The best of Dracula

Someday I shall return as Nixon.

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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Dracula crumbles to dust.

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.

 

 

 

 

Transylvania, Herzog style.

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.

 

 

 

 

The soundtrack album featuring John Williams' score.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The brides hanker for some Harker.

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.

 

 

 

The happiest guy in Transylvania.

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.

 

 

 

You don't want to cross him.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Someday I shall return as Nixon.

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.

14 Comments on “The best of Dracula”

  1. Completely agree with you on most of these, but especially Frank Langella. His version is my all time fave Dracula movie.

  2. I have seen all of these and visually Coppolas is my favorite. Oldman was tortured and that was something different for me back then concerning Dracula. Langella was menacing while not being over the top, nö hamming either. This was the one I watched as a Kid by sneaking into the living room and that almost scared me to death. So yeah, thanks for ruining my childhood sleep Vlad.

  3. For me, Coppola’s Dracula conveys a stronger sense of Dracula as person rather than a caricature. I get what you’re saying about it withering for you with each viewing; not the same for me. My favorite brides are the exotic Coppola versions, and I’m fond of that score as well. Hopkins’ Van Helsing is too whacky, too over the top for me; I prefer Olivier or Cushing there. Must admit a grudge against the over-wrought “use any two slender objects as a cross to cripple the Count” motif of Hammer films.
    Herzog definitely had the setting advantage for Nosferatu, and I highly recommend Shadow of the Vampire if you haven’t seen it; Dafoe’s creepy Max Schrek is absolutely chilling.

  4. I read about this post on Twitter and came over thinking I’d reveal this great unknown score for a great unknown movie, the John Badham version of Dracula, featuring my favorite score from a young, hungry John Williams.

    Stole my thunder, Alex, but glad to see others have found some virtue in this version. (I’m also intrigued that this version took place in England with the Country trying to steal Mina away to his native Transylvania. I like the idea of the Count running wild in a country where he doesn’t have the home field advantage. That added degree of difficulty enhances the overall feeling of challenge in a very subtle way. I love the understated menace Langella pulled off. It reminds me of my favorite vampire story (which never mentions the word vampire), Agyar, by Steven Brust. That book features my favorite one-liner review ever: “Packs more of an emotional wallop than any verbose gore fest served up by less imaginative talents.”–San Francisco Chronicle

  5. Although dated, the best Dracula movie was the PBS version its the most like the novel that I’ve seen. I hate that in most movies they make Mina fall in love with Dracula. All tall dark and evil aside, He is the bad guy! In the novel Mina helped kill Dracula.

  6. My favorite Dracula will always be Leslie Nielsen in Dracula – Dead & Loving It. What can I say, I’m a Mel Brooks fan to the core…

  7. I have to mostly agree with you though I have a fondness for Oldman’s Dracula. I had the pleasure of seeing Langella in Dracula on Broadway twice. Fantastic! Straying a bit from Dracula by Bram Stoker, one of my favorite vampire films is Roger Vadim’s Et mourir de plaisir (Blood and Roses), an adaption of Le Fanu’s Carmilla. It’s a gorgeous film!

  8. Pingback: Kilar dracula | Zxr12

  9. Great list! A friend and I spent the summer a few years ago re-watching every Dracula movie we could find and had a lot of fun with it. I definitely agree that Copolla’s version doesn’t really stand up to re-watchings. My friend and I had both remembered really loving that one, so we saved it for last and were SO disappointed. It’d been long enough since either of us had seen it that we’d just remembered it as being sweeping and pretty, but forgotten all of the ridiculous “arty” parts.

  10. I’m currently working on a paper about the oft-misunderstood Dracula 2000, which I was hoping you might mention. Good film? No. But it certainly has its moments: you have to given creativity points for the weirdest origins of Dracula, plus Johnny Lee Miller is so earnest and enthusiastic, he makes you take it at least a little seriously. And it has the weirdest, most random collection of actors for small parts: the wonderful Christopher Plummer, Miller, Nathan Fillion, Vitamin C, Omar Epps, Jennifer Esposito (whose interrogation scene legitimately creeps me out) the kid from That 70’s Show (“I said I was sorry!”), and, of course, Gerard Butler before he was Gerard Butler. “I do not drink…coffee.” Awesome.

  11. Hi Alex!

    Oldman might be a misfire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Keanu…well, is Keanu, but lots of other parts of that movie work very well. Anthony Hopkins was mentioned above as Van Helsing and I agree with that wholeheartedly.

  12. Belatedly, the winners are Linda Schmalz and Richard Auffrey. Your books are in the mail! Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting.

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