Few figures have maintained a foothold in pop culture like Count Dracula, the vampire first introduced in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Dracula jumped from the page to the theater with several stage adaptations of Stoker’s novel, and it was only a matter of time before the fledgling film industry decided to bring the Count to cinematic life. The legendary vampire’s first film appearance was in an unauthorized adaptation called Nosferatu (1922), and later in the now-iconic 1931 adaptation starring Bela Lugosi. By the 1950s, Dracula, along with the rest of the classic Universal Monsters, seemed to have been sucked dry. Atomic-powered monsters and alien invaders had a foothold in horror cinema at the time, and it seemed that the old monsters just weren’t scary anymore. A good vampire can’t be kept down though, and Dracula was biding his time, waiting for yet another resurrection.
In the late 1950s, British film studio Hammer Films was revitalizing the classic monsters, but in vibrant, living color. Not only were characters like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy receiving technicolor remakes, but these films were pushing the envelope with their depictions of sexuality and violence. Dracula, as played by Christopher Lee, was a stark contrast to Lugosi’s charming, aristocratic Count. Lee’s Dracula comes off as an animal barely keeping up his human facade, and in another difference from Lugosi’s version, featured the vampire’s trademark fangs and burning red eyes. First appearing in 1958’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), Lee played the count more than any other actor, making his final appearance in 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.
If Lugosi’s Dracula was the personification of Depression-era anxieties, then Lee’s version was the embodiment of the rising counterculture and a threat to the family values of the 1950s and early 60s. At the time, the seemingly idyllic facade of the 1950s was slowly crumbling, with many seeing the growing hippie movement, the rise of spiritualism and alternate religions, and the sexual revolution, as a threat to the conservative attitudes of the era. All of Dracula’s enemies in the Hammer era are clean-cut, God-fearing men. His archnemesis, Van Helsing, is both a man of science and a man of God who often uses improvised crosses to ward off evil. In Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), the hero of the film starts off as a staunch atheist, leading to an infamous scene where Dracula pulls a stake out of his own chest because the hero refuses to pray over the Count after impaling him. Of course, by the end of the film, the main character embraces God and uses the symbol of Christianity, the cross, to defeat the vampire. The women in these films are prim and proper, dressed conservatively with their hair up until they fall under the Count’s sway and become sexualized temptresses with flowing manes and flimsy, cleavage-baring gowns. In every one of these films, Dracula is a force of chaos, godlessness, and wanton sexuality. Audiences could take comfort in knowing that by the end of each film, Dracula would be violently defeated, and the status quo upheld…until the next movie.
As the Hammer Dracula films went on, things like sexuality and violence became more and more explicit in films as social mores changed in the late 60s and early 70s. Censorship was dying, and films began to tackle more complex adult themes. The counterculture that Lee’s Dracula represented seemed to be winning out, so the Hammer films had to grow as well and became more exploitative.
Lee’s final official appearance as Dracula, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, capitalized on the growing spiritualist movement of the day, renewed interest in the occult and esoteric, and the budding fears of “satanism” that would grow into a full-on moral panic over the next decade. Once again, in this film, Dracula represented every existential threat to Christianity, and once again, is defeated in the end by the fearless vampire slayer Van Helsing.
Times were changing though, and so was the image of vampires. With the spiritualist movement came a certain sympathy for the devil, and in film and literature, vampires were evolving into romantic, seductive figures. A year after Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing killed off Lee’s Dracula for good in The Satanic Rites of Dracula, there was another adaptation of Dracula, this one coming straight to viewer’s homes via the television. Dan Curtis, having made a name for himself with the horror soap opera Dark Shadows (1966–1971), had given viewers a more human vampire with Barnabas Collins, and now sought to make his own version of Dracula. This version of Dracula (1974), also known as Dan Curtis’ Dracula, starring Jack Palance in the title role, humanized the Count. No longer was Dracula just a bloodthirsty monster, this time he had a human motivation: Lucy Westenra is the reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead wife. It’s a plot point lifted from the classic Universal film The Mummy (1932), and it has become a commonplace trope in Dracula adaptations ever since.
The bright-eyed optimism of the early 1960s had faded into the jaded cynicism of the 1970s, and Palance’s TV Dracula, who is both sympathetic and monstrous, perfectly captures the grey area morals of the time. The world was no longer black and white, the lines between good and bad blurred, and depictions of Dracula reflected this.
In this film, Dracula turns Lucy into a vampire, but before he can live out eternity with his new love, she is killed by Van Helsing, prompting Dracula to seek revenge. With his last chance at humanity ripped away from him, Dracula embraces being the monster he was always perceived to be. A sympathetic but still villainous Dracula perfectly encapsulated the attitude of the times, where America was post-Watergate and still in the thick of the Vietnam War. It was a time where the American public had lost faith in old institutions, and like Dracula in the film, had seemingly given up the hope for a better tomorrow.
The cynicism of the 70s eventually gave way to the optimism and unfettered capitalism of the 1980s. It was another era of patriotism and family values, a time of excess with no room for nuance. In 1987’s The Monster Squad, Dracula became a full-on supervillain bent on world domination, losing any sense of romanticism, sympathy, or sex appeal as seen in previous versions. This was a Dracula that dispatched his foes with dynamite and used the other monsters as henchmen. Dracula’s enemies in this film were children, fans of horror films that knew all the ways to defeat vampires. With the rise of the slasher film, the classic monsters once again found themselves having to change with the times, and many saw The Monster Squad as a sign that the old monsters were once again becoming familiar, to the point where even children could take them on.
Much like in the 50s, it seemed that yet again the world was moving on from the old fears, but with the 90s right around the corner, Dracula was set to undergo yet another major evolution from one of the most influential filmmakers of all time…
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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