The countdown of My 100 Favorite Horror Films continues with a three-pack of movies that aim to be a bit, well, different.
94. Sinister 2012
I have never liked Ethan Hawke. Ever since Reality Bites, I don’t like him. I don’t know what it is, I can’t put my finger on it. But when I saw the trailer for Sinister, I really didn’t care who was in it, I was going to see the movie no matter what. And Hawke is good in this. Sinister reminded me of why I don’t go see scary movies by myself. Yes, it is a touch predictable at times, and it leaves you wondering what the hell has happened to Vincent D’Onofrio (I’m still wondering after watching Ratched), but what I like about it is its attempt at being something different. There is a confusing plot point at the end but don’t let that get in the way of you enjoying this well-made film.
Hawke plays a true crime writer who moves his family into the murder house on which he is basing his new book. Obviously, this doesn’t sit none too well with the missus because he doesn’t bother to tell her. Before long, the family falls victim to a demon.
There are some unique elements to this one. I like the use of home movies as an inter-dimensional vehicle for the demon. There are plenty of jump scares to go along with true moments of horrific suspense. The late Fred Thompson makes one of his last screen appearances as the local sheriff. Just don’t watch this one alone. Do yourself a favor, skip the sequel.
93. Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight
If you are anything like me then you used to watch Tales from the Crypt. I loved that show, along with Amazing Stories and Tales From the Darkside. I have always been a fan of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and Tales from the Crypt was the horror version of those great sci-fi suspense classics.
I like Billy Zane, I really do, but his shot as The Phantom didn’t play well, and in Titanic, well, let’s just say he was a dick. He gets a chance to shine in Demon Knight. A great ensemble cast opposes “The Collector.” William Sadler, CCH Pounder, Brenda Bakke, Thomas Haden Church and Jada Pinkett Smith all have prominent roles.
The opening credits feature one of my favorite songs of all-time, Hey Man Nice Shot by Filter. It is wonderfully shot and it sets the stage for the entire film. I didn’t care much for Tales From the Crypt’s other feature film entry, Bordello of Blood, despite Angie Everhart, Erika Eleniak, Dennis Miller and Corey Feldman’s best efforts. And I use that term loosely. But, I do like a good deadtime story.
92. The Void
The Void, originally available on Amazon Prime and later Netflix, apparently was released in theaters but I don’t remember it at my local cineplex. Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski wrote and directed this film that reminds me of movies like Lord of Illusions. There is a cult, mysterious blood-soaked victims and unspeakable evil.
The Lovecraftian overtones and themes are palpable and the film has the look and feel of something from the 1980s like From Beyond. Another film that dares to be different in an era of sparkly vamps and Paranormal Activity schlock, this taut fright fest channels the true tenets of good horror film making. Darkness, violence, mysterious figures with unknown motives, and hidden evil waiting just on other side.
Last night’s blog took the first bite out of my countdown of My 100 Favorite Horror Films. I gladly present the next three selections.
97. The Ritual
I have an affinity for horror films that focus on village superstition, folklore and folk horror, and I am not talking about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village either. The Old Ones, the Old Gods, ancient, prehistoric gods and monsters almost forgotten, make for great nightmare fuel.
Every once in awhile, a film comes along that really surprises you. It’s better than you thought it was going to be, it flew under the radar, it was a Netflix release (good ones are rare) … something … else. The Ritual is one of those movies. A group of friends take a trip to the forest to memorialize a pal killed during a convenience store robbery gone wrong only to find something is stalking them, something inconceivable. That something is worshipped and tended to by a cult of true believers.
This film is well-acted, well-written and beautifully shot. Based on the novel by Adam Nevill, David Bruckner directed. I have become a big fan of Rafe Spall. He is an underrated actor and he is excellent in this.
96. The Lair of The White Worm
The second film on the list that bends the vampire genre, much like Sleepwalkers, is The Lair of the White Worm, which is loosely based on a Bram Stoker novel.
Perhaps no other film I’ve seen plays on genre-bending concepts of the vampire mythos like Wasp Woman and The Reptile quite like The Lair of the White Worm. Universal Studios’ The Mummy is in effect a version of the 1931 Dracula, but more on that on another night. Virginal sacrifices, a giant snake, flashbacks to Roman debauchery, a young Hugh Grant, an emerging Sammi Davis, and Amanda Donohoe (with whom I happen to share a birthday) in all her pre-LA Law glory as a snake-like vampire creature. Donohoe really “vamps” it up while preying on and “enchanting” the populace of a small burg.
The plot involves a local legend, an archaeological discovery and small town folklore with Grant playing the role of the lord of the manor whose ancestor tangled with a predecessor of the title’s D’Ampton worm. Peter Capaldi, the 12th Doctor Who by the way, plays the archaeologist who discovers the fossilized skull of a previous D’Ampton worm. His cousin Lewis is a pop singer of some renown.
I personally find a lot of charm in this film. The pub band and song that tells the legend of the D’Ampton worm over the closing credits is one of the best parts of the movie. I’ll share it here.
I love telling the story of how I discovered this movie.
This film is one of the most pleasant surprises on this list. It flies so far below the radar and it is so good (although the critics don’t agree). Tim Daly (Wings, Storm of the Century), gone-too-soon Kelly Preston (1962-2020) and Rick Rossovich (Top Gun) star in this tale of witches, covens and devil worship.
I saw this when I was in the Navy after working hours during a detachment to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, in the TV lounge in the barracks and I was stunned. I had never seen anything like it. Daly and Rossovich play friends who come across a young woman (the late Kelly Preston) as she is being assaulted by her boyfriend. Daly’s character intervenes and before long is romantically involved with the young woman. However, nothing is as it seems.
Now, I hate Top Gun, but Rossovich redeems himself in this, never mind his guest spot on International House Hunters several years ago.
This one is hard because I don’t want to give any spoilers away. Janet Greek directed and Tracy Tormé penned the screenplay. Three’s Company’s Audra Lindley (Mrs. Roper) also co-stars.
I re-booted this countdown last year and actually completed it. I haven’t seen any horror films this year that affected me enough to make the list. I took time last October to review the list and put movies in an accurate order as far as my tastes are concerned, so there isn’t any movement, up or down. That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes. You’ll have to log on each day to see.
Anyone who knows me understands that my chosen forms of entertainment usually involves the macabre. I wrote a post for my official web site awhile back that described where the fascination with horror came from. It was Dan Curtis’ Dracula, a made for TV movie starring Jack Palance as Dracula. The first time I saw it I was four years old. I watched it for the first time in 45 years and found it to be surprisingly good.
As a published author of horror fiction, my inspiration and influences have come from books, comic books/graphic novels, TV shows and movies, especially movies.
I started this countdown several years ago as a Facebook thing and brought it to my blog in 2015. Remember, these are my favorite horror films, not the “best.” You’ll find that I tend to lump certain franchises or original/re-makes together. Invariably, there will be more than 100 films on this countdown.
In the 1930s, prior to select showings of the titular Frankenstein, actor Edward Van Sloan would give a bit of a speech to the audience. I will borrow a line.
“[Mr. Jerry Knaak] feels that it would be unkind to present this countdown without a word of friendly warning … I think it will thrill you, it may shock you, it might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to, uh, well, we warned you.”
So, without further ado, here are the first three films.
100. Brides of Dracula
The follow up to Hammer Studio’s Horror of Dracula didn’t even have Dracula in it. Peter Cushing reprised his role as Van Helsing, but Christopher Lee and Dracula are absent. Instead, David Peel takes a turn as the bloodsucking Baron Meinster. The plot is absolutely ludicrous, but Hammer was trying to find their footing as a major player in the genre. The ease with which the main character falls in love with and agrees to marry the vampire antagonist is laughable at best. Martita Hunt plays Meinster’s mother and captor. She is tormented as a tragic figure who tries to keep her son’s evil from the world.
But it is a Hammer vampire film and the cinematography and rich set design make it a very watchable film. Plenty of fangs and blood. The set pieces are gorgeous, something Hammer would become known for during their run as the top horror film studio of the time.
Once again, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan and Edward Percy combine on the screenplay. Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher directed. I would have this higher on the list if the plot wasn’t so ridiculous.
99. Horror of Dracula
Terence Fisher directed Christopher Lee’s first outing as Count Dracula and Peter Cushing’s first turn as Van Helsing. I do love the Hammer horror films, but this is my least favorite of the Lee Dracula films. Not because of the performances. Both actors set new standards for both characters as Lee emerged from the shadows to put his own spin on the Prince of Darkness after Bela Lugosi had set the bar in 1931. Many find him to be the definitive Dracula, or at least their favorite. Michael Gough, who would go on to play Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth in Tim Burton’s Batman films, also stars.
What I don’t like about this movie is the plot. It strays too far from the source material. Although Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931 didn’t adhere to Bram Stoker’s original novel either (it follows Hamilton Deane’s stage play), this film features an all-new screenplay. Characters are mixed up or blended or omitted.
Don’t get me wrong, it is stunning to see Dracula in technicolor for the first time and Lee is commanding as the Count. The film stands on its own with Jimmy Sangster’s original screenplay but I would have liked to see a more faithful adaptation for Lee’s first turn in the cape. The funny thing is, when Dario Argento made his Dracula 3D in 2012, he used Horror of Dracula for inspiration for the screenplay and not the source novel.
I am usually not one for genre bending when it comes to vampires. However, in the opening credit sequence of the first Stephen King adaptation on this list, a slate appears that connects the origin of the vampire myth to ancient Egypt. Anne Rice explored this connection deeply in the Vampire Chronicles. As a published author of vampire fiction myself, I am fascinated by the origin of the vampire legend.
Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick (Twin Peaks, American Horror Story) and Alice Krige (Carnival Row) star in what almost plays as a dark comedy. What I find interesting is the use of cats in the folklore. The antagonists fear and can be harmed by cats, which are revered in ancient Egyptian culture. King is a master at scratching the surface of a myth or a legend, peeling back the curtain and letting you see just enough beyond the veil to terrify you. You get just enough folklore and mythology to understand the pathos of the mother and son “vampire duo.”
I enjoy this because it is corny and cheesy, but it also has a certain charm. Released in 1992, it plays more like a solid mid-1980s horror film. Krige adds a gravitas to this, as she does in all her performances. However, Krause has a tendency to overact. Ladies, if an attractive young man in a blue Trans Am invites you to the cemetery to do some gravestone rubbings, you might want to say “no.”
When I was very young, I watched Dan Curtis’ Dracula, a made for TV movie, starring Jack Palance as Count Dracula. From that moment on, I was hooked on the character. He was dark and frightening, and the cinematography was spooky and foreboding. In elementary school, we would get the “Weekly Reader.” My parents ordered Dracula by Bram Stoker for me when I was nine or 10 years old. I read the novel, although I didn’t understand much of it. However, over time, it has become one of the few books I have read multiple times. One of my most prized possessions is a cloth-bound Barnes & Noble “Definitive Edition” of Stoker’s masterpiece.
Several factors have contributed to me wanting to write this piece. I recently read Dracula again and reviewed it for Kendall Reviews, as part of their My Favorite Horror Novel series that features horror writers reviewing, well, their favorite horror novels. Stoker’s greatest achievement is one of the inspirations behind writing my own spooky stories. I always knew that if I were to write books, my first would be a vampire story. I saw an article not that long ago that described Dracula as a great detective story, with Mina Harker, née Murray, as the feminist heroine of the story. I then saw a social media post discussing the treatment, or mistreatment as it were, of Lucy Westenra’s character in film and TV adaptations.
I have watched several documentaries and read several articles about Bram Stoker and his process for writing the ultimate Gothic horror novel – the dream that led to the novel, who or what inspired the character, why he chose certain locations, the ability to accurately describe places he had never been … this all led to film and television adaptations and the almost total disregard for the source material.
As a lover of good storytelling, an avid reader, frequent filmgoer, and fan of good cinematic serial television, I often remark on the retelling of the same stories over and over. Rarely do these reboots or remakes, or whatever you’d like to call them, bring anything new to the story or the characters. Robin Hood, King Arthur, Batman and Spider-Man’s origin stories, et al, have been told countless times, while millions of books rich with stories that have never been told on the big screen have been published. You could say that Dracula actually fits both of these categories.
My favorite film of all-time, the original 1933 King Kong, did not get a proper remake until 2005. Sure, there was the 1976 version, and Japanese filmmakers were enthralled with the giant gorilla from 1933 into the 1960s, but it took Peter Jackson, who was inspired by the original to become a filmmaker in the first place, to do the 1933 film justice (unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up very well).
When I was in elementary school, in addition to getting Dracula in novel form, one of my teachers screened 1922’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece, one of the first horror movies, featured Max Schreck as Count Orlock. Schreck in German literally means “fright.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was watching a rare film that had been ordered destroyed by a court on behalf of Stoker’s widow, Florence, because Murnau did not have the rights or permission to make a film adaptation of Dracula. Names had been changed, the story had been altered to a degree, but if you knew the book, you knew this was Dracula on the silver screen. Luckily a copy of the film survived. Schreck’s make-up made him look rat-like and he came to symbolize plague and pestilence.
When I watch Dracula adaptations I bristle when characters from the original novel are omitted, or names have been changed, or the character simply has been aged. In the case of Nosferatu, Murnau changed key elements because he was trying to hide the fact that he was adapting the novel without the rights. There are several iconic creepy scenes featuring Schreck as Orlock and the film is considered seminal in the horror genre. However, since so much was changed, I almost disregard this as an adaptation of Dracula, when I really shouldn’t.
To be fair, I am not going to review these films, these are not indictments of the movies themselves. Many of the films stand on their own merits and are fantastic and entertaining movies. I am merely illustrating my issues with deviation from the source, especially in the portrayal of Count Dracula.
The true disservice to the film and TV adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel started in 1931 with Universal Studios Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. I love the film, I adore it, but to say it is true to the book would be a mistake. Lugosi, who Universal didn’t want for the part in the first place after the Hungarian-born actor had brought the character to life in the theater production, turned in a character- and genre-defining performance. However, due to budgetary constraints, the film ends up being an adaptation of Hamilton Deane’s stage play directed by Tod Browning instead of an adaptation of the novel.
In the opening scene, Jonathan Harker’s character is swapped out for Renfield, played by Universal horror stalwart character actor Dwight Frye with aplomb, Dracula doesn’t insist Renfield stay with him for a month like in the book, the name of the ship is changed from the Demeter to the Varna, Dracula’s three “wives” are minimized, Dracula only brings three boxes of his native soil instead of fifty, Lucy’s character (Frances Dade) is marginalized, Dr. John Seward (Herbert Bunston) is roughly the same age as Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), and Jonathan Harker (David Manners) is useless. Renfield spends a lot of time telling instead of the film showing. Seward obviously is no longer one of Lucy’s suitors, and the other two, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey P. Morris, are removed from the story altogether. Lugosi delivers very little of the novel’s dialogue, partly because of the paring down from the stage play and partly because of Lugosi’s lack of command of English diction. I think it adds to the character somehow, his stoicism adds menace, the lighting and camera work on Lugosi’s face and eyes are stark, and his economy of words is actually unnerving and disquiet.
Lugosi made the character his own and to this day he is what we think of when we think of Count Dracula.
Another major element that gets removed that appears in the novel (and later adaptations) is Dracula proffering an infant to his “wives” to slake their thirst when he denies them Harker. Beyond that, the baby’s mother appears at the castle to implore the Count to return her child. Dracula responds by siccing his wolves upon her. This has been included a couple of times in various forms in more recent films. Although the Hays Code had been introduced in 1930, it wasn’t widely enforced until 1934. Still, there were no fangs or blood, and it would’ve been difficult to get infanticide past the censors and watchdogs in 1931.
As a point of clarification, in the novel, it is Harker who travels to Transylvania to facilitate Dracula’s move to London, Renfield doesn’t appear until later in the story and his connection to Dracula is never really explained, Lucy and her mother are key figures in Dracula’s corruption of the innocent, Harker eventually escapes Dracula’s castle, Mina rushes to his side and the two wed and return to London and team up with Van Helsing, Seward, Holmwood and Morris. Mina pieces the whole thing together, even as she is tainted by Count Dracula, from diary and journal entries, newspaper clippings, paying off informants, tracking the shipments of the boxes of earth, and an interview with a journalist. This leads to a band of righteous do-gooders, led by Van Helsing, hunting down and trying to destroy Dracula, which eventually happens as the Count returns to his homeland.
In the 1931 film, there is no chase back to Transylvania, and Van Helsing dispatches Dracula with a wooden stake through the heart in his coffin at Carfax Abbey, next door to Dr. Seward’s asylum. In both the film and the novel, it is Mina who is in mortal danger, body and soul, and is saved in the end by Dracula’s destruction.
I probably should have summarized the novel earlier. Moving on …
So now, in both the 1922 and 1931 versions, key characters have been removed and key story elements have been changed, and Dracula’s portrayals couldn’t be more different.
In 1935, Lugosi starred in Mark of the Vampire, as Count Mora. He looks and acts a lot like Dracula, but there are no actual vampires in this film.
The direct sequel to Dracula doesn’t feature Dracula at all. Gloria Holden stars as Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter in 1936. Lugosi was offered the lead in Frankenstein but felt the make-up would hinder his portrayal (something that didn’t seem to bother Boris Karloff), and he didn’t want to be typecast as a horror movie actor. After butchering the audition, Lugosi would eventually play Frankenstein’s monster, and would only play Dracula on the big screen once more, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948.
Before diving into Universal’s treatment of Dracula in the sequels to the 1931 film, Lugosi’s costume and appearance need a bit of discussion. When Count Dracula greets Jonathan Harker in the novel he is clad in black from head to toe. When Lugosi’s Dracula greets Renfield, he is dressed in a tuxedo and cape. Lugosi wears this throughout the film, and is only seen without the cape during a few indoor scenes. The cape is used to hide what Dracula does to his victims (a common element in later films as well). In the novel and in a few later adaptations, Dracula is older with white hair and a white mustache – as he moves to London he grows younger, presumably because he is now on a regular feeding schedule. This element is also left out of the 1931 film.
In Dracula’s Daughter, Countess Zaleska is not part of the Dracula family tree as the title might suggest, but rather is a victim who has transcended death and has returned as one of the undead. She seeks a cure for her condition. This becomes a recurring theme for Universal monsters in later films. The daring element of the movie is Countess Zaleska’s overt lesbianism, more than just risque for the now “Code Era” in Hollywood. Zaleska steals and burns Dracula’s body thinking that will free her from her curse. She is mistaken.
This film actually features the return to Transylvania, not by Dracula of course, but by Zaleska and her pursuers. Edward Van Sloan reprises his role but is now called “Von” Helsing. Otto Krueger stars as Jeffrey Garth, an eminent psychiatrist and friend of Von Helsing, who tries to treat the Countess’s bloodlust as an addiction with disastrous results. Von Helsing is on the legal hook after confessing to the killing of Dracula with a wooden stake. The set pieces are fairly believable, although they are not exactly the same from the 1931 film.
This is the beginning of Universal considering their monsters as being afflicted with treatable mental illness, rather than being, well, monsters. In the novel, Dracula was pure evil and his presence permeated every page. In the 1931 film, Lugosi’s character does nothing to garner sympathy or empathy. Why Universal decided to humanize and portray their monsters as victims is an interesting question. It was a tactic that met with mixed results.
In 1943, Lon Chaney, Jr., who coincidentally played the Wolf Man, the mummy Kharis, and Frankenstein’s monster, took a turn as Count Dracula. As if the first two films weren’t a departure from the novel, this one makes no sense and continuity went right out the window. Dracula’s body was burned in London, yet Chaney’s Dracula found his way back to Budapest, where he corrupts Catherine Caldwell (Louise Albritton), a soon-to-be-wealthy heiress from the deep southern United States. Dracula, calling himself Alucard (this is as ridiculous as it sounds), hatches a plot to take over Caldwell’s estate, but is betrayed by his new wife. He is once again destroyed by fire. Chaney turns in a serviceable performance and the special effects are quite good for 1943. Chaney is quite menacing in the role, although he plays it without attempting the signature accent, which is probably a good thing.
However, Chaney runs around a southern estate in a tuxedo and cape throughout the film.
John Carrdine took over as Count Dracula for 1944’s House of Frankenstein. The down-home, country cowboy just does not work in the role, and for some reason, a top hat has been added to the tuxedo and cape in many scenes. Dracula, masquerading as Baron Latos, encounters the Wolf Man (Chaney), and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), as a Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) hatches his own sinister plot.
In 1945’s House of Dracula, the Count (Carradine), once again masquerading as Baron Latos, once again encounters the Wolf Man (Chaney), and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) while seeking a cure for his bloodlust from noted surgeon Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens).
While the other monsters are true to their Universal films’ pathos and pathology, Dracula is completely off the rails, has completely departed from the source material, and is dispatched rather easily. He has become a caricature of the character from the novel and even Lugosi’s portrayal. London and Transylvania have been forgotten and the entirety of the Universal cinematic monster universe presumably takes place in Germany. In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein created the monster in Ingolstadt, Germany, so having these stories set there is not out of the realm of plausibility.
In 1948, Dracula meets up with Frankenstein’s monster (Strange) and the Wolf Man (Chaney) once again, this time for madcap adventures with the comedy team of Lou Costello and Bud Abbott. It is a charming film, Lugosi once again plays Count Dracula, but spends most of the film covering his face with his cape, presumably to hide his age. This appears to be one last attempt by Universal to milk all they could out of their stable of venerable Gothic monsters. Dracula bears little resemblance to the character in the novel, and Lugosi’s malevolence is palpable in only a few scenes. Granted, this is a comedy, and the characters were played for laughs, but the monsters who once thrilled and chilled moviegoers were now shells and shadows.
It is important to note that Lugosi was buried in his cape upon his death in 1956.
In 1957, a film called Blood of Dracula was released. The story takes place in a girls boarding school, and although vampirism is the theme, Dracula himself is nowhere to be found.
In 1958, The Return of Dracula, starring Francis Lederer as Count Dracula/Bellac Gordal, butchers the source material and sees Dracula assume another man’s identity and travel to California.
However, 1958 also sees the dawn of a new icon in the role of Dracula – Christopher Lee – in Hammer Studios’ Horror of Dracula. Peter Cushing was tabbed to play Van Helsing, and an on-screen pairing for the ages was born. Terence Fisher directed screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s script. In Mark Gatiss’s History of Horror documentary series, little light is shed on why Sangster wrote an original story, rather than rely on the novel. Time and budgetary constraints appear to be the culprits yet again.
Lee is on record as wanting to play the character straight-up as Dracula appears in the novel, however he wouldn’t get that chance for more than a decade. In the 1958 film, Jonathan Harker travels to Castle Dracula in Klausenburg (Cluj-Napoca), Romania, under the false pretense of cataloguing Dracula’s extensive library. In truth, he wants to kill Dracula (Lee).
After Harker kills Dracula’s mistress, who had already bitten Harker, and fails in his attempt to dispatch the Count, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives in Klausenburg searching for his friend Harker. Eventually, Van Helsing travels to Karlstadt, Germany, and informs Arthur (Michael Gough), Mina (Melissa Stribling) and Lucy (Carol Marsh) Holmwood of Harker’s death. Lucy was Harker’s fiance. Dracula comes for Lucy and turns her into a vampire, who terrorizes children (not unlike the novel), and then sets his sights on Mina. After discovering that Dracula was in fact hiding in the cellar and a chase back to Klausenburg, Van Helsing dispatches Dracula with the aid of crossed candlesticks and the rays of the sun.
This was a wildly successful reboot of the character and the mythos, and it was filmed in glorious Technicolor. However, like the Universal cinematic universe, this was as close to the source material as we were going to get with Hammer Studios.
In 1960, Hammer released Brides of Dracula, and just like Universal’s sequel to the 1931 film, Dracula isn’t in the film. The antagonist is a vampire by the name of Baron Meinster and the plot is ridiculous. It features beautiful set pieces and amazing color. It’s an entertaining film, but really has nothing to do with Dracula, except for Cushing as Van Helsing.
Lee returned to the role in 1966 with Dracula: Prince of Darkness. A pair of married couples traveling the countryside ignore advice and end up at Dracula’s castle in Karlsbad, Germany. Dracula’s servant, Klove, assists in the resurrection of the Count and the destruction of the travelers. Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) is the venerable vampire hunter in this story, and he manages to destroy Dracula in icy running water. This was the first time that I know of that this method is used. Terence Fisher directed and Jimmy Sansgter wrote the screenplay.
Also in 1966, Circle Productions, Inc., rolled out Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Carradine reprised his role from the “House of …” films as the Count travels to the American wild west. Carradine lends some gravitas to this terrible movie, and his down-home style actually works in this. The only resemblance to the character of the novel is the malevolent nature of the character. Long gone is the desire to end his curse.
Back to Hammer. Freddie Francis directed 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, with Lee returning as Count Dracula and Rupert Davies as Monsignor Ernest Mueller. Dracula takes revenge on the Monsignor for exorcising his castle. Dracula targets the Monsignor’s niece. Anthony Hinds wrote the screenplay for the story which takes place in the town of Kleinenberg, Germany.
As with the Universal films, Hammer is now far afield with the source material. However, Lee’s Dracula is never a sympathetic character. He is pure evil and seems to only exist to prey on the blood of the living and create more of his kind. There is a cult-like quality with his followers/victims that only grows as the timeline for the films heads for the 20th century.
Also in 1968, Denholm Elliott took a turn as Dracula for the TV show Mystery and Imagination. I must admit that I have never seen this one, but it is well-regarded.
In 1970, Hammer released Taste the Blood of Dracula. Once again, Dracula must be resurrected and three wealthy gentlemen out for kicks provide the fuel, literally. Ralph Bates, who Hammer was grooming to take Lee’s place, plays the debauched young man who convinces the gentlemen to help him bring Dracula back, and he is killed during the ceremony. Dracula spends the rest of the film exacting revenge for the death of his servant. This film takes place in London.
Scars of Dracula, also with Lee as the Count, was released later the same year. Dracula’s ashes have somehow returned to Transylvania. Once again, Dracula has a servant named Klove. Shortly thereafter, we’re back in Kleinenberg, Germany. This film features a major connection to bats and has some of Dracula’s original Bram Stoker characteristics. The story centers on Dracula’s torment of the locals and he is killed when lightning strikes a spike that protagonist Simon skewered him with. Another first.
This film was noted for being a possible reboot of the franchise but the Wikipedia entry for it mentions that it breaks the continuity of the previous Hammer Dracula films. This is where Hammer verily veers from the path Universal took with the character.
Also in 1970, Lee starred in Count Dracula, which was intended to be the definitive adaptation. Herbert Lom of Pink Panther fame plays Van Helsing, and Renfield, Jonathan, Lucy, Mina, Quincey, and Dr. Seward, are all present. Gloria Film and Helmdale Film Corporation released this unwatchable movie. Quincey Morris takes Arthur Holmwood’s place as Lucy’s fiance, and Holmwood is left out of the movie. There are other departures from the novel, but for the most part, it tries to stay true. It’s just not very good.
In 1971, Ingrid Pitt starred in Countess Dracula, great film, but alas, no Dracula. Pitt portrayed an Elisabeth Bathory character who maintains her youth and beauty by bathing in the blood of young maidens.
Hammer then dropped Dracula A.D. 1972. Christopher Lee is back again as the count, and Peter Cushing finally returns as Van Helsing. Devoted disciple Johnny Alucard (heh) brings the Count back from the grave and Dracula then turns his attention to Van Helsing descendant Jessica. In the prologue/flashback at the beginning, the film shows a fight between Dracula and Van Helsing’s ancestor, and the Count’s demise by the spoke of a wagon wheel. Another first. This time Dracula dies in a pit of stakes after feasting on London’s “mod” set, including the venerable Caroline Munro.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula followed in 1973. Lee and Cushing clash again as Dracula plans the demise of humanity via global pandemic. Joanna Lumley takes up the role of Jessica Van Helsing, and this film shows actual authorities, Scotland Yard et al, getting involved to stop Dracula. Again, the cult following is readily apparent here although it’s not clear if Dracula truly is an instrument of Satan or if he is just using that angle as an end to his means. This time Dracula meets his demise in a hawthorn bush. Another first.
I give Hammer credit for exploring vampire myth and lore and experimenting with the ways vampires can be vanquished. In the 1931 film, wolf’s bane was used to keep Dracula at bay, in others, it’s garlic. Sunlight and wooden stakes are always good weapons, but running water and a lightning strike were great ways to destroy the Count as well. However, the direction and acting in these death scenes made Dracula look like a clutz and appeared to be easily dispatched. Then again, if you read the original novel, his death scene is rather anticlimactic. In Stoker’s novel, the vampire can walk about in daylight with diminished powers, as shown in the 1992 film (more on that later). However, in just about every film or TV adaptation, sunlight barbecues Dracula and his minions in short order. The resurrections are another story entirely.
The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires came out in 1974 and I am loath to mention it here. Cushing is back as Van Helsing as he tries to vanquish Dracula, who has been reincarnated as a Kung Fu master, or has possessed a Kung Fu master, or whatever. This movie bears little resemblance to anything that had gone before it. The special effects were horrendous to boot.
Jack Palance starred in Dan Curtis’ made-for-TV Dracula in 1974. Palance turns in a menacing performance in the first Dracula film I ever saw. Dracula is on the hunt for a woman who looks like his long dead wife and many of the characters from the book, even if in name only, are in this film. There are some departures from the novel, but Palance’s portrayal ranks near Lee and Lugosi. It’s a shame he never played the character again.
That same year, Udo Kier starred as the Count in Blood for Dracula, also known as Andy Warhol’s Dracula. Our titular vampire is out for the blood of virgins in this perfectly silly film, and Kier is perfectly silly as Dracula.
In 1977, Louis Jourdan starred in the BBC production, Count Dracula. YouTube channel Cinemassacre broke down all of the film adaptations that resembled the novel to determine which was most faithful. This version emerged the winner. Jourdan’s portrayal was excellent and malevolent. However, the insertion of a bit of romance here that wasn’t in the novel bothered me. The locations were on the money, however, Lucy and Mina are now sisters, and Quincey and Arthur have been combined into Quincey Holmwood.
Frank Langella took a turn as the Count in 1979. This film was another major departure from the novel and again Seward (Donald Pleasance) and Van Helsing (Sir Laurence Olivier) are once again contemporaries. Dracula falls for and pursues Lucy, Dr. Seward’s daughter, (Kate Nelligan). Mina is now Van Helsing’s daughter. Harker and Renfield are also present. Dracula is destroyed in the sunlight as he is hoisted high in the sky by way of a ship’s rigging.
Also in 1979, Werner Herzog directed a remake of 1922’s Nosferatu, with Klaus Kinski in the lead role. Kinski was spot on in his portrayal. The film now allowed for the use of the character names from the novel, but again, this was a remake of the 1922 film, which bore little resemblance to the novel.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula from Francis Ford Coppola in 1992 is probably the most ambitious version. Coppola ties the historical Wallachian prince to Stoker’s creation by way of an elaborate prologue, during which the prince’s wife is killed. Gary Oldman stars as Dracula. Oldman is wonderful as the Count, the costumes are something of note and in most cases, period accurate. All the elements are there, all the characters are there. The one major element left out is the death of Lucy’s mother. The other thing that happens is a condensed timeline from that of the novel. It is a rich production, with elaborate costumes and set pieces. Oldman’s portrayal is wonderful and on brand as he accurately depicts the Count’s depravity and cruelty. The love story between Mina and the Count, who Dracula believes is his dead wife reincarnated, is where this falls down as far as accuracy to the book goes. Beyond that and the prologue, this adaptation is pretty on the money.
I had high hopes for Dracula 2000. Gerard Butler takes a turn as the Count and it was going along nicely, a modern-day updating, until it was suggested that Dracula was actually Judas Escariot of biblical fame. The entire franchise goes off the rails with the next two films.
Van Helsing in 2004, starring Hugh Jackman in the title role, turned the affable scientist into an action-adventure hero, and Richard Roxburgh’s uneven performance as Dracula was comical at best. The Count was obsessed with procreation and creating his bat-like progeny with three vampire “brides” who spent more time talking smack and trying to be menacing than actually doing anything.
Also in 2004, Blade: Trinity hit the big screen. The third installment (duh) in the Blade movie franchise starred Wesley Snipes in his recurring role as half-man/half-vampire hybrid Blade, Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds. Dominic Purcell plays Drake/Dracula. A legion of vampires find Dracula in a Middle Eastern desert and dig him up hoping to use him to defeat their mortal enemy – Blade. Purcell’s ham-fisted portrayal is far afield from the character from the novel. He’s disturbed by the kitsch that has cropped up around his myth and legend and goes on a homicidal rampage in a souvenir shop. Okay, I’ve written way too may words on this terrible portrayal.
A made-for-TV movie in 2006 flipped the novel on its head as Arthur Holmwood tries to defeat disease and death by using Dracula to give him eternal life. Marc Warren plays the Count and this was the opposite of good.
In 2012, Dario Argento of Suspiria fame released Dracula 3D. This was another I had high hopes for. Thomas Kretschman played the Count and there was plenty of blood, nudity and sex. However, instead of going back to the source material, this was effectively a remake of Hammer’s 1958 Horror of Dracula. Kretschman was his usual campy, horror movie self but the rest of the film was forgettable.
In 2013, NBC launched a Dracula miniseries that took the novel and threw it out the window. Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) moves to London and becomes a tech entrepreneur. It was stylish and an interesting take, but it was almost a fast-forward to the future sequel. Kretschman played Van Helsing interestingly enough. It only lasted a season. I met the actor who played the Renfield character once in Los Angeles, Nonso Anozie, nice guy.
Dracula Untold in 2014 attempted to tell the origin story of the vampire. Once again, filmmakers drew a direct line to Vlad the Impaler. As convenient as we wish this to be, it’s simply not true. Stoker borrowed the name and location and drew some inspiration, but did not base his villain directly on the notorious Vlad Dracula. Luke Evans portrays the Prince who is fighting the Turks. He needs a weapon, an edge, and he sells his soul to the devil in essence. Again, Dracula is supposed to be a sympathetic character.
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful from 2014-16 brought us a stylish period-accurate romp through Gothic horror history. Three seasons of witches, Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man, revenant vampires and ghouls, Dorian Gray and his infamous picture, Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll, Van Helsing, and more, led us to a confrontation with Dracula (posing as Dr. Alexander Sweet, a zoologist), played forgettably by um … someone I can’t find in the credits … Christian Camargo.
Claes Bang starred in a hotly anticipated Netflix/BBC series in 2020. This three-parter promised to show Dracula’s perspective of the events of the novel. It was fresh and it was different (as Fred Saberhangen’s 1975 novel The Dracula Tape was supposed to be) for the first two episodes. And then it completely went off the rails in the third installment. Bang and Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha Van Helsing were the only real bright spots. Bang’s portrayal of the Count as an uncaring, unfeeling sociopath was true to character from the book.
Admittedly I have not seen every adaptation, but I have watched my fair share (perhaps too many). Perhaps the character is really that difficult to portray. But I also don’t think filmmakers have truly understood the pathology, the true evil and darkness. There has been a concerted effort to humanize Count Dracula, either by having him seek a cure or inserting a love story where there was none. The vampire of the novel was sneaky, conniving, and cruel (just to be so sometimes). A very small handful of actors have managed to pull this off – Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Louis Jourdan, Gary Oldman, and maybe Jack Palance and Claes Bang.
An unfortunate side effect of Lugosi’s portrayal and Vera West and Ed Ware’s costume design was the creation of Lugosi’s iconic look. The tuxedo and cape were used and imitated, and parodied, for decades. There was no reason for this to continue in future films other than to ensure the audience knew who was on screen. Carradine’s top hat in the Universal films was comical. Even William Marshall donned this regalia for Blacula (1972) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973). The cape and tux were also part of Count Yorga’s wardrobe in that series of films.
There are a few adaptations I could have included, but those are either animated or comedic, and I don’t think Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Love at First Bite, or Hotel Transylvania count for this exercise.
I believe deep down in my immortal soul that Bram Stoker created the greatest literary villain of all-time in Count Dracula. When you read the novel, you realize Dracula isn’t in very many scenes, but his presence practically oozed from the pages. I listened to a podcast of a BBC Radio adaptation of Dracula in the car while commuting and I actually said out loud, “Where is Dracula?” I was surprised at how little he appeared.
Parts of the novel are a slough, and I understand the need to condense the timeline and eliminate Van Helsing’s numerous round trips to Amsterdam, but each time a new actor takes up the mantle I think we expect a Bela Lugosi-esque performance, and when we don’t get it, we’re disappointed. With minimal dialogue, over-enunciation, an oft-imitated accent, and a commanding presence, Lugosi set the bar impossibly high where few bats have dared to fly.
I’ll leave you with Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz discussing Bela Lugosi’s century-long impact as Count Dracula. Thank you for indulging me.