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Remembering Almost a Century of Universal Pictures' Dracula Saga at the Movies

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is the latest in a long line of Universal Dracula films.

By Matthew Jackson
Dracula in The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023)

The Last Voyage of the Demeter hits theaters this week, marking the latest in a long line of Dracula films released by Universal Pictures. Though they weren't the first studio to take on Dracula in some form, Universal's relationship with the Count goes back nearly a full century at this point, and features some absolute classic films as well as some forgotten gems that you may not remember.

So, in honor of Demeter's release, let's take a look back at the studio's long history with Dracula, from Bela Lugosi to the present.

The Classic Dracula Era

In 1931, Universal Pictures released Dracula, the film that, along with Frankenstein, forever cemented the studio as a place for hit horror films. Though it's based on Bram Stoker's novel, of course, this Dracula actually takes much of its inspiration from the stage play of the same name, which made Bela Lugosi a star and helped him get the role in Tod Browning's film production. Lugosi interpretation of Dracula, as shot by Browning, has since become a key piece of pop culture iconography, but it's far from the only version of Dracula that would arrive in this Golden Age of Universal Horror. 

At the same time Dracula was being produced, a Spanish-language production of the same script was being shot at night, on the same sets, by director George Melford, with Carlos Villarias playing the Count. This version is often forgotten in favor of the Lugosi classic, but if you've never seen it, you should definitely give it a try. Villarias is great in the title role, and there are some wonderful stylistic touches along the way. 

After 1931, the Dracula story got a little murky, as Lugosi moved on to other projects and Universal cranked out other monster movies. The story finally continued five years later in Dracula's Daughter, a wonderful horror film that doesn't feature Dracula at all (his corpse appears in one scene), but does star Gloria Holden as the title character in a groundbreaking, wonderfully atmopheric queer-coded film. It took seven more years for the next Dracula film to emerge, and once again Lugosi was absent. For Son of Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. (best known as the title character in The Wolf Man) took on the vampire role, and the action relocated to the swamps around New Orleans. While director Robert Siodmak found some fun ways to work with new location into the story, Chaney's not exactly the most memorable Dracula you're every likely to find.

Enter John Carradine. A year after Son of Dracula, Universal began mashing up their monsters in team-up movies, and Carradine -- adopting a more gentlemanly posture and a mustache as an homage to Stoker's novel -- stepped in as Dracula, a role he memorably played in both of House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. These aren't the best of Universal's horror films, but they are fun monster rally pictures, and Carradine's Dracula is certainly a memorable one. Still, you can't compete with the original, which is why in 1948, Lugosi made one last return to the Dracula role for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a horror-comedy in which he gets to glare menacingly at the title characters in several memorable scenes. Some of these other Dracula follow-ups might not be essential, but Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein definitely is.

The Quiet Dracula Years

After Universal's original horror heyday, Dracula just kept right on going, even if Universal wasn't always behind it. Hammer Horror delivered their own popular version of the Count across the pond, and various independent and low-budget filmmakers tried their hands at new, and often truly weird, versions of the character. It wasn't until 1979 that Universal leant its name to another major Dracula project, and it's a memorable one.

Starring Frank Langella in the title role, John Badham's Dracula is a lush, sensuous adaptation that once again draws heavily from the 1924 stage play, which Langella had been performing on Broadway before taking his version of the Count to the big screen. It's a film version that's often forgotten in favor of what came before and what would come after, but this Dracula is very much worth your time, thanks in no small part to Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing.

Speaking of Van Helsing, the next time we saw Dracula in a big Universal production, he arrived in 2004 in a supporting villain role alongside everyone's favorite monster hunter. Directed by The Mummy mastermind Stephen Sommers, Van Helsing was Universal's attempt at an action-heavy monster rally flick, with Hugh Jackman in the title role. It didn't necessarily work as well as The Mummy did back at the turn of the millennium, but it's certainly goofy fun, and Richard Roxburgh is having a great time as Dracula. 

The Modern Dracula Age

The rise of shared movie universes in the 2010s meant that Universal began casting around for new ways to use its classic monsters, and while the results haven't always given the studio box office gold, they have at least been interesting. In 2014, Dracula got prequelized with Dracula Untold, starring Luke Evans in the title role in a film loosely based on the real-life battles of Vlad III of Wallachia, the real-life inspiration for the Dracula character. The film ended with Dracula himself setting up shop in the present day, but sadly it doesn't look like we'll ever see more of that particular vampire.

Just a few years later, though, we did get more Universal Dracula. In 2023, the studio released Renfield, director Chris McKay's horror-comedy following the adventures of Dracula's most famous servant (Nicholas Hault), co-starring Nicolas Cage in the role of the Count. Cage's performance was memorably monstrous, but not quite as monstrous as what came next. In The Last Voyage of the Demeter, audiences meet Javier Botet's version of the Count, a truly animalistic creature of the night with rows of sharp teeth and a body carried by immense leathery wings. 

So, what's beyond Demeter for Dracula? Universal is already working on more monster movies, so we could see the Count again soon in a more classic form. Even if we don't, though, we won't have to wait long for another version of the bloodsucker. Right now, The Northman and The Witch director Robert Eggers is at work on Nosferatu, a new adaptation of F.W. Murnau's silent vampire masterpiece, for Universal partner Focus Features.

That film, which began its life as an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, will feature Bill Skarsgard as the vampire. So if you want more scary Dracula action, you'll want to keep an eye on that movie's progress.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is in theaters now. Get tickets at Fandango.