Why Dracula never loses his bite

Sat, Mar 28, 2009, 00:00

Bram Stoker’s 19th-century icon of evil, Dracula,has undergone numerous makeovers for stage and film, but still retains his potency, writes STEPHEN DIXON

“His face was a strong – a very strong – aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.”

THAT’S HOW Bram Stoker described his gruesome old monster. Because of the template established by Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s 1931 movie version, though, we usually bring a less feral-seeming creature to mind: clean-shaven with neat black hair combed back, fangs optional, dressed in evening clothes and black opera cape, like an old-style music hall magician, or absurdly formal maître d’. Even if you’ve never seen a Dracula movie you know him, because he is everywhere – and now Bram Stoker’s novel has been selected as Dublin’s One City One Book choice for 2009.

He’s advertised throat lozenges, cat food, insecticide, pizza, security systems (“protects you against uninvited guests”) and many other products. He has been a breakfast cereal – Choculas. In the 170-odd movies in which Dracula has featured as a main or lesser character he has been black ( Blacula, 1972), deaf ( Deafula, 1975, the first-ever “signed” film), gay ( Dragula, 1973), a porn star ( Spermula, 1975), and senile (John Carradine keeping his teeth in a glass by the side of the bed in Nocturna, 1978). He has met Billy the Kid, Abbott and Costello, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and the Outer Space Chicks.

He has been played for laughs on film by George Hamilton and Leslie Nielsen and on television as a cuddly Jewish grandpa in The Munsters. He has been a children’s cartoon series, Duckula.

Distinguished British actor Raymond Huntley was the first stage Dracula in the 1920s, and 60 years later Daniel Day-Lewis dyed his hair blond to play him in the theatre. He has been portrayed on screen by big names in productions of wildly varying quality: Gary Oldman, Denholm Elliott, Frank Langella, David Niven, Klaus Kinski, Louis Jordan, Jack Palance. Christopher Lee played him a dozen times on film but, oddly, Bela Lugosi only twice. In spite of the nationality of his creator, Dracula has been attempted by an Irish actor only once on film, by Patrick Bergin in 2002, or one-and-a-half times if you include Lon Chaney Jr ( Son of Dracula, 1943), an Irish Creighton on his mother’s side.

Then there are all the disciples and acolytes. The vampire genre in movies and on TV, still full-blooded, would scarcely exist without the baleful influence of the Prince of Darkness. There was Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampirein 1994, directed by Neil Jordan and starring Tom Cruise as Lestat, the more recent Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and currently we have teen vampire romance Twilightand also Lesbian Vampire Killers, starring ubiquitous British comedy duo and welcome-outstayers James Corden and Mathew Horne.

BRAM STOKER WROTE Draculain 1897 and his creation, in spite of all the comedies, camp and bad B-movies, still retains an extraordinary potency. Stoker was a great storyteller but an indifferent writer, and the book, put together in epistolary fashion through letters and diary entries, can be hard going for the modern reader, in common with much other Victorian literature. There are terrifying passages to savour though, rarely adequately filmed, such as solicitor Jonathan Harker, hired to manage the Count’s affairs, glimpsing his employer climbing down the crumbling outer walls of Castle Dracula, head-first like a lizard.

A significant reason for Dracula’slongevity is that Stoker personified a number of physical dreads, mostly involving an act of love that results in a living death, in his main character. The Count is the ultimate seducer. He creeps into women’s bedrooms at night and they are unable to resist his hypnotic advances as a fangs-on-neck exchange of body fluids takes place. Afterwards they waste away and die, to be reborn as undead slaves of their master.

In the 1890s syphilis was rampant in Britain, where Stoker worked as business manager for Sir Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the day, and much of Draculacan be seen as an almost transparent parable for the disease – contaminated blood, skin lesions, hostility towards women’s sexuality, the inability to resist powerful urges in spite of the consequences. One Stoker biographer, Daniel Farson, a distant relative, suggested that tertiarty syphilis was the cause of his grand-uncle’s death in 1912.

The explosion in vampire entertainment in the 1980s and 1990s was fuelled by an almost identical dread: Aids. The parallels with vampirism are obvious – a wasting condition carried through the blood, with each sufferer capable of creating many others through vein-puncturing or sex.

In between, vampire cinema proliferated in times of tremendous national crisis, reflecting the public’s fear of what seemed unstoppable forces of destruction and misery. What has been called The Golden Age of horror films came during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The next boom was in the second World War, when gaunt Carradine and chubby Chaney Jr were Universal’s Draculas. A third came in the Cold War of the 1950s, when Christopher Lee first donned the cape.

Part of Dracula’sfascination – from the films rather than the book – comes because in most of his incarnations he seems to be more or less human, if rather odd-looking; a courtly, aristocratic middle-European gentleman with impeccable manners. He doesn’t signal his dreadful intentions. It isn’t his appearance that appals, it’s what he does, so secretly and horribly and devastatingly. And in this respect he chimes with another of our deepest fears: the person who looks like one of us . . . but both is and isn’t. The man enjoying a quiet pint who might be a serial killer. The bloke on the Dart who could be a child-molester.

You would find few clues to any of this in what is known about the personality of Bram Stoker. A bluff, red-bearded giant of a man born into a Protestant family at Fairview, Dublin, in 1847, he excelled at sport at Trinity and, after early experience as a clerk, became a theatre reviewer for the Dublin Evening Mail. Through highly complimentary coverage of an Irving production, the men became friends. Stoker worked for Irving for 27 years, and it has been said that Dracula’s appearance and mannerisms owe much to the great actor; photographs certainly show him to be a forbidding-looking old party. When Stoker wasn’t sorting out the boss’s stage tours, or managing London’s Lyceum Theatre, which Irving owned, he wrote his supernatural thrillers, of which Dracula was obviously the most popular, at the time and ever since: The Mystery of the Sea (1902), Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903), Lady of the Shroud (1909), Lair of the White Worm(1911) and several others.

Major influences when Stoker was writing Dracula included Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla(1872) and the notorious “penny dreadful” Varney the Vampire, attributed to James Malcolm Ryman and written in 1847. Irish folklore and European legends were also drawn upon. The character was not inspired by the 15th- century Romanian warlord Vlad Tepes, also known as “Dracula”, as is often claimed. Apparently Stoker simply liked the name.

WHILE AT TRINITY, Stoker met Oscar Wilde, proposing him for membership of the university’s Philosophical Society, of which Stoker was president. The friendship strengthened, and Stoker was a guest at the Wilde home. After leaving Trinity, both fell in love with the same girl, Florence Balcombe. A sketch by Wilde shows her to have been a great beauty. She became engaged to him, but married Stoker.

Of the two college friends, Wilde, ultimately vilified and disgraced as he was towards the end of his life – and perhaps it wouldn’t be over-stretching it to describe his prison and post-prison existence as a kind of living death – left us work of wonderful charm and brilliance that will live forever. And Stoker, domestically comfortable with the wife Wilde had once wanted, professionally secure as a famous actor’s underling, gave us an icon of evil who will never die.

Hamilton Deane: making Dracula a lounge lizard

Another Dubliner, Hamilton Deane (c1880-1958), played a key role in popularising Draculaas a stage play and, later, a film. The Deanes owned an estate bordering the Stokers’ property in Fairview, and Bram Stoker knew Deane’s parents well.

Deane grew up to become an actor-manager in England, and became reacquainted with Stoker, an imposing figure from his childhood, when he joined Henry Irving’s company in 1903.

After Stoker’s death in 1912, his widow, Florence, was left badly off, with the royalties from Dracula her main income. She became incensed when German film director FW Murnau made Nosferatuin 1922, based directly on Dracula but unlicensed by the Stoker estate. She sued, and spent nearly a decade in an unsuccessful legal bid to have the negative and all copies of the film destroyed.

While waging this campaign, she gave Deane permission to devise a stage version, presumably reasoning that this would give her a firmer grip on the rights to her late husband’s creation, and also generate some money. It was Deane who re-imagined Draculaas a more urbane and theatrically acceptable character who could plausibly enter London society. Deane’s play, with Raymond Huntley as the Count, was a huge success and toured for years, though derided by critics. When the play crossed the Atlantic, Huntley dropped out and his part was taken by Bela Lugosi. For its US debut, Draculawas rewritten by John L Balderston. It is the Deane/Balderston interpretation upon which the classic Tod Browning film was based.

Paradoxically, the version Florence Stoker tried so hard to suppress is generally accepted as the best by most film historians, probably because it encapsulates the power and spirit of the book, with Max Shreck’s vampire a hideous, shabby old monster rather than a smirking Continental seducer in immaculate evening clothes.