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Reading the Screen: The Shocking Tooth About Vampire Movies, Part One

So The Twilight Saga: New Moon is out on DVD and Blu-ray. The adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s 2006 novel was panned by a lot of critics for being too slowly paced and too uninvolving, but let’s be fair here: it ain’t easy to turn a vampire novel into a movie.

Consider Dracula, for example. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel has been made draculainto a few movies, and they all pretty much throw out the novel’s structure. The book is written, as I’m sure you know, as a series of letters and diary entries and whatnot. This is nearly impossible to translate visually, which is why nobody’s really tried. Plus, you have the inherently unbelievable idea of an undead guy who drinks blood, controls his victims through telepathy, and sleeps during the day (and not because he works the night shift at the local 7-Eleven).

Still, there are some pretty good Dracula movies. Tod Browning’s 1931 version, starring Bela Lugosi, is the benchmark, the movie against which all others are compared, and that’s fair: it might be nearly 80 years old, but it’s still the best. Take a look:

Seriously: can you imagine a creepier, more hauntingly memorable Dracula than Lugosi? I was going to call him “the inimitable Lugosi,” but then I remembered Martin Landau’s incredible, Oscar-winning performance in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood:

Anyway, Lugosi’s the guy to beat. But Frank Langella offers an interesting interpretation of the ol’ Count in 1979’s Dracula, based on the Broadway play that catapulted Langella to stardom. He’s a more seductive vampire, suave and hypnotic, but John Badham’s direction doesn’t serve the material well. The pacing is off: sometimes the movie plods along, other times it seems to be in a hurry. Stoker’s novel is very well paced, beginning slowly and building steadily to a horrific climax; the movie, on the other hand, sort of meanders. Still, Langella is very good. And Laurence Olivier, as vampire-hunter Van Helsing, is — as always — a treat.

Louis Jourdan played the bloodsucker in 1977’s Count Dracula, a BBC television adaptation. I saw this when I was, oh, about sixteen, and let me tell you: it scared the whatsis out of me. The scene where Jourdan, as perhaps the screen’s most charming Dracula, climbs up the wall of the castle, still gives me the creeps. The three-part movie really captures the feel of Stoker’s novel: the slow build-up to the climactic scenes, the stately atmosphere, the general, what’s the word, ooginess. If you’re a fan of Stoker’s novel, you really should track this one down (it’s available on DVD). Here’s a peek:


Francis Ford Coppola took a stab at the material in 1992, with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Gary Oldman gives a brilliant performance as Dracula, combining Lugosi’s creepiness with Langella’s seductiveness. Yes, Keanu Reeves is awful as Jonathan Harker, we all know that. And, yes, the movie is about as close to Bram Stoker’s Dracula as Love at First Bite, the witty 1979 spoof (well, it’s a bit closer than that), but just take a look at what Coppola has done:

The movie looks great: Coppola filmed it all on a soundstage, even the exterior scenes, and this gives the movie an otherworldly look that perfectly matches the atmosphere of Stoker’s novel. It looks like the old classic Universal horror movies, like Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and, obviously, Dracula. Only in vivid, bloody color.

Coppola also cleverly connects the literary Dracula to his historical ancestor, the Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracul, or Vlad the Impaler. If you’re interested in the historical origins of the legend of Dracula, you should check out In Search of Dracula (1994), by Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu. It’s a very interesting, and very imaginative, look at the Count’s real-life inspiration.

Oh, and Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew, Dacre Stoker, co-wrote (with Ian Holt) 2009’s Dracula: The Un-Dead, a nifty sequel that picks up a quarter-century after Stoker’s novel. It’s definitely worth sinking your teeth into.

And those are just the Dracula-themed productions. Check out part two for some spin-offs.



About the Author:

David Pitt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to reviewing for Booklist, he writes a monthly column about paperback fiction and nonfiction for the Winnipeg Free Press. He has contributed to The Booklist Reader since 2010.

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