For most of the 1970’s, vampires were associated with (consequence-) free love and counterculture lifestyles. Count Dracula was turned upside-down and remade into a sexual liberator- a sort of vampiric Timothy Leary, if you will. It seemed as if Bram Stoker’s intention to create a monster symbolizing the pure evil side of human nature had been completely forgotten. This wasn’t helped by a flurry of B-grade horror films in the spirit of Roger Corman that reduced the Count to a campy figure bent on world domination, creating a race of mutant supermen, or... whatever. Of course, the creation of cereal seller Count Chocula, Britain’s animated ‘fowl fiend’ Count Duckula, and Sesame Street’s resident math teacher from the dark side Count von Count didn't help either. As the 1980’s dawned, Count Dracula seemed more at home with King Tut and Egghead from Adam West’s Batman show than the coming likes of Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kreuger.
But, apparently, a few filmmakers decided to read the book and realized the popular story being sold wasn’t what the author had written. With the release of two films, the story of Dracula was about to return to its chilling roots.
We start with a good one. This version is a mini-series, not a movie per se, so it has the time to show more than the average production and allows things to build. Unfortunately, I can hardly find any background information for it. Even when it was finally released on DVD in 2007, it had no bonus features. So, we’re going to have to jump right into the synopsis.
Unlike most adaptations, this version follows the story very closely. However, it takes advantage of being a miniseries and moves at a much more careful pace. For instance, a great of time is spent in Transylvania. This allows the naïve Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) to walk into the castle of Count Dracula (Louis Jourdan) as an innocent. However, he gradually becomes aware of the Count’s true nature (and his status as a prisoner). His admiration for the Count believably transforms into fear and then into hate. Thus, his overwhelming desire to destroy the Count feels more natural, rather than forced. This miniseries also has the most effective use of the scene where the Brides eat the baby Dracula gives them- a complete inversion of motherhood that lurks behind pretty faces.
Film fans (and, certainly, Commentarama fans), probably know Jourdan best as the slimy, yet refined Bond villain Kamal Khan from Octopussy. Here, Jourdan puts his classy demeanor to work for great effect. Jourdan’s Count is brooding and calculating. He never loses his temper, always knowing that he has the upper hand. (One Internet article called him the ‘thinking man’s Dracula.’) This time, there is no effort to make the Count romantic. His cruelty is on full display as he taunts Harker and nearly lets him be devoured by wolves when Harker tries to leave the castle through the main door. He also ridicules Van Hesling’s use of the crucifix, accusing the professor of hiding behind a tool of humiliation and execution (recalling the Roman’s use of the cross). It really takes all of Van Helsing’s faith to hold his poise and declare that Christ had made the cross a symbol of triumph; as a lesser man may have lost some nerve.
The script also allows for Jourdan to justify Dracula’s existence, saying he does nothing more than feed and create needed servants, which is simply as natural to his nature as a person eating an animal. Here, I would say Dracula truly takes on a satanic mode. His attempts to justify his own evil mirror that of the devil trying to justify sin through either natural desires or jealousy of God. This is a Dracula who always seems to be prepared for his foes. The only thing missing- as noted by Internet reviewer Obsessed Movie Man- is the Count’s trademark rage towards humanity that often shows when he sees blood. However, I don’t think it hurts the performance. Jourdan portrays an immortal vampire who doesn’t care about frivolous human things wants and desires and instead pursues his own agenda.
Frank Finlay is one of the strongest Van Helsings ever. He balances the character’s eccentricity and professional approach with grace. He approaches things as a scientist, but isn’t afraid to reach a conclusion of supernatural activity. However, his empathy and deep-rooted Christian faith is also on full display, making him the perfect foil for Jourdan’s Dracula. His presence and courage come through and make the viewer understand why he leads charge against the Count. Other notables include Hogan as Harker. He truly captures the cowardly character forced to find his own courage and defend the woman he loves. Jack Shepherd is also good as Renfield. He is quite believable as an asylum inmate, and his eventual renunciation of Dracula is deeply satisfying.
Despite Jourdan’s Count trying to justify himself, this miniseries shows the Count for what he is. Just to drive the point that Dracula is not a romantic character, Dracula is shown using hypnosis- a date rape drug, in other words- to get Lucy’s attention after using his wolf form to shock her mother, killing her via heart attack. He then has his way with Lucy. Later, he uses hypnosis on Mina to get her to drink his blood and begin turning her into a vampire. In the book, Dracula does this to create a mental connection with Mina (so he knows what the men will try to do to kill him), and to destroy her in order to personally hurt the men hunting him. Not exactly romantic. In fact, when the Count leaves and Mina snaps out of her trance, she screams in agony at what she’s done and what’s been done to her. If this isn’t vampire rape, I don’t what is.
Full Movie (please forgive the Portuguese subtitles; it’s the best one I could find)
Now, when I say ‘art movie,’ what jumps into your head? Over-the-top symbolism? Prodding pretentiousness? A script designed so that only the director can understand it?- and then taunt you for not being smart enough to understand it? Well, I don’t know about you, but that’s what I think of. Fortunately, here we have an art movie that you can- have I used this line yet? I forget- sink your teeth into.
Bidding Homage to a True Classic
This movie is the result of director Werner Herzog’s desire to re-make and perform reverence to the F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu. In order to make everything as authentic as possible, Herzog wanted to film on the same locations, but the East German government wouldn’t let him cross the border and make the film in Wismar. Stupid communists. Herzog proceeded anyway with a few obvious changes. First, he shot the film in color as opposed to black and white. Second, with Dracula now in public domain, Herzog used the characters’ original names as opposed to those from the 1922 plagiarized version. And third, at the request of American distributor 20th Century Fox, the film was shot in both German and English. No Toho-style dubbing here.
I had hoped to view the German version with subtitles (my German’s really rusty) as the filmmakers consider that to be the more “authentic” version. (They just put more effort into that one, I suppose.) However, lack of a copy and time left me reviewing the English version. Well, here we go.
The plot keeps most of the deviations the original 1922 film made. The real changes are what director Herzog added to enhance the feel of the story. This starts with a blood-curdling shot of decaying bodies in states of torment as the opening titles flash and an eerie, unsettling choir plays in the background. (For the sake of your stomach, I won’t post any pictures of this.)
We last saw Herr Klinski as Renfield in the Franco version of Dracula. Here, he’s been promoted from the Count’s slave to the Count himself. And he does a near perfect imitation of Max Shreck while sporting the original actor’s makeup. For the most part, Kinski moves slowly and deliberately, which is fitting for the film’s pace. For most movies, this could easily become a campy way to act. However, here it works. For instance, when Dracula bites Harker for the second time, he descends on Harker slowly, knowing there is no way for Harker to escape. Of course, the audience knows this, too. It makes the attack all the more unsettling. Kinski’s moaning and breathing (yes, the vampire breathes here, but it actually adds to the atmosphere so it gets a pass), make Dracula more animalistic, as though he can’t control himself. There’s also an attempt to portray the loneliness that an immortal, yet disgusting, creature must endure. In Wismar, the Count tries to demand that Lucy love him the way she loves Jonathan. When she rebukes him, the subplot seems to fall off. I think it was a nice idea, but unnecessary.
The opening shots of this movie feature the infamous mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico. These are the remains of victims of a massive cholera outbreak in 1833. Many of the bodies, which mummified naturally due to the climate, were disinterred and stored elsewhere over disputes involving burial taxes between 1870 and 1958. Many of the mummies- macabre and seemingly frozen in a state of torment- are now on display in a museum, and caused none less a visiting luminary than Ray Bradbury to want to get out of Mexico as fast as possible. During the opening shot, a haunting chorus groans softly in the background. The chorus is played several times in the film, always when the Count, or his effects, is on the move. It’s a good non-verbal cue that indicates death and destruction are coming. Herzog adds to the operatic feeling with several Richard Wagner pieces which perfectly compliment the chorus.
Vampires are harbingers of death and often associated with outbreaks. No movie stresses that more then this one. Thousands of rats leave the ship after Dracula arrives. Within days, Wismar is awash in death due to the presence of the Count. Coffins pile up in the town square, the entire government and police are killed, anarchy reigns, rats cover the city like rain, and people try to revel one last time before their time comes, too. The whole thing reminded me of medieval drawings of the Black Death, which is fitting since the city itself seems to be dying.
Whether Harker’s wife is Lucy or Mina, depending on the adaptation, the character has never had more to do than in this film. Like the 1922, original, Lucy sleepwalks and feels terror as her husband is assaulted by the vampire several countries away. And here she again sacrifices herself to stop the Count. Only this time, in between those scenes, she leads a one-woman charge to convince her fellow city folk that a vampire, not the plague, is responsible for what’s happening. Her efforts are, of course, in vain, though she does manage to convince Van Helsing of what’s really happening. And it’s through her eyes that we see the decay of Wismar in its streets and city center. We feel her frustration and realize she may be the only hope for stopping the monster. You could also say she manipulates Dracula, since after rebuffing his advances, she knows he lusts for her and then uses that against him to draw him out into the sunlight. It’s an interesting enhancement of the original film and a fascinating, yet relatable take on a character that normally stays in the background.
Full Movie (English version)
Vampires: So What Are They and How Do You Kill Them?
Today, vampires are often depicted as sexy in a ghoulish way. And if the last 20 years are any indication, they split their time between drinking, rolling in ze hay because their immortality leaves them in a beautiful, coitus-prone state forever, and playing awful tricks on us uncool mortals. At least, that’s how Hollywood’s sex-and-youth-obsessed writers and directors would have us believe. (And, yes, I blame this entirely on Joss Whedon.) The reality is much, much different. Death is the one thing all men and women fear and all of us are fated to eventually face. As such, nearly all cultures have tried to put a face on death, creating a litany of legends about monsters that come back from the dead to prey on and torture the living:
Upier/Wampyr (Poland), Izcacus (Hungary), Vrykolakas (Greece), Strigoi mort (Romania, male) Strigoaică (Romania, female), Nosferatu (unknown)For this article’s purposes, we’ll focus on the myths originating from (mostly eastern) Europe. And I must warn you now, dear reader, that many of these details are not for the timid. Continue at your own discretion and peril.
So, where does this appearance come from? It comes from the natural appearance of a corpse. Today, we live in a world where we seek to put the best face on- and distance ourselves from- death. Embalming and modern burial standards have removed many of the more gruesome aspects of death. Unembalmed, the outer skin of a corpse disintegrates, leaving the thicker, darker (dermal) layer exposed. This, combined with recession of the muscles, causes the teeth and nails to appear longer. And as the organs decay, gases build up in the body, causing it bulge out. Eventually, these gases force their way through any available orifice- mouth, eyes, etc. It’s not hard to see medieval people without modern knowledge opening coffins and believing their loved ones had become monsters.
The folklore fight against the undead wasn’t just about destroying suspected monsters. It was about keeping death at bay so that the living could enjoy life and live their lives to the fullest, with death coming only in advanced age and the soul moving on into the afterlife. Vampires were a perversion of this process, spreading death as by a plague to destroy humanity before it could grow and prosper, with victims barred from eternal rest and forced to spread the misery. No pleasures of life. No fulfillment. Not a condition we humans would ever envy.
A Few Bonuses!
-The BBC Documentary I mentioned a few articles back:
-Vincent Price’s Dracula! (You can’t go wrong with a host like this.)
The many first meetings of Dracula. (See how the clips compare.)