Friday, October 10, 2014

The Literary and Cinematic Origins of Dracula

Vampire books and movie surround us today in our society, Books, and films as recent as "The Vampires Assistant," "Twilight," and many others all who owe Irish author and playwright Bram Stoker, for writing the horror masterpiece "Dracula." Although I have seen the Bela Lugosi as the dark Count, Frank Langella as the romantic Dracula, and Christopher Lee's version of the character, but it wasn't until High School that I got around to read Bram Stoker's "Dracula." My personal copy of the Bram Stoker classic is the "Leonard Wolf Annotated Dracula," version where Mr. Wolf provides the introduction, notes, and bibliography. The artist Sätty provides the artwork that adorns the pages of this book. Gothic lithographs and beautiful maps of England and Romania help create the illusion of reality that Stoker brought to the pages in 1897. Released on May 26, Stoker wrote a novel, that I found absolutely creepy and nightmarish when I first read it. Unlike most novels written in second or third person narrative form, Stoker creates a world of utter believability by writing "Dracula" in the form of letters, diary entries, or newspaper clippings. As if he, Stoker, was the editor, piecing together an event in history and providing us with evidence of the account, creating in a fashion, a found footage narrative. The story of an English solicitor traveling to the dark woods of Transylvania to conduct a real estate contract between a Eastern European noble, Count Dracula, and his firm. The solicitor, Jonathon Harker becomes drawn into a world that, in Stoker's time, confined to tales told at night beside the fireplace.  

Tod Browning telling of "Dracula" in 1931, for a long time was the version that many remember to this day. Taking liberties with the story, and turning Renfield into the solicitor that travels to Castle Dracula, and then captured by the Count, changed the story in a way that simplified its telling for the audience. The star, Bela Lugosi, embodied the character of Dracula throughout his career and into the grave. For audiences of the time, at a time as the United States was entering the Great Depression, Dracula was an escape into the dark eerie world of the supernatural. By 1958, the story had changed a bit more turning Harker, not as a solicitor, but into a librarian. Peter Cushing ("Star Wars") starred as Doctor Van Helsing, and Christopher Lee ("The Fellowship of the Ring," "Star Wars: Episode II - The Attack of the Clones") as Dracula, together they made unforgettable adversaries. By the time I was in High School, Frank Langella ("Lolita, "The Ninth Gate") starred in director John Badham's romantic version of the count. "Dracula" is now less a monster and more of a romantic figure seducing the women and inciting them into a venereal lust.  


Not until Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version, captures not only the spirit of the novel, but to some degree more or less the literalism of the book as well. For me, the appeal to Coppola's version is that he creates a backstory for Dracula that seems quasi-plausible in light of history of Vlad the Impaler. In this version, screenwriter James V. Hart tells us at the beginning of the film, that when the Eastern Roman Empire capital of Constantinople fell in 1453, the Ottoman Empire, led by Sultan Mehmed II swept throughout Eastern Europe. On June 17, 1462, Vlad III, of the sacred order of the Dracul (Dragon), a Prince of Wallachia in Transylvania, made the daring "Atacul de noapte de la Târgoviste" or Night Attack, engaged Mehmed on the battlefield. While Vlad III is victorious on the battlefield, Coppola turns to folklore to take the story a step further. A defeated Turkish soldier shoots an arrow into Vlad III's chamber with a note attached to it saying that Vlad Dracul is dead. His wife Elisabeta flings herself into the river below, committing suicide. Vlad Dracul is shown as a Christian Knight who upon realizing that the Orthodox Priests refuse his wife burial on holy ground, blasphemies against the Church and God, causing a cross to bleed. Upon drinking the blood that flows from the religious symbol, he takes on immortal life and the curse of the need to feast on the blood of the living. With an all-star cast with Gary Oldman as the infamous Count, he leads Winona Ryder as Mina Harker, away from her true love Jonathon, played by Keanu Reeves. 

"Dracula 2000" tells another origin story. The main characters are thinly veiled versions of the well-known characters of Mina, Johnathon, and Lucy, the characters of Dracula and Van Helsing are solid. In this version, Dracula is none other than Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ. For two thousand years, he suffers the curse of immortality. Gerard Butler ("300," "Phantom of the Opera") is Dracula, while Christopher Plummer ("The Sound of Music” "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country") is Abraham Van Helsing. All of these versions of the Dracula character have something for fans of the vampire genre. However, they are merely plot points in the larger story arc of good against evil.


In "Dracula Untold" director Gary Shore gives a fleshed out account of Dracula's attempt to hold back the Ottoman Turks. In doing so, he needs to call on a higher power, a darker power, for help in his fight against the invading Muslims. Luke Evans ("Immortals") plays the Romanian Voivode (warlord) and Sarah Gadon ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ") plays his wife Mirena. Dominic Cooper ("Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter") is the Sultan Mehmed. Drawing from Slavic folklore, screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless introduce us to a Baba Yaga, an ugly witch disguised as a beautiful woman. In this version of Dracula, he has a son played by Art Parkinson and his name is Ingeras. Vlad had three children by two women. His first wife's name isn't documented anywhere other than folklore. His child with his unnamed wife was Mihnea cel Rău. He lived to be about 50 and spent much of his time trying to regain his father's throne. He was assassinated while attending Mass in Sibiu in the historical region of Transylvania in Romania.


Dracula is a folk hero to the Romanian people, but to the West, he is known as Vlad Țepeș the Impaler. As a young man, Vlad and his younger brother Radu (the handsome) were Turkish political prisoners. The Turks trained the young noblemen in horsemanship and in war. While Radu embraced his Turkish overlords, Vlad despised them. As Prince of Wallachia, he terrorized the Turks and impaled thousands of them at one time, that the locals considered him bloodthirsty. In "Dracula Untold," Vlad makes a deal with the Master Vampire, Caligula played by "Game of Thrones" Charles Dance. In this version, Dracula is a hero, rather than the monster that Bram Stoker made him to be. 

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