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"Twilight" Of a Genre: Classic Vampire Movies

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Vlad the Impaler was the Inspiration for Dracula
Vlad the Impaler was the inspiration for Dracula

Advance ticket sales for Twilight: New Moon  indicate that the sequel to the 2008 teen vampire flick will be a blockbuster. The original Twilight movie, based on the Stephenie Meyer novel about a teenage girl in love with a young vampire,  grossed over $190 million in the U.S. alone. The vampire genre is almost as old as the movies itself, with classic blood-sucker flicks dating back to 1922 and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Subtitled “A Symphony of Horror,” Nosferatu is based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, the grand-daddy of all vampire literature. it is the first Dracula film, although history's most famous fictional vampire has been renamed Count Orlock in the Murnau film, to evade copyright laws as the film ripped off Stoker’s plot without acknowledging his authorship.  (The piracy of intellectual property rights has been with us since the 6th century, A.D., predating the birth of Prince Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-76), the blood-thirsty Romanian warlord known to history as "Vlad the Impaler," who was Stoker's inspiration for Dracula. There is nothing new under the sun, which proves fatal to Orlock and his vampire brethren.)

The performance of Max Schreck (whose last name means “Terror” in German) has to be seen to be believed. Tall, bald and having bat-like ears and long talons for fingers, Orlock is one of the eeriest visual presences in screen history. Schreck (1879-1936), who specialized in horror movies, was portrayed by Willem Dafoe in an Oscar-nominated performance in
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Shadow of the Vampire (2000). The latter movie was about the making of Nosferatu, with the conceit that Schreck was actually a vampire. A comedy, it is worth checking out.

Nosferatu is considered a corner-stone of the German cinema, made by one of its greatest directors, F.W. Murnau. It was remade as Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night in 1979 by another German master, Werner Herzog, then at the height of his powers as a movie director. In the remake, Klaus Kinski is memorable as the blood-sucking count, now endowed with his proper name, Dracula. (The novel Dracula went out of copyright between the two World Wars.) Kinski is ably supported by a luminous Isabelle Adjani as Lucy and Bruno Ganz (later a memorable Hitler) as Jonathan Harker.

Tod Browning’s 1931Dracula, of course, is a must see for any cineaste, let alone horror movie fan. It is a classic, both as an example of the early sound cinema and as an example of the horror genre.  The movie originally was intended as a silent film, and the first scenes lensed were shot as a silent, so it tells its story mainly in visuals. It is still creepy and preternatural more than three-quarters of a century after its release.

(There is a Spanish-language movie that was made contemporaneously with the English-language version Dracula of 1931, Drácula with Carlos Villarías as "Conde Drácula. In the early 1930s, before dubbing was mastered, sound films were shot in different languages, with different casts unless the star was bilingual, as Great Garbo in the English- and German-language versions of Anna Christie. Some horror movie aficionados prefer the Spanish language version.)

The 1931 Dracula features the most famous cinema vampire of all, Bela Lugosi, recreating the role he originated the role on the Broadway stage in 1927. Surprisingly, for all his fame as Dracula, Lugosi only played the count once in a full-length feature, in Browning‘s ‘31 original. Lugosi reprised Dracula in a cameo in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948): He also was memorable as a Dracula-inspired character in the clever Mark of the Vampire (1936), also directed by horror master Tod Browning, who earlier had made Lon Chaney a superstar.

Lon Chaney’s son Creighton, who became famous as Lon Chaney, Jr., played Count Dracula in Son of Dracula (1943). (Billed as "The fIrst rock and roll Dracula movie," Son of Dracula was remade in 1974 with rocker Harry Nilsson as Dracula, fils, and former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr as Merlin!)  John Carradine played the count in  House of Dracula (1945) after his first appearance as the blood-sucking aristocrat in a cameo in  House of Frankenstein (1944), one of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolfman pictures. 

The 1931 Dracula, which was based on Hamilton Dean & John L. Balderston’s Broadway play that starred Bela Lugosi in the 1927-28 season, was remade in the late ‘70s, after the 1977 revival of the Dean/Balderston stage Dracula on Broadway became a huge hit that ran for three years. Frank Langella, who was nominated for a Tony as Dracula (the production itself won a Tony for best revival), reprised his role as the count in the disappointing film, which was released in 1979.

Laurence Olivier, the year he copped his then record-10th (and last) Oscar nomination, embarrassed himself as Professor Van Helsing in the '79 Dracula, while Kate Nelligan, a fine actress, lacks the sex appeal that Lucy should have to ground her relationship with the vampire. Isabelle Adjani, a world-class actress, not only is beautiful but has quite a lot of sex appeal, which was on display in Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu released the same year. The Herzog version is definitely the best of that vintage.

Frank Langella is a fine actor capable of excellence, but his blow-dried hair, 1970s’ disco-look Dracula just doesn’t cut it as a menacing presence, though his odd stare is ideal for the legendary vampire. Honestly, there is only one contender, other than Bela Lugosi, in the “Best Count Dracula  Contest,” and that is Christopher Lee, the man who -- along with fellow Dracula John Carradine -- competes for the title of the actor who has been in the most movies ever.

Towards the end of his life, John Carradine claimed that he had surpassed Oscar-winner Donald Crisp (who started in the earliest days of silent films, when an entire movie could consist of one or two reels lasting 10 minutes) as the most prolific screen actor of all time. Carradine said that he had appeared in over 500 movies.

The Internet Movie Database has John Carradine as appearing in 300 films, while Donald Crisp is only listed in 170 known films, though his real count was likely higher, many early movies having been lost. Christopher Lee, one of the all-time great character actors/B-movie leads is still going strong, and has appeared in over 200 films.

Like John Carradine, Christopher Lee also has claimed the title for being in the most films. (Interestingly, his mother’s maiden name was Carandini; she was descended from Italian nobility.) Of his 200 plus films, Lee played Dracula ten times.

The 6’5” Christopher Lee is the tallest actor to portray Count Dracula, but it is that aristocratic face, haughty and arrogant, and those killer eyes that portray the menace and convey the horror of the undead that makes him an ideal Dracula. To create a frightening look in Bela Lugosi’s eyes, pen-lights were used to illuminate them. Christopher Lee needed no artificial illumination to fully realize his menacing Count Dracula.

Neither Bela Lugosi (or Frank Langella) wore fangs while portraying Dracula: Christopher Lee, on the other hand, displayed the count’s fangs proudly, dripping with blood. Lee’s Dracula conveys all the sexual innuendo inherent in the role of the screen’s greatest blood-sucker, but he -- more than Lugosi or any other actor aside from Max Schreck‘s Count Orlock -- conveys the physical menace, the violence of this minister of hell.

The Christopher Lee Dracula films he made for the English horror movie studio Hammer films in the 1950s, '60s and '70s established him as a towring presence in the genre. As good an actor as Gary Oldman is (and he is the best thing, in the title role, in Francis Ford Coppola's overblown, high-budget 1992 potboiler  Bram Stoker's Dracula), Lee is better, even though the Hammer Draculas are B-movies.

The best Christopher Lee Dracula films are the 1958 Dracula, where he first assays the role,  Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), and Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). Peter Cushing, the great character actor/B-movie lead who portrayed Professor Van Helsing in the original '58 Hammer Dracula, teamed up with Lee for two other fine entries in Hammer Films' Dracula oeuvre, Dracula A.D. 1972 (which features a lucious Stephanie Beacham, fresh off her co-starring turn with Marlon Brando in the Turn of the Screw prequel The Nightcomers, as Jennifer Van Helsing), and  The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).

Just as Christopher Lee is the best Dracula, Peter Cushing (1913-94) ranks as the best Van Helsing in what essentially is a thankless role when played by other actors. Cushing beats out even the legendary Laurence Olivier for top honors in the Van Helsing sweepstakes. Interestingly, both Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared with in Olivier's Oscar-winning Hamlet in 1948), their first appearance together in a film.

The two horror movie legends, who became fast friends, appeared in 25 films together from 1948 to 1983. Interestingly, Christopher Lee turned down the role of the Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977), a role played by Peter Cushing. Lee later became part of the Star Wars series as Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus, establishing him as a cinema legend to a new generation of film-goers.

Comments

  • Kayla Wardlow 5 years ago

    Amazing list! I love almost all of those movies, and you even got a few I haven't heard of. Thanks!

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