Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a timeless classic of Gothic horror. It has inspired countless adaptations and re-imaginings on the big and small screen alike. To date, it’s estimated that the character Count Dracula has appeared somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 different movies. Arguably, Dracula remains the archetypal horror villain as he continues to inspire the horror genre. With The Last Voyage of the Demeter opening this week, this edition of The Chopping Block looks at some of the more notable adaptations of Count Dracula from Max Schreck to Leslie Nielsen to Nicolas Cage.
F.W. Murnau’s 1992 silent film Nosferatu is still considered a landmark of horror cinema. Technically, Nosferatu, and its vampire Count Orlock, are not officially an adaptation of Stoker’s novel. But the connections and influence are undeniable. Even after a 100 years, Murnau’s German expressionist imagery remains striking. And Max Schreck’s Count Orlock is an undeniably monstrous take on the vampire legend. Later versions of Count Dracula would emphasize the character’s aristocratic roots. Years later, Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Salem’s Lot returned the vampire to Schreck’s more hideous Count Orlock.
Murnau’s Nosferatu is a classic, but Tod Browning and Universal Studio’s 1931 Dracula remains the definitive take on Bram Stoker’s novel. Most importantly, Bela Lugosi’s version of Count Dracula is the version – it’s one that has transcended film and cemented itself into pop culture lexicon. So much of what comes to mind when people think of Dracula comes from Lugosi’s performance and look. Whether it’s Count Chocula, Sesame Street’s The Count, or Al Lewis’ Grandpa from The Munsters, they were all influenced by Lugosi. Sadly, not even Lugosi himself could escape the character.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
After Bela Lugosi’s incarnation of the Count, a handful of actors took a stab at replacing him for Universal Pictures including John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. When British studio Hammer Films decided to adapt Stoker’s novel, Christopher Lee faced the hurdle of re-defining Lugosi’s iconic take on the character. The results speak for themselves. Horror of Dracula, released in 1958, proved to be a huge hit for the British studio. Between 1960 and 1974, Hammer produced and released eight Dracula sequels of varying quality. Lee would go on to appear in all but two of those movies. To date, Christopher Lee’s Dracula remains one of the best versions of Stoker’s character.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Three different takes on Dracula came out in 1979 (This list doesn’t cover Love At First Bite). From German director Werner Herzog, Nosferatu the Vampyre, while retaining bits from Stoker’s novel, feels more like a loose remake of the classic Nosferatu. Though its haunting atmosphere and some visuals retain the feel expect of a horror movie, Herzog is more interested in exploring the Count’s tortured loneliness than scaring audiences with traditional jolts. In many ways, Nosferatu the Vampyre marks the first significant departure in the depiction of Count Dracula. Consistent with Herzog’s directing style, Klaus Kinski’s Dracula diverges significantly from traditional versions, emphasizing the character’s psychology over charm or sex appeal.
Years before Francis Ford Coppola re-imagined the Count as a tragic romantic, director John Badham first conceived of Stoker’s source material as part horror, part love story. The 1979 Dracula, a modest box office hit, feels like a very traditional horror tale amongst the decade’s edgier fare. In fact, Badham’s version feels like a spiritual successor to Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula from its aesthetics to the musical score. In addition, stage and screen actor Frank Langella’s Dracula stands as one of the best takes on the character. Langella’s Count Dracula is more layered than many other versions. He instantly feels aristocratic, charming, but also tortured.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992)
Lush, Gothic, and visually inventive, Francis Ford Coppola’s update of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a near perfect movie. Coppola re-imagines Dracula as a tragic victim of fate while aptly mixing equal parts romance with the expected horror imagery. Yes, Coppola miscasts both Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves – Reeves’ casting is the bigger of the two mistakes. However, no one was complaining about Gary Oldman’s performance Vlad the Impaler. Oldman buries himself into the role, and it’s just under the layers of old makeup for some scenes. Arguably, Oldman’s take on Count Dracula – which mixes genuine menace with pathos – stands as one of the best incarnations in film history.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
Mel Brooks made some classic spoofs in his career. And he proved to be just as good at spoofing horror when he made Young Frankenstein. Too bad Dracula: Dead and Loving It is not one of those classic spoofs. Even with the great Leslie Nielsen playing Dracula, Brooks badly misses the mark with this parody. Childish rather than sharp and witty, Dracula: Dead and Loving It finds Brooks and Nielsen looking well past their prime. This one bites … and not in the way you’d expect from Dracula.
Dracula 2000 (2000)
If Hammer Films could bring their Dracula into the swinging 1970s, why couldn’t director Patrick Lussier (My Bloody Valentine 3D, Drive Angry, Trick) bring Dracula into the year 2000? Though it’s not a good movie by objective standard, Dracula 2000 is a fun, trashy mix of action and horror buoyed by a better-than-expected cast. Poor Christopher Plummer – playing a descendant of Van Helsing – could at least take solace in his paycheck for this one. And yes, that’s a young Gerard Butler playing the titular vampire. On one hand, Butler’s take on the most famous creature of the night is pretty forgettable. Yet in all fairness to Butler, miscasting is the real offender. At least Lussier and writer Joel Soisson offer up one of the more interesting revisions to Dracula’s origins.
Van Helsing (2004)
By the 2000s, studios and filmmakers were looking for different ways to make money off of Stoker’s intellectual property. If Dracula himself had been done to death, the solution seemed to be to not only re-imaging the approach but also shifting focus onto different characters from the classic novel. Following his successful re-invention of The Mummy an Indiana Jones-esque action movie, director Stephen Sommers tried to turn Abraham Van Helsing into a young, James Bond-like monster hunter in Van Helsing. It didn’t work with an overstuff story and poor, excessive CGI driving a stake into this one. As for Richard Roxburgh’s take on Dracula, it’s fine but lost in this mess of a movie.
Dracula Untold (2014)
Dracula Untold was Universal Studios’ first attempt at creating a shared universe of its classic monsters not unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since there was a second attempt, we can surmise that Dracula Untold didn’t pan out. Arguably, the biggest misstep was its handling of the Dracula mythos. Simply put, an origin story re-imagining Vlad as something of a superhero didn’t work. No one should blame Luke Evans – he brings an aristocratic and physically imposing presence. Evans smolders onscreen balancing Vlad as both royalty and warrior. In fact, if there’s anything more disappointing than the Dark Universe’s failure to launch, it’s not getting to see Evans in the role again.
The Invitation (2022)
Is he Dracula or isn’t he? As good as he looks in the role, Thomas Doherty – who may or may not be a stand-in for Dracula – never feels right as the movie’s villain. He’s more smarmy than menacing. But Doherty’s ‘maybe Dracula’ is the least of the problems with The Invitation. There’s a really good movie brewing within the wasted potential of this 2022 release. Though there’s some Gothic horror elements, they’re mixed with a contemporary setting and director Jessica M. Thompson can’t sustain the early atmosphere. By and large, The Invitation shifts into glossy teen-oriented horror wasting its potential and a star-making turn from Nathalie Emmanuel. In its final scene, The Invitation feels far removed from the promise of its stylish beginning. What’s left is always watchable and consistently underwhelming for Dracula fans.
Poor Renfield. Universal Studios absolutely set this one up to fail. In addition to release schedule stacked with good horror movie options, Universal saddled this horror-comedy with an unnecessarily large budget. Yet there’s still a chance that Renfield finds audiences over the years. Just Nicolas Cage as Dracula is more than enough reason to check it out. And Cage appropriately ‘chews’ the scenery as the class villain making it one of the more lively versions we’ve seen on the big screen in recent memory. Besides the mix of comedy and over-the-top horror alongside Nicholas Hoult (The Menu) and Awkwafina’s performances more than make this a fun re-imagining of Stoker’s characters.