There’s a big difference between Dracula movies and vampire movies. Dracula is always a vampire movie, but not every vampire movie is Dracula, which is a bit of an understatement. Ever since Nosferatu was made in 1922, people have been perennially fascinated with bringing Bram Stoker’s historic and histrionic novel to cinematic life, with wildly varying results. I’m not going to summarize the plot of the novel; you probably should have read it already, and if you haven’t, I’m not going to spoil it for you. And anyway, the story is now a part of the larger pop culture zeitgeist, so you probably already kinda know if, even if you haven’t read it. Jonathan Harker, Mina, his fiancée, Quincy the Texan, and Van Helsing are the original monster hunters and their exploits are not unfamiliar to us, thanks to movies, TV, comics, radio, stage plays, and of course, the novel itself. Written in the form of epistolary correspondence from person to person, the novel is accused of being overly romantic, and is most famously analyzed in the context of Stoker’s reaction to the influx of immigrants to Great Britain at the Fin de siècle and a cautionary tale of the dangers of these dark, mysterious, swarthy men ravaging the fair maidens of England.
Xenophobia and Imperialism aside, the novel is a great read, and the movies are…well, a mixed bag. There are reasons for this, of course, but the single biggest one, in my opinion, is that our concept of Dracula—the story, the characters, etc, are all based on the 1927 stage play adaptation of the novel by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The English and later American versions of the play greatly compressed setting, plot, and character for all of the reasons why a stage production might do such things—time, budget, number of actors cast, and so forth. It seems weird to think that the play itself was absent the book’s first and third acts and presents only the second act with a greatly truncated third act resolution for an ending to the play, but that’s exactly what happened, and audiences ate the show up.
The other significant contribution that the stage play gave us was not one but two actors who became known for their cinematic turn as the doomed count. Bela Lugosi was the actor who played Dracula during the American run of the play in 1927, and when the play was revived in the mid-seventies (with production design by Edward Gorey, no less), Frank Langella played the title role.
I don’t think Dracula movies are scary; not anymore. I know the story too well. And Dracula as a character has achieved a kind of ubiquity that transcends the source material. The Count, on Sesame Street? Count Chocula breakfast cereal? Duckula? Good Lord… however, Pop Culture Dracula is its own thing now. Like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Conan, and other character that are a part of the pop cultural landscape, what they represent at large belies the intention and intensity of the source material. And as it would be a criminal oversight to leave these movies off any horror movie list worth its salt, I’m instead basing this Top 5 list on how much of the original novel makes it onto the screen. That metric puts all of these movies on a relatively level playing field. Mind you, none of them get it totally right, but maybe if we mashed them all up together, we’d get a Frankenstein version of Dracula that would hit every relevant beat.
5. Dracula (1931)
For several generations of horror fans, this movie is the gold standard and I would not presume to debate them. Bela Lugosi, reprising the role that won him acclaim on the stage, was a smash sensation in the movie, and his turn as the bloodthirsty count became his most recognizable character, so much so that he is the de facto face of Dracula for Universal Studios to this day. His rich Hungarian accent, the most famous lines, and even his almost affected mannerisms remain staples of the character in nearly every incarnation.
As adaptations go, it’s pretty loosey goosey. No effort was made to give the story any sense of history. Instead, Dracula is set in the 20th century. And in the interest of time, characters were combined or dropped entirely, as the American version of the British stage play condensed scenes and characters even further. What this version has going for it is the pop cultural heft of being the first real source of inspiration for all of the other Dracula films. The special effects are pretty rudimentary, and so director Todd Browning wisely decided to lean heavily on Lugosi’s performance instead. His voice, his movements, his overall presence has an otherworldly quality to it that pulls all focus to him in nearly every scene.
In one of the best-known and most memorable scenes in the movie, Van Helsing and Harker are observing Mina and discussing her condition, when all of a sudden, in walks Dracula, a wolf amongst all of the sheep. It’s here that they repositioned the gag about vampires not showing up in mirrors, and it works well. The Dracula/Van Helsing early meeting would show up again and again in other movies, but we never get to see it in the book. For upping the tension in an already tense moment, you can’t get much better than having your villain just show up in your living room.
4. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
This movie is certainly the closest to the book version of Dracula, and yet, it’s also the furthest away. It’s also the most successful Dracula movie in recent times, largely thanks to an all-star cast that includes Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, Gary Oldman as Vlad the Impaler, Tom Waites as Renfield, Winona Ryder as Mina, and lest we forget, the director of this epic was none other than Francis Ford Coppella.
This Dracula is wildly entertaining and draws its vampiric shenanigans from nearly every other Dracula movie that preceded it. There’s Nosferatu-like shadow play, bright red blood and heaving bodices in the Hammer tradition, and method acting out the wazoo as Oldman rocks a Hungarian accent that never becomes a parody of Lugosi, but is obviously meant to connect this movie to its cinematic roots. What else does it get right? We get Quincy the Texan (complete with Bowie knife) and the rest of the supporting cast from the novel. The production values are of the highest caliber, and the whole movie feels like a lavish historical period piece, which it certainly is. That’s unfortunately where everything starts to go awry.
Coppola drew from the interpretation of Dracula being a polemic against foreign men ravishing White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Women, but instead of sublimating those fears, he laid a thin veneer of sex down over the entire movie. Lucy Seward and Mina Murray are initially seen giggling over the naughty woodcuts in The Arabian Nights. Jonathan Harker (underplayed by Keanu Reeves) is seduced by Dracula’s brides rather than fed upon. Lucy isn’t taken by Dracula so much as she’s mated with Dracula—in wolf form, no less. Dracula seems to excite the women to a noticeable frenzy before feeding on them. Coppola’s point seems to be that the Victorians may have been hung up on things like sex, but they were also inundated with it.
Some of the imagery is inspired and violent, but again, not very scary. I think Coppola’s casting, specifically Reeves as Harker and Tom Waites as Renfield, gets in the way of telling the story. And while we have connections to the historical Dracula, which is nice, the emphasis lies on Dracula reclaiming his reincarnated bride in the form of Mina. Despite all of the above problems, Oldman’s Dracula is intense, complex, and terrifying as well as charming and urbane. Easily the most complex portrayal of the character to date.
3. Dracula (1979)
This lavish adaptation starring Frank Langella as Dracula and Sir Lawrence Olivier as Van Helsing has a lot going for it; a musical score by John Williams, a screenplay co-written by W.D. Richter, and some really gorgeous visuals that fill up the screen. But this Dracula is very self-aware and presents a kind of post-modern commentary on what had become at the time a number of hoary old clichés. This is a little ironic to me, because the screenplay is yet-another-version of the stage play that created all of those hoary old clichés in the first place. Just listening to Van Helsing and Dracula banter, and hearing Langella’s quip-like reply to Van Helsing’s offer of wine, is a real strong indicator that they are doing it different than before, and on purpose.
Langella, his collar open wide at the throat and his perfectly coiffured hair, looks more like stage magician David Copperfield than a turn-of-the-century aristocratic nobleman. Whilst keeping up the pretense that Dracula is a historical epic, Langella looks more like he wandered in from some Deney Terrio disco movie. The movie is emphatically romantic rather than scary, even though there are some startling special effects shots that still hold up.
I like this version of the story precisely because it’s a reaction to the stereotype. If you watch all of the sequels that Lugosi and Lee made, you can get a little numb to the idea. This Dracula was supposed to be the antidote to that repetition.
2. The Horror of Dracula (1958)
Now we’re getting somewhere. Christopher Lee played Dracula more times than any other actor. I’m not really sure that he added overmuch to the role, especially after that fifth or sixth turn, but one thing is certain: he nailed the character right out of the gate with his first effort, The Horror of Dracula.
Hammer Studios was a legendary and storied production studio of the 1950s and 1960s, easily as influential as Universal was in the 1930s and 1940s. They used full color, garish blood, and a suggestion of sex to capture the teen-aged dollars of the day, with great success. And really, if you’re going to do Dracula any justice, it needs all three to really work. In all honesty, it seems that there’s one or two scenes in every single Hammer film that drag on interminably, so some heaving bosoms and splashes of bright crimson blood are just the thing to wake you up after all of the talking.
Director Terence Fisher, fresh off of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and who became the go-to director for working with movie monsters, Lee, and Cushing, jumped in with both feet and delivered a dynamic-and more complete-version of the Count, amping everything up in the process: the sex, the blood, the sensuality. Christopher Lee’s blood red contact lenses and visible fangs were a thrilling addition to the character’s cinematic look. Like Lugosi, Lee possessed a certain magnetic charm that Fisher drew out of Lee’s performance that made him a leading man and a British sex symbol for decades.
Lee’s Dracula revels in his power, taking full advantage of creative make-up effects to change him from a member of the aristocracy to a bloodthirsty monster. Opposing him in both conversation and combat is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. Their performances and also their onscreen and offscreen relationship is nearly perfect, and they would do this dance over and over again in various sequels. As far as fidelity and accuracy goes, well, the castles are better, and London more fully realized, but it’s still light on the book and heavy on the stage play and the Universal movie, which had entered into the popular culture lexicon by this time. For Dracula connoisseurs, The Horror of Dracula is required viewing.
1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974)
This TV movie version of the story is also known as “Dan Curtis’ Dracula” and with good reason; at the time this movie was made, Dan Curtis was the guy behind a successful soap opera called Dark Shadows. He directed this version, using a script provided by Richard Matheson at the top of his game and, unbelievably, Jack Palance in the role of Dracula. You can tell, almost right away, that it was directed by a soap opera veteran. Every meaningful glance is preceded by a zoom in to a tight close-up, and a musical sting, just in case you missed the swoop in. So, yes, there’s romance galore in this version as well. It’s shot much like a BBC production, with near-claustrophobic camera work. Some scenes look like a soap opera—specifically, Dark Shadows.
But there’s also some elements from the books that make it into the screenplay for the first time in a Dracula film. Matheson has to condense the story, but he managed to get a lot into a tight script, starting with setting the movie in the 1890s. I also like that the standard meeting between Van Helsing and Dracula is absent once he gets to London. Now they are just chasing the vampire, just like in the book. Of course, Matheson was just coming off of a massive success writing The Night Stalker, so between Curtis’ tenure on Dark Shadows and Matheson’s career up to this point, everyone’s vampiric bona fides were in order.
You might think Jack Palance an odd choice for Dracula, but wait until you see him. He’s an imposing physical presence almost at once, and his saturnine features are more like Lugosi’s than you might expect. His strength is considerable, and he frequently crashes through doors instead of turning into mist or a bat, and that only adds to his ferocity. There are even a couple of genuinely chilling moments when Dracula reveals himself to Jonathan Harker. Matheson provides a clever tie-in at the end of the film to the historical Dracula, as a nod to Stoker’s influence, and because, well, he’s Richard Matheson and that’s what he does. If you haven’t seen this version and you’re a Dracula fan, go check it out, as it does not disappoint.