(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective #2, “Dracula” (Tod Browning)

(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective #2, “Dracula” (Tod Browning)

Film: Dracula

Dracula/Dracula Analogue Performed by: Bela Lugosi 

Year: 1931

Director: Tod Browning

Country: United States

Character Archetype: Horrific Propriety

 

I gave Nosferatu a lot of praise last time for its huge impact on pop culture and for the wealth of imagery that other things have borrowed from it, but if there’s anything in the Dracula canon that can give it a run for its money in that regard, it’s this film.

 

Tod Browning’s film is less of a concentrated vision than Nosferatu, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and there’s a lot of reasons for why. For one, it’s based less directly on Bram Stoker’s novel and more on a popular play written by Hamilton Deane and revised by John L. Balderston, which shuffles some of the timeline around, cuts out older characters and adds new ones. Some of these changes are pretty minor and inexplicable and didn’t survive the transition to the screen (such as switching Mina and Lucy’s names for no reason, or having Renfield survive), but other changes were significant enough (such as giving Renfield the same job as Harker, making him the first to go to Transylvania to meet the Count) that other versions have adopted them over material from the novel.

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(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective #1, “Nosferatu”

(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective #1, “Nosferatu”

Film: Nosferatu

Dracula/Dracula Analogue Performed by: Max Schreck

Year: 1922

Director: F.W. Murnau

Country: Germany

Character Type: Monstrously Othered Foreign Invader

Before we begin, yes, I’m aware that F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu isn’t exactly the first film adaptation of Dracula. There’s a Hungarian film called Dracula’s Death that, like a great many silent films, is presumed lost, though we may yet find a print of it in someone’s grandparents’ basement. As is, there’s really no way for anybody to watch it, so we’ll gloss over it. Dodgier still, there’s reports of a Russian Dracula film from 1920, simply titled Drakula, but there’s not enough evidence to properly conclude that this film even actually exists, so for our purposes, Nosferatu is the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.

And what an adaptation it is.

I dare say Nosferatu has produced the most iconic imagery and contributions to modern vampire-related popular culture of any of the material on this list. It’s been visually quoted (particularly this shot) in everything from Batman Returns to Spongebob Squarepants, and its introduction of sunlight as a vulnerability for vampires has influenced multiple generations of vampire fiction. It’s also a huge standout of the German Expressionist movement, a wave of bizarre anti-realism that influenced hundreds of filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Dario Argento to Wes Craven. Its pop culture imprint is so vast and powerful that it’s almost become its own thing, apart from the novel it’s adapting: it’s been remade by Werner Herzog (we’ll talk about that later) not as a re-working of Stoker’s novel but specifically as an expansion on Murnau’s film. It was also re-envisioned as Shadow of the Vampire, this time from the perspective of a fictionalized Murnau realizing that “Max Schreck” is actually a vampire just like the character he’s portraying in the film, but I’m not going to talk about that in this retrospective (though it is well worth checking out).

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(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective Introduction

(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective Introduction

So. Dracula.

Talking about Count Dracula as a character and cultural icon is a rather daunting task, as he’s appeared in over 200 films, plus numerous plays, books, TV shows, et cetera, constantly changing in how his character is framed and presented. Though the novelist who birthed this creature of the night was Irish, his cultural impact has been felt far, far from Ireland’s shores. Most of us know who Count Dracula is, but how many of us truly know him in his multitudes, from a repulsive, barely-human beast to a Nice Guy who just wanted to save his wife and son (yes, really)?

Obviously, it’d probably take years to watch every single bit of Dracula media ever made, from the direct-to-garbage bin schlock to the big-budget studio productions to the barely-concealed fanfic, so I won’t be covering every single bit of Dracula media ever. I want to try and cover as much ground as I can, however. The way Dracula the character has been re-shaped over time to suit the needs of numerous creators is fascinating; it constantly reflects cultural attitudes towards women, foreign countries, sexuality, and religion. The way writers and directors grapple with the social mores of the Victorian period (or don’t, tellingly) in contemporary contexts is fascinating from multiple critical perspectives, and hopefully I’ll be able to dig into why the different versions of the character over the years make the changes they do.

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