Dracula: a Universal Monster
“There are far worse things awaiting man than death."
Dracula, the fabled Count of the Carpathians, has thrilled audiences on an intercontinental scale since his literary origination in 1897 via the vision of an Irishman named Bram Stoker. But the novel Dracula, which fostered unforgettable imagery of the decrepit vampire’s crumbling castle and its broken battlements, along with all those other dark devices of Gothic horror, were too far-reaching to be encumbered by a solitary medium.
And while there have been numerous incarnations, in every form of media imaginable since, it was a Hollywood studio which made Dracula a universal monster. But it wasn’t an expeditious path to popularity and prominence to be certain for this beloved vampire. In fact, it took over 30 years for Stoker’s vision to reach, and be championed by, Universal Pictures’ Carl Laemmle Jr. However, little by little, as the years swelled between his creation and a date with cinematic history, the Count began to rise.
Let us chart Dracula’s course from virtual obscurity to the stages of Broadway and eventually to the fledgling studio lot of Universal Pictures. And then behold a cinematic empire rise alongside arguably its most famous movie monster. Finally, we will discern how this 120-year-old literary character cultivated one of the most lucrative and enduring genre frenzies: vampire films.
“I am glad you found your way in here, for I am sure there is much that will interest you.” – The Count in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897).
It was a time before the electric lure of smartphones, tablets and the ability to stream countless on-demand movies easily from mobile devices. This was a different era draped with the milieu of wooden libraries which were alive with the scent of rich mahogany. Shelf after shelf was heavily laden with leather-bound books by literary titans: Twain, Poe and Tolstoy.
And the now infamous Count Dracula was finding life in the pages of Stoker’s 19th-century novel. But in the sultry summer of 1897, a man in another part of the world was following a much different path than Stoker.
French filmmaker Georges Melies was about to unleash a startling collection of imagery on an unsuspecting world: motion pictures. And in doing so, he gave everyone their first glimpse of vampirical symbolism. Melies was not only a director but an illusionist at heart. His passion for magic can be seen in his clever editing skills in dozens upon dozens of short motion pictures.
“I watched hours of this amazing, agile, acrobatic guy [Melies] who was editing, writing, directing, acting, starring, set design, special effects… all that going on simultaneously in his studio,” actor Ben Kingsley said of Melies in an interview for the film Hugo (2011).
But it was Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil) in 1896 which inadvertently established the horror movie genre. And this short three-minute film is arguably the first appearance of the vampire in motion pictures history.
The story opens with a bat flying into a castle and transforming into the maleficent magician known as Mephistopheles. He immediately conjures up a cauldron, a Renfield-like sidekick and a strange woman to haunt the kingdom’s master who is played by Melies. Melies soon encounters the creature of the night, who swiftly transforms into Mephistopheles. The two battle, but Melies is triumphant when he uses a giant cross to defeat the magician.
Welcome to cinema the vampire tropes of bat becoming man, the loyal protector, the spooky castle, the supernatural and the haunting power of the Christian cross. These early signs associated with vampire lore would not only resonate during Dracula’s reign at Universal, but for the next hundred years.
“Dracula is quite simply the most media-friendly fictional personality of the 20th century, if not all time.” – Film historian and author David Skal (The Road to Dracula, 1999).
There weren't any cinematic cathedrals reveling in sold-out audiences. Those movie monuments which were dedicated to feature-length films, matinees and serials — and came to prominence later in the twentieth century — didn’t exist yet. Instead, there were the coin-slot Mutoscopes in which you could view a short motion picture through a one-person viewer. Think of these “Peep Shows” as cinematic Rolodexes.
The film industry was definitely in its infancy in the early 1900s, but vampires, at least in name, started popping up in a number of silent movies during the time of the Nickelodeons. Nickelodeons were the first movie theater spaces dedicated to projecting motion pictures in an indoor exhibition.
The now lost film by the Italian-American filmmaker Robert Vignola The Vampire (1913) is a complete misnomer in terms of supernatural creatures of the night, but it did serve as a sign vampires were on the minds of people, and it could have appeared on Nickelodeons as the first movie palaces popped up.
In contrast, Vignola’s Vampire revolved around femme fatales known as vamps. In 1915, French director Louis Feuillade made a 10-episode movie serial, Les Vampires. But those silent serials didn’t do anything to perpetuate the road to Dracula, aside from providing some imagery of actress Stacia Napierkowska sweeping into a ballroom dressed like a giant bat. In fact, if you studied those images, they were much more evocative of the campy Batman (1966-1968) television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward.
In 1921, Hungarian filmmaker Károly Lajthay shot the first movie designated Dracula: Drakula halála (Dracula’s Death), but it is sadly now another lost film. The plot wasn’t akin to Stoker’s story, and the motion picture played more like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
“In the story, Drakula plays a music teacher who has gone crazy and then is after some of the patients in the asylum,” film historian Lokke Heiss said. “However, there is this idea of a monster loose with fangs and a cape.”
Still, despite a Stoker-less plot, the character of Dracula was exposed to motion picture audiences, even if it were in name only, but there wouldn't be any doubt the next motion picture owed everything to Stoker’s novel even if credit was initially not recognized.
“The master is near… the master is near!” – actor Alexander Granach as Knock, ein häusermakler in Nosferatu (1922).
The first faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel finally arrived in 1922, and it came from German filmmaker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. F.W. Murnau endowed to the world his silent movie masterpiece, Nosferatu. This stunning feat of German Expressionism was so disturbing to some it was banned in Sweden until 1972.
“It’s so frightening,” said author Nina Aeurbach. “For one thing, Dracula is so evil he’s disgusting. He’s a plague spreader. And he looks like a rat; there’s nothing suave about him.”
Sadly, the studios behind Nosferatu (Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal and Prana-Film GmbH) never acquired the rights from Stoker’s widow Florence Balcombe to make their movie. In 1925, Balcombe won the lawsuit she filed against the filmmakers, and all prints and negatives of Nosferatu were ordered to be destroyed. Fortunately, the film was not lost, and it remains one of the most intriguing silent-era horror movies of all time.
A PLAY ON WORDS
“What can be given, can be taken away. From now on you have no pain and no will of your own.” – The Count in Hamilton Deane’s stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
Unlike the creators of Nosferatu, the Irish playwright Hamilton Deane did acquire the rights to Stoker’s novel from his widow Florence Balcombe. And in 1924, at the Grand Theatre of Derby, England, Deane’s production of Dracula took to the stage.
Deane served double duty as he also portrayed Dr. Van Helsing opposite Edmund Blake’s Count Dracula. The cast and crew spent the next three years touring England before they settled in London in early 1927.
It wasn’t long before Broadway decided to also cash in on the phenomenon of Dracula, but American stage producer Horace Liveright planned to overhaul the existing script. He hired writer John Balderston to revise Deane’s work, and some of the changes were quite drastic. The characters of Mina and Lucy were combined into one role, while two other mainstays (Quincey and Arthur) were eliminated completely from the play. And this Americanized version of Stoker’s work focused more on dialogue than the brilliant imagery of Bram’s novel.
With Ira Hards at the helm as director, Dracula descended on Broadway’s Fulton Theater in October of 1927. And more importantly, a Hollywood connection was brewing. Two of the play’s main characters were portrayed by actors who also ended up in the 1931 theatrical version of Dracula. Edward Van Sloan reprised his role as Dr. Van Helsing, and 45-year-old Hungarian actor Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko returned as Count Dracula. Blasko would soon be known the world over as Bela Lugosi.
Yes, Dracula beckoned Hollywood, or perhaps it could be argued it was the other way around. Nevertheless, the studio system was all too eager to get a piece of the action. It had taken 34 years, but Dracula appearing on the Silver Screen was now imminent.
But could the Count conquer cinemas?
THE BIG BANG
“And I will have Carfax Abbey torn down stone by stone, excavated a mile around. I will find your earth box and drive that stake through your heart.” – Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula (1931).
In the beginning, there was nothing. And then, suddenly, a universe was born.
And so, it was written, in the beginning, there were the heavens and the Earth. But for the horror film genre, it wasn’t a deity who bestowed life. No, it was Universal Pictures, and what came first paved the way for history’s most infamous vampire.
Universal Pictures got the ball rolling with their first horror film in 1923’s silent movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Next came The Phantom of the Opera (1925) which saw Notre Dame’s Quasimodo — portrayed by actor Lon Chaney — take on the part of the diabolical phantom. Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces” played an integral part in Dracula’s history at Universal despite never once donning the Count’s cape. But for the time being, he was establishing a destiny all his own while bringing scary movies to the masses.
With the advent of talking pictures (talkies), the head of Universal Carl Laemmle was looking to produce projects which would serve to spellbind audiences. However, Laemmle didn't have any interest in bringing Stoker’s work to the big screen. He was not a fan of horror movies. Rather, it was his son Carl Laemmle Jr. who saw the potential of Count Dracula, and he eventually convinced his father to adapt the novel into a motion picture.
“My, what a big bat!” – Actor David Manners as Jonathan Harker in Dracula (1931).
Universal Pictures purchased the rights to Stoker’s work for $40,000 in order to make their first horror talkie, but what was originally going to be a lavish big-budget event quickly got reworked. With the crash of the stock market in 1929, and the onset of the Great Depression, the studio decided to adapt their movie more from the stage play rather than Stoker’s source material.
Another complication arose when Universal’s horror film star Lon Chaney died of lung cancer in 1930. “The Man of a Thousand Faces” was always Universal’s top choice to play the Count. But after a lot of consideration for which actor would take Chaney’s place, it was Bela Lugosi who reprised his stage performance on the Silver Screen.
Despite all the setbacks, and the long journey from novel to play to film, Dracula (1931) was a smash hit.
And the studio wanted to ride the momentum of its supernatural flick’s success with an adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Day Prometheus. Despite the departure of Lugosi from the project — he was supposed to play the creature — a film version of Shelley’s novel hit theaters nine months later.
Frankenstein (1931) was another triumph for Universal, and its star Boris Karloff was an overnight sensation.
“I coined the phrase Hollywood Gothic to describe that ambience of the early Universal films,” said film historian and author David Skal. “And it was new, and it was novel and audiences flocked to these pictures. They’d never seen anything like Dracula, they’d never seen anything like Frankenstein.”
Not only had Dracula taken the horror film genre to new heights, but the Count set off a chain reaction which led to a burgeoning universe of profitability laden with movie monsters including the Frankenstein creature, The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).
In all, Universal produced over 80 horror films from Dracula’s inception until 1960. And each of the major movie monsters enjoyed their own significant film franchises.
The Spanish-speaking version of Dracula (1931), starring Carlos Villarías and Lupita Tovar, was technically the second installment in the Count’s film franchise, even though it was simultaneously produced with the Lugosi version.
In 1936, Edward Van Sloan reprised his role as Dr. Van Helsing as he went up against Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter, and Lon Chaney Jr. raised some hell as Count Alucard in 1943’s Son of Dracula.
Son of Dracula was the last standalone installment of the Golden Age, but Dracula appeared in three team-up motion pictures over the next five years: House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
“Who has done this thing! Tell me who has done this thing!” – actor Christopher Lee as the Count in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968).
Stoker’s malevolent Count of the Carpathians became a lucrative success for Universal Pictures in the 1930s and 1940s. And even after the Universal Monsters went into hibernation, a legacy forged by Universal’s first talking horror venture Dracula (1931) was taking shape.
Hammer Films in London, England began rebooting three of Universal’s most beloved movie monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy. These films were much bloodier and graphic. Nonetheless, the Count had once more risen from his grave. In 1958, actor Christopher Lee took up the mantle of the bat in Horror of Dracula.
The story was a reimagining, and its fresh take on Count Dracula launched another franchise for the world’s most famous vampire. From 1958 until 1974, Hammer produced nine vampire-based films and Lee starred as Count Dracula in all but two of them.
“We will create more of our kind, Lucy.” – actor Frank Langella as the Count in Dracula (1979).
It had been 31 years since Count Dracula appeared on the Silver Screen in a Universal horror film, but thanks to Hammer Films there was a growing resurgence in movie monsters. And Universal didn't waste anymore time producing a modern-day remake of their original Dracula (1931). So, in July of 1979, Frank Langella took on the iconic role of the Count in a new feature film after having also portrayed the character on stage as his predecessor Lugosi did 50 years earlier.
“I knew that this Dracula was to be aimed at women and their fantasies of this character,” Langella said in an interview on revamping the Count. “Penetration, without real sexual penetration…every woman told me was a great fantasy of theirs. He is, in fact, in the book very sympathetic, very romantic and very tortured and tormented and very singular.”
This new romanticized take on the Count was not only a hit with women, but with moviegoers across the globe. With a budget of just over $12 million, Dracula (1979) grossed $31 million worldwide for Universal. Dracula was back, and he was badder than ever. In fact, the film took in another $10 million thanks to domestic rentals.
Despite the movie’s success at the box office, Universal once again relegated the Count to his coffin until 2004 when actor Richard Roxburgh pitted him against Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing. The picture grossed a jaw-dropping $300 million for Universal!
10 years later, Universal produced a prequel starring Luke Evans which followed the rise of the Count to power in Dracula Untold (2014). Again, Universal had a hit on their hands as the picture grossed $217 million worldwide.
“The clue is in the title,” Evans explained. “It’s the untold story of the origins of the very famous literary vampire that we know from Bram Stoker. It’s about the man, it’s about the human that actually walked this Earth in the 1400s. So, that’s where we start the story.”
BOX OFFICE BOFFO
Over the last century, the character of Dracula found innumerable successes commercially and critically in the pages of books, on stage and courtesy the Silver Screen. But Dracula transcends his own name. The world’s most famous vampire set the stage for other representations as well as vastly different interpretations of the creatures of the night.
However, regardless of their forms and guises, more times than not the vampire subgenre of horror films is a lengthy, yellow brick road to financial affluence.
For example, if you only take into account vampire films produced since 1978, and you only use U.S. domestic box office totals, the amount of money the subgenre grossed over the last 39 years totals over $3.1 billion.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010) is at the top of the list of movie juggernauts bringing in $300 million in the United States alone. Now, if you really want to figure the true impact of the vampire films over the years, remember the subgenre is a global phenomenon.
Eclipse made almost $400 million overseas, which brings its total well north of half-a-billion dollars on its own. So, don’t let anyone ever tell you there’s not a market for horror films especially the ones featuring vampires.
In conclusion, we’ve journeyed with the Count as he escaped the pages of Stoker’s novel and found his way to both Broadway and Hollywood. We’ve also ventured along with Dracula as he helped build Universal Pictures into a movie monsters dynasty. Finally, we witnessed how vampires may not walk by day — powerless against the sun — but they sure as hell flex their muscles at the box office in today’s modern era.
And with the forthcoming Dark Universe expansion by Universal, many of their original horror characters will breathe new life starting with Tom Cruise’s adventures in this summer’s reimagining of The Mummy. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait long for Count Dracula to return to the Silver Screen.