With the recent release of Chris McKay’s “Renfield,” Nicolas Cage enters the pantheon of dozens of actors who have portrayed the iconic character devised by Irish author Bram Stoker in 1897, the Transylvanian vampire known as Count Dracula. Since his conception in the eponymous novel, Dracula has stood the test of time in pop culture as the emblematic personification of evil and fear, adapting to a breadth of locations and time periods.
Count Dracula’s first appearance on screen was in a 1921 Austrian film titled “Dracula’s Death.” Unfortunately, what little information we have on this film is scarce, as, like many films of this era, it has been, for all intents and purposes, “lost.” While we know nothing of its artistic merit, we do know from reports that the film’s plot does not closely follow the story of Stoker’s novel. The same couldn’t be said for a film that hit German theatres the following year: F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu.” Aside from its name and setting in Germany instead of England, “Nosferatu” closely follows the Dracula story as it was written by Stoker: a young man travels to the Carpathian mountains to sell an abandoned house back in his hometown, only for the devilish buyer to fall in love with the young man’s fiancé and psychically control her from across the continent. Murnau used the aesthetics of German Expression and the settings of the natural world to tell this story with unease and genuine terror with a hypnotizing central performance from Max Schreck. The change of Count Dracula’s name to Count Orlock was done to appeal to German audiences and avoid copyright interference. However, Stoker’s hires ultimately sued the production company, and all film prints were ordered to be destroyed. Fortunately, some survived, and we modern audiences get to watch this enduringly creepy film one hundred years later.
Less than a decade later, the Count made his way to America in Tod Browning’s “Dracula,” the film that established the character’s iconic image and characteristics. Dark, slicked-back hair, a widows-peak, a villainous cackle, and an instantly recognizable accent were introduced by Romanian actor Bela Lugosi who, along with his colleague Boris Karloff, would become one of the most emblematic figures of the Hollywood horror craze of the 1930s and ’40s. That same year, Universal Studios produced a Spanish-language version of the movie, a practice common in the early days of sound to appeal to foreign-language markets. The two films have the same plot and characters and were filmed concurrently on the same set. Starring Lugosi-lookalike Carlos Villarías in the titular role, the Spanish version of “Dracula” has received as much, if not more, critical acclaim than its English-language counterpart.
This Lugosi-version of Dracula would serve as the basis for the character over the next two decades in several Universal horror sequels, with portrayals by Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine. Christopher Lee was the next actor to become irrevocably tied to the caped Prince of Darkness, who first played the role in the aptly named “Dracula” in 1958. There are shades of Lugosi present in his performance as Dracula, but he makes it his own. His vampire is animalistic, bloodthirsty, erratic, and not quite as debonair. Like Lugosi, who apparently resented his horror-genre typecasting, Lee resisted constantly donning the black cape and set of false teeth. After his initial 1958 appearance, Lee was reportedly “emotionally blackmailed” by a film producer into reprising his role multiple times, ultimately appearing as the character seven times for the same production company. These low-budget films, in which Lee had little to do but hiss and leer ominously, set the groundwork for Dracula and the vampire film to become staples of the exploitation genre.
The sexuality underpinning the vampire myth came to the forefront in the 1970s, when what was once implied became explicit. At the same time, Dracula and vampires became less tied down to the horror genre and were now found in comedy, sci-fi, and experimental film. In 1972, William Crain’s blaxploitation film “Blacula” hit theatres, bringing the vampire legend into the modern day while incorporating black culture during the heyday of the exploitation film. Though critics derided it, the film did well financially and has since become an undeniable cult classic. The following years, with the exception of Werner Herzog’s faithful “Nosferatu” remake, were overstuffed with cheap, repetitive, and creatively bankrupt Dracula stories. Vampires are old, and audiences wanted something shiny and new. This drought of vampiric innovation would end with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 powerhouse “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”
High-energy, dramatic, romantic, and impeccably ornate, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” shows the good, bad, and ugly sides of the vampire and Count Dracula, mythologizing the character as a wronged Ottoman soldier set on avenging his wife’s death. Played by Gary Oldman as both a decrepit, centuries-old recluse and dashing young Casanova, the film focuses largely on Dracula’s psycho-sexual relationship with Mina Harker, played by Winona Ryder. Coppola masterfully portrays how both the film’s characters and its audience can easily be allured by something so beautiful yet so dangerous. With a stacked cast that includes Anthony Hopkins and Keanu Reeves, the film twists melodrama and supernatural into an unrepentant depiction of a human and inhuman desire.
Since its origins in the silent era, the vampire has never totally left our cinemas, waxing and waning in popularity and jumping from genre to genre. Once again, the image of the vampire was totally revamped with the “Twilight” phenomenon of 2005-2012 (and let us never forget the horrendously awful “Dracula 2000”). Now, the vampire doesn’t decay in front of our eyes but can remain youthful and attractive for eternity. He won’t burn in the sun, just sparkle. He doesn’t live in a dusty old castle but a Pacific North West-style three-level modernist retreat. And don’t worry, he won’t eat you or your loved ones; he’s a “vegetarian.” Still, even in this iteration, the vampire as the symbol of forbidden love and sexuality persists.
This year, Dracula once again appears as a character in two vastly different films. The first, the aforementioned “Renfield,” is a comic portrayal of the relationship between Count Dracula (Cage) and his devoted servant Renfield (played by Nicholas Hoult) in the twenty-first century. The always over-the-top Cage appears to be drawing from multiple past portrayals of Dracula as if Lugosi and Lee were put in a blender and adorned with a killer wardrobe from the 1970s. Later this year will see the release of “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” based on a chapter from the original novel that depicts the fate of a ship’s crew as they unknowingly transport Dracula from Transylvania to England. Early images of this film show a more Nosferatu-like creature with pointy ears and a bald head. This version of the Dracula story will trade in-jokes and gags for scares and frights. These two films, and the highly anticipated adaptation of “Nosferatu” by director Robert Eggers, demonstrate how the character of Dracula continues to compel storytellers and audiences. Surely, the next few decades will only turn out more iterations of the King of the Vampires
What is your favorite version of Dracula on film? Have you seen “Renfield” yet? If so, what did you think of Cage’s interpretation? Are you looking forward to “The Last Voyage of the Demeter?” Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.