Dracula Research Project

Now that I’ve polished off my first reading of Dracula (I’ll no doubt be returning), the time has come to educate and re-educate myself in everything vampiric. The reading has been the most exciting thing so far. Little by little, I’m amassing any literature that might prove helpful. Here’s my current agenda:

The New Testament (Most particularly the Gospels. My lightweight Methodist upbringing means I feel as if I’ve read them already, but I know I haven’t. In many ways, Count Dracula is no more than Jesus Christ viewed in a Satanic glass. The uses and implications of blood symbolism should also prove interesting. To this end, I might look to a few mystery plays.)
The Vampyre (There was devilry in the summer of 1816. On the same night that Mary Shelley devised Frankenstein and Percy Shelley threw together some nonsense about a living skull, John Polidori concocted this early vampire tale. Stoker had Sir Henry Irving; so too did Polidori have Lord Byron to influence his charismatic male vamp.)
Carmilla (Vampire tale from Sheridan Le Fanu – a folklore-steeped Irishman, like Stoker himself. I’ve seen the delightfully twee lesbian vampire flicks to which it gave rise – good old Hammer! – so the original should be an eye-opener.)
Varney the Vampire (I’ve wanted to have a bash at this legendary penny dreadful since I devoured Sweeney Todd thriller-chiller The String of Pearls last year. In my edition, it runs to nearly a thousand pages of teeny-tiny type. Definitely one to tackle in pieces.)
The Jewel of Seven Stars (Stoker’s most famous novel after Dracula. This is principally because it initiated another monster icon: the living mummy. However, our modern conception of mummies has more to do with Universal Pictures than Bram Stoker. Predictably, the Hammer film that took Jewel as its source, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, is stiflingly dull. I hear the novel’s a bit of a let-down, but I’ll be reading it for completism.)
The Lady of the Shroud (More vampire shenanigans from Stoker. I know virtually nothing about this one, but it’s collected with my edition of White Worm, so I’ll give it a go. I hear there’s an aeroplane battle towards the end; Dracula meets King Kong?)
The Lair of the White Worm (Stoker’s last horror novel. Just finished this one. Some commendably horrid descriptions of maimed and putrified flesh; a good complement to Dracula‘s countless evocations of decay. It’s hard to dislike a novel with a house called ‘Doom Tower’ – or the line ‘I never thought this fighting an antediluvian monster would be such a complicated job’. We can all get behind that.)
Trilby (Published in 1894, Trilby was a sensation on the scale of The Pickwick Papers. Unlike Dracula, Trilby got its due in its day and has been fading ever since. The two aren’t so very different: a flamboyant black-clad foreigner hypnotises women and lures them into living death. Nina Auerbach has argued that Dracula was the template for the Opera Ghost; Svengali is definitely on the same continuum. I’m trying to lay hands on both the novel and play versions.)
I Am Legend (Richard Matheson’s vampire apocalypse survival thriller. I’ve seen the two important film versions – The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston – and both were fairly uninspiring. But I hear the novel’s terrific. Matheson’s written screenplays for a few things I really love – such as House of Usher with Vincent Price – so I’m very excited!)
Anno Dracula (Kim Newman is a man whose work I have endless time for, so this is long overdue; Dracula reincarnated as consort to Queen Victoria. Newman is a classic horror obsessive, so he weaves in references to obscure filmic vampires such as Countess Zaleska, Dr Callistratus and Baron Meinster. I’m also told that Bill Sikes is in there.)
Hollywood Gothic (An old favourite: David Skal’s brilliant study of the Count’s rise as pop culture icon. Skal makes the connection between Oscar Wilde and Dracula in a manner that I find pleasing and persuasive.)
Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (I have a theory that Count Dracula and Quentin Crisp are the same person. Both seemed to live forever; both marked the end of their lives with a journey across the sea. I’ve read Crisp’s two earlier volumes of autobiography; Alien is the last.)
Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (This seemed the most interesting of the various Stoker biographies. No doubt I’ll get round to a few others; no doubt a few are being ground out to mark the centenary of Stoker’s death. It’s been riveting so far. I’ve started to identify with this repressed, hero-worshipping, ardent-letter-writing six-footer to an unexpected degree.)
The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (Where better to learn about the decadent sexual practices of the 1890s? Homosexuality was only slightly less acceptable to the Victorian public than vampirism.)
The Book of Renfield (An alternate history of Dracula, focusing on the character of Renfield. There’s always a danger that this type of thing will lapse into glorified fan fiction – but I’ve heard very good things!)

I’m also taking this opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Dracula’s handsome filmography. My horror checklist informs me that I’ve already got a few versions of the story lying about:

Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922; One of the most popular of all silent films. Also one of my absolute favourite films. My renewed acquaintance with the novel has shown me how brilliantly Nosferatu captures its spirit, most often by casting natural settings in the Expressionist mould: the countryside, the castle, the ship, the plague-stricken city. And the terror – the terror! It’s unbelievably frightening at times. If I’m to play Dracula, the anti-romantic Max Schreck will soon become my oracle.)
Dracula (1931; Creaky but imperishable warhorse. It’s no masterpiece, but there’s so much that’s delightful. Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan are often weirder than Dracula himself, theatrical to the point of effeminacy and rigor mortis; sins for which I’m always willing to forgive an actor. And I’ve been imitating Bela Lugosi’s hand contortions for roughly a decade now. Most importantly, Dracula established the look and feel of the great Universal horrors of the early 1930s. I saw this again last week, stirred into action by the hoo-ha surrounding Universal’s Blu-Ray restoration.)
Drácula (1931; Simultaneously produced Spanish version. Not dubbed, but filmed with different performers at night. It’s safe to say it’s better than the English version. It’s also rather more camp. The acting is somehow even more exuberant; the eye-poppingly gorgeous visuals smack of the pretty as much as the Gothic. Perhaps this is inevitable when you’re consciously seeking to outdo someone else’s work. I think the Spanish Drácula gets away with it, but only due to its precise historical timing. That said, the film’s restaging of the ship sequence provides one of the most terrifying moments in the Universal horror canon.)
Dracula (1958; Christopher Lee’s inaugural vampire outing. Also acknowledged as the seminal Hammer horror. Further to this reputation, I remember being disappointed the first time round; I preferred Hammer’s more cerebral The Curse of Frankenstein. But the Hammer Dracula has really grown on me since. As in the novel, Dracula rarely appears, instead hanging over the proceedings. When he’s back, it’s heart-in-the-throat action. And I challenge you to find a more exciting death for Dracula.)
Count Dracula (1977; I’ve never seen this one, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s BBC drama at the dawn of their undying Shakespeare series. This should guarantee textual fidelity, powerhouse character acting and exquisitely grainy location filming. Frank Finlay is Van Helsing; he plays a mean Jacob Marley and Witchsmeller Pursuivant, so this can only be a good thing.)
Dracula (1979; Frank Langella remake of the Lugosi classic. Many people come down hard on this one, possibly because it cuts the Transylvania scenes, but I rather like it: a genuinely scary Lucy (superfluously called Mina in this one), Donald Pleasence as Seward and a John Williams musical score. That said, Laurence Olivier is at his most absurd; Pleasence outshines him without effort. It’s probably the most faithful rendition of Stoker’s caricatured ‘ain’t these foreigners queer!’ Van Helsing, but there are good reasons it’s never played that way.)
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979; Arthouse Werner Herzog remake. Without doubt, the most atmospheric film I’ve ever seen. From the first prowl through a mummy-strewn tomb to the Wagnerian finale, it’s as unearthly an experience as I’ve ever had with a film. The Popul Vuh soundtrack is unforgettable. As the Count, Klaus Kinski exudes the character’s essential melancholy with a near-apocalyptic intensity; I can think only of Smike’s cries of ‘no hope!’ in Nicholas Nickleby. Probably the best version of Dracula since the original Nosferatu.)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979; Essentially the same film, but with the actors speaking English in alternate takes. They handle it pretty well.)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992; Bloated Ford Coppola masturbatory exercise. Gary Oldman is unimpressive, Winona Ryder is pallid. Keanu Reeves deserves execution. The colours are an argument for black-and-white. But the Kilar music is so very excellent… I’ll be giving it another spin. If you have the choice, go for the companion piece Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: more daft, less offensive.)

Film-wise, this is only the tip of the vampire’s tooth. From 1936 to 1948, Universal knocked out a ton of sequels – Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – most of which were more interesting than the leaden original. Hammer was even more frivolous in its Dracula output. With the exception of The Brides of Dracula of 1960 (the best of the lot) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires of 1974 (the last – and worst), all of them starred Christopher Lee: Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (my first Hammer film!), Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. For whatever reason, I’ve never got round to Satanic Rites. And, like Stoker’s novel, it’s set in the present day. There may be lessons. There will definitely be Peter Cushing.

There’s also a ton of non-Dracula vampire films that are nonetheless deeply interesting. Titles that spring to mind include the highly atmospheric Vampyr (1932) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967); Hollywood horrors Mark of the Vampire (1935), Return of the Vampire (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945); and some of Hammer’s non-Dracula vampire outings, such as Kiss of the Vampire and the Karnstein trilogy (the afore-mentioned twee lesbian vampire romps). There are some things I’ve never seen. I’ve got wind of a television version of Dracula starring actor-god Denholm Elliott, so that’s obviously a must. (Filmed for the same series, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, was a version of Frankenstein – with Ian Holm as both creator and created!) Christopher Lee never passes up the chance to talk about how faithful (if compromised) a version of the novel Franco’s El Conde Drácula (1970) was, so I’m excited for that also.

And yes, I might even watch Twilight again. I’m firmly of the opinion that the best way to produce something respectable is often to expose yourself to that which you dislike. It’s often been that way with acting, at least. The future’s bright! The future’s bloody! And it’s absolutely covered in Dracula! If I’m not desecrating graves and summoning wolves by year’s end, then something has gone desperately wrong.

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