, Movie, Annoy Me!

As I said, this films hurries to cover Transylvania and get it over with. Exactly why befuddles me. All the interesting stuff happens in Transylvania. The England scenes drag on forever with little, if anything, happening. Even the novel’s most interesting character, Van Helsing, is dumbed down, going from a Danish eccentric to a common British bore. This is also the first film to try to connect the Count with a certain 15th-century Wallachian Prince. Flashbacks show him in love with his lady love and then being dragged away by guards as the poor girl lies in a pool of blood in her bed. It all leads up to… nothing. Just a light mention in the end credits. WHAT?! That’s supposed to the whole crux for making the Count a tragic figure instead of a demon! It all builds up and then goes poof! Bad enough they change the character, but they don’t even finish the job! What I oughta…

Was this some TV screenwriter giving it his first major push? Nope. The screenwriter was Richard Matheson! Remember him? He’s the author of I Am Legend, Hell House, and 16 episodes of the Twilight Zone? How could he be so bad here? I have no answers at this point. Just the perplexed act of scratching my head.
There are other questionable decisions too. Castle Dracula looks pretty well kept, rather than the above-ground tomb it’s supposed to be. The rooms look like they could be in an any English castle or American plantation mansion. Even the crypt reminds me of an American colonial wine cellar. Also, Dracula greets Harker wearing a 1970’s style Victorian tuxedo before later switching to his all-black outfit. And did I mention the music? Well, with the Count searching for his reincarnated love, most of the soundtrack consists of what sounds like a little girl’s music box mixed with a fifth-grader learning to play the flute for the first time.
But the biggest sin is outright theft. This film steals a lot from the Hammer version. This includes killing and vampirizing Harker; making Holmwood a more prominent character; tracing Dracula’s coffins; and Van Helsing ripping the curtains down to expose the Count to sunlight. I guess it just goes to show that some ideas only work in the hands of people who know what they’re doing.

BTW: This movie was supposed to premiere on TV in October, 1973. However, President Richard Nixon took over the time slot that night to announce that Spiro Agnew had resigned the Vice Presidency. Maybe we can just blame this whole thing on Nixon.

Dracula (Mirisch Corporation/Universal, 1979)

Okay, so we’re going back to the silver screen with Dr. Loomis from Halloween, the Nazi who asked, “is it safe?” from Marathon Man, the actress who almost won an Oscar for The Prince of Tides, and Skeletor from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. This will be good! Right? Right???

Definitely a Product of the Times

From what I’ve read, director John Badham got the idea for this movie while watching Langella star in a revival of the Deane-Balderson play based on the novel. (That’s the same play that inspired the 1931 Universal version.) It seems Langella’s performance was very sexually charged, and Badham chose to make a love story the focus of the film.
And although I can’t say it belongs to this genre for certain, there is a very strong American New Wave feeling to this movie. The genre is characterized by a gritty, more realistic feel along with inverting traditional characters; thus making the usual heroes into annoyances and fools, while changing traditional villains into misunderstood anti-heroes.
(It’s also worth noting that screenwriter James V. Hart saw the play and wrote his own version that eventually ended up in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola.)
This movie is what happens when hippies take control of the production. Just about everything from the novel has been turned upside down. First, the Demeter lands in Whitby. Yeah, why skim the Transylvania scenes when you can just skip them entirely? Count Dracula (Frank Langella) arrives at the home of Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), whose upper levels are a mansion and lower levels are his personal asylum. Talk about Upstairs and Downstairs! It’s as if the good doctor bought Downton Abbey and used it to lock up all the fans who went stark-raving mad when the series ended.
The Count takes a fancy to Lucy Seward, but, after witnessing her in a late-night rendezvous with fiancée Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), he settles on Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) for a snack. Mina dies and her father, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), arrives and diagnoses vampire attack. He and Seward later encounter the undead Mina and are forced to destroy her.
Dracula then goes full lovesick vampire and pursues Lucy. The two share several moments of passion, including a full psychedelic scene created by Maurice Binder. (The guy responsible for the opening credits of many James Bond films.) The rest of the film consists of Harker and Van Helsing trying to kill Dracula while Lucy does everything she can to protect the Count.
Dracula: Frank Langella

An alternate title for this film could be Dracula Goes Casanova. That is exactly how he’s portrayed. He’s the Hollywood hunk who has come to free poor English girls engaged to successful men who might suffer from the crime of being slightly less exciting in bed. Langella himself refused to wear fangs (though vampire Mina and Lucy do), and said that he thought of the Count not as a monster, but as an aristocrat with the problem of needing to drink blood. In other words, the Count isn’t a bad guy and shouldn’t be judged as good or evil. This has the effect of rendering Seward, Harker, and Van Helsing as the real monsters for not letting Dracula just be himself. And this is where my main problem with this film lies.
Just as the Jack Palance version tried to make Dracula tragic, Langella’s Count is a liberator. Lucy is, of course, repressed and kept from his wonderful counterculture lifestyle by those silly values and mores society forces on her. So, instead of being portrayed as a horrible state of living death, vampirism is now cool as heck! This goes against everything in the book. Vampire sex (the act of biting) isn’t a state of pleasure; it’s an act of murder that creates another murderer. (As opposed to normal sex, which is supposed to create a new life.) But the filmmakers see it as free love without the nasty potential side effects of pregnancy or STD’s. Dracula, therefore, is the rebellious be-sandled counterculture figure leading the revolt against fuddy-duddy traditionalists like Harker and Van Helsing. In short, this is how hippies would rewrite the story of Dracula.
Why This Movie Doesn’t Work

This film has many defenders. They call it “stylish and sexy.” They also say it adds new depth, new directions, revitalizes old topes, blah, blah, blah. In other words, the kind of stuff Roger Ebert probably wrote in his review (which I didn’t bother or care to read).

I’m sure most of these would take offense to my Puritan swipe at this movie. They’d probably also point out some horrific effects of Dracula’s presence. These include the sailors Dracula murders in grisly fashion; Mina’s decayed vampire state; Olivier’s Van Helsing breaking down in tears as he holds the vampire body of his daughter before he destroys her (Olivier was reportedly very sick during production and his castmates were amazed that he finished the shoot); and- most disturbingly of all- the woman running through asylum after Mina kills her infant and the subsequent shot of the dead baby in a pool of blood. I’m sure these defenders would say these scenes show vampirism as evil and that that’s enough.
No, it’s not. You see. All of that is undone by the ending. In the film’s climax aboard a boat bound for Transylvania, a dying Van Helsing stabs the Count with a hook that Harker wheels up through the cargo hatch and into the sunlight, burning Dracula and supposedly killing him. Lucy’s face loses its fangs and red eyes and all seems right with the world. However, Drac’s body floats off like a kite and Lucy longingly smiles at it. In other words, after all the people Dracula has hurt or destroyed- including Lucy’s father- the filmmakers are essentially saying that the Count is the best and most fulfilling man Lucy could ever have.
It’s not about life and death, people. It’s only about sex. Drac’s victims were acceptable losses in the battles against repressive 1890’s/1950’s-style authority. I suppose if this movie had a moral, it would be along the lines of, “if only those repressed, small-minded fools wouldn’t hunt those noble, misunderstood vampires, the world would be a better place.” That’s what I think.
Dracula: Who Are You?

So, who is Dracula? Where did Stoker get the idea- and name- for his legendary character? Well, according to Sir Christopher Frayling, who studied Stoker’s notes for the novel now held at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia, the inspiration for the name came during a holiday in Whitby, England. During a typical rainy day during a typical English summer, Stoker stopped at the town’s museum and philosophical society to read through the books and old newspapers for tidbits of inspiration. From one of those papers, he learned about the Demitri, a Russian schooner that crashed on a Whitby beach a few years earlier in a storm. (Thus the arrival of the Count on the Demeter in the novel.) However, he also came across a book called An Account of the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. He copied down several sinister-sounding words for reference. One of those words was ‘Dracula’- a Romanian word for ‘devil,’ sometimes given to warriors who displayed great courage or cunning. (Gotta admit: it’s better than the original name, Count Wampyr.)

Now, that might be enough by itself. But 25 years earlier, two Boston College professors, Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, read between the lines of the novel and went to Transylvania- modern-day Romania- to investigate. What they discovered was a man who used the surname and could have been the inspiration.
Vald III of Wallachia was born in 1448. At a young age, his father, Vlad Dracul, left him and his brother, Radu, as political hostages at the court of Ottoman Sultan Murad II as insurance against Turkish invasion. Six years later, after the deaths of his father and eldest brother, Vlad returned home and became Voivode- ‘sovereign’ or ‘military leader’- of Wallachia. Vlad was quickly thrown out by the local boyars (Romanian nobles) and it was eight years before he took the throne again. And that’s where the terror began.
Vlad captured all of his boyar rivals and worked them to death, building a commanding fortress, Castle Poenari, on the Transylvanian border. This was followed by rounding up all of the poor thieves, murderers, and other criminals on the pretext of giving them a feast- only to then set the building on fire. (He seems to have favored the middle class.) From that point on, he ruled absolutely, with all criminals being sentenced to the fate for which he was best known- impalement. This act of execution- running a spear through the abdomen and then setting the victim up on the stake- was kind of a poor man’s crucifixion. It was horrible. It was humiliating. And, worst of all, it was slow death. Thousands were killed in this manner by Vlad- including six thousand Turkish prisoners in the so-called ‘field of the impaled’ as a warning to the Ottoman sultan- and it earned him his nickname- Vlad Tepes (“the Impaler”).
Vlad’s reign ended after an ultimately unsuccessful guerrilla war against the Turks and several sorties into Transylvania against powerful German forces that he thought threatened his rule. He was then imprisoned for unclear reasons for 14 years in Hungary. He was released to again fight the Turks, but after only months on his throne he was killed (probably in battle), in 1477. His severed head was allegedly taken to the sultan as proof of his death while his body was buried at Snagov Monastery, (though his remains have never been found).
Was Vlad the inspiration for the Count? Like Al Capone’s relationship with his nickname ‘Scarface,’ Vlad never called himself ‘the Impaler.’ (Only those with a death wish said that to his face.) His father was called ‘Dracul’ because he belonged to the Order of the Dragon, a fraternity of nobles who swore to protect Christian Europe from the Islamic Turks. In Romanian, an “ah” sound at the end of a male name means “son of,” so Vlad always called himself- and signed his letters as- Vlad Dracula.

McNally and Florescu’s work seemed convincing, but they’ve been challenged since the 1970’s. Dracula scholar Leslie Klinger says that although the Count recalls much of Wallachia and Transylvania’s history when he talks to Harker, the talk is vague and could easily match other incidents. Moreover, the Count claims to be of the Szekely, a Hungarian line that allied with Transylvanian Germans. (They can also trace their lineage to Attila the Hun!) And in his study of the notes, Frayling says Stoker found some information about Vlad- and may have based Dracula’s features on a woodcut of the Imapler- but it’s still uncertain how much (or little), Stoker actually knew of the man.
And maybe it was just the name after all. The latest theory is that the Count was based not on the Impaler, but on Sir Henry Irving, Stoker’s employer and owner of London’s Lyceum Theater. Irving was a dominating, powerful man with an incredibly commanding presence. (Little wonder he was a master of Shakespeare.) He also seems to have had little tolerance for criticism and was prone to vicious tirades. He made Stoker his business manager after Stoker wrote a flattering review of Irving’s performance as Hamlet. From that point on, Stoker’s life consisted of running the boss’s business affairs and keeping him happy. It seems Stoker both worshipped and feared Irving, going to extreme lengths to please him. (When Stoker died in 1912, his friend, Hall Caine- the guy Dracula was dedicated to- wrote a eulogy in which he described the relationship between the two as one where “one life was completely absorbed by the other.”) Irving is a very likely candidate as the model for the Count’s personality. Consequently, some view Dracula and Renfield’s master-slave relationship as a caricature of the Irving-Stoker relationship.

So, was Irving the inspiration? Was it Vlad? In my humble opinion, only Stoker knows.


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for another good article, Rustbelt. I didn't know there was confusion of whom Stoker was referencing as Dracula. Interesting.

Rustbelt said...

You're welcome, Andrew! Sorry about the late reply. I've been setting up purple lights outside and it took up some time.

If I was going to make a guess, I'd say the Count's name and appearance were based on Vlad, while his stature and personality were based on Irving.

Kit said...


it always annoys/disturbs me when people portray Dracula as a liberator from traditional mores when the book clear depicts him as a quasi-rapist.

Rustbelt said...

Kit, I couldn't agree more. What Dracula does to women in the book is horrific- especially the scene with Mina in her bedroom.
Anyone who finds Dracula's actions romantic or desirable either has no understanding of the story or is in need of some therapy.

tryanmax said...

Quick Take: Perhaps Lee likes Palance so much because it makes his Dracula performance seem all the better. I'm not saying Lee's performance was bad, but even pretty girls know to surround themselves with homely friends.

tryanmax said...

Kit, sorry I haven't commented on your excellent Dracula reviews. Almost anything I might say I already put into my review from a few years ago, and it's been about that long since I've watched any of them.

While reading, it occurred to me that the Langella Dracula fits the word "decadent" (root-word: decay) perfectly.

You seem to have hit all the big Dracula movies at this point. Are there any more reviews in the works? If you're looking for more, I recommend Dracuala 2000 and Dracula Untold. These are not great movies, but they are, IMO, underrated. Admittedly, the first may only seem good because it outshines its title. The second is novel because it tries to give Dracula a superhero-esque backstory.

Also, if you're looking for some Dracula reading, I recommend The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova...if you haven't read it already. It's a ruminating, meandering, at times ponderous inter-generational tale--a pocket epic, if you will. It's the sort of novel for people who enjoy snooping through drawers in dusty places. Sadly, it's a bit anticlimactic at the end, and yet I still find myself recommending it.

ArgentGale said...

It doesn't sound like anyone's missing anything with these movies. The second one in particular sounds obnoxious. Still, great article and I did enjoy the history lesson as usual! I always did think that the connections between Dracula and Vlad Tepes seemed a bit tenuous beyond the name. I haven't read the book yet so I wasn't aware of him claiming Hungarian lineage, either.

In any case, great series! I definitely plan on getting the book as soon as I get a chance. It'll be nice to finally experience the original Dracula as opposed to some of the others out there (like his always fun to fight Castlevania incarnation, which was the first Dracula I ever met).

- Daniel

AndrewPrice said...

FYI, Everyone...

Dracula is free on kindle. A lot of classics are. And you can read it on your kindle, your phone, your table or your computer.

I've got a small library on my phone.

Rustbelt said...

tryanmax, glad you like the series, but it's ME!! RUSTBELT!!!!!

Good call on the Langella version, BTW!

I've got two more reviews coming up in the series to cover the Haunting Season. And I've got the films lined up. I'm limiting the series to films that are- allegedly, in some cases- adaptations of the book.

Thanks for the suggestions. I though 'Dracula 2000' was okay. Not Wes Craven's best effort. But it went it came out, I still quite a Trekker and watched it mainly just to look at Jeri Ryan...
I've been nervous about 'Dracula Untold,' as I've read it's Universal's attempt to use its monster library to create a rival for Disney's MCU. (I shuddered at the trailers, as Drac's special effects reminded a little too much of Mina Harker in 'the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.' [shudders])
Interestingly, I found a copy of Dracula at Barnes & Noble once with an introduction by Elizabeth Kostova. I may need to check it out, if only because the author has a lot of respect for Stoker's work.

Rustbelt said...

Also, that might a good theory on Lee's opinion. If I can find it, I'll post a link to the interview with him talking about Palance in the next article.

Rustbelt said...

Daniel, the first film moves too quickly in Transylvania and too slowly in England.
The second film's take is so insulting (Olivier had no chance of saving it), I just spent most of the time watching a college football game instead and just glanced at it. (I had already seen plenty of it to really know what I was going to write.)

I got a lot of good information on the story from an annotated copy of the novel with notes from Leslie Klinger, a lawyer (now, THAT'S scary!)*, and Victorian scholar. He's also annotated many Sherlock Holmes stories, but I found a copy of that yet. In this case, I'd prefer an actual book to my Kindle.

I never played the NES Castlevanias back in the day. My first exposure to the series was Super Castlevania IV on SNES. I guess that makes me spoiled. The graphics, the gameplay, and, above all, the MUSIC...everything else in the series just pales in comparison.

*- Sorry, Andrew. I just couldn't stop myself!

Rustbelt said...

And if you can, everybody, take advantage of the offer Andrew mentioned. Trust me, it's well worth it!

PikeBishop said...

Rustbelt, sorry I can't even look at Jeri Ryan anymore, she is literally the hinge upon which our entire future as a nation turned for the worse! If I had a time machine I would go back and talk to her and tell her, "PLease go the swingers club, have a threesome or two, the fate of the nation depends on it!"

Rustbelt said...

Pikebishop, it was a phase I was going through.
But I have to disagree. Jeri Ryan isn't the actor/artist/hack who caused our nation to take a turn for the worse. That title/dishonor goes to Seth Rogen.
The sooner the U.S. just says "No!" to that untalented gremlin and his Evil Horde (2 He-Man references in one article/comment section! we are on a roll!), the sooner things will get better and that's a FACT!

Unknown said...

interesting article . I agree with Christpher Lee on Palance as Dracula ! he looked the part . my next favorite would be Lee himself ! one thing can be said about the Jack Palance film , it`s a much better film than the tripe Coppola doled out ! how can such a beautifully filmed piece be such a total let down ! I paid to see it at the local theater , and honestly believe they should have issued an apology ,and a refund ! lastly , why is it that no one has ever done a film that`s true too the novel !

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