Monday, October 24, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: Dracula Films That Keep You Up and Listening to the Children of the Night

by Rustbelt

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.

Count Dracula (BBC, 1977)

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.
The scene then shifts back to England, where many of the subplots of the story are largely left intact. These include Renfield’s (Jack Shepherd) bargain with Dracula, which he eventually renounces. Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) has time for her relationship with Quincy Holmwood to grow; making it hurt even more when Dracula kills her. The filmmakers also keep Harker and Van Helsing’s (Frank Finlay) quest to find Dracula’s boxes of Transylvanian earth, which I think demonstrates Van Helsing’s detective skills to a greater degree.
There are other nice touches, such as the coachman at the Borgo Pass (actually the Count in disguise), handing Harker a flask of slivovitz (plum brandy) to hold off chills from the cold night. Castle Dracula is also almost exactly how I pictured it from the book: thick, Roman-esque walls, tiny hallways, and a dirty, unkempt, decayed, claustrophobic appearance. Renfield is also shown gathering his flies and spiders to fill his zoophagous (that is, life-devouring) habit. Nothing really too rushed or drawn out. That being said, there are a few issues. The first is Susan Penhaligon’s vampire screeching, which could has the potential to break a mirror. And there’s the horrific character of Qunicy Holmwood (Richard Barnes). We’ll get to him in a second.
Dracula: Louis Jourdan

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.
A (Mostly) Strong Cast

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.
Some liberties had to be taken, mainly making Mina (Judi Bowker) and Lucy sisters instead of best friends. But the bottom of the barrel is Quincy Holmwood. Richard plays a combination of Arthur Holmwood the Texan Quincy P. Morris, who works at the American consulate. Barnes gives one of the worst Texan accents ever recorded and it nearly ruins several scenes. Britain’s revenge for Dick van Dyke as Burt in Mary Poppins?
The Count’s True Nature

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.
This is the Count’s true nature. Evil and diabolical. (At least here, Jonathan was asleep under the Count’s control. In the book, it’s inferred he might have been awake and forced to watch Dracula molest his wife.)

Full Movie (please forgive the Portuguese subtitles; it’s the best one I could find)

Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht (Phantom of the Night), a.k.a. Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, München, 1979)

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.
Returning to Wismar

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.)
From there, Harker (Bruno Ganz) travels to Transylvania. This time, the innkeepers don’t just try to keep him from going to the castle, they take him to a band of gypsies who have been ‘on the other side’ of the Pass in the hopes that their stories will keep Harker away. Then Harker and Dracula (Klaus Kinski) play out many of the same scenes originally shown between Hutter and Count Orlok. In both the castle and the ship, Herzog recreates several classic images of the vampire, but doesn’t go too far. Later, the Count arrives on the boat in Wismar and releases thousands of rats in the city. Just as in the previous film, the plague is blamed for the sudden increase in deaths. Unlike the first film, the city is shown decaying as the population dies off.
SPOILERS: The final addition comes at the end. After Harker’s wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) sacrifices herself to trick Dracula into exposing himself to sunlight, Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) stakes him. The vampire’s body doesn’t disintegrate this time. However, Harker, who returned from Transylvania, accuses Van Helsing of murder. The professor is arrested by the lone surviving city official. Then, Harker, now sporting Dracula’s rat-like teeth and bulging eyes, says he has “much to do” and heads off to the Count’s castle.
Dracula: Klaus Kinski

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.
Of Mummies and Music

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.
The Plague

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.
Lucy the Heroine

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.
In classical folklore, vampires are corpses that have come back to bring pain, suffering, and death upon their friends and relatives. And when I say ‘corpses,’ I don’t mean beautiful people with pale complexions. Vampires of folklore are emaciated beings. They have darker skin, long, protruding teeth and fingernails, bulbous eyes, little (if any) hair, a bloated body shape, and blood oozing from the mouth, nose, and eyes. Simply put, they are the very embodiment of death.

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.
Now, we must ask where these beliefs came from. As mentioned, such legends are common across the globe. But there can be more specific origins for the vampire in Europe. Much of the folklore has been traced to the Middle Ages. Vampires were often blamed when people began dying en masse; particularly during the onset of the Black Death (bubonic and pneumonic plague), in the 14th century. Surviving records tell us that it would always start with one person becoming sick with the dreaded black splotches on their skin. Then, gradually, more and more would fall ill, as though a specter of evil had fallen on the town like a mist. Chroniclers in cities like Venice, Paris, Rome, Cologne, and others tell of the dead and dying piling up in the streets; of the stench of decay that permeated everything; and the struggle to bury the hundreds of bodies as quickly as they could. It’s possible that some of these unfortunate victims, not being clinically dead, tried to escape their coffins just before burial- increasing belief in the undead.
Identifying and destroying vampires was a careful practice in folklore. Digging up graves was tiresome, not to mention psychologically and spiritually demoralizing as well. In the case of plague, the first victims would be the first corpses to be examined. More specifically, people who had been murdered, committed suicide, or died violent deaths were likely candidates. Those believed to be vampire victims were also suspect, as their deaths had left them in a restless state as well. There are, of course, more obscure ways to become the undead- such as being the seventh child of the same sex in a family, die without being married, or be executed for perjury. (Romania) Or one could become a wraith-like beast that, unable to part with its worldly goods, attacks anyone who comes close to its burial mound. (Iceland) Sometimes a lack of rigor mortis in a corpse was a sign of impending vampirism.
This leads to the need to destroy vampires. And just like the movies, various regions of folklore have many ways to accomplish this. The traditional stake in the heart (Slavic Europe), works only with the vampire in the grave. (It pins the creature to the ground.) Other methods include decapitation, cutting out the heart and burning it, burning the body, and burying the corpse upside-down (so it will forever dig out in the wrong direction). Protection from vampires also varied. Since vampires were associated with Satan, symbols of Christ- crucifixes, rosaries, holy water- were used to ward them off. Garlic was widely used, often hung or rubbed on windows and entryways. Its usefulness comes from the Latin phrase simila similibus curantur (“similar things are cured by similar things”). The rationale was that, since vampires are corpses covered in the strong stench of decay, the strong-smelling herb could cancel them out. Sharp things, such as knives and roses (for their thorns), have been used to drive off vampires. In fact, sickles were sometimes buried with suspected vampires to decapitate them in their graves when they tried to sit up.

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:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

-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.)


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for another excellent article, Rustbelt. I am very much enjoying reading about the cultural significance of vampires.

BTW, Klaus Kinski has always struck me as a real weirdo on film. I don't know much about him in real life but his movie roles are always strange and strangely done.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Have you ever seen Love At First Bite? That was a sort of funny parody in the late 1970's. I think it starred George Hamilton and I recall liking it back then.

Rustbelt said...

You're welcome, Andrew!
Honestly, I haven't seen much of Kinski's work. But from what I have seen, he does come off as one of those oddball, artsy types.
I've seen parts of "Love at First Bite,' though not the whole thing. I loved the part in the restaurant where the psychiatrist tries to kill Dracula (Hamilton) with three silver bullets, only for the Count to say, "I'm sorry, my friend, but that's a werewolf."

Rustbelt said...

FYI, I sent the wrong address for the "uses hypnosis on Mina" link. (It went to the search itself.)

HERE is the correct shortcut.

Koshcat said...

Another great post in a fascinating series.

ArgentGale said...

Very cool observations! These movies sound great and I'll definitely have to give them a shot soon. The historical background was great as always, too. It makes sense that the natural process of decay and contagious diseases would give way to stories like vampires.

And on the lighthearted Dracula variants I still found some of them enjoyable in their own way. I don't remember much about Count Duckula except that I watched it as a kid and thought it was a fun show and the chance to buy and eat Count Chocula is always one of the highlights of October for me! You're never too old for Monster Cereals as far as I'm concerned. =)

- Daniel

Rustbelt said...

Thank, Koshcat! I'm glad you're enjoying it!

Rustbelt said...

Daniel, it's interesting. Jack Palance said he was glad when filming wrapped on his version of Dracula. A method actor, he was afraid he was getting 'too close' to the character. With this article, I honestly felt I was experiencing the same sensation. 'Nosferatu' follows the 1922 film instead of the book, but it still brought the dread. At many points, the Jourdan version is the closest I've seen to the images that jumped into my head when I read the book. To quote Egon Spengler, it's beautiful- in a horrific way.
I'm glad you enjoyed the background info! While writing, i was afraid that I might have gone too far in describing everything. But then again, this series IS about a horror story.

Funny thing about Duckula. I watched the show on Nickelodeon as a kid. The show, being British, opened with the studio logo for 'Thames Productions.' Of course, I didn't realize at the time that I wasn't supposed to pronounce the 'H,' and it was years before I learned how to say the river's name correctly. (Not sure if I made the same mistake with 'Danger Mouse,' but I might have.)

ArgentGale said...

Interesting note on Jack Palance. Dracula definitely isn't the kind of character you want to get too wrapped up in. Either way these movies sound great and I'm hoping I can watch at least one of them this weekend.

As for the background info, it does make things a lot more interesting and you've definitely got a gift for talking about history and similar things. Your posts on World War I covered a lot of cool stuff and were great to read. And yep, I didn't know how to properly pronounce Thames for the longest time either, though I forgot about Duckula being one of their productions (no such mistake with Danger Mouse, which was distinctly British). Ironically enough I ended up learning the proper pronunciation while I was actually in London on a tour (as well as why calling it the Thames River is a redundancy).

- Daniel

Rustbelt said...

Daniel, if you watch the one with Jourdan, be sure to leave extra time as it's 2 1/2 hours long (mini-series).

That's for the compliments! I'm just glad I can put my military history degree to good use! Funny thing about my WWI series: once it was done, I put the books on the shelves and vowed to get a badly-needed months'long break. And the following year, I did it all again for the 100th anniversary on Facebook. (I got to add maps and pics that time.)
Oh, golly, buh-roe-nee! You can't mean 'Thames River' is redundant! (Seriously, I didn't know that.) Just like Sahara, I suppose. Well, you learn something new every day! Thanks!

ArgentGale said...

Got it, Rustbelt, and you're welcome! Military history is always fun to read about so you picked good subject matter there.

As for the movie and miniseries I usually don't have much going on most weekends (and this one is, sadly, no exception) so I should be able to work in at least one of them. Glad I could pass on some trivia, too! I actually didn't know that about the Sahara myself so it looks like we're even there. =)

- Daniel

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