By Elizabeth Keenan
Over the years, Dracula has changed from a first sinister, Gothic incarnation to the cloak-wearing, I-vant-to-suck-your-blood character of 1950s B-movies, and finally to his re-birth as a tortured soul in 1992’s Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.
The panelists at New York Comic Con’s “The Mysteries Surrounding The Writing Of Dracula, And How The Character Has Changed In The Past 115 Years” —Bram’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker, SUNY Buffalo professor John Browning, and screenwriter James V. Hart—explored these changes to a packed room.
First up, Dacre Stoker introduced the real-life inspirations for the character of Dracula. Stoker noted that the time of his death, his great-grand-uncle was known more for his work with actor Sir Henry Irving than his books. He cited a New York Times obituary that noted, “His stories, though they were queer, were not of a memorable quality.” Despite this early assessment, Dracula has prevailed.
Civil servant and theater manager Bram Stoker spent years collecting details for his book, Dacre Stoker said, drawing on his travels and on his experiences. Numerous aspects of the book, from the epistolary style, with its memos and schedules and logs, to the wreck of the Demeter, emerged from details in the elder Stoker’s life.
Like Jonathan Harker, Stoker had qualified for the bar. His travels as a civil servant and later theater manager influenced his realistic timetables in the book, and gave him an eye for detail. And, like Dracula himself, “Bram lived a nocturnal life,” Stoker said. Except his was due to a life managing a theater, not membership in the leagues of the undead.
Professor John Browning next examined the visual representation of Dracula, from the book’s first screen incarnation to 1992.
While Nosferatu didn’t use the name “Dracula,” it was similar enough in tone that Florence Stoker sued (and won) in the German courts in order not just to stop its distribution but also to destroy it. After 1922, Florence Stoker authorized productions in the United States, and the theatrical and cinematic Dracula took a new direction.
“Vampires do well in a recession,” Browning said. And the 1931 Dracula film with Bela Lugosi did exceptionally well. It also set the template for Dracula’s film representation: Eastern European accent, dramatic widow’s peak, tuxedo and cape, crest ring, and, sometimes, a medallion.
“But you don’t sing fangs, you don’t see biting, you don’t see blood,” Browning said. “If an audience member sees fangs, they know what he’s going to do, and that’s too much,” during Hollywood’s heyday of censorship.
By the 1950s, atomic monsters and giant bugs overtook vampires in horror-movie popularity. But once Dracula entered the public domain in 1962, the character started to appear everywhere.
“The whole world adopted Dracula,” Browning said, in every medium from film to comics to cartoons to porn. In his work to document representations of Dracula during this time, Browning stopped at 740.
The era’s signature Dracula was Christopher Lee, who played the character with the blood and fangs only hinted at in earlier times, in a number of films, including Count Dracula and Dracula A.D. 1972.
By the mid-1970s, Dracula and other vampires were again out of vogue, because, Browning said, “it became easier and easier to watch porn.”
“Before, people went to vampire films because they were really racy,” Browning said. “They were going to see vampires to get their rocks off.” Once porn was more accessible, they didn’t have a reason to go see all the vampire films coming out.
At the same time, documentaries examining Dracula’s origins began to appear, though films didn’t yet attempt to connect Dracula to a historical figure.
In contrast, James V. Hart’s 1992 script for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” merged the historical figure of Vlad Tepes with Count Dracula.
“He’s not a guy in a cape with a bad accent and a pickup line,” Hart said. Instead, he’s a “prince who defended Christendom.”
In this version, Dracula’s descent into evil is prompted by his wife’s suicide, which would have damned her soul in the eyes of her contemporaries. And the rest of the film concentrates on trying to find his love again.
Hart also drew on Frank Langella’s stage performance of Dracula for his more romantic version of Dracula’s origin. In that version, Langella’s “Dracula”, in bed with Mina, brings her to his chest to drink his blood, and the curtain dropped dramatically.
Around him, women sighed dramatically, and Hart said, the big-haired woman in front of him exclaimed, “I’d rather spend one night with him dead than the rest of my life with my husband alive!”
The actual filming brought out several problems, including one that nearly stopped production. During rehearsals, Gary Oldman protested that the confrontation between Dracula and the men who have come to kill him would have been ridiculous, since Dracula was “in his underwear.” Coppola put the production on hold and arranged for Hart to meet him in Reno to figure out how to solve the problem with the script.
The solution? Turn Dracula into the bat that Hart had tried to avoid. But not a small bat. A big one.
“We’d often talked about what a vampire sees in the mirror,” Hart said “They don’t see nothing. They see what their soul has become. That’s why they don’t like it.”
The scene was shot with Hart’s original dialogue, with Oldman in the bat suit. And then, Oldman ad-libbed the film’s signature line: “Look what your god has done to me.”
“Every time I watch the film, I stop in that moment and realize that’s what we’re all about,” Hart said. “It’s all about creation and what we do as a group when we come together.”