Saturday, October 29, 2016

Dracula: Endless Night--The Story of an Unproduced Screenplay

Dracula: Endless Night will be the last of my four screenplays (out of six, all written in the 1990s) to be published by Ambler House Publishing, in e-book editions.

This version follows my “Theory of Dracula,” as woven into Dragon’s Ark: Dracula as a creature of enormous power, a symbol of the human wish for absolute power and total freed; a libertarian wet dream perhaps. This is a Dracula who loves being Dracula—as so many of us, especially men, might like to be, regardless of the consequences for the world.

Beyond that, there is little direct resemblance between script and novel, as I wrote the novel without looking at the screenplay at all and with only the barest continuity. You can read each of them as self-contained pieces.

I wrote Dracula: Endless Night in the late 1990s under the title Dracula: A Tale of Power. Why didn’t I start earlier? Probably a lack of confidence. For one thing, my concept of Dracula as a Superman of Evil, a sociopath with supernatural powers, seemed so obvious and simple, I was sure someone else—living in some remote wealthy castle in darkest Hollywood--would beat me to it any day.

But no one did. As I waited and waited, the film Draculas were becoming increasingly small and bloodless, turned to dry husks under the harsh daylight of Modernism, materialism, chronic skepticism and, perhaps, a misguided sentimental humanism that denies the existence and reality of the evil in all our hearts.

Finally, I had to face facts: to see Dracula as I wanted to see him, as he capered about in my mind and soul—profoundly scary and disturbing, mortally and morally dangerous--
I’d have to write it myself.


I set to work probably in 1996 or 1997. Writing took about a year and a half and nine drafts.

One of my first tasks was to reinvent the clichés that have accumulated for the past 100 years. The trick was to do it without diminishing or demystifying Dracula.

One thing I’d learned over the years was that many of the concepts Stoker employed in his novel came not from traditional folklore, but from his own highly fertile imagination. (Here, I’ll stop to thank David Skal, especially his brand-spanking new Stoker biography Something in the Blood.  For one, the crucifix as a talisman was drawn from a production of Faust, starring Stoker’s overbearing boss of nearly thirty years, Henry Irving.)

Then, there’s the Count’s non-reflective qualities; sleeping in a coffin filled with soil from his homeland; the use of garlic and wolfsbane as further talismans to ward him off. These were all inventions of Stoker, a non-practicing Irish Anglican. They were inspired mostly by his lifelong love of fairy tales and theater and further nourished by his career as both theatre critic and theatre manager.

Knowing all this freed me up (though pedants and purists might disagree). It allowed me to bring my own game to the table, set my own rules. I could explore another theme besides sex. Namely power, the “ability to do things,” as the philosopher/psychoanalyst Rollo May put it.

My Dracula would be about power. This, of course, is political, maybe even “Nietzschean.” To quote that dislikable demonist Aleister Crowley, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” would be my key to Dracula. Instead of Dracula as a winged penis draped in a cape and tucked in a tuxedo, he would be a fascistic fist smashing the window of the world, a militant hand grabbing, shaping, crushing our common reality. A pure nihilistic will at war with all the rules known, natural, human, religious, spiritual.

He is a Dracula articulate and self-aware. And wherever he goes, he drains the life and color out of everything, leaving behind a lifeless desert. His face peers out at us throughout human history, a face worn by the greatest tyrants and conquerors. Vladimir Putin might be one current example; the late unlamented Osama bin Laden (or “Osama bin Dracula”) another.

(I’ve just learned that even this concept is not quite as original as I thought, thanks again to Skal’s new book.  House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck, a 1905 novel, explored the same theme, but there the Vampire’s powers were purely psychic, as he sucks the creative life out of a Bohemian community to make their work his own.)

I’d not read Stoker’s novel in some years and elected not to read it again, at least in the beginning. Its outlines were well imprinted in my memory, and with my own concept in mind, I feared confusing Stoker’s fever dream with mine. I wanted my Secret Self to do as much of the writing as possible.


And so we have Dracula, a monster for all seasons: black-hearted magician and ruthless prankster, a power-mad demon so in love with his own life, he can’t imagine it ending.

But that’s not enough. For him to be comprehensible and fearsome, the brave souls who take up arms against him must be equally compelling.

Dracula’s human characters are of their time, written for the mass audience of its day; to us, they seem flat stereotypes of 19th century Victorian nobility, almost like foils to the invading demon. They are exemplars of manly Victorian self-confidence, sure in their faith that there’s not a challenge that can’t be met by stout-hearted Englishmen (even as they weep and cry all over the place).

Renfield and Quincey Morris, for example, seem like arbitrary fill-ins. They don’t make much sense, especially Morris, who seems parachuted in only because Stoker fiercely admired America and Americans. (Skal’s biography provides fascinating insights on this, especially Stoker’s intriguing friendship with one Walt Whitman.) Renfield, at least, expresses a grotesque sensationalism, even though he’s of little help to Dracula. He may be one of the most incompetent sidekicks ever.

I went about reimagining the other characters, all of them, to make them more vulnerable and interesting. It’s an ancient cliché by now, but Hitchcock’s rule remains true: suspense is character. I wanted characters that audiences today would fear for, both existentially and morally.

I fashioned Jonathan Harker as a naïve and rather smug Englishman abroad whose confidence in himself and his outlook are destroyed when he’s confronted by a power more spectacular—and infinitely weirder--than that wielded by the empire that birthed him. He must fight to regain his courage. His gal Mina Murray Harker becomes a woman who goes from being bullied (by her cold-hearted step-sister Lucy) and humiliated by scandal to a more mature and braver—much braver—woman than she is at the start.

I dumped Lord Goldaming entirely while building Quincy Morris up to a believable, capable—and charming—Wild West hero, one haunted by his past as an Indian fighter, but still a warrior and killer at heart.

And Renfield—the weakest and most wounded--at last, is of some use to Dracula. I also made their first encounter more logical than it is in the novel, where the Count seems to pluck him out of his top hat.

One the biggest changes relates to Dr. Van Helsing and his sidekick, Dr. John Seward. About this, I’ll say no more, except that, perhaps, my take on the good doctor trumps all others up to now (and you’ll have to find out for yourself what I mean).

As I reached the end of the first draft, I realized that one other change lay in store. My concept of Dracula made Stoker’s original ending unworkable.

As I reached the end, I picked up Stoker’s novel for the sixth time, with the Leonard Wolf annotations. I was genuinely surprised by how close my version stuck to Stoker’s story (except for the ending). I can only credit Bram Stoker for writing such a remarkably sturdy tale. Whatever its shortcomings, Dracula still stands tall.


One question I bet you have is, whom did I envision acting in my movie, should it ever get made?  That was a hard one. One reason many versions of Dracula fall short is due to casting, mostly of the title character. Dracula is a compelling, hypnotic figure, a true star of darkness and only a real star of equal and unique stature could capture him. In the best film versions, Dracula not only sucks blood, he sucks the light and life out of everything. Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee all have one thing in common: you can’t take your eyes off them.

My list was a very small—and no it didn’t include dear Lee Van Cleef, who, besides having passed to the other side by then, was too much an American to play such a cosmopolitan terrorist. Christopher Lee was by then, too old, though I wondered what might have happened had I been a little more courageous and acted a little sooner.

I had only one actor in mind to play the Count, who could convey that proud strutting monster, who would compel the audience’s attention from first to last.

Namely, Charlton Heston.


Heston’s star, one of the very brightest of the 1950s and 1960s, had dimmed over the years. By the 1990s, he’d taken to character roles. I’d not seen him for years when I happened to be watching Alaska, a minor Disney film from 1996, in which he played a very mean and very nasty big game hunter targeting a sweet innocent polar bear, going up against the brave young people trying to protect it.

The movie was great scenery and not much else except for ol’ Chuck, who made a terrific villain, his chiseled face and ferocious stare shooting holes in the screen. Nor was this the first time he’d donned the black hat: he made a compelling and commanding impression as villainous Cardinal Richelieu in the best-ever 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, directed by Richard Lester.

As illustrated by the Dell book cover below (the first copy i ever owned), the resemblance between Stoker’s original conception and Heston was strong. I had every reason to think he would not only make a good Dracula, but a great one.


Who could play him now? It’s hard to say: Alan Rickman was another favorite candidate of mine. He, alas, is also gone. Nowadays I imagine Patrick Stewart as a most fearsome Dracula, though I worry he may now be too old as well.

Finally, sometime in 1999 or so, I finally finished Dracula: A Tale of Power and went through my usual routine of dozens of letters to dozens of agents. I even tried to contact Charlton Heston, via his son, Fraser Heston, a Hollywood producer.

This time, they all came back negative. No one even wanted a look (though Fraser Heston sent a very polite note). I had underestimated the impact of the Coppola version, even seven years later, despite my rather low opinion of that film.

Dracula: A Tale of Power returned to its tomb, to sleep, I thought, forever more.


As mentioned above, when I wrote Dragon’s Ark some ten years later, I gave almost no thought to the screenplay, when I got the notion that publishing the best of my scripts as little e-books—sideshows to my main event novels—this version of Dracula seemed a natural choice, perhaps as a finale.

As I re-read the script, I was distressed to discover that, unlike the other scripts I published, this one suffered from the strict mechanics of standard screenplay formatting guidelines. Both literary and cinematic horror are acts of hypnosis. The inclusion of stage and camera directions and all the technical specifications required by screenwriting ((EXT., INT. CUT TO, the dialogue slugs) broke the spell I was trying to cast, making it unreadable to anyone but film professionals, in the same way architectural drawings are only enjoyable to architects.

So, I rewrote it as a prose piece, known in the trade as a “treatment.” I think it now casts a much stronger spell. I also tweaked the title, partially at the suggestion of long-time friend and colleague, the ever-suffering John-Ivan Palmer, who thought the original subtitle was too much on the nose.

(I'll also stop here to thank Cathi Stevenson of Book Cover Express, who provided a wonderful variation on the cover for Dragon's Ark.)

I think you’ll enjoy this take on a great myth. You’ll find it suspenseful, terrifying, horrifying, occasionally funny, sometimes touching and always entertaining. Its flaws are mine, not Bram Stoker’s and I leave you to discover them for yourself. You will be surprised. You may be shocked. I hope you’ll be damned good and scared.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Cover design by Cathi Stevenson/Book Cover express
Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel will appear this Fall 2016. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies and Now Speaks the Devil (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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