Monday, May 23, 2011

Bad Geek Confessions: Dracula

Vampires on Parade
The Ultimate Sucker

With spring finally making a strong appearance, and the smell of summer barbecues on the horizon, this is a perfect time to think about vampires.  Face it, come October we’re going to be up to our jugulars in monster talk, therefore a little pontificating about the undead now is a nice change of pace. It’s like that “Christmas in July” thing, but with less tinsel and more blood…

Enter this post freely and of your own will.

One of my earliest memories.  Thanx, Mom.

I used to nap in my carriage as a baby in our Bronx apartment while Mom watched Dark Shadows and other similar fare, bringing vampires into my life in some form or another from the very beginning.  I’ve read and seen various versions, histories, and inspiring myths to have a strong grasp of yet another useless topic. (Strong enough to generate yet another embarrassing to my co-watchers rant during the Lost Boys…really it’s a wonder anyone goes to the movies with me.)

Good Evening
With all this back knowledge, there is no denying that Bela Lugosi is the iconic Dracula. Tod Browning’s 1931 film set the blueprint and the standard for what vampires in general are, and Dracula specifically is, portrayed as.  However, having stated all that, Bela is in no way my favorite vampire, or even my favorite Dracula.

I'm on my second copy of this printing.  Wore out the first.
The real standard for Dracula and his minions is Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic. The entire modern interpretation of vampires really stems from there.  There were legends and stories before it, but none of them brought it all together, and none of them pass the test of time as well.  Aside from using a few more SAT vocabulary words than one normally encounters, it reads like a modern novel.   Dracula appears in it as a terror, a killer and force to be reckoned with, but also as an aristocrat, a leader and a seducer. He takes many varied forms, but all have the same powerful core.  The gothic romance/horror combination vampire stories are known for was coalesced in this foundation.  Ann Rice tells great tales, but effeminate whiny vampires tend to lack a bit of the oomph that Stoker infused in Dracula.  The fact that he’s the main focus and source of the evil, with a diverse set of followers (both willing and unwilling), sets his story above most other monster’s.  Vampire movies without Dracula, or any other primary blood sucker, don’t have much to differentiate them from zombie, werewolf of other pack monster mashes. (See the over rated From Dusk till Dawn). On the other hand, movies with a master other than Dracula, when successful, are normally direct copies of him (see the under rated John Carpenter’s Vampires or either version of Fright Night and the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer for that matter).  And the less said about sparkly vampires, the better.

I first read the book in my youth.  Oddly, though I was far too big a chicken to watch any horror movies as a kid, I would read about them and the material they were based on voraciously.  (Making me not only a cowardly child, but a masochistic one as well.)  This led to such fun experiences as following my mother around the house when I read the Shining in the fifth grade…until she left the kitchen during the Room 217 scene and I was rooted to the spot in abject horror. My sister then slammed the bathroom door making me jump thirty feet out of my chair and my skin.  (This is the excuse I use for any time I scared her growing up.)  Because I read the novel at a young age and multiple times afterwards, my idea of who Dracula should be was formed by it, and then further shaped by other myths, legends and retrospectives.

Maybe it's the 'stache.
I realized on a recent watching of House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, as much as I know this is an inherently wrong opinion, I prefer John Carradine’s Dracula to the iconic Lugosi version.  I find his interpretation to have more menace and authority in his bearing than the original, and to exude more style and confidence as well. I also believe Carradine’s hypnotic stare is more powerful and spooky looking. I do realize part of this may come from knowledge of Lugosi’s later descent into low budget B-Movies and self parody. (The only other time he played Dracula on screen was with Abbot and Costello.) Still, I find Carradine over all more frightening, which is a really important part of Draculaness. Even the people who made 1987’s the Monster Squad figured that out. That’s why there’s no “Dracula’s got Nards” t-shirts. Duncan Regehr played the role remarkably straight, and demonstrated command and leadership over the other creatures.  However, his being dramatically wounded by a slice of pizza removes him from serious consideration.
Yes, I have this shirt.  Thanx Kim!

Of course Carradine had help being scary from King Kong.  No, I do not mean his Dracula had a giant vampiric ape on his side to assist in terrorizing the villagers…but let us pause for a few moments to imagine the awesomeness of that potential movie.

Woo!  No. What I meant was King Kong came out in 1933, two years after Dracula, and was one of the first, if not the first, movie with a full score. The addition of music had a huge effect on the atmosphere of films.  This is quite obvious comparing 1931’s Frankenstein with his 1935 Bride.  Very similar scenes to the original reproduced in the later film have emotion amplified by the orchestra zinging in at the right moment.  I do understand there are many indirect reasons for it, and without Bela there wouldn’t be all the other versions, but Carradine comes much closer to the book for me.  He’s even got facial hair, which the picture on my book cover has. (When you scare the hell out of yourself as a kid, these details matter.)

I prefer Carradine’s take on the role, but he isn’t the best at all aspects of the character, and he is not nearly exotic enough.  I do feel justified choosing him over Lugosi however, as Francis Ford Coppola stated the same preference in the commentary of his excellent 1992 version: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Now I’m going to leap into the land of confusing contradictions again.  I think Coppola’s film really captured the spirit of the book by the changes that were made to it.  (Hold on, we’ll all get there together on this one.)  The biggest additions to the movie were the historical back story, and the romance between Dracula and Mina.  While the true life of Vlad Tepes isn’t included in the novel, it was an inspiration to Stoker when he dreamed up the character.  By combining the two in the film, it creates added depth that is still in line with the original vision, making it meta-right, so to speak.  The love story element, and Mina choosing to join “her prince” is also important to the spirit and tone. (And not just because it makes things flow much better to the Mina character in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both the award winning comic, and the 2003 movie I probably like more than I’m supposed to.)  There’s a great deal of symbolism about Dracula giving women power and freedom through his “gifts” in the original tale. These come much more to the forefront by having Mina take an active role in both her and Dracula’s fate (which Winona Rider latched onto with both grace and gusto), than by her merely needing to be rescued by the big strong men, as originally written at the end of the Victorian era. 

Various Vampiric Versions
Coppola’s vision stays very true to the characters of Stoker’s work, and Gary Oldman turns in a great performance as a Dracula who, like the novel, appears differently almost every time he is seen.  Whether old or young; calmly scheming, or laughing maniacally at Harker’s descent into madness, the force and history of the character shine through.  (I’ve seen negative reviews of Kenau Reeves’ performance, but he follows the book; showing Jonathan as a fairly dull individual overwhelmed by his circumstances.  Seriously, though, when the women who were just seducing you stop all their kissing and caressing in order to combine with weird giant bug movements and then eat a baby [Tastes of chicken!], what other reaction makes more sense than, “Whoa!”)
A fitting expression for different occasions.
Although the film captures most of the novel’s plot and characters, I’m not sure I’m sanguine about a Dracula who is humanized and weakened by love.  It does let Dracula be the protagonist in a Dracula movie for a change.  That holds the story flow together nicely, and is a more interesting character arc than the ones associated with those who oppose him.  But I don’t think I like seeing a Vampire Lord who, instead of being unapologetic evil incarnate, gets redeemed.

Mardulak's story is...complicated.
The one exception to that being John’s son David Carradine in 1989’s Sundown: the Vampire in Retreat. (Bruce Campbell fans hunt it down!) It’s my favorite in a surprisingly large collection of vampire westerns.  (I should really stop being surprised by discovering I have amassed large collections of weird things.) 

Maybe it's the hair.
I’ve been told that Frank Langella captured the seductive aspect of Dracula better than anyone else.  I can’t comment on that, again due to King Kong. (Said the man who spends far too much time thinking about giant apes.)  As I said, there was no way I would watch a Dracula movie around the time his came out or even aired on television. (I was likely off scaring the snot out of myself reading Salem’s Lot, featuring vampires who get the highest McGinley family seal of approval.)  When I was finally ready to enjoy horror movies, I had already seen what the 1970’s remake machine had done to my beloved Kong, didn’t want any part of other monsters it might mangle, and never got around to watching it.  This is probably a personal failing on my part, and kind of an embarrassment as a horror geek. 

Veeeery interesting, Master.
While I didn’t see Langella’s 1979 Dracula, I did see George Hamilton in the same year’s spoof: Love at First Bite. That version really bears no mention in looking for an authentic Dracula, except for two reasons.  The first is it has Arte Johnson in it, and the world would be a much better place if it had a great deal more Arte Johnson in it.  The other reason is Hamilton’s love of life (or in this case afterlife) really shines through. (Not as much as in his superior Zorro film, but that’s a tangent for another time.)  Fine, vampirism is a curse, but no one needs to see vampires complaining and moping about it all the time.  It’s nice to see a vampire who revels in enjoying his power for a change.

The power of the dark side.
As for the power that should be displayed by the lord of the undead, look no further than Christopher Lee.  The man could read a pastry menu and make it sound important, commanding and full of menace.  With full color blood being strewn about in those Hammer horrors; Lee’s presence was undeniable. Even now, as a man in his eighties he’s still got it.  The intensity of his voice and stare seem to influence his surroundings, adding credibility to appearances even as goofy as the ones in Gremlins 2 or The Stupids.  In that sense he’s kind of the anti-Bela. He and Peter Cushing were better than the flesh and gore filled epics they starred in, and his image and standing as an actor has increased in other roles over time.   Maybe, a new CGI Dracula with him voicing it would cover all the undead bases.  But Bram Stoker’s Dracula achieved the perfect surreal beyond real look by filming completely on studio sets using in camera effects.  That is, no green screen and no CGI.  I think computer generated Vampires look too crisp, phony, and shiny. Shiny is similar to sparkly, and to be honest, Richard Roxburgh did play it a tad on the sparkly side in his computer graphically enhanced turn at Dracula (plus he looks like the Child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! Yikes!)
Because of this he’s removed from consideration, even though he was good for the same reasons Regehr was.  (Also, after already admitting liking LXG, if I start going off about how much fun I thought 2004’s Van Helsing was I may endanger my credibility completely.)  The other issue, outside of CGI, is: as masterful as Lee’s voice is, it is still distinctly British, which isn’t the proper tone for an Eastern European vampire.

Creepy Assistants: Local 101.
I think one reason that Lugosi isn’t my favorite, even with the accent, is he doesn’t rate as the scariest guy in his own movie. That honor falls on the ever creepy Dwight Frye.  It’s kind of ironic that Bela went on to be the scariest guy in some of the Frankenstein sequels as Ygor, who replaced Frye’s Fritz and Karl characters from the first and second Franks.  Lugosi’s Dracula stares into the camera to instill terror, Frye’s Renfield just glances; and it’s far worse. These characters prove that, while helpful; color, effects and music aren’t requirements to generate industrial strength willies.  In fact, in order to see the vampires that gave me the most childhood nightmares, you have to go back before 1931, not after

The evidence that extra Hollywood magic isn’t always needed for a real scare comes from the decade before Lugosi’s performance.  Count Orlock (who was for all intents and purposes Dracula, after some legal jiggery pokery) from Mernau’s 1922 Nosferatu is way scarier than most screen vampires that followed him.  I found myself staring at pictures of him in books as a kid, unable to look away.  I hope Max Schreck didn’t appear too much like that in real life, for the sake of his friends and neighbors. The story was a pretty strong, if truncated, adaptation of the novel. As far as a straight scare goes, it holds up remarkably well. (And check out 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire for a nifty spin on the making of this one, especially those of you who got the “Tastes of chicken” reference.)  

Only one other vampire movie scared me more than Nosferatu, and I’ve never seen it.  It’s the lost Lon Chaney Sr. silent film from 1927, London After Midnight, also directed by Todd Browning (whose family includes the man who played the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the underwater scenes, the man who designed the Louisville Slugger…and the woman who kicked my butt gracefully but regularly in fencing class. They’re quite a gang.) When reading through the elementary school library’s collection of monster books, I always had to be on the look out for that hat, so I could immediately cover the picture while I read the other page. (I know, pathetic.) One peek and I was guaranteed a week of sleepless nights and disturbing dreams from his image. (Mom informs me she had the same problem as a kid with a Phantom of the Opera image of his in Famous Monsters of Filmland.  There’s those genetics again.) He didn’t play Dracula, in fact the story turned out to be about a detective posing as a vampire to catch a criminal, but his image scarred my mind in childhood so strongly, I had to include it. Just look at that guy!
Heck, I’m getting creeped out by him right now, let’s put some distance between us. 

Whew.  While terrifying beyond words, the silent creatures of the night lack the charm and nobility needed for a true Dracula. 

It seems that although Coppola made by far the best adaptation of the book; for the character of Dracula himself all the different actors have attributes that they excelled in.  Therefore, in order to have the ultimate Lord of the Vampires - a combination of the greats from the past is required:

From Lugosi: The template, and his exotic foreign accent and ways.
From Frid: His strong attachment to family.
From J. Carradine: His aristocratic bearing and confidence.
From Oldman:  His obsessive passion and maniacal laugh.
From D. Carradine: His dark sense of humor.
From Langella: His charm and appeal.
From Hamilton: His enthusiasm and joy of existence.
From Lee: His class, intense minded focus and a presence that affects his surroundings.
From Schreck: His weird and distorted facial features.
From Chaney: His glassy hypnotic eyes.
And because I’m writing this: He must have facial hair.

There’s only one Count who combines all these features:

Accept only the original, spooky version who would hypnotize those who interrupted his counting. Not the modern, watered down, Elmoized version.

I couldn’t find an example of him hypnotizing someone, but watch this once and you’ll be humming it for a week.  That’s pretty close to mind control.

If you still want more, here he is displaying Regehr and Roxburgh’s rapport with other monsters.

I trust your journey was a happy one.


Kim Luer said...


I've always hated that guy from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, now I won't sleep tonight.

Jeff McGinley said...

My job is done then...that'll teach you to slam the door when I read Steven King.

Kim Luer said...

At least you were at home reading "The Shining", you did the same thing to me at the same point in the book, but I was in the outhouse, at night -- I still haven't fully recovered.

Jeff McGinley said...

At least I didn't explosively propel a cucumber at 88 mph so it exploded over the outer wall while you were in there...oh wait, I did that too. Funny how no matter where you start, it ends up an Up the Lake story.