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The best, worst, and weirdest adaptations of Dracula

Contributed by
May 25, 2018

May 26, 1897, saw the publication of Dracula, a gothic horror novel written by Irish author Bram Stoker. The book was not a commercial hit upon release, although critics of the time compared it with mighty praise to writers like Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë. Arthur Conan Doyle was a fan too. Over the next few decades, cinema was born, and directors latched onto Dracula as a means to explore the origins of horror film. When Universal Studios bought exclusive rights to the book in the 1920s, it was revealed that Stoker had not complied with U.S. copyright law when the book was registered, meaning that it was officially in the American public domain. It didn't take long for other studios to gravitate toward the count, and over the past century he has become one of the most iconic figures in cinema.

Even people who have never seen an adaptation of the book know Dracula and the iconography he represents. That’s no mean feat given how each Dracula adaptation often wildly differs from the one that preceded it. As with many public domain characters (think Sherlock Holmes or the myriad adaptations of Frankenstein), most directors and writers don’t really adapt the book so much as they adapt ideas behind the character. You’ll seldom find an adaptation of Dracula that’s simply a straightforward translation of the book to the screen. Instead, creators use the character to explore ideas of sex, death, gender, faith, xenophobia, infection, politics, and so on. Vampirism remains one of genre fiction’s most flexible metaphors, and Dracula is merely the avatar for those ideas.

To celebrate Dracula’s 121st birthday, SYFY FANGRRLS is taking a look at some of the dozens of adaptations of Dracula that have made their way to the big and small screen over the past century. Some are good, some are bad, and some are… well, let’s go with interesting.

GOOD: Nosferatu (1922)

If the Stoker estate had gotten their way, this movie would no longer exist. After winning a copyright suit, a court ruled in favor of the Stokers and declared all copies of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s stunning but unofficial Dracula adaptation should be destroyed. Fortunately, a few prints survived and now Nosferatu is widely agreed upon to be one of silent cinema's undisputed classics. Even people who haven't seen Nosferatu know its imagery, like the scene where the shadow of Dracula, known as Count Orlok here, ascends the staircase, his claw-like fingers slithering up the walls. As noted by Roger Ebert, "Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films. The film is in awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires." Mere words don't do the artistry of Nosferatu justice, nor has time quashed its impact as a purely visceral experience. It remains haunting in a way modern film can't ever comprehend, and few Dracula films have managed to replicate it in the passing century.

GOOD: Dracula (1931)

Tod Browning’s adaptation, the film that helped to birth the Golden Age of horror, gets a bad rap these days. Contemporary critics dismiss its direction as staid and struggle to overlook how clichéd Bela Lugosi’s oft-parodied performance as the Count has become. Such criticisms forget that this film is a classic for a reason. Sure, Lugosi’s over-the-top pronunciation and demeanour have become the stuff of cheap Halloween costumes these days, but back then, this was the first vampire film to fully play around with ideas that maybe the sexual allure of the vampire is more terrifying to audiences than the visceral terror of death. Browning’s film also takes itself completely seriously. There’s no comedic relief from the fear, as was common with horror films in the ‘20s and ‘30s, nor is there a sense that everything’s going to be alright in the end. There are few cinematic moments as unnerving as the reveal of Renfield once he’s become hopelessly mad.

GOOD: Hammer Horror Dracula (1958)

The Hammer films revived the horror genre for a new age in the 1950s, causing controversy with the censors and making the count fresh for audiences who thought vampires had gotten passé. After a few years of devolving into parody, Dracula became not only scary again but impossibly regal thanks to the grandeur of Sir Christopher Lee. Pushing the boundaries of what could be shown in British cinema in the '50s, Dracula revelled in the sexuality and gore of the story, with blood as red as fire. Hammer made no fewer than eight sequels to Dracula, and as the decades moved on, the films got less seriously and more self-consciously silly (read: they put more boobs in the movies). The reliable center of this franchise is Lee himself, who remains impeccably grand even as he’s scaring the crap out of you.

GOOD: Dracula (1979)

Universal Studios had another go at the Dracula tale in the 1970s, handing over the directorial reins to John Badham, who had just made the mega-hit Saturday Night Fever. Nowadays, this adaptation isn't talked about as much, but it remains one of the most sinfully underrated takes on Dracula. Visually, this is the closest film has come to capturing the rotten gothic allure of the novel (thanks to production design inspired by Edward Gorey), and it's the first Dracula to fully embrace the notion of the Count as a romantic hero. Frank Langella as Dracula may be the sexiest Dracula based on pure romantic allure. He is every inch the gentleman and is so graceful that you forget he's going to kill all these people. A lot of the story changes don't make sense — Lucy and Mina are swapped for no apparent reason, Mina is now a Van Helsing and Lucy is Dr. Jack Seward's daughter instead of being her suitor — but this is a story that's all about love. And sex. Indeed, it may have one of cinema's most unusual sex scenes, as Dracula and Mina's feverish wedding night sequence was shot by Maurce Binder, best known as the guy behind the James Bond title sequences. Imagine that, but with vampires, bats, more sex, and lasers that were borrowed from the world tour of The Who. It's that kind of movie, and we promise you, it's amazing.

GOOD: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

It’s hard to say that a definitive adaptation of Dracula exists, but in terms of capturing the novel’s feverish intensity and gothic melodrama, Francis Ford Coppola’s take came the closest. The sumptuous aesthetics of Bram Stoker’s Dracula do most of the work, with achingly detailed costumes and exclusively practical effects that imbue the drama with a hazy quality akin to the space between being awake and dreaming. As unnecessary as the added romantic subplot with Dracula and Mina is, it helps to deepen the story’s overwhelming emotional core. Everyone’s made their jokes about Keanu Reeves’ atrocious English accent and the less than stellar sexual chemistry between Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder, but when a film looks this good, who cares?

BAD: Dracula (2006)

Given the BBC’s long and proud history of adapting classic British novels for television, it seems surprising that it took them until 2006 and to tackle the king of gothic fiction. Adapted by Stewart Harcourt, who wrote various episodes of Poirot and Miss Marple, the basic conceit of this adaptation is one of the more refreshing twists on the story. Here, Arthur Holmwood is getting ready to marry Lucy when he discovers he has inherited syphilis from his father. In desperate need of a cure, he turns to a mysterious secret society who promise that a mysterious Romanian count with regenerative blood powers will help him if he secures passage to England. There have long been allegations that Bram Stoker died of tertiary syphilis, which was hidden by his family. The chances are that story's untrue, but the connection between vampirism and infection remains potent. Whereas many vampire stories position the strain as parallel to sexually transmitted disease, BBC's Dracula subverts those assumptions, although liaisons with the count remain dangerous. While the star power behind this adaptation is strong (a pre-Downton Abbey Dan Stevens plays Arthur and Van Helsing is the world's greatest Poirot, David Suchet), its biggest problem is that it's just too boring to capture the imagination. It's not scary, Dracula (Marc Warren) isn't threatening, and if you'll pardon the pun, the entire affair is exhaustingly anemic. The BBC are giving Dracula another go, with Sherlock's Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss at the helm, so stay tuned for further developments.

BAD: Dracula 3D (2012)

Dario Argento is the king of European horror cinema. Without his garish phantasmagoria, as seen in seminal classics like Suspiria, the giallo brand of Italian horror wouldn’t be anywhere near as influential as it is. Sadly, Argento’s critical decline has been steady for the past decade, and the nadir of his illustrious career is most certainly his version of Dracula. In 3D! It's hard to believe the man who made The Bird with the Crystal Plumage made this schlock, which plays like a cross between The Room and Sharknado, but with a sliver of literary prestige. The special effects may be some of the worst committed to cinema, with one infamous scene featuring a giant praying mantis that looks like it was drawn in MS Paint. No offense to Dracula: Dead and Loving It but this is easily the funniest adaptation of the book, albeit completely unintentionally. One spends most of the agonizingly long 110-minute running time wondering if Argento did this film as a bet. Asia Argento is having a ball as Lucy but otherwise this is unsalvageable.

BAD: Dracula Untold (2014)

Universal remains iconic for its Monsters franchise, so it seemed only right that they would try to revive the movies in the blockbuster age. Their attempts to establish the Dark Universe have been extensively documented, thanks to last year’s The Mummy, but the real starting point for this wannabe franchise was 2013’s Dracula Untold, starring Luke Evans. A mostly forgettable dark fantasy action piece, what makes Dracula Untold so disappointing is that its set-up was fascinating and had immense potential. This was one of the few Dracula adaptations that kept its roots in the historical figure of Vlad Țepeș, Prince of Wallachia and Transylvania. Evans excels in his role when he is playing the conflicted war-lord, a loving family man who is nonetheless a mass murderer. Once the vampire subplot arrives and establishes a Dracula origin story, everything becomes far less interesting, and you start to wish this was a more conventional Vlad Țepeș historical drama. The tropes the film fall into are more rooted in Marvel than Stoker, which weakens the structure as a whole. Dracula Untold doesn’t work as an origin story, but it could have been one hell of a bleak period piece.

WEIRD: Blood for Dracula (1974)

Once upon a time, art superstar Andy Warhol made movies. Or, rather, his friend Paul Morrissey directed movies and Warhol produced them. He delved into the world of horror with adaptations of both Dracula and Frankenstein, both of which starred Udo Kier. Blood for Dracula — which was shot in 3D — plays like a strange cross between Hammer Horror, Rocky Horror and a political diatribe. Here, Dracula is a sickly Romanian count who is starving because he can only feast upon virgins. Upon the advice of his assistant, he ventures to the Catholic haven of Italy and settles in with a household of fallen aristocrats with four daughters. Unfortunately for Vlad, they're most certainly not virgins, thanks to the handsome stablehand with a Brooklyn accent and a love of Marxism. Politically, this is a fascinating adaptation. Dracula represents the diminishing upper-classes who have begun to rot under the weight of their own irrelevance, while the brides-to-be are deviants interested only in their own gratification. The handsome stablehand is no hero either, as he forces himself on women and beats them under the guise of revolution for the oppressed masses. That description makes the film seem weighed down by heavy subject matter, but it's too gloriously camp to be taken with any degree of seriousness. Everyone speaks with the silliest accents possible ("virgin" is always pronounced "wirgin") and the blood effects are straight out of a cartoon. At one moment, Dracula loses all of his limbs, Monty Python-style. Oh, and there's also a Roman Polanski cameo, but don't let that put you off.

WEIRD: NBC's Dracula (2013)

Horror is doing well on TV these days, and in 2013, NBC had a cult hit with Hannibal. It only made sense for them to delve into the world of vampires. While NBC's Dracula only lasted 10 episodes, it did have Daniel Knauf, the creator of HBO's criminally underrated Carnivàle as its show-runner, which guaranteed a unique approach to the material. Here, Dracula is living in London under the guise of a Tesla-esque American inventor, biding his time while he can plan his revenge against the order that ruined his life centuries prior. Van Helsing is an uneasy ally rather than his arch-nemesis, Mina is his reincarnated love interest, Lucy is secretly in love with Mina, and Renfield is a black lawyer who works for Dracula and spends most of his days rolling his eyes at his boss's terrible ideas. The series falls apart pretty quickly, but amid the sheer chaos is an array of fascinating themes and actors giving it their all. Wasn’t Jonathan Rhys Meyers born to be a vampire?

WEIRD: Dracula 2000

It makes sense that history’s most famous vampire would get a sexy teen makeover at some point in cinema, and it only seems right that Gerard Butler was the one to take on the mantle. What makes Dracula 2000 so unusual, and rather unique in this crowded genre, is how it takes on themes of religion. The movie, which was clearly made on latch onto the nu-metal fad of the era, starts out as a pretty conventional teen horror, full of sexy people in the modern day and ropey dialogue given a boost of dignity by consummate professional Christopher Plummer. Then it suddenly takes a wild 180-degree turn and reveals the reasons for Dracula’s hatred of God and allergy to silver — it turns out he’s Judas Iscariot. Yeah, that Judas. The sheer ambition of this adaptation is admirable, although the decision to make pop culture’s biggest bloodsucker one of the Christian faith’s most despised figures wades into some discomfiting anti-Semitism that the film doesn’t seem to acknowledge or understand. It’s also weighed down by the fluff of the sexy teen drama surrounding it, but it remains a fascinating watch. Check it out, if only for the moment when Jonny Lee Miller screams “Never EVER F*CK with an antiques dealer!”

WEIRD: Dracula 3000 (2014)

Shockingly, this isn’t a sequel to Dracula 2000, but it is the glorious introduction to DRACULA IN SPACE! It's hard to even call this one a Dracula adaptation because, despite the title, there isn't actually a Dracula in this film. There is, however a Count Orlock, who was the Dracula stand-in in Nosferatu, as well as a sexy space captain Van Helsing (played, of course, by Casper Van Dien from Starship Troopers). Dracula 3000 tries to cross Alien with the Demeter section of the novel, wherein Dracula is transported by ship from Transylvania to London. The crew of a salvage ship stumble upon the Demeter and, obviously, carnage ensues. Everything about Dracula 3000 is sort of awful — the acting, the effects, the nonsensical story, the presence of Coolio — but in a way that's perfect for all your drunken midnight movie madness. How do you say no to vampires in space?

WEIRD: Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002)

Canadian auteur Guy Maddin is not a filmmaker known for taking the conventional route. His take on Dracula is actually a filmed version of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s adaptation of the novel, which he filmed for CBC in 2002. It’s styled like a silent film, uses old-school cinematic techniques like smearing Vaseline on the camera lens to make things look more dream-like, and adds flecks of color through CGI. In terms of a Dracula adaptation, this one is deliriously off-the-wall, but it also taps into the novel's themes of xenophobia. This is one of the few Dracula films with a man of color playing the lead role — the ballet dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang — and his interactions with the ensemble cast a stark spotlight on the story's ideas of the fear of the "other." If nothing else, this is certainly the most unique Dracula adaptation out there.