Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not the first vampire story but certainly the most memorable. It starts out as Jonathan Harker records his trip to visit Count Dracula about property he has purchased in London. We are given fascinating details of the journey but foreboding as well. Although welcomed warmly by Dracula, he begins to suspect things are not right. And that leads him to discover Dracula is not at all what he seems but a monster that will spread evil into the heart of Europe.
Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will! He made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him to stone. The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed as cold as ice–more like the hand of the dead than a living man.
Readers then and now are surprised at how Stoker did not hold back in what Dracula does. Perhaps the most horrific–and rarely seen in film or miniseries adaptations–is when the three vampire women at his castle are given a baby by Dracula as a meal. It shows what truly a monster he is and those that serve him as well. Stoker builds on that horror as Dracula arrives in England to begin spreading his evil. The strange illness of Lucy Westenra brings us the character of Van Helsing who suspects a vampire is at work. And Jonathan’s return helps the group that forms that they are dealing with an evil creature that must be destroyed.
But they also fail to see he is already working against them by feeding on Mina, Jonathan’s wife. They get the upper hand though by tracking down all his hiding places to sanctify making them unusable to him. He taunts them at one point and then flees across the ocean back home. The chase to get there before he does is perhaps the most thrilling part of the book. In a dramatic ending, they catch him as the sun is starting to set and he is about to have full command of his powers. The end is quick with a dagger in the throat and the heart. And then he is no more. Unlike some depictions, he goes to dust with just a momentary sight that his soul was at peace now. The evil is vanquished never to rise again.
Dracula spawned other books and movies both inspired or based in some way on the book. The famous 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi cemented a certain image of Dracula that stood out for a long time. Yet except perhaps for the Coppola movie, few show what Harker saw:
Within stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.
Most depictions have no moustache and Dracula neither appears old or young (somewhere in between). They also rarely show the trip to the castle (quite long as Dracula was looking for blue flames to find hidden treasure and his command of wolves). Dracula in the book can get about by day. The myth that sprung up was that vampires had to walk at night. Not so in the book at all. Dracula could get around in daylight, but it constricted his abilities. At night he could use his full range of abilities, but daylight limited him to whatever form he had at that time (he also had to be careful about running water).
Dracula was not conflicted nor concerned about what he became, like vampires in some modern novels are sometimes depicted as. Dracula was a creature of evil that served evil. He had no qualms about killing anyone who got in his way but despite all that, as Van Helsing observed, he was not without weakness. He could live centuries, but he could be killed by staking through the heart or kept at bay with a crucifix. And when confronted with a determined group out to destroy him, he fled back home to live to fight another day.
Dracula stands out as masterful horror fiction because it reveals a story slowly, deliberately, and then like a hammer hitting anvil hits you with full fury. Reading it today is still gripping despite all the movies inspired from it. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot follows a similar pattern of building the story up slowly until it reveals what the horror is. And it appears Stoker did his research well for he based it on a real historical figure (Vlad the Impaler) who for a time brought fear to Turks who tried to dominate central Europe. He was so ruthless that he made sure that lands were burned, wells were poisoned, and many of their soldiers were found impaled on stakes as they approached his lands.
It is debatable how much Stoker really knew about Vlad the Impaler but learned enough from the information he had to craft his vampire story. And a great one it is that stands the test of time while other vampire stories remain forgotten on library shelves.
Dracula Movies Worth Watching
Nosferatu ( 1922 )
This is one of the earliest adaptations of the book for the screen. Since it was unlicensed, the story was changed (Dracula became Count Orlok) A really fine horror movie on its own. It was remade in 1979 starring Klaus Kinski.
Dracula purists do not like this movie much except for one thing: Bela Lugosi. His performance set a standard for both state and movie adaptations that would follow later. The story is a complete rewrite of the story but has its moments making it worth watching.
The Horror of Dracula (1958)
This Hammer version, while loose with the original story, is well acted. The script is well written as well. Christopher Lee became the new standard for Count Dracula as well with Peter Cushing playing Van Helsing. They both would reprise their roles in various sequels.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
The third in the Hammer Dracula series offers a newer tale and sees Dracula resurrected (he died in the first movie). A good movie, though not as great as the first one. Nearly all the sequels after this one got poor ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.
Count Dracula (1977, BBC)
This adaptation by BBC comes closer to the original story than other productions. Dracula is played by Louis Jourdan who makes a fine outing as the titular vampire. Some weird visuals mar the production, and it looks quite dated by today’s standards. However it is the only one that has the depiction of a baby that becomes food for Dracula’s wives.
Love at First Bite (1979)
This may be hard to find these days, but a great comedy starring George Hamilton as Count Dracula. He is forced to flee his native land when the Communists decide to seize his home. In America he meets a descendent of Van Helsing and falls in love with the character played by Susan St. James. It is funnier than Mel Brooks 1995 movie Dracula: Dead and Loving it starring Leslie Neilsen.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
This is Francis Ford Coppola’s entry into the Dracula franchise. Like everything he does, it is done with style, flare, and good drama. While he does take liberties with the story, it is a well-done production and most certainly worth watching.
Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (2000)
This story relates the story of the historical Dracula (known as Vlad Tepes in Romania). And it does show the very difficult times he lived in with Ottomans dominating that area of Europe. It also accurately shows how while he was a hero, to the Eastern Orthodox Church he was less than that due to his viciousness and the fact he converted to Catholicism at one point (a major no-no back then). However, the idea throughout the movie is that he is something unnatural, perhaps already marked by Satan. He arises as a vampire to confirm that pointing out to the very person that he had made it so. When they excommunicated him from the church, he could not enter heaven or hell and now was free to roam the world forever.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
This is a movie within a movie with a twist. It is about F.W. Murnau filming Nosferatu but the person he hired to play Count Orlok is a real vampire adding realism to the movie.