Part two: my dracula is better than yours
words by Jonathan Clode
“Christopher Lee will always be my Dracula,” said my Mum as she gave me a few quid for popcorn.
“No way! “I scoffed, “Have you seen how cool Gary Oldman looks in the new one? He turns into a full-on werewolf!”
It was 1992 and my friends and I were about to go and see Bram Stoker’s Dracula in Port Talbot cinema. Despite being only fifteen-years-old and the film having an 18 certificate, they’d let you in to see just about anything there, so long as you could lie about your age if asked. But that wasn’t my first exposure to Dracula, and the disagreement with my Mum over who played the best Count was not the ignorant protestation of a dumb child who grasped nothing but the now. I’d seen my share of Christopher Lee-starring Dracula films on my Friday night videos, so I spoke from a position of great authority. Or so I thought.
A week or two after that trip to the cinema I bought a copy of the original novel, at which point I was forced to rethink my opinion on what performance, if any, could be considered the definitive Dracula. In fact, I still am, but the case for Christopher Lee having the finest fangs of all just get sharper the more you watch him.
The Curse of Frankenstein had seen sufficient box office returns to justify a sequel, and the public’s appetite for the monster inevitably turned Hammer’s attention to that other monolith of horror literature, Dracula. But as had been the case when making Curse, a shadow loomed over any attempts to reimagine Count Dracula; a Universal shadow by the name of Bela Lugosi. Everything about Dracula that we now consider standard comes from Lugosi. He is the basis for every Halloween costume and every over-the-top. “I vant to drink your blood,” impression.
It was his ominous form that graced the cover of my Penguin Classics copy of Stoker’s original novel. Yet Lugosi’s vampire is toothless; not his performance, that was genius, ageless and occupies a corner of horror performance that can’t be touched, but it was literally toothless. The vampire of the novel is a fiend unlike anything stage or screen had yet been able to realise; a true nightmare made icy flesh, waiting outside doorways to hurt us. He is cruelty for its own sake, his only kindness being that you might just be aroused by your own death when it comes.
By this point, Hammer knew exactly how to restructure a narrative and drench it in enough blood to get audiences gasping. And while it was renamed in the U.S. in order to distance itself from the Universal Dracula, The Horror of Dracula is actually the perfect title. The music erupts over the backdrop of a malign gargoyle, panning down to a coffin with that name etched on it, and in case you weren’t sure what grimness it portends, the reddest blood quickly brings it to bear, spilling not splatting, as though straight from a vein. Score and cinematography combine with perfect simplicity to visually and sonically prepare us for the kind of film we’re about to watch, and in doing so give us one of the finest opening credit sequences in horror movie history.
Hammer’s Dracula is somewhat ahead of the curve in the way it quickly subverts the classic story to give us an early twist, as one-time central character Jonathan Harker is repurposed to combine Renfield and the Brides to become the audience’s avenue into the story – our hero, a victim, then blood-sucking concubine.
Arthur is a combination of all the other male protagonists, with Lucy now his sister and Mina his wife. This approach keeps the film fresh, well-paced and cuts straight to the actual horror by acknowledging this is a story its audience likely knows all too well, or not well enough to notice or care for the difference. No mention is made of Transylvania or the Borgo Pass, instead we find Castle Dracula in Klausberg. No gaping tomb of cobwebs, this is a mansion lair with a colour palette more in keeping with an Errol Flynn movie.
Enter the Count.
If the children of the night are making sweet music then this fellow is not interested, he is business-like, austere in his mannerisms. Gone are the accent and preternatural posturing, replaced by something that appears quite routinely human.
Every time I watch this film, I’m startled by Christopher Lee; a most commanding actor with a singular presence. Consequently, I am equally flummoxed by my false recollections of just how little dialogue he has, and in turn how little screen time. Like Stoker’s novel, the Count does his best scheming off-page (or off-camera, rather), appearing in very deliberate moments to prey upon handpicked victims. Lee’s performance is largely silent, but dialogue isn’t necessary when you can prescribe dread in your audience with nothing but a snarl; or is it a smirk? He seems to change form just by the use of expression, curt, almost uptight, with glares that make one question whether contact lenses are being utilised, but then maybe it’s the lighting, or more likely just the power of the performance.
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are as vital to Hammer as their characters are to this story and in every iteration of the Dracula tale, the vampire must have his hunter. Cushing brings another brilliant mind to life with equally unshakable resolve, only this time possessing tenderness, empathy and a sometimes harsh but veracious logic that keeps the Count at bay. When Lucy succumbs to her bite following the maids’ folly, we know that things would have been just fine had she only listened to the doctor. Were you about to face damnation in the clutches of the blood-drunk undead, you’d want this version of Van Helsing wielding the stake. His is likely the first portrayal to openly approach vampire hunting with such a socio-scientific ethos, comparing the need for blood to that of a drug addiction. But vampirism isn’t just about the haemoglobin fix and alludes to more than just biting the neck in order to get a high.
When I read the novel in the early nineties, I was taken aback by the lack of a love story. This was not what Coppola had told me Dracula was all about! True, the love story is overstated, and modern adaptations often amplify the subtext, but Lee’s Dracula perfectly embodies the potent sexuality of the vampire, both conceptually and as it relates to the novel. He exudes power without ever uttering a syllable – but more importantly, you squirm at his victim’s helplessness, though they might not just be succumbing to something supernatural, rather they are giving of themselves quite willingly. Each cutaway to a gently slamming bedroom door forebodes as much.
For me, the finest realisation of Dracula comes in his death scene, filled with ground-breaking special effects that influenced every vampire demise thereafter. As Dracula fights back Van Helsing, there is a single moment where he pauses and then lunges. It’s just a second, but his expression is truly inhuman. I still can’t tell if he’s using contact lenses or not and I don’t care to find out. It’s here that we see the real monster, relentless and foul. Until of course he is beaten, cornered by his weaknesses and Van Helsing’s capacity to exploit them. Like a trapped animal, he looks genuinely terrified and dies horribly.
Of course, he’ll return, as one no doubt expects, and while both actors reprise their roles across different stories and eras, and not always together, they never quite capture the purity of the characters as they did in 1958. Perhaps more than any other icon of horror, Count Dracula is the hardest to truly define. This may have something to do with the way the novel was written, via a series of letters and journal entries that deliberately keep him at a distance, only really being seen from a series of subjective viewpoints. Modern versions look to rejuvenate or hone-in on some of these perspectives and quite right too. Defining a literary character on screen, especially one who was created over one hundred and twenty years ago, isn’t straight-forward or even possible. But then my Mum was quite sure it was. Sorry Gary Oldman, but on reflection, I am too.
That said, I am quite partial to a werewolf.
Until next time…