Night Eternal: The Evolution of Dracula on Screen | Part 1

By James Reinhardt

There are few characters who have endured in pop culture like Count Dracula, the legendary vampire who first appeared in a novel by Bram Stoker published in 1897. Though at the end of the book the heroes finish off the titular vampire with knives, that was far from the last we saw of the famed bloodsucker who would live on in a myriad of stage plays, books, movies, toys, and even breakfast cereals. During his time in the public consciousness, Dracula’s ability to change shape has extended beyond just being able to turn into a bat, and over the years he’s been a hideous monster, a tragic hero, and even a supervillain in both DC and Marvel comics. Adaptability may be Dracula’s greatest power, as the legendary vampire has always proven to be able to change and adapt with the times.

What is it about Dracula that gives him such longevity besides feasting on the blood of the living? Perhaps it’s the air of mystery around the character. Even in the book, we’re never given a complete picture of who Dracula is, just fragments pieced together from various narrators. This approach leaves plenty of room for audiences to project anything from their innermost anxieties to deepest desires onto the titular vampire. To some, Dracula can be a seductive, alluring figure that shatters cultural norms, and to others, he can be a demonic agent of change. From his earliest cinematic depictions until now, Dracula has been able to tap into the public consciousness and take the form of whatever real-life monster may be terrorizing society at the time. This ability to change and adapt to the times is no doubt one of the reasons why Dracula has endured as a character and no doubt will continue to haunt horror cinema for years to come.

Quite infamously, one of the earliest big-screen depictions of Dracula was an unauthorized film directed by F.W. Murnau called Nosferatu (1922) with character names and locations changed in the hopes of avoiding copyright infringement. In this film, Count Dracula became Count Orlok, a freakishly tall, monstrous, bat-like figure, but oddly seems more in line with the novel version of Dracula than many others that followed. The plot of the film stuck close to the novel, with Orlok traveling from his homeland to Germany in search of new prey, and whether intentional or unintentional, tapped in German anxieties at the time. Post-WWI, Germany was crushed with debt after having to pay reparations for its role in the war, and there was a growing tide of nationalism in the country.

Nosferatu, a horror film about a monstrous invader from a foreign land that not only drains the lifeblood from his new country but also brings a swarm of plague-ridden vermin with him, tapped into the country’s fear of outsiders at the time. While the xenophobia of the subtext is clear (and one could argue that the basic subtext of the novel Dracula is xenophobic as well), Nosferatu is also a story of post-war Germany, and Orlok is as much a living embodiment of the shadow of death and sickness hanging over the country as he is the German fear of foreigners at the time. In the end, the heroine Ellen sacrifices herself to save her homeland and stop the vampire, allowing him to drain her blood long enough for the sun to come up and kill him. Much like Germany in real life, at the conclusion of Nosferatu, there is an end to the death and violence but at a great cost, and Ellen must surrender to the enemy in order to stop further bloodshed. Despite lawsuits from Bram Stoker’s estate and attempts to destroy all prints of the film, Nosferatu, like Dracula himself, proved quite resilient, and is still discussed and analyzed as much today as it was when it was first released; it was far from the last we would see of a cinematic Dracula.

Max Schreck as Count Orlok with friend in ‘Nosferatu’ (1922)

In 1931, Universal released Dracula starring Bela Lugosi in the titular role. Not only would the role be forever associated with Lugosi after that, but the image of Dracula with a thick Hungarian accent, slicked-back hair, and a cape would change the public perception of the character forever. Much like Germany dealing with economic anxiety at the time of Nosferatu’s release, Dracula hit America during a similar time of upheaval and uncertainty — the Great Depression. This time, Dracula was no longer a monstrous nightmare figure, but appeared all too human, and could blend in with high society. In a time of economic turmoil, Dracula was the ultimate villain: an aristocrat feeding off others, someone who was all smiles and charm until he got what he wanted, sucked his victims dry, and then moved on.

When Dracula is first introduced, he lives in squalor, his castle decaying around him while the local peasants live in fear. Dracula though seems oblivious to the conditions around him, or if he knows, he doesn’t care. The image of an upper-classman indifferent to the ruin that he directly caused perfectly encapsulates the disconnect between the American upper and lower class at the time. Many of the American working class, many of whom were living a nomadic existence chasing jobs across the country, may have seen something of themselves in Dracula moving from place to place in search of food. Horror films have always offered audiences a safe way of confronting their anxieties, and in some cases, a catharsis for them. Dracula not only played on depression-era fears of a bloodsucking upper class but gave audiences a thrill when Dracula is finally vanquished at the end, ending his reign of terror…until the next film.

L-R: Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), David Manners (Jonathan), Helen Chandler (Mina), Dwight Frye (Renfield), and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing) on the set of ‘Dracula’ (1931).

Bela Lugosi left such a mark on the character of Dracula that it’s hard to believe that he only played the infamous vampire twice on screen, and the next time he would play the Count would be in the horror/comedy Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948, which would mark the final appearance of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman in the classic cycle of Universal Monster films. By this time, America had moved on from the Depression and WWII, and it seemed that the old monsters were being left behind as well. With the 1950s looming and the rise of atomic-powered monsters with it, bloodsucking vampires in capes just weren’t scary anymore. Though Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein was respectful to the classic era of Universal Monster movies and never poked fun at the monsters, it was a sign that society had moved past its old fears. The old monsters don’t ever go away though, just like old anxieties which only lie dormant until reawakened. Dracula wasn’t finished yet, and soon the Count would rise from the grave yet again to terrorize a new generation.

About

James Reinhardt is a screenwriter and podcaster with nine years of experience in the film industry and four years of experience scaring people professionally in the haunted house industry. Follow him on Twitter @JamesReinhardt.

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