They live forever. Sometimes (most times, monster), sometimes (often) allegorical, and romantic (gothically, and sometimes very prissy).
Now, I said previously that I much prefer werewolves to vampires, but there is a certain allure to their monstrous immortality. That is the thing that vampires have over werewolves, forever. They are either an immortal enemy or they are tortured by eternity (perhaps this is what endured the Highlander movies to me, the eternal part of vampires without sacrificing their viciousness). A recent vampire movie that I liked quite a bit was Daybreakers, which subverted the human and vampire dynamic by featuring a vampire protagonist in a world ruled by vampires that is looking for a cure because their food source is dying out and if they don’t feed, well then they turn into something truly nasty. It is also a wickedly funny movie (favorite line: “About as safe as barebacking a $5 whore.”). But more vampire stories lately seem to trend toward the ridiculous Twilight sparkly faux vampire or some awful SyFy channel original movie el cheapo variation.
But we’re talking about vampire movies that I’ve watched this month (though, I’ll wager I’ll wander around quite a bit in the process). So, the list: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula 2000, The Horror of Dracula and Nosferatu (sense a theme here?). Earlier this month I watched a documentary on Hammer’s Horror films and was surprised that I somehow never watched any of them (of course, this could be entirely false, I may have watched quite a few of those films when I was younger and they just blurred together in my memory–back in the day, AMC and Turner Classic Movies were on quite a bit and many movies flashed before my eyes in the process). It’s quite interesting, looking at these four different versions of the same story. I chose to neglect the Tod Browning version this month, because, quite frankly, it bores me. Maybe I’ll reapproach it again in a few years and be drawn into it’s stage play feel, but I suspect not. It feels, of all things, too safe, and of all the things Dracula should be, it is not safe.
Nosferatu is the granddaddy of Dracula pictures, based on the book, but not due to a licensing dispute with the Stoker estate. So what we get is an echo of the story, a shadow of it, the base parts distilled down and from those a truly memorable horror film. Max Shreck’s portrayal of Count Orlock is brilliant, in large degree because he is not the tuxedoed count that Bela Lugosi played so well (Lugosi was mesmerizing, but he wasn’t enough to lift the rest of the movie up for me). No, Orlock is pure monster, from the first moment you see him, you worry for Harker/ Hutter. It doesn’t take Hutter too long to be unnerved by him either, no this real estate agent knows almost immediately that he is in grave danger. This vampire is unnatural in every way, and some of the more monstrous versions are still based on Shreck’s creation.
It seems that the best way to tell Stoker’s story then is to change it. I’ll admit that I’ve never fully read the book–I have an issue getting into epistolary novels. I’m going to try again, of course. It’s like Dostoevsky for me, a part of the canon that I have always intended to devour, but never have. Almost criminal to mention (Crime and Punishment was the only novel from my high school AP Lit & Comp class that I didn’t finish, the last one assigned, in the spring, when my big year long project was approaching its deadline) but I finished Moby Dick and read Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Modern Prometheus so I feel like there is some balance. Hammer Studios took a similar tactic when they made their version of Dracula, called Horror of Dracula in the United States. They distilled the story down to, what they felt was the essence, and did away with the rest of the clutter. The names are familiar, but relationships are rearranged. At the beginning, we find Mr. Harker approaching Dracula’s castle under the guise of being his librarian (at first we believe that this is just a slight edit of profession) but right away Harker admits to his journal that his true purpose is to destroy Dracula and that the whole librarian thing is just a disguise. Jonathan Harker, fearless vampire killer.
In this version, there is only one bride of Dracula, a girl who at first pleads with Harker to save her from Dracula, but then later tries to kill Harker. Harker is bitten. Harker escapes and finds Dracula’s crypt and, for some reason kills the girl first. When he turns to drive a stake into Dracula we find Dracula has vanished–but not gone far. Van Helsing appears in the village then, looking for his friend Harker. The villagers are less than helpful, fearful of Dracula (one always wonders how there are villagers when they are Dracula’s food source–shouldn’t he be living many miles from people because he’s either killed them or they’ve left the damned place?) but one girl brings Van Helsing a red journal, the journal that Harker hid right after being bitten while he was on his way to Dracula’s crypt. Van Helsing follows the directions to Dracula’s castle and arrives as a carriage comes barreling out with a white coffin in the back. He finds his way to Dracula’s crypt and inside Dracula’s coffin is Harker, a vampire.
Much of the success of this movie is how radically it changes things. Van Helsing is the movies hero. By killing off the ostensible protagonist from the novel at the beginning (I was involved with a theatrical version that sets up Dr Seward as the stronger protagonist and focal point of the story, which also helped reinvigorate the plot), it sets the audience’s expectations on edge. And then it keeps twisting things–Harker was engaged to Lucy, Mina was married to Lucy’s brother, there is a maid with a little girl that features heavily on the plot–it crafts an original movie from the suggestions of the source material. In the end, the movie flies past at a very fast clip, just over 80 minutes, but you’re invested for all of it.
Francis Ford Coppala’s opulent film Bram Stoker’s Dracula takes another tact–pile on elements from the book and twist it gently so that Dracula is the central character of the story that bears his name. I suppose that this is one of the highlights of a novel of letters from various characters, every time you venture into a character’s diary or personal letter, they become the central character for that period of time, and then the reader gets to choose who they identify with most. When adapting a novel of letters, the benefit is to the playwright/ screenwriter to craft a story around the character that draws them in the most. And there are a lot of characters in Dracula. Hell, Lucy had three suitors, all of which have a perspective on the proceedings. I think if one were looking for the best term to describe this film it would be as a gothic western set in England and Eastern Europe. One of the main points of ridicule for this movie is Keanu Reeves generally poor British accent and dazed performance. This didn’t bother me so much, there really are two different types of actor: they types of actors that bring the role to them and the type of actor to disappear into a role. To a certain degree, you never really lose a star in a performance–they are always recognizable to some extent, regardless of the length of their hair or how they’ve changed their nose or whatever. The important thing is whether you want to follow them in the movie. I wanted to follow all the characters in this movie, including Reeves. Anthony Hopkins played a delightfully eccentric Van Helsing, so really none of the other “heroes” could stand out much. Richard E. Grant comes closest to distinguishing himself, playing Dr. Seward, but Bill Campbell (the American cowboy) and Cary Elwes (the posh British aristocrat) play types. Keanu Reeves does something interesting in his portrayal of Harker and that is to play him as a victim, a damsel of sorts. He’s a survivor, but he is not the dashing lead. No, the dashing lead is Gary Oldman, playing the monster in all of his forms. Dracula, in this film, tips his hat to all of the previous incarnations–the ancient man in Transylvania is reminiscent of Shreck’s Orlock, he’s a wolf man, he’s a giant demon bat that disappears into the shadow and transforms into a mass of rats, and he’s the dashing Carpathian prince. He moves about at all times of the day and night, but the night is when he has all of his power. He’s after Mina because she looks like/ is the reincarnation of his bride from hundreds of years ago. He was a warrior, damned by God, and cursed to be a creature for eternity until his soul could be set free. The first half of the movie is gothic horror with long shadows and strange sounds outside, the expert who knows what the monster is, and the people that are in peril. The second half of the movie keeps the horror elements moving, but changes the tone to more of a western, the professor rounding up a posse of Lucy’s suitors to avenge her and wrangling in poor Harker, the traumatized victim who only barely escaped with his life but knows where the monster lives (and who is further motivated in the quest to save his wife, Mina, from her eternal lover). Yeah, it’s flawed, but it is also exciting and fun. And Tom Waits plays the mad Renfield, which is a highlight in and of itself.
The final Dracula movie that I watched was Dracula 2000, produced by Wes Craven. This movie, suffering from a terrible title (but not the only one, I mean, Hammer Horror made Dracula A.D. 1972 that was an attempt to put a trendy stamp on the film, but which caused it to lose its relevance rather quickly when in 2002 a movie named Dracula 2000 just doesn’t scream contemporary anymore) still holds up really well. Like the Hammer movies, the novel provides a backdrop for the movie, but the movie isn’t slavishly devoted to its plot. In fact, in the world of this movie, the novel exists, and is apparently a fictionalized version of actual events. We meet Matthew Van Helsing, played by Christopher Plummer, and his assistant Simon, played by Johnny Lee Miller in the present day. Van Helsing is a ridiculously rich man (the true source of his wealth is somewhat obscured, though his collection and sale of antiquities is hinted as being a part of it) that is being robbed by some high tech crooks. The break into his vault and discover a bunch of dusty old antiques and a silver coffin that is protected by some crazy booby traps–of course their first guess is that it contains valuable treasure (the whole coffin thing–a trick to spook lesser thieves) and when they fail to open it in the vault, they take it with them. Van Helsing pursues them and Simon pursues Van Helsing. The crooks get it open on the plain and discover that it contains Dracula (Gerald Butler, in an early role) who quickly kills them and crashes the plane near New Orleans. Why? Well, that’s where Mary/ Mina lives, who is Van Helsing’s daughter and connected to Dracula in some way. When Simon catches up with Van Helsing, he discovers that he is actually Abraham Van Helsing, still alive due to an unfortunate accident in capturing Dracula and some ingenuity in maintaining his life without becoming a bloodsucking fiend himself (we get a few shades of an addiction theme here that are quickly abandoned). There are several homages to the characters of the novel–Mary’s friend Lucy, Dracula’s three brides, etc–but it also takes the story to an interesting place, giving Dracula an origin in a familiar story.
So, that’s Dracula … I’ve got a few other vampire movies lying around here: Near Dark, which is a straight up contemporary (well, 1980s contemporary) vampire western, and The Forsaken, also using roving vampire gangs in its premise. Both treat vampirism as a disease that can be treated in some way. An excellent vampire movie from the 1990s called Habit makes a direct connection between vampirism and addiction. There are many more–vampire movies seem to be a dime a dozen right now. I’ve enjoyed vampire movies that have strayed a bit from the scary horror movie vampire (like the films based on Anne Rice’s vampires, Interview with the Vampire and Queen of the Damned) and I’m a big Buffy/ Angel fan. But Twilight‘s pseudo junior X-Men version of vampires has atrophied the genre a bit and even when we get some fantastically monstrous creatures of the night like in 30 Days of Night, or the delightfully wicked remake of Fright Night, vampires as horror movie villains seem a little tired. Neil Gaiman said something to the effect of: Vampires need to die and go away for a while, ten or fifteen years, and then they can get scary again.
Upcoming: ghosts, haunted houses, viral monsters and the reanimated dead.
More later …