1.CHRISTOPHER LEE as Count Dracula in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958): This was Christopher Lee’s very first time in the cape and he grabs his opportunities with both hands just as tight as he grabs his victims. Like the following films in the series, barring the execrable, but fun, The Scars of Dracula (1970), he has very little screen time, but takes advantage of every second onscreen to immortalize his performance.
He is the ambiguously charming host of Stoker’s story, a gracious aristocrat, given to bouts of tiger-ish ferocity when reprimanding a straying underling. Not having the powers bestowed upon his literary counterpart, he seems totally at ease to go striding boldly into the village to pick up a wayward traveller.
Being a Hammer film, generally a woman.
But he always has the drawback of picking up very loose women indeed: a cute young thing in flimsy nightdress and push up bra.
The Count regularly beats his partner and drains her blood away on a nightly basis. She has few, if any, friends and is never allowed to leave the castle. Mr Lee’s Dracula becomes the jealous perpetrator of domestic abuse. When his girl makes a play for Harker, Dracula savagely reacts by throwing her to the ground. He attacks the new suitor in a paroxysm of snarls and jealousy. Finding his brides’ marks on him, Dracula leaves Harker wasted in his rooms while he thinks of a fitting punishment.
Most of the action still works in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958). My particular copy is rated certificate 15 and utilises the teeth clenching title, The Horror Of Dracula!, bestowed on it by our American cousins to distinguish it from their jealously guarded Bela Lugosi version. When the Count finally confronts Van Helsing, he recognises similar traits to himself, omitting the need for the idle boasts and bravado rampant in other film versions.
The final standoff becomes one of the most intimate in the Count’s cinematic history.
But, as history has shown, it did bring us the definitive Count Dracula in Christopher Lee. Continuing his success in sequel after sequel the actor has only very recently been able to relax and downplay the image. Now rightfully recognised for a film career that has spanned sixty years with a filmography that is one of – if not – the longest in British cinema history – and is still growing; one of his more recent portrayals being the mystic, Saruman, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His Dracula was, and still is, rightfully wowed by fans across the world and at the time of writing, Mr Lee has passed his 88th year and still shows no sign of slowing down, scooping a knighthood in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. After his comrades of the horror film have all succumbed to the final sleep, he reluctantly carries the banner of the greatest living horror star.
His definitive character portrayals – The Creature, Kharis the Mummy, Rasputin, the Duc de Richleau, Lord Summerisle, Scaramanga, Fu Manchu, Father Michael Rayner and, indeed, Count Dracula himself – are forever linked to this fine actor.
2.FRANK LANGELLA as Count Dracula in John Badham’s Dracula (1979): From his first appearance, washed up on shore like Lemuel Gulliver, to thrashing in the air wildly from his impalement on a large hook, raging unintelligible blasphemies at the rising sun, Frank Langella’s Dracula dominates the film, every scene a tribute to his enthusiastic approach. His Dracula enjoys toying with these mere mortals and we believe his lines about observing humanity to its fullest, sharing “Its lives, its loves, its death”.
He is high on personal ego, not needing any undead brides cluttering up his cellars. This Dracula believes that he can have any woman that he desires without having to worry about running short of supplies. The world is his for the taking and he means to have it. When he speaks of leading soldiers into battle, however, that becomes another matter. The script, and Langella’s general appearance, make him a poet more than a fighter of crusades.
When confronted by Harker and Van Helsing, I got the impression of irate family members attacking an overpowering suitor to their daughter/sister, who had inadvertently blurted out that she is expecting his baby, but he won’t be around to see the child grow up. In fact, it is this theme of constant amusement of the human race that carries Dracula throughout the entire film. He proceeds to ravage both girls, coupling ecstatically and promising them that they will become as he is, feeding on them – the humans – and making more of their kind. He describes a vision of himself and Lucy cutting a swathe of death through humanity, she to be his ideal mate.
Is he experimenting, then? His last attempt, Mina Van Helsing, turned into a decrepit, shambling hag, shunning society and sunlight by chilling out in a neglected mineshaft.
Langella, who connives and corrupts with relish, had, like Bela Lugosi before him, played the role in a 1977 revival of the Balderston play on the Broadway stage. He confesses that men were approaching him in the street to thank him for their extra bouts of marital passion after seeing his show.
Langella has since appeared in many diverse roles in the preceding years since Dracula and even revived the role for cable television in 1982; but, unlike Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, he doesn’t seem to have suffered the finality of typecasting, a favourite role being the demonic book collector Boris Balkan in Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999). The failure at the box office can in no way be levelled at Mr Langella.
But a further plus for the film is the fact that we see Dracula take on all the forms that he uses in the novel. He escapes from the ship as a ravening wolf and attacks Harker as a pipistrelle bat. He suspends himself from a tree in the form of a fruit bat to observe Renfield attacking Jonathon Harker, and then glides under Lucy’s door as a billowing mist. The most impressive sequences, however, are the much-quoted wall crawling depictions. But at the end of it all you come away like the film’s characters at the start and the finish of the movie – totally lost at sea.
“I love to be frightened”, says Lucy, shivering deliciously.
Unfortunately, Mr Badham, so do we.
3.GARY OLDMAN as Count Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); The sequences in the Castle are Gary Oldman’s best in this film. He fits the weird atmosphere of the cold outbacks of Transylvania described as ‘the land at the edge of the World‘. He discards the obligatory black cloak for outlandishly garish costumes that seem to belong in pantomime or an extravagant ballet, the ornamental wig completing the image of an out-of-sorts pantomime dame!
He is genuinely ruthless towards his enemies, not blinking an eye as he smashes their heads in with a mace or impaling them on spears that look as if they would snap inside the corpse. The prologue confirms his speech about bravery and honour amidst the warlike days. He doesn’t need an eerie shadow that punctuates every bad feeling that he has, and signs his correspondence, very ominously, with just the letter, ‘D’.
When reprimanding his brides, he is suitably acidic in his rebuke, delivering Rumanian lines as to the manor born. This could actually have been the Count that everyone had been waiting for.
Then he spots the photograph of Mina Murray and everything goes disasterously wrong. Rubber cheeks wash with tears and the Count begins to whine about his lost love, the girl who threw herself from the castle turrets at the news of her husband’s death.
The film loses any credibility it may have held.
After 400 years, he abandons everything to search for her reincarnation.
His three female brides berate him for never having loved them. He keeps them happy, it seems, by furnishing them with midnight snacks of newborn babes and promising his guests to them, once their usefulness to him is ended. Trailing to London aboard the Demeter, he quickly becomes relegated to a guest starring role in his own movie. Turning him into an awkward romantic fop dissolves the audience interest in his character almost immediately.
Maybe that is the reason that, with the bloodletting, he becomes very savage indeed? Casually nipping at the throat for the first two or three instalments and then, in the shape of a large man-wolf, tearing through the jugular leaving his conquest’s bedrooms simply running with blood. He rests in a box-like crate, half-kneeling in the earth with his head above the soil, always seeming to sense the air around him for new dangers. The crates themselves appear to be temporary locations as he has a habit of literally smashing through the wood and reducing them to splinters when he wakes up of an evening.
In fact, watching his restlessness in the crates, I began to wonder if this super-hyped superman ever got any kip at all. When not watching for treachery, he was transforming into various werewolf derivatives, cocooned in a birth bubble full of gloop. Taking his transformations further, he faces his foes disguised as a large – maybe eight feet tall – man-bat. Obviously too big for his box crates as, when he wears this identity, he tends to snooze clinging to the rafters.
“See what your God did to me?” he moans to Van Helsing, I suppose lack of sleep would make you feel irritable after 400 years, before literally falling apart and changing again into dozens of rats.
He watches his conquests, like a pre-pubescent schoolboy, from behind closet doors as they indulge in innocent play. He then enters the young ladies’ boudoirs as a luminescent green mist. I wondered if he had a luminescent green smock to match!
With Mina, after only searching for her for the last four-hundred years, he loses his bottle and decides that he doesn’t want to make her as he is after all. Mina has to take the bull by the horns and finish the blood communion herself!
Watching Oldman perform, I got the feeling that the film needed the rubber bats and hairy wolves, because without them, as stated above, the Count simply loses all interest – unless you’re a fourteen-year-old girl who has sneaked into the cinema on the front row.
He claims to be descended from the proud Szekelys and to have commanded nations. We believe the second part after witnessing the bloodthirsty prologue. But, Gary Oldman – sans the age/wolf/bat make-up – just looks like ordinary Gary Oldman, without any air of aristocratic breeding behind him and, who would seem to be more at home cheering with the crowds in the stands at Millwall FC than living a supernatural existence in the bleak forests of Transylvania. His relentless search for his dead wife only adds an unkind naiveté to his character that comes across as very harmful, as it becomes the plot device situated at the core of the film.
However, I find that I can’t condemn his professional abilities, when, in fairness, he was juggling with an absurd script tailored for the nineties pre-teens. His bravely attempted Dracula is tucked away as a lucrative, but painful memory.
For the record the further adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel have featured in order of chronology;
Carlos Vallarius Dracula/Spanish language (1931), Atif Kaptan Drakula Istanbul’da (1953), John Carradine Dracula/TV(1956), Denholm Elliott Dracula/TV(1969) Christopher Lee El Conde Dracula (1970), Norman Welsh Dracula/TV (1973), Jack Palance Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1973), Louis Jourdan Count Dracula/TV (1978), Klaus kinski Nosferatu phantom der Nacht (1979), Leslie Nielson Dracula: dead and loving it (1995), Patrick Bergin Dracula’s Curse/TV (2002) and Marc Warren Dracula/TV (2006)
Charles E Butler England 2010, author of The Romance of Dracula; a personal journey of the Count on celluloid,