Some of the world’s most enduring tales in folklore and literature are the vampire mythos. But surely without the 20th century’s film industry’s embrace of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, these “children of the night” might have never reached the level of popularity that they enjoy today. Over the course of the last one hundred years or so the cinema of the world has elevated this horrifying creation by giving the dark Count a new and lasting home on the silver screen.
While there have been countless stories about vampirism across cultures, the modern European trend with undead started in 1819 when “The Vampyre” was written by John Polidori. Almost a hundred years later, Bram Stoker’s gothic horror romance, “Dracula,” would rekindle the public’s love of a good villain. Published in 1897, Stoker had no idea the impact that his book would have on the world of entertainment, popular culture, and supernatural myths and mythos. The book, a wonderful jumble of diary excerpts, illustrates how a couple in love and a man of science are called to solve a supernatural problem that still fires the imagination.
At the turn of the century, a larger audience was exposed to these stories thanks to several adaptations of “Dracula” on stage, which enjoyed several extremely successful theatrical runs. In the end, however, it was the actors, like Stoker’s friend, Hall Caine, who benefitted the most from the show’s popularity.
At the dawn of the age of the moving picture, a few Eastern European and Russian productions appeared, but failed to make big waves. In fact, it wasn’t until “Nosferatu”(1922) that audiences were once again fully engaged with the legend of the vampire.
Even though the producers, Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau, were unable to obtain the film rights for “Dracula,” they moved ahead with a rip-off of the Stoker material anyway, which caught fire with its American release in 1929 even in spite of losing in court to the Stoker estate for its clear copyright infringement. Within two years, American producers at Universal put forth their own new stamp on the material and started a new era in horror moviemaking.
In the 1930s, Universal Studios took “Dracula” and parlayed the character into an era of Horror movies that brought a menagerie of baddies and beasties to the big screen. “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” and more all joined “Dracula” in a dynasty of horror filmmaking that still exerts influence in today’s films. Many people still feel that Bella Lugosi’s star role in the 1931 version is the definitive take on the character. Films like “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936), “Son of Dracula” (1943), and “Dracula’s House” (1945) would continue to terrorize double movie bills at drive-ins all around the USA. In a crass attempt to maximize their profits, Universal started pairing their horror properties with Abbot and Costello, which of course, left some purists in the cold. But there can be no doubt whatsoever that Hollywood’s Golden Age of Movie Monsters ensured that the Count would be back. And sure enough “Dracula” was yet again reborn in the British Science fiction horror scene.
By the late mid-1950s, the British film company, Hammer Film Productions, had returned to the horror film market. They found some success with “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1958), and sought to replicate the success of “The Horror of Dracula” (1958), the latter of which also marked the rise of Christopher Lee. Hammer House kept the flame going with titles like “The Brides of Dracula” (1960), “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” (1968), “Dracula A.D. 72” (1972), and “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (1973).
Alas, as the sixties drew to a close, films like the 1966 “Dracula and Billy the Kid” were on the rise while the sweet taste of Hammer’s gothic horror drew to a close in a glut of bad horror products as the nature of horror films started to change. The opening of the seventies saw a boom of “Dracula” inspired films. Some were right out of the blacksploitation genre, like “Blacula” (1972) and “Scream Blacula Scream” (1973), while others showed the genre’s immersion in pop culture and the rising avant garde, like Andy Warhol’s X-rated “Blood for Dracula” (1973). The end of the 1970s saw a remake of the 1931 version in 1979 with Frank Langela, which tried to emphasize the love story. Laurence Olivier’s performance as Van Helsing remains a delight.
Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) saw big budget success by using rising stars Keanu Reaves and Wynona Ryder. The Wes Craven-produced “Dracula 2000” spawned two sequels in its own right. And in 2012, Italian and Hindi Directors released big budget versions in Italy and India. The last film to tackle The Count was “Dracula Untold” (2014), which altered the origin tale and sought to portray Dracula as a sympathetic anti-hero.
The list of films is by no means definitive, but is a starting point for delving deeper into the various eras of Dracula’s prominence. Perhaps the best news for the enthusiast is that the Dracula character is one of those properties that is in the public domain, which ensures we will continue seeing new versions, ret-cons, and origin stories to keep us all on the edge of our seats well into the darkest of nights.