I first read Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in the early 1990s and it soon became a favourite. As today (Tuesday 26 May 2020) marks 123 years to the day since the book was published, I thought it would be fun to list some of the best film and TV adaptations. Let me know in the comments section below if I’ve missed off your favourite…
A fairly faithful retelling of the classic story, though it favours the plotting used in a 1920s stageplay over Stoker’s original. Frank Langella is a suave, sexy, fangless Dracula, and the film – while a bit humourless – has a romantically Gothic tone. Smoke billows, the score swells, characters look longingly… It’s like watching an epic music video at times, but it seduces you.
Also from 1979 is this George Hamilton-starring comedy, which sees the Count evicted from his Transylvanian castle and move to New York City. The humour is deadpan, likeable and often very funny.
Count Dracula himself only appears briefly in this Blaxploitation spin on the myth. The focus is his successor: Mamuwalde, an African prince turned vampiric in 1780 then awoken in 1970s LA. The premise is hokey, but actor William Marshall makes sure Mamuwalde always has dignity and grace. The film is also one of the earliest ‘Dracula’ stories to include a subplot about a modern woman being the reincarnation of a vampire’s long-dead love. Now common, it doesn’t appear in Stoker’s text. The following year, Blacula got a sequel co-starring Pam Grier. Scream Blacula Scream is slower than the first film but is more confidently made.
Probably the most influential telling of the Dracula story ever filmed, this Universal Pictures classic doesn’t totally stand up as a piece of cinema. The acting creaks, the pace flags and the action can be flat. But its iconography – especially a cape-wearing and heavily accented Bela Lugosi as the Count, and his cobweb-strewn castle – became enshrined in popular culture. The film was, of course, the start of a long-running sequence for Universal. Made concurrently with Dracula was a terrific Spanish-language equivalent starring Carlos Villarías – Drácula (1931) – then several sequels to Lugosi’s version followed. The Count was absent from the decent Dracula’s Daughter (1936), then played by Lon Chaney Jr (Son of Dracula, 1943) and John Carradine (House of Frankenstein, 1944, and House of Dracula, 1945). Lugosi returned in the fun crossover Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Not the feeble version with the same name directed by Francis Ford Coppola in the 1990s, but an enjoyable 70s TV movie starring Jack Palance. It’s an abbreviated adaptation of the novel, which also throws in some cute amendments to the story. The most long-lasting of which is the same idea that had coincidentally been used in Blacula in 1972 – here, it’s Lucy Westenra who is the unknowing reincarnation of Count Dracula’s long-dead partner. (This film also codified the notion that Count Dracula is the historical tyrant Vlad the Impaler made immortal. That hadn’t been Bram Stoker’s intention.) Palance is terrific, never forgetting that Dracula is a monster but simultaneously making him sympathetic.
It’s schlocky, but this revamp for the new millennium has a postmodern awareness of the genre, which means it’s also a lot of fun. Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) was the executive producer and his knowing fingerprints are everywhere – from the pure horror to the contrasting comedy. The new storyline also gives Dracula (Gerard Butler) an interesting Biblical backstory. It was followed by two lesser sequels: Dracula II: Ascension (2003) and Dracula III: Legacy (2005).
A rejigged adaptation of the novel, which makes some intelligent cuts and is quite pacy by the standards of other Hammer Films productions. It upped the amount of pain and pleasure on show in the Dracula myth – this is a film of rich, red blood and repressed sexuality – and, most notably, it introduced the world to Christopher Lee’s looming, patrician portrayal of the Count. Just like the 1931 Universe film, Hammer’s Dracula led to many sequels, sadly of varying quality. Peter Cushing, who had played Van Helsing in the original, headlined The Brides of Dracula (1960); then Christopher Lee returned in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), Scars of Dracula (1970) and Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). After a reboot (see below), Cushing also starred in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). The sadist-tinged Taste the Blood of Dracula was the best of these, while the 1974 kung-fu crossover is fun too.
The character names were changed in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass copyright law, but this influential silent film is still the earliest screen version of Dracula we have. (There was an Hungarian film the year before called Dracula’s Death, but that was a new plotline and now seems to be lost.) The eerily demonic Max Schreck plays Count Orlok, one of cinema’s most memorable monsters, while FW Murnau’s direction is a blueprint of German Expressionism. Every scene has darkness and danger in the shadows. Fifty-seven years later, Werner Herzog directed a creepy remake called Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). It’s an acquired taste.
The story goes that the writing team behind the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer were busking ideas for a new villain – a one-off vampire who was powerful and famous and had a certain cache. They needed someone like Dracula. Then Buffy creator Joss Whedon said, ‘Why not Dracula? He’s public domain!’ Bringing the character into the world of BTVS, even for one episode, served a purpose within the show’s story arc. The heroine Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) was questioning her vamp-fighting destiny, so why not test that against the genre’s most iconic villain? But like so much in Whedon’s show, the idea is also a huge amount of *fun*. It’s a typically witty, playful script, and the regular cast have an absolute blast, both respecting and poking fun at the Dracula cliches. Playing the Count is Rudolf Martin, who coincidentally had another Drac-related credit in the same year: he starred as Vlad the Impaler in the forgettable TV movie Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula.
An oddball choice, perhaps. This is a behind-the-scenes drama set during the shoot of 1922’s Nosferatu, and stars Willem Defoe as that film’s leading actor, Max Schreck. The perverse twist is that, in this version of events, Schreck isn’t just playing a vampire – he actually is one, and has been promised victims by Nosferatu’s ambitious director, FW Murnau (John Malkovich). It’s a surreal idea, and it really flies. The cast are terrific, there are some brilliantly unnerving moments, and the story contains layer upon layer of subtext. Fact/fiction, life/death, film/reality…
The seventh film in Hammer’s Dracula cycle is, in fact, not a sequel but a reboot that moves the Count into the very vivid present day of the early 1970s. It’s a time when London was still swinging and youth culture was all about coffee bars, music you could dig, wild clothes, and generally having a good time. The film may have been mocked at the time (and since) for these stereotyped flower-power characters, but that does it a disservice. Dracula A.D. 1972 is enormously likeable and vibrant, but it’s not all about partying kids. The storyline – which sees Christopher Lee’s long-dead Dracula resurrected and Peter Cushing playing a descendent of the Victorian Van Helsing – has darkness and plenty of threat too. The sequence in which Caroline Munro’s Laura and Christopher Neame’s Johnny Alucard take part in the occult ceremony that calls forth the Count stands as one of the most strikingly impressive in any Dracula film. (A.D. 1972 was followed by a less successful sequel, 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.)
2 Dracula (2020)
Made by the creative team behind the BBC1 hit Sherlock, this recent adaptation is openly aware of previous Dracula adaptations and has a cineliterate love of the genre, but it is also completely its own beast. The script smartly, but not in any way reverentially, carves up the Stoker story up into three equal parts. Episode one is the most traditional, telling the story of Jonathan Harker’s terrifying time at Castle Dracula, but still plays around with the material in interesting ways. The middle episode then takes the vampire’s voyage aboard the Demeter – less than five pages of the novel – and expands it into a Agatha Christie-style chamber piece of paranoia and claustrophobia. The final instalment is the most daring of all, pulling a fearless storytelling trick as we follow the Count’s adventures in London. At the centre of everything is Claes Bang giving a dominant performance as a hugely charismatic yet still monstrous Dracula, while Dolly Wells is also extraordinary as a clever, sarcastic character called Sister Agatha. This is funny, scary, intelligent and exuberant storytelling of the highest order. (The 2020 series was the third version of Dracula made by the BBC. The first is mentioned below, while in 2006 there also was a fairly bloodless and confused one-off.)
Made 43 years before the Claes Bang version, the BBC’s first attempt at Dracula is not only one of the most faithful adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel (the few minor tweaks are improvements). It’s also highly seductive and stylish in its own right. Made in the classic format of 1970s television (multi-camera studio for interiors, polished film work for locations), this 150-minute story contains plenty of surreal imagery, unorthodox direction and horrific scenes. But these are not examples of showing-off; each moment supports and enriches the storyline. Louis Jordan is an excellent Count Dracula, all charm and unflappable grace but still menacing, while there are also excellent performances from Frank Finlay as Van Helsing and Susan Penhaligon as Lucy Westenra. For the sections set in Whitby, the production filmed in the Yorkshire town itself – staging scenes on real locations that Bram Stoker knew well and included in his novel.
Since 2015, I’ve been attempting to watch and review as many Dracula-related films and TV episodes as possible. You can see a list of my efforts here.