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Battle of the Draculas: Who is king of the vampires?

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Jan 23, 2020

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is one of the most iconic stories in pop culture history, as well as one of the most adapted for film and television. The tale of a Transylvanian count who reveals himself to be a vampire hell-bent on taking over London has endured for decades thanks to its magnetic hook and the unignorable allure of that eponymous villain.

One of the reasons Dracula has stuck around for as long as it has while many of its contemporaries were resigned to the bargain bin of literary history is that it lends itself incredibly well to re-imaginings. Count Dracula can be a thematic or metaphorical stand-in for basically any idea or anxiety you want him to. He works on so many levels — as a merciless monster, as a conflicted antihero, as a romantic hunk, even as a pun-loving joke.

But which version of Dracula out of the dozens available reigns supreme as the all-time greatest? With BBC and Netflix’s most recent adaptation of the book now available to watch, we’re listing some of our favorites and the ones that should have stayed in the coffin. As with all such lists, this is in no way a 100% comprehensive post of every single version of the character, but we’ve covered a pretty solid cross-section of iterations covering the past century. Here’s to more vampires in the future!

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Lon Chaney Jr. – Son of Dracula (1943)

By the 1940s, Universal was churning out horror movies by the truckload, including a few sequels to their original Dracula. 1943's Son of Dracula sees Lon Chaney Jr., better known as the Wolf Man, as Count Alucard (GET IT?!) The film itself is pretty solid throwaway B-movie fun, but Chaney Jr. is just bloody abysmal in the role. It doesn't help that this Dracula is a copy of a copy of Bela Lugosi's one, but Chaney Jr. is so bereft of charm and the ability to convey basic emotions that you wonder how the hell he made it as far as he did in Hollywood (spoiler alert: nepotism).

Marc Warren – Dracula (2006)

The worst thing Dracula can be is the least interesting element of his own story. It takes a special kind of talent to make the most iconic vampire in the history of literature dull, and sadly, that’s something that the BBC’s 2006 adaptation does with such astounding apathy. Marc Warren, who you may recognize from The Good Wife and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, seems oddly exhausted throughout the movie as if he’s as drained of life as his victims. Nothing says alluring like a bloodsucker who looks like he’ll fall asleep while trying to drink from your neck.

Leslie Nielsen – Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Mel Brooks once said that the best parodies are made when you truly love the thing you're making fun of. It's one of the reasons that Blazing Saddles works as well as it does; you can tell that Brooks has a great fondness for old-school Westerns. None of that is on display in Dracula: Dead and Loving It, which may be his most disappointing work. Nielsen is doing his usual thing but the jokes are mostly weak and not all that interested in the elements of vampire fiction that are ripe for parody.

Richard Roxburgh – Van Helsing (2004)

Dracula is pretty hammy. There's no avoiding the inherent kitsch allure of a man who wears capes, talks in puns, and waxes lyrical about the music of the children of the night. Playing the character deadly serious is an option but one that most adaptations tend to avoid. And then there's Richard Roxburgh, who signed onto 2004's Van Helsing and decided that he was going to chew ALL of the scenery. He is so exceptionally hammy that you can smell the bacon emanating from the screen. Make no mistake, this is a full-throttle and utterly committed performance, one way more entertaining than anything else in the movie. There are few things funnier in any Dracula-adjacent property than Roxburgh screeching with absolute emotional agony, "I. Am. HOLLOW!" It's not especially accurate a depiction of Dracula but it is one that understands his camp appeal.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers – NBC’s Dracula (2013)

NBC's one-season drama of Dracula from 2013 is a curious beast. There are certainly plenty of fascinating ideas at play in this version, which imagines Dracula living in London and posing as a Tesla-esque American entrepreneur hoping to bring the glories of modern science to Victorian society. Jonathan Rhys Meyers also has the piercing gaze that's ideal for any vampire about town. He works best as the charismatic imposter more than the sullen undead count, which is clearly a problem when your show is called Dracula. Eventually, the show falls off the rails and gets overwhelmed by its own ambition, mostly resulting in a slog of a season and a Dracula the audience soon loses interest in.

Gerard Butler – Dracula 2000 (2000)

Dracula 2000 isn't a good movie, but it is a fascinating one with some truly intriguing ideas on how to subvert the source material. Here, Dracula is actually Judas Iscariot and his vampirism is punishment for his betrayal of Christ. Considering vampires' aversion to the cross, it's a surprise that few adaptations take on the religious themes of the creatures. Then again, Dracula 2000 doesn't really do that either because its primary concern is with being a sexy vampire movie for teens. Enter Gerard Butler before he became famous and more expensive to hire. His main hook is that he's hot. Sure, Butler does that well here. No fuss, no drama. The thing is that he's not especially charismatic and you can't get over wondering why a mega-white Scottish dude is playing Judas Iscariot, who would presumably have been Middle-Eastern. Not a great Dracula, but a movie that's more interesting than it has any right to be.

Luke Evans - Dracula Untold (2014)

Dracula can be many things, but trying to turn him into Iron Man just doesn't work. Dracula Untold was one of many attempts made by Universal to turn its iconic monster movies into a modern-day Marvel-style franchise. The set-up for this was interesting, however, with Dracula Untold going more for historical than fully speculative. Luke Evans plays Vlad Țepeș, the 15th-century warlord of Wallachia who is widely considered to be a primary influence for Stoker's novel. Here, the real-life battle of Vlad against the Ottoman empire fully centers him not only as a "good warlord" (uh-huh) but as a man willing to become a vampire in order to defend his family and empire. It's not a terrible idea but the film chickens out on fully dealing with the reality of trying to make a sympathetic anti-hero out of a real-life person whose own nickname pointed out how much he loved to torture his opponents. Luke Evans is a little too sullen in the role too, although it's hard to see what other way he could have played this iteration of Dracula. He does look great in armor, at least.

Claes Bang – Dracula (2020)

If you watched Claes Bang in the newest BBC version of Dracula and wondered why he sounded so much like Moriarty from Sherlock, that's because the series was written by that show's creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Bang, a Danish actor with the greatest name of all time, is certainly deeply charismatic in the role. He's forebodingly handsome in a way that makes sense with the character and he can work a cape. The main issue with this Dracula — one of MANY issues — is that it has no idea what it wants to be or what it wants to say. You get the sense that neither writer cares all that much about Dracula, so they just recycle some Sherlock tropes and hope it pays off. It's a shame because Claes is trying so damn hard to make this work, even as the material betrays him. He's alluring and willing to ham it up and in on the joke, but so much of the humor falls flat and his motivations make no damn sense! It's a terrible thing to waste a vampire like this Dracula does.

Tricia Helfer – Van Helsing (TV Series, 2019)

Praise be, we have a female Dracula for a change! Kudos to SYFY's Van Helsing and Tricia Helfer for not skimping on the weird or horrifying with this Count. There's an impish quality to this Dracula, embodied in the androgynous styling and near-ethereal way she moves. There's obvious sex appeal going on here (come on, it's Tricia Helfer) but undercut with a sharp strain of something much more unnerving. If only she got more to do on the show. Come on, more lady Draculas taking over our world, please!

Bela Lugosi – Dracula (1931)

Close to 90 years since the film first terrified audiences and helped to launch a ground-breaking movement of cinematic horror, Tod Browning's Dracula now feels like a cultural antique. The performance of Bela Lugosi has been parodied so many times that it can be hard to remember why viewers were so entranced by him in the first place. There was just no leading man quite like him in Hollywood at that time. The way he moved, the unique cadence of his voice, the strange primal twitches of his hands… This was the pure embodiment of the curious aristocrat of the books who proved as perplexing as he did unnerving. Poor Lugosi may never have topped this performance, and he's been treated pretty shabbily by pop culture as a whole since then, but there's a reason this performance lingers in the imagination and has been copied as many time as it has.

Klaus Kinski – Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

When German auteur (and Baby Yoda lover) Werner Herzog decided to remake Nosferatu, he made a crucial choice with the source material. His Count Orlok would remain a disgusting animal-like creature but he would be one imbued with pity rather than fear. As played by legendary madman and awful human being Klaus Kinski, this Count is pretty pathetic, driving home how much it must suck to live your eternal afterlife looking like that and having people run away from you in fear. The notion of vampirism as a form of plague is heavily emphasized here too (so many rats). Is it better than the original? It's certainly its own thing, although we have to give extra points to Schreck for the sheer iconography of it all.

Max Schrek – Nosferatu (1922)

Friedrich Gustav Maximilian Schreck was a German actor who, prior to being cast as Dracula/Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (aka the greatest piece of plagiarism ever), was best known for his stage work. He died in 1936 and never appeared in anything as major as Nosferatu following its premiere, so there's a lot of gothic-esque legend around Schreck and his haunting performance as the Count, to the point where there's even an entire movie dedicated to the idea that he was really a vampire (Shadow of the Vampire, 2000). He wasn't, obviously, but his performance stands up to the scrutiny of 2020 eyes. There's nothing alluring or appealing about this vampire: he is all animal in a terrifying and repulsive manner, from his pointed ears to his rat-like teeth and overgrown claws. This is a portrayal of vampirism as the ultimate hell (and it's also one steeped in some truly insidious anti-Semitic imagery). Bram Stoker's widow may have wanted it destroyed, but it's for the greater good that this Dracula lives on.

Frank Langella – Dracula (1979)

Frank Langella played Dracula on stage for several years and that effortless confidence shines through in the oft-forgotten 1979 adaptation, directed by John "Saturday Night Fever" Badham. This was the first major Dracula adaptation to be explicitly marketed as romantic (the tagline was "a love story") and Langella leans in HARD to that aspect. To put it bluntly, he's hot as f**k in this movie. Langella said he wanted to play Dracula as "a highly vulnerable and erotic man, not cool and detached and with no sense of humor or humanity [...] I wanted to show a man who, while evil, was lonely and could fall in love." In many ways, this performance and interpretation paved the way for our modern Dracula and vampire preferences. This is also a Dracula who gets it on! No joke, the big sex scene here is shot by the guy who did the opening credit sequences for some Bond movies.

Zhang Wei-Qiang – Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002)

Dracula is almost exclusively depicted by white actors in the various adaptations made over the decades. One notable exception is Guy Maddin's deeply strange experimental ballet silent drama Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary. Based on the acclaimed Dracula ballet performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, this story is, surprisingly, not all that concerned with dance. Maddin, who has never been one to shy away from cinematic weirdness, instead turns the tale into a highly-stylized homage to expressionism and film of the 1920s, albeit with a thoroughly modern take on the Count. Here, the narrative emphasizes the notion of vampirism as a metaphor for xenophobia, with Dracula "invading" Britain from Eastern Europe and poisoning its women with his seductions. Chinese dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang plays up Dracula's sexual appeal and the ways he makes all of the other (white) men in the story furious with envy. Basically, he's the guy your girlfriend told you not to worry about, and it makes for one of the best and most sinfully underrated Draculas ever.

Christopher Lee – Dracula (1958)

No actor has played Dracula as often as the great Sir Christopher Lee, and for good reason. Hammer Horror may have run the franchise into the ground with seriously diminishing returns, but Lee always maintained the dignity required to make the character so magnetic. Hammer wasn't big on subtlety but it works to marvelous effect in Dracula, which features lots of red eyes, lots of blood, and plenty of low-cut dresses begging for a neck-nibble. Add to that Lee's immense height and you have a foreboding aristocratic power who makes for one of the all-time great Draculas.

Gary Oldman – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

If this list was ranked in terms of the best Dracula movies overall, then Francis Ford Coppola's lush romantic drama would easily take the top spot. It's a beautiful piece of work that most accurately captures the feverish intensity of the novel. A large reason the film works so well is because of the performance of Gary Oldman, which is, as far as we're concerned, an absolute peak in terms of Dracula performances. He's dramatic and intense and super strange, capable of both intense sexual allure and vaudeville-style theatricality. It helps that Oldman is draped in the most extravagant fashions, courtesy of the iconic costume designer Eiko Ishioka. It's utterly believable that Winona Ryder would want to dump Keanu Reeves in favor of Dracula, and there aren't many people we'd buy as legitimate sexual threats to our one true idol, Mr. Reeves! Oldman's Dracula has the whole package and he's the version that does the original character the most justice while retaining a freshness that keeps him appealing long after dozens of great pretenders have tried to follow in his footsteps. Your man could never. Sorry, Keanu!

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