Saturday, November 19, 2011

Extra Bites and Other Draculas (part of an occasional series)

(part of an occasional series)

By Thomas Burchfield

I have read that more movies have been made about Dracula than any other literary character with the exception of Sherlock Holmes.

I can’t confirm this claim, but I certainly haven't seen all of them. Nor do I plan to. None of those I have seen are great movies, even as horror movies, though a tiny handful of them are decent entertainment. Some are pure disasters (two of them by great directors).

In the 1930s, Universal Studios seemed to lack the same fervor for a Dracula franchise that they brought to the first three Frankenstein classics. The Vampire King was only fleetingly glimpsed in a coffin in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), a film I’ve seen three times without remembering much about it, except for its murky lesbian theme. Otherwise, the Count was left to sleep, forgotten in his tomb.

In 1943, Universal finally got around to resurrecting him with Son of Dracula. The good news was that they decided to employ the best special effects available in a worthy attempt to make Dracula into a magical shapeshifter, backed up with an excellent atmospheric production. The story, like my novel Dragon’s Ark, imagines Dracula in America, in this case, New Orleans. (An inspiration for Anne Rice? Ask her.)

The bad news?  Simple: Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dracula. Why this baffling decision? Surely, they didn’t mistake Bela Lugosi for dead, as he was appearing for Universal in drecky movies like Ghost of Frankenstein. He even played the Monster in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (a better movie than it sounds, especially its dynamite opening).

As for Chaney as Dracula, while the actor could deliver on occasion (Of Mice and Men, The Wolf Man, High Noon), he remains, I’m afraid, the dullest Dracula in horrordom. His leaden manner, like a bored bank president’s, weighs the movie down like clay. It’s not his hypnotic stare, but his acting that puts his victims to sleep. The result is one of those movies that inspires such comments as “ . . . but they blew it.”

If not Lugosi, a better Dracula would have been legendary character actor John Carradine whose tall gaunt physique nicely mirrors Bram Stoker’s creation. In fact, Carradine did don the black cape for Universal twice: in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. But these were mildly amusing, hurried cheapjack shows with Universal wringing the last drop of blood from the sponge before pretty much tossing it out to dry. Carradine appeared once more as the Count in Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (1966), but that’s one not on my Big Sleep list.

In the 1950s, Dracula, of course, struck like lightning in the person of Christopher Lee. Otherwise, there seem to have been only a few stabs at the character: Return of Dracula, (1958) featured Francis Lederer (a real interesting chap as you’ll see from the link) as another Dracula-in-America. I saw the beginning as a little kid, but don’t recall too much beyond my mother sending me to bed long before it was over.

I’m probably missing a few things, including Andy Warhol’s Dracula (not on the Big Sleep list, either; Warhol’s Frankenstein was plenty.) So, we’ll fly on to 1973’s Dracula, a non-supernatural version with a game Jack Palance as the Count. (Palance, a Method actor, allegedly complained that he identified with Dracula a little too much.) Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Dan Curtis, it was a fairly entertaining movie, with some good action scenes.

In 1977, the BBC produced a videotaped version, an almost scene-for-scene adaptation of the novel (not necessarily a virtue with me). It starred suave Louis Jourdan as a Frenchified Count, making a handsome but featherweight, concierge Dracula. The only memorable thing about it was Frank Finlay as a coarse and eccentric Van Helsing. The production tried hard, but no matter, videotape would make Gone with the Wind look cheap and flat. Even the outdoor scenes have that canned, studio-inflected feeling.

In 1979, Universal released a splashy version, starring Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. This one was based on the Broadway revival of the original—and terrible—stage play that also featured sets by Edward Gorey. Unfortunately, nothing of the great Mr. Gorey remains in the film. I despised this version the first time I saw it, partially because the Byronic/Freudian hot pants interpretation of Dracula, as embodied by the then-young Langella, holds no interest for me. (They also failed in not opening the film with Harker's journey to Transylvania, one feature every adaptation should contain, no matter what else they do.) 

Also, this Dracula's supernatural effects also seem ludicrous and cheap for all the money they spent elsewhere. However, the second time around, I picked up on some eerie, clever touches by director John Badham and enjoyed Freddie Jones’s fly-specked turn as Renfield. Maybe a third look will improve my attitude.

Around that time, Werner Herzog, one of the greatest film auteurs ever, did a remake of Murnau’s Nosferatu. As the original is already a great movie, this seems a questionable idea, at best. In the end, I found it a mismatch between artist and material. Herzog’s slow, hypnotic style seems like it might work at first, but after awhile the film slackens and the scenes seem rushed, the acting sloppy, and there’s not one image as striking as the shadows cast by F.W. Murneau. Klaus Kinski is alright as Orlock, but Max Schreck is still smiling up from Hell. As for Herzog, I think it’s a mere misstep in a great career.

Then, in 1993, came Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Coppola, a title I’ll take down—up next time.

(BUT no column next week, as I will be on Thanksgiving vacation. A safe and warm holiday to all of you! Thanks for coming by!)

(Re-edited 11/21/11; Laurence Oliver . . . really now.)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark is available right NOW, published by Ambler House Publishing. It can be ordered in both paperback and e-book editions through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Smashwords, Scrib'd and now at the Red Room. His original comic screenplay Whackers  is now available in Kindle, Nook, iPad and on Scrib'd, also from Ambler House. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. Not enough for ya? He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.


John-Ivan Palmer said...

I was looking for a "misstep" in Werner Herzog's career and now I know what it is, thanks to Herr Burchfield.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, John! "Scream of Stone" I thought was pretty lame, too, even with the Patagonia locations.