Horror in Store, Part 1: Dracula’s Influence

With a mocking smile, he placed one hand upon my shoulder and, holding me tight, bared my throat with the other, saying as he did so: ‘First, a little refreshment to reward my exertions…’ And oh, my God, my God, pity me! He placed his reeking lips upon my throat!

Mina Harker narrates in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897)

In the 80 or so years before Dubliner Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, Gothic fiction seen a huge rise in popularity, both on stage and in books. The likes of Lord Byron and Sheridan Le Fanu wrote of vampire and ghost characters that likely inspired Stoker in his writings. Stories of real-life horror recounted from his mother’s experiences of the Cholera epidemic in Sligo town may have also lent inspiration. Regardless, the sensation of Dracula the novel, and indeed Count Dracula the character, left an indelible imprint on modern horror. Not only has there been a vast amount of film adaptations of Stoker’s novel, one can also track Dracula has having an extraordinary influence on a so-called ‘vampire subculture’ that still persists to this day – the massive success of the Twilight novels can attest to that.

The horror genre in film had its genesis with the character of Dracula and the shadowy, supernatural world in which he inhabits. It was only 1922 when the German visionary F. W. Murnau created his unwavering silent masterpiece in Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Thanks in no small part to the vivid performance by Max Schreck, the original Nosferatu still has the power to creep you the hell out. The lack of dialogue and the dedication to expressionism contributes to a deeply unhinging experience. Horror fans can only rejoice that the attempted destruction of all reels of the film by the Stoker Estate (due to copyright infringement) did not fully proceed. Incidentally, the later German visionary Werner Herzog re-crafted the film in 1979 with an equally disturbing but utterly unique portrayal of the Count by Klaus Kinski. And of course, two Americans (E. Elias Merhige and Steven Katz) had to have a crack at the story in 2000 – this was not a straight-forward re-hash but rather a mock, behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the original film. Willem Defoe as a fictional version of Max Schreck (the actor) carries on the tradition of portraying a creepy blood-thirsty vampire.

Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.

Bela Lugosi as the Count in Dracula (1931)

The most enduring image of Dracula on screen came on the wave of Universal Studios’ embrace of horror adaptations in the early 1930s. The Hungarian Bela Lugosi had already played the titular character on stage prior to taking the lead in Tod Browning’s 1931 film. The Eastern European accent and the ominous gaze and gait of a pale-faced, slick-haired figure appearing from the shadows became the trademark of the character forthwith. Lugosi (unfortunately becoming typecast in the years hence) was in many ways a perfect re-imagining of Dracula. Over time, however, this imagining became over-used and repetitive. Eventually the idea of a man with a slow, evil laugh and protruding fangs became a parody of itself and reduced Dracula to a Halloween costume for kids (but I do confess to enjoying the Count from Sesame Street). With the exception of Christopher Lee in the 1960 Hammer versions, Dracula has never really had the same power to scare and shock as he did back in the early days.

Back in 1922, there were other places to go with horror that didn’t involve Dracula. For example, a co-Swedish and Danish production by Benjamin Christensen caused quite a stir upon its release. Häxan is presented in a documentary style, exploring the history of pagan superstitions and witchcraft through a chronicle of events. It is a very unsettling feature with some liberal scenes of nudity and torture that, I can only imagine, were shocking to audiences back then. The idea of graphic horror imagery in film, whether it be of sexual perversion or bodily gore, has indeed become the staple of modern horror films, but Häxan, even in black and white, was the first to establish this as a central force in making its story effective. Like all good horror films though, it is what is found beneath the perversion and gore that leaves the lasting impression. In Häxan, we experience a surreal exploration of how mass fears and misunderstandings of human ritual can lead to mental anguish and tragedy. Indeed, the idea of witchcraft is intelligently dealt with in recent films such as The Witch, and even the earlier films of David Cronenberg (The Brood; Rabid) builds on the ideas touched upon in Häxan.

It’s alive! It’s alive!

Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein in Frankenstein (1931)

The types of grotesque demons seen in Häxan did not become immediately prevalent in film after this. Instead, and probably acting on the moral outrage from conservative commentators of the time, we see mainstream horror films taking a slightly different path. As mentioned above, Universal Studios created a horror series that focused on human-like ‘monsters’ as a key scare tactic. The producer Carl Laemmle Jr. oversaw adaptations of Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). And several more followed in the decades after: such as The Wolf Man (1941), The Black Cat (1941) and The Phantom of the Opera (1943). These films made stars out of Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr. and established characters that are forever etched in the horror zeitgeist. Indeed, these stories are still being adapted in different ways even to this day. However, the more they are re-hashed, the less impact the horror has. They have become straight-up entertainment vehicles, with no intention to go beneath the surface. Often, they will encourage contempt for the monster and utilise revenge and cruelty as a necessary retort. The sub-texts on human flaws is sadly missing and I am pretty sure that this is not what Stoker et al had in mind.

The British Hammer Studios admirably improved the vision of these horror adaptations in the 1950s incorporating full colour and more realistic outdoor settings. With the added edge of actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and a more graphic depiction of blood, these films were aimed at a more mature audience and therefore assigned to late night showings. Films like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Dracula (1958) created an effective macabre atmosphere that lent itself to Hitchcockian suspense, while the evil characters often procured sympathetic traits. There was worldwide success thanks to funding from American partners, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s the mainstream market for horror movies was becoming saturated and eventually Hammer disappeared into the shadows. It became a studio more known for soft-core lesbian vampire films or gory video nasties than for traditional horrors, which is unfortunate.

It’s in the trees, it’s coming.

Reginald Beckwith as Mr. Meek in The Night of the Demon (1957)

Outside of Hammer, there were some very good horror films being made in the UK too. Jacques Tourneur’s The Night of the Demon (1957) capitalised on the less overt direction shown in horror films at the time. Tourneur had met with success in Hollywood with Cat People (1942), a sophisticated horror about metamorphosis and jealousy, and he managed The Night of the Demon, a film about satanic rune stones, with expert precision. The demon in question is manifested with some pretty poor special effects but the story is highly original and the atmosphere of unease is quietly terrifying. The Haunting (1963) is equally terrifying. It was directed by Robert Wise and shot at an eerie mansion in Warwickshire and the MGM Studios in Herefordshire. The film could have been a straight-up ghost story, but with an innovative use of multiple main characters and the embodiment of the house as a separate character, you get a superior horror film with chilling results.

By the time The Haunting was released, Alfred Hitchcock had offered mainstream audiences a glimpse of new, post-modern horror that varied greatly from the traditional Dracula influence. Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), all touched upon elements of psychological terror with the aim to not just shock the audiences but taunt them as well. This marked a new wave for the horror genre that was expanded and experimented upon in the decades hence. And this will be discussed in the next part.

***************************

YearFilmDirectorDraculaStudio/Country
1922Nosferatu: A Symphony of HorrorF. W. MurnauMax SchreckGermany
1931DraculaTod BrowningBela LugosiUniversal Pictures (U.S.)
1931Dracula (in Spanish)George MelfordCarlos VillaríasUniversal Pictures (U.S.)
1953Dracula in IstanbulMehmet MuhtarAtif KaptanTurkey
1958DraculaTerence FisherChristopher LeeHammer Films (U.K.)
1970Count DraculaJesus FrancoChristopher LeeSpain, Italy, Germany & U.K.
1973Bram Stoker’s DraculaDan CurtisJack PalanceCBS (U.S.)
1977Count DraculaPhilip SavilleLouis JourdanBBC (U.K.)
1979Nosferatu the VampyreWerner HerzogKlaus KinskiGermany
1979DraculaJohn BadhamFrank LangellaUniversal Pictures (U.S.)
1992Bram Stoker’s DraculaFrancis Ford CoppolaGary OldmanColumbia Pictures
1995Dracula: Dead and Loving ItMel BrooksLeslie NielsenSony Pictures
2002Dracula’s CurseRoger YoungPatrick BerginItaly
2002Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s DiaryGuy MaddinZhang Wei-QiangCanada
2006DraculaBill EaglesMarc WarrenBBC (U.K.)
2012Dracula 3DDario ArgentoThomas KretschmannItaly & Spain
2013DraculaVariousJonathan Rhys MyersNBC (U.S.)
2020DraculaVariousClaes BangBBC (U.K.)
TV and film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (excluding sequels)

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