An introduction to the movies of Dracula: I recently joined The Dracula Club, a membership group run by the Rosenbach Museum, an institution that houses the working notes that Bram Stoker compiled in writing his iconic novel, Dracula. Membership in The Dracula Club provides a chance to watch a number of excellent online programs that study Dracula through the written word, along with other ways that this timeless vampire has invaded American popular culture.
Joining The Dracula Club has stirred up additional interest for me in the novel, which I only finished reading early in 2020. I’ve learned from a number of scholars who specialize in studying Dracula, from author David Skal to researchers like Tucker Christine, Josh Hitchens, Lokke Heiss, and Edward Pettit, among others. The Club has also prompted me to think about the many wonderful Dracula-themed films that have been made over the years, ever since F.W. Murnau unleashed Nosferatu on unsuspecting audiences in 1922.
In putting together my top five Dracula films, I’ve looked only at feature films that centered on Dracula himself, and not other examples of vampires. So there is no campy Count Yorga here, and none of the excellent Fright Night movies, nor even the terrific Salem’s Lot. I’ve also ruled out Netflix productions like the BBC version of “Dracula”, which is very well done, but is more of a miniseries than an actual movie.
Strictly taken from feature film releases that tell us about The Count, here are my five favorites, from fifth to first. They cover a wide span of years, from the late 1940s to the early 1990s. In my mind, these are the best, but that’s only my opinion, and as always, I could be wrong.
5. Dracula (1979)
Based on atmosphere, photography, and sexual appeal, the 1979 adaptation of Dracula ranks fifth on our list. Some viewers have called this the most romantic of the Dracula films, with a young and handsome Frank Langella playing the vampire as a suave and debonair character.
In this version of Dracula, The Count makes the journey to England, first and foremost so that he can acquire a bride and make her into one of its own. After his dilapidated ship, completely wrecked and devoid of human survivors, lands on the English cost, he is discovered by Mina Van Helsing, who is visiting her friend, Lucy Seward. The Seward family tries to make Dracula feel welcome, only to be betrayed by The Count’s evil ways. (As you can see, the names from the original novel have been jumbled and transposed, so as to simplify and consolidate the story.)
Set against the scenery of early 20th century England, Dracula is beautifully filmed, with some wonderful shots of the seaside and the British castle where The Count takes up residence. There’s an artistry to this Dracula that we never quite see in its predecessors from the 1940s, fifties, and sixties, and wouldn’t see again until the Francis Ford Coppola film of 1992.
Langella is very good in the 1979 version, but also very different from more famous Draculas like Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. With his handsome face and coiffed dark hair, Langella places an emphasis on Dracula as a seductive charmer (though he remains evil, too). For some fans, Langella’s Dracula is too romantic and not quite fierce enough, but the characterization plays to the actor’s strengths.
Even outside of Langella, the 1979 version of Dracula features a top-notch cast, including Sir Laurence Oliver as Van Helsing, Donald Pleasence of Halloween fame, and the sultry Kate Nelligan, a well-known actress of the time period. There has been some criticism of Olivier’s portrayal of Van Helsing, due to his age and his physically weak appearance, but the venerated actor certainly conveys the intelligence and courageousness of the famed vampire hunter.
This version of Dracula would rate even higher if not for the washed out appearance of the film. When the film was released on laser disc in the early 1990s, director John Badham changed the color tinting. Apparently, Badham wanted to do the film in black-and-white from the get-go, but the studio would not allow it. Thanks to Badham’s revision, the film appears nearly black-and-white, with colors that are extremely muted. It would be nice to see the film as it aired in theaters, in all of its vivid color, but Badham’s decision has made that an apparent impossibility.
Even with that lament, this Dracula is quite good, with beautiful cinematography, good acting performances, and an imaginative ending. And if you like your Dracula romantic and hypnotic, this one from 1979 is just right.
4. The Return of Dracula (1958)
Of the five Dracula films featured here, this one is probably the least known, but it is no less entertaining. The Return of Dracula was made on a shoestring budget, and fell into obscurity because of the nearly simultaneous release of Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, a film that was made in color and received far more publicity and attention. But The Return of Dracula is quite underrated and quite good. It’s a highly atmospheric black-and-white film that is emblematic of simpler horror in the late 1950s.
This 1958 feature stars Francis Lederer, an actor from Austria-Hungary, as The Count, and while he’s not quite the match of Lugosi, he gives us a very creepy and sinister rendition of Dracula. Much like Lugosi, Lederer grew up speaking a different language (in Lederer’s case, German), but he worked hard to learn English once he emigrated to the United States. At the time of his relocation, Hollywood was beginning to transition from the silent era to the sound era, giving Lederer extra motivation to learn the new language.
In The Return of Dracula, Lederer plays the evil vampire, killing a European train passenger and taking his identity as Bellac Gordal, an immigrant on his way to America, more specifically a small town in California. Since Bellac’s American relatives, the Mayberrys, have never seen him (even in photos), they assume that Dracula is their friendly Cousin Bellac, giving him a place to stay and setting the stage for all sorts of viciousness.
Lederer is great in the role, charming on the surface but oily and sinister beneath. He plays off well against the Mayberry family, which consists of a well-intentioned mother (Cora) and daughter (Rachel) who are naïve but likeable people. At first, they blindly welcome Dracula into their home, but the vampire cannot help but exhibit some strange behavior, eventually setting off alarms in the minds of the two family members. Norma Eberhardt is quite good as daughter Rachel, conveying a believable innocence to her character, while John Wengraf is effective as a local police investigator who has his doubts about the newly arrived Cousin Bellac/Dracula.
The Return of Dracula has its flaws, including a script that is overly simplistic and rather crude special effects. But in the grander scheme, it’s a perfect example of how a good horror film can be made on a small budget. Thanks to careful direction from Paul Landres, the effective use of simple black-and-white imagery, and a good musical score, The Return of Dracula succeeds as a highly atmospheric film. It takes a traditionally Gothic story from the 19th century and transfers it seamlessly to the mid-20th century, giving viewers a peak into the culture of small town America in the late 1950s.
3. Horror of Dracula (1958)
This groundbreaking release from Hammer Films gained a much larger and more immediate following than The Return of Dracula because of its full-color presentation and its new level of gore, which was unprecedented for a vampire film. Midway through the film, the character of Lucy is staked through the heart, a moment that is followed by the spurting of blood. That was something that would never been done with any of the Universal Studios films—but audiences of the late 1950s responded with favor and enthusiasm.
The graphic scene involving Lucy is one of many memorable moments in a movie that is full of brilliant imagery. Horror of Dracula begins with the introduction of Jonathan Harker, a man who travels to a strange castle to become the librarian for Count Dracula. There Harker meets The Count, along with a young woman claiming to be imprisoned. From there, Horror of Dracula departs even more radically from the Stoker novel, as Harker is revealed to be a vampire hunter and a friend of Abraham Van Helsing, the supreme stalker of vampires. Van Helsing eventually makes his way to the castle, where he learns the fate of his young associate.
These early developments represent just a few of the many ways in which Horror of Dracula strays from the narrative of Stoker’s book. The film bears very little resemblance to the lengthy novel, but the changes are mostly good ones that make the story more entertaining within the confines of a relatively short film.
Horror of Dracula also represents the second unveiling of the timeless tandem of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who had first worked together on the Curse of Frankenstein. Lee’s Dracula is revealed in the very first scene, with his towering height creating an ominous first impression. Remarkably, Lee has only a handful of line of dialogue in the entire film, but that doesn’t lessen his impact. For much of his screen time, The Count hisses and growls, but that does nothing to diminish Lee’s screen presence, which is ominous and menacing.
In contrast, Cushing is relatively thin and frail in appearance, and does not make his first entry until nearly 30 minutes into the film. But once Cushing arrives, the intensity and passion of his character become evident. Cushing’s Van Helsing is just the kind of forceful hero that any horror film needs.
The ending of the film brings the two actors together in a dramatic way, with a wonderfully staged chase and final showdown between Dracula and Van Helsing. There is also a moment of great creativity, when Van Helsing forms a makeshift cross by intersecting two candlesticks as a way of pinning down Dracula, and then dramatically leaps and pulls down a large curtain, allowing sunlight to flood the room and bring the vampire to his knees.
It’s a terrific ending to the film, an appropriate finish for a film that boasts excellent photography, a good story line, and the skilled direction of Terence Fisher. Other than the special effects, which reflect the shortcomings of the era, the film is strong across the board. It’s a must-see for fans of the era, and even for fans of today’s more graphic horror. Horror of Dracula set the template that Hammer would follow in its vampire sequels, while also giving us a taste of the blood, gore, and full color that would come in later decades.
2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
This is a film that I hadn’t seen in years, not since WPIX in New York City used to air it as part of its regular Sunday morning rotation of Abbott and Costello films. So I decided to watch it again earlier in 2020, and was not disappointed. It still holds up, every bit the classic now that it has been since being released in 1948.
While all of the Abbott and Costello films are based on humor, this venture succeeds in balancing the moments of comedy against legitimate horror. The two comedians portray a couple of bumbling freight handlers that stumble on the bodies of Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster, before receiving a visit from Larry Talbot, who is determined to take down Dracula. The boys play their scenes for laughs, but each of the monsters (including Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man) play their roles straight as frightening creatures and don’t give in to the hijinks. There are legitimate moments of horror, such as when Bela Lugosi’s Dracula holds his cape to his face and hypnotizes poor Wilbur, played by Costello. Toward the end of the film, Frankenstein’s Monster is seen walking on the boat launch trying to catch the boys as they desperately attempt to untie the boat, creating a feeling of suspense before The Monster is finally engulfed in flames. It’s a great closing scene to the film.
Costello himself had his doubts about the potential of this movie. When he first saw the script for the film, he hated it. He only agreed to do the film if the studio tacked $50,000 on to his salary—and assured him that Charles Barton, a trusted friend, would direct. Barton and Costello were longtime confidantes, and there was no one that Lou trusted any more. Barton more than justified Costello’s faith, helping to deliver one of the best of the Universal classics.
On the whole, it’s a much improved film over the original Dracula from 1931, with better music, scenery, and special effects. The sets are great, too, including a Gothic castle where the conclusion takes place. By 1948, filmmakers like Barton had made the necessary adjustments, with improved techniques and better ways of storytelling.
Lugosi is also better here than he was in the original Dracula. His command of English is much improved, not quite as deliberate as in ‘31, but still delivered with that creepy lilt and heavy accent that we have come to love. As always, Chaney is very good as always as the tormented Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man, while Glenn Strange conveys the perfect look for the hulking, grimacing Frankenstein Monster.
When folks talk about the best of the Universal classics, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein should be right near the top. And it deserves a high ranking as one of the finest of the Dracula movies, and second best on our unofficial list.
1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
For our No. 1 Dracula film, we turn to a release of more recent vintage. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is likely a controversial choice because of the weird casting of Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, but other than that shortcoming, this is a lavish and entertaining production from a major director (Francis Ford Coppola) and studio (Columbia Pictures). It’s such a strong Dracula film because of the unusual but effective performance of Gary Oldman as The Count. When we first see Oldman’s Dracula, he looks nothing like the Lugosi or Lee interpretation of The Count; instead, he has a pathetically pale white complexion, eerily long fingers that seem like they belong to an animal, and a rather ridiculous but distinctive heart-shaped hairdo. In the hands of a lesser actor, such an extreme appearance might have come across comically, but somehow Oldman makes it work, maintaining the creepiness throughout his first meeting with Harker. (And when Oldman licks the blood from the barber’s blade, it sends a chill that penetrates the bones.)
Oldman’s performance is a testament to his willingness to take chances—and his work ethic. He worked with a singing coach to lower his voice by a full octave, all part of the effort to make his Dracula sound creepier and more menacing. It worked. In spite of a personal clash with Ryder, Oldman pulls off a fine interpretation of Dracula. At times, he is evil and menacing. At other times, he comes across like a pathetic and sad creature worthy of our sympathy. It’s a well-rounded character, and not just a flattened version of Dracula.
Beyond Oldman, the 1992 version of Dracula features good performances by Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, and a surprisingly effective Ryder as Mina. Not to be overlooked, Richard Grant and Cary Elwes are excellent in supporting roles.
For some, the emphasis on the romance between Dracula and Mina is overplayed, and certainly not faithful to Stoker’s novel, but diverse departures from Stoker’s words have long been characteristic of Dracula films. For me, the film is a fun one, with wonderful sets and colors, atmospheric music, and some of the best special effects ever seen in a film about vampires. It’s all capped off by a dramatic chase sequence at the end, as Van Helsing leads a frantic pursuit of Dracula while his minions attempt to return him to his Transylvanian castle.
It’s nice to see Dracula given the big budget treatment in this 1992 film, after so many years of B-level handling. The end result is an excellent movie, full of memorable imagery, action, and yes, bloodshed. It also has two heavy hitters in Oldman and Hopkins. It’s perhaps not a full-blown classic, but close enough for many fans of Dracula. And it is my favorite of the many movies centered on the infamous vampire.
There have been so many Dracula-themed movies that it’s difficult to narrow the list to five. It’s a list that is sure to stir debate, in part because there are some omissions, including the first Dracula of 1931, the original Nosferatu, the Dan Curtis adaptation starring Jack Palance, and the many Hammer sequels. If anything, the debate is a testament to how often and how skillfully filmmakers have turned to Dracula as the subject matter for horror films. When it comes to Dracula, we have plenty of choices, and that is indeed a good thing.
Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.
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