In a way Dracula is a bit like Bond – the first one you see tends to be your favourite. Much to many people’s annoyance Roger Moore remains my favourite Bond, as The Spy Who Loved Me and The Man With The Golden Gun were the two first Bond films I saw, the latter title remaining my favourite. A big part of the reason I like this film so much is down to Christopher Lee being the vilain, because at a very young age (about four, I think) I saw Dracula A.D. 1972, and by extension a lot of other Hammer films, and became very aware of Lee as the villainous Count and as a screen baddie in general, even believing that …Golden Gun was a James Bond versus Dracula movie.
So that’s my favourite actor to don the fangs, but as far as Dracula goes he has been represented onscreen by no fewer than 22 different actors. Personally I haven’t seen all the film versions that are out there but as I’ve been on a bit of a vampire kick recently I thought I’d throw a spotlight on the best of the ones that I have seen. So, in no particular order:
Bela Lugosi (Dracula, 1931/Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948)
Although Lugosi’s image as Dracula is often the first that comes to mind whenever the subject of the Transylvanian Count is brought up, the film itself is a bit of a damp squib. Directed by Tod Browning, a veteran director of the silent era, the film is based on the Broadway play rather than Bram Stoker’s original novel and as such has rather long moments where not a lot happens. As talkies were a recent development, Browning’s inexperience with actors who could actually speak rather than use their body language was obvious, although the film does look fantastic, with cinematographer Karl Freund was apparently left to oversee most of the production.
As for Lugosi himself, his portrayal of the Count relies a lot on his thick Hungarian accent and his suave charm; his classic introductory line of “I bid you welcome” has gone down in movie history, as have a few others that Lugosi delivered in his deliberately slow and stilted way. Although this Dracula doesn’t appear to have fangs and there is no blood to be seen, the generally creepy atmosphere and Lugosi’s hypnotic presence have ensured the film’s legacy as the popular definition of Dracula.
Lugosi did reprise the role of Dracula again in 1948 in the comedy hit Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, although by this time his career had taken a nosedive and Universal Studio’s original monster cycle was coming to a close. However, it’s his winning performance in Browning’s 1931 film that will stay in the memory, even if the film itself does not.
Max Schreck (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922)
Ok, so he’s known in the film as Count Orlok but German director F.W. Murnau’s silent classic is actually an adaption of Stoker’s story, just with the names changed due to it being an unofficial release. In fact, there were two other versions of the novel filmed before this one but they have been lost, so this masterpiece serves as the oldest surviving version. As for Orlok, Max Schreck’s portrayal is a million miles away from Bela Lugosi’s handsome and charming turn as the Eastern European nobleman; his bald head and rat-like features are literally the stuff of nightmares, and his terrifying appearance has been copied and parodied in everything from the vampire Kurt Barlow in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot to appearances in Spongebob Squarepants, The Fast Show and the Castlevania video games.
It wasn’t just Schreck’s looks that provided many vampiric traits that are still used today, as his posture and way of creeping around have also been used in many other horror films; the iconic scene where Orlok’s shadow is seen climbing the stairs was paid homage to as recently as 2009 in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell.
Schreck himself has also been referenced in cinema in recent times, most notably as the character played by Christopher Walken in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns – although the connection is in name only – and as portrayed by Willem Dafoe in E. Elias Merhige’s 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, which fictionalise the making of Nosferatu and plays on the idea that Schreck himself was a real vampire who struck a deal with Murnau to play the Count in return for being able to claim lead actress Greta Schroeder for himself. Although it’s obviously a tongue-in-cheek fantasy, one watch of Schreck in that 1922 original is enough to wonder if the makers of Shadow of the Vampire weren’t too far from the truth.
Christopher Lee (Dracula, 1958/Count Dracula, 1970/various Hammer Film Productions sequels)
Taking Bela Lugosi’s suaveness and adding his own dose of raw sexuality and festering sense of danger, Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula was an unstoppable force of nature and helped make Hammer Films the dominating body in horror cinema in the 1950′s and 1960′s. Now in glorious Technicolor, director Terence Fisher followed 1957′s The Curse of Frankenstein with this liberal adaption of the novel and was able to put its stars – namely Lee and his onscreen nemesis Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing – through their paces with lashings of bright red blood, one of the most thrilling climactic chases in cinema and, in Lee’s case, bloodshot contact lenses and fake fangs.
Although Lee would go on to begrudgingly play the Count in several Hammer sequels, going so far as refusing to speak any of the lines written for him in 1966′s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, his other portrayal of note was in 1970′s Jess Franco-directed Count Dracula. Sticking as closely to Stoker’s novel as its budget would allow – many of the differences were due to scaling down as the project ran out of money – Lee plays an older version of the Count who grows younger with each feed, as in the novel, and with lines taken straight from the source material Lee’s delivery is as enthusiastic as it is commanding. The film is also notable for featuring a certain Klaus Kinski as Renfield, but more from him later.
Christopher Lee has spent much of his career since the glory days of Hammer trying to convince us that there is more to him than Dracula – which, of course, there is – but it is this role that immediately springs to mind when Lee’s name is mentioned and, to those of us of a certain age, it is Lee’s image that springs to mind when speaking about Dracula.
Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992)
You know you’ve done something right when a scene from one of your films is parodied by The Simpsons, and even if as a whole Francis Ford Coppola’s over-romanticised take on the original story was a little too glossy for some, there were some worthy moments and two standout performances from Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing and Gary Oldman as the lonely Count.
The aforementioned scene parodied by Springfield’s most famous family sticks out as one of the most memorable, featuring Oldman as the aged and decrepit vampire grooming a nervous Jonathan Harker (a notoriously bad performance from the horribly miscast Keanu Reeves) for his first night in the Count’s castle. Although Oldman chews the scenery by seemingly channelling the ghost of Bela Lugosi with his thick eastern European drawl, his performance is merely mirroring the grand scale upon which Coppola’s vision demands.
Not wishing to use computer-generated effects, Coppola opted to stick with good old fashioned film making techniques to make his slightly off-kilter Victorian landscape more authentic, although whether he succeeded on that front is down to personal taste. As for Oldman, he certainly played his romantic lead-style Dracula very differently to that of Lugosi, Lee or any of the previous names attached to the role. Although Hopkins gives the most memorable performance in the film (it could also be Reeves, but for other reasons), it all ultimately rests on the title character to stop the picture from disappearing up its own slightly pretentious backside. In this case, it just about succeeds.
Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, 1979/Vampire in Venice, 1988)
Interesting this one, as German wildman Klaus Kinski has played the Prince of Darkness in two movies, one of them being probably the most terrifying portrayal of Dracula yet committed to film and the other being a ridiculous waste of time. To be honest, even though it was conceived as a sequel to Werner Herzog’s remake of the 1922 classic, there’s some debate as to whether Vampire in Venice counts(!) as a Dracula film, even though Kinski’s character is supposed to be the same vampire.
Nevertheless, it is the 1979 version of Nosferatu that Kinski will be remembered for, and for good reason. With his strikingly dark eyes and brooding, intense acting style, Kinski was the perfect choice to take on the role made famous by Max Schreck over half a century before, adding his own style of brutal menace to that famous rat-like vampire make-up. The scene where Dracula (as he is now called) meets Jonathan Harker (played by Bruno Ganz) must rank as one of the scariest in film history as the Count, enraged with bloodlust after Harker cuts his finger, suddenly explodes with murderous fury, forcing Harker to retreat before returning to a calmer mood.
Notoriously difficult to work with, Kinski’s fearsome reputation definitely leant an edge to his performance, although by the time that Vampire in Venice came around in 1988 his eccentric behaviour lead to that production going through several directors before Kinski himself got behind the camera. Refusing to shave his head or wear any of the classic Nosferatu make-up, the film is generally disregarded as part of the Nosferatu canon and generally disregarded in general by many horror fans. A shame, but at least there’s that legendary 1979 performance to fall back on if proof were needed as to Kinski’s ability to make Dracula somebody to fear.