The Halloween season here means one thing, one name: Dracula. It’s time for my annual re-read of the novel, and to break out the Dracula DVDs. Because I love them all: Schreck, Lugosi, Lee, Langella, Jourdan, Palance, Kinski, Butler, even misfires like Oldman. So I thought it would be fun to pick my favorites specific aspects of Dracula cinema. For the sake of structure, I’m limiting this list to movies that adapt, however loosely, Stoker’s actual novel (which rules out Dracula’s Daughter, one of my favorites, as well as Love at First Bite).
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FAVORITE DRACULA DEATH: That goes to 1958’s Horror of Dracula. Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing drives Christopher Lee into a beam of sunlight, where he crumbles to dust before our eyes. The effects are crude and done mainly with editing, but somehow that doesn’t matter because the images themselves are so strong, and the actors perform with such gusto.
FAVORITE VERSION OF TRANSYLVANIA: The one in Werner Herzog’s 1979 version of Nosferatu. He shot on location as close to Transylvania as you could get in the Coucescu era, and used real Gypsies for the inn scene. The scenery is gorgeous, the people look authentic, and you feel like you’re in another country, one that’s primal and connected with things the rest of the world has forgotten.
FAVORITE SCORE FOR A DRACULA FILM: This is the second-toughest choice, because there are three strong contenders. Popul Vuh’s score for Herzog’s Nosferatu is a kind of anti-horror score: all mood and atmosphere, with no bombast at all. John Williams scored Frank Langella’s Dracula back when he was still young and hungry, so it has sweep, punch and a catchy central motif. Finally, there’s Wojciech Kilar’s score for Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is all foreboding, pulsing orchestral percussion. I suppose if I had to pick only one to listen to, it would have be the Williams score. It’s the only one permanently on my iPod.
FAVORITE BRIDES OF DRACULA: The three lovely minxes in the 1974 Dan Curtis/Jack Palance TV version. Jonathan Harker has snuck into the Count’s cavernous private study; he looks away, then looks back and boom, there they are, standing still and silent, watching from the far side of the room. When they finally lunge for him, the use of a wide-angle lens makes them seem to cover the distance with unnatural speed, and their hissing, snarling mouths are in total contrast to their previous impassive silence. The only movie where I’ve actually found the brides scary.
FAVORITE RENFIELD: In this case, the first is the best. Dwight Frye’s grinning, over-the-top madman in the 1931 Bela Lugosi film is the gold standard against which all other Renfields are measured. All you have to do is imitate his laugh and everyone knows exactly who you mean. Arte Johnson mimicked it perfectly in Love at First Bite.
FAVORITE VAN HELSING: Peter Cushing, hands down. The definitive vampire hunter, starting in Horror of Dracula and going through to The Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1974. High point: Brides of Dracula, which doesn’t actually have Dracula in it, but does give Cushing his best moments as Van Helsing.
FAVORITE DRACULA: The toughest choice of all, except that it’s not, really. If I use the gauge of which Dracula I watch the most, it has to be Frank Langella. Sure, he’s got seventies blow-dried hair in what appears to be 1910, but no other Dracula has the presence to play so many scenes in barely a whisper. The big budget means impressive effects and strong casting (Laurence freakin’ Olivier plays Van Helsing, even), but the Coppola version had that and for me it withers with each viewing. This film actually grows stronger with time.