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Shadow of the Vampire: A Century with Dracula

30 years ago, when The Silence of the Lambs premiered to become the fifth-highest grossing film of that year – and grossed more than $ 270 million worldwide – it was just on the anniversary of the premiere of the Dracula by Tod Browning, which also had its general premiere on February 14 but 1931, during one of the worst years of the Depression. Directed by Jonathan Demme, the film of the fearsome Hannibal Lecter has become a classic, and winner in the five most important categories of the Oscar: an even greater achievement for a horror film, disguised perhaps as a respectable melodrama but in which we get a glimpse, after Anthony Hopkins’s, his own gaze Bela Lugosi.

And is that, are not Dracula and Lecter of the same lineage? As Stephen King already said, Lecter is nothing but the descendant of the vampire par excellence, « a Dracula for the era of computers and cell phones. » As David J. Skal, American critic and cultural historian, says in his book Hollywood Gothic, Dracula is also a seducer: unlike other monsters, it is not easy to recognize him as one; impeccably dressed, with slicked hair and patent leather shoes, « he mocks our ideas of civility and society. » “He uses them like blatant camouflage,” he says, “to better stalk us, his readers, his viewers. His prey ”. The serial killer is the vampire of these days.

Actor Bela Lugosi as Dracula, in Tod Browning’s film.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

Of course, and unlike Demme’s film, Browning’s Dracula would not win any Oscar, let alone five, even if it was a box office success. And yet it is no exaggeration to say that Hannibal Lecter would not exist without Browning’s film, without Lugosi, whose emphasis, Carlos Losilla argues in Horror Movies, is no longer on the malefic side of the character, but on his charm. It would not exist without the success that the vampire film had among viewers of the 30s and 40s, a success that allowed Universal Pictures to inaugurate the series of films that would baptize – in a baptism of blood – what we call cinema Horror.

No, Dracula did not emerge from Hollywood … but his passage through that factory of dreams and nightmares would serve, like the city of London in Stoker’s novel, as an advance for his mastery of the movie screen. His shadow hangs until today over every monster and every film of the genre.

The ghost comes to life

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola presents the Earl upon his arrival in London with a tribute to the beginnings of cinema: played by Gary Oldman, the film shows the vampire in the streets as recorded by a primitive camera, while a merolico invites to a projection of that « wonder of the modern world » that is the cinema. « If what you are looking for is culture – Mina Harker, here played by Wynona Rider, will tell you – better go to a museum. » The novel was published in 1897, two years after the appearance of Lumière’s cinématographe, and his arrival in Moscow a year earlier would have led the Russian writer Máximo Gorky to declare himself deeply disturbed by this « technological vampire », who promised a kind from death to life: « a life without color or sound, but full of movement. » The life of a ghost, then.

The truth is that, regardless of its cinematographic or literary merits, the life of the vampire created by the Irishman Bram Stoker has been as long as that of the creature itself. The stories of vampires are as old as civilization, and many cultures account in their folklore of vampiric entities, creatures that subsist by feeding on the vital essence of the living. According to Skal, the myth would actually be related, at its most elemental level, to cannibalism and the belief that devouring the body and blood transmits the strength and other attributes of the victim.

Thus, the figure of the vampire was to spread from the Balkans and Eastern Europe, although the term itself would not become popular in Western Europe until after the 18th century. Before being a romantic figure, the popular image of the monster was that of a scavenger, a vile predator, and phenomena such as the plague, catalepsy, and the all too common premature burials only contributed to the myth, fostering prescientific explanations for biological phenomena.

In fact, the modern fictional, charismatic and sophisticated vampire would not be born until 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre, written by the Englishman John Polidori and perhaps the most influential vampire story of the turn of the century.

From a certain point of view, the medium of cinema itself would have its origins in the occult. Already at the end of the 18th century, in the salons of Paris, the so-called phantasmagorias used the popular magic lantern to project terrifying images – such as skeletons, ghosts or demons with bat wings – onto clouds of smoke, or translucent screens. In the words of the author of the book Fantasmagorias, Ramón Mayrata, his intention was to “visualize the invisible” through a process of spectralization of images: a sort of disembodiment appropriate to give life, say, a vampire.

Phantasmagoria as a spectacle.

Mysticism and the occult arts would also be part of the Nosferatu (1922) by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, considered the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s book although, in reality, the first film about the character would be produced in Hungary in 1921 and directed by Károly Lajthay under the title The Death of Dracula. There are no copies of this, just as there would not be any of Murnau’s film, if Stoker’s widow had gotten away with it when she sued Murnau for plagiarism and – after ruling in her favor – the courts would order that all copies existing tape were destroyed … which, obviously, did not happen.

Nosferatu, by F. W. Murnau.

Long live the dead!

And despite all this, the truth is that Dracula would come to life in the theater rather than in the cinema. The first vampire melodrama, Le Vampire, was presented at the Théâtre Porte-Saint-Martin in Paris in June 1820, produced by Charles Nodier and Achille Jouffroy, and operas such as Il Vampiri (1800) and Der Vampyr (1828) give an account of its popularity in more cultured settings. Still other vampires who haunted Parisian theaters during the 1820s would be Les Trois Vampires ou le clair de la lune; Encore a Vampire: Les Étrennes d’un Vampire, and Cadet Buteux, vampire, whose advertisement read “Vivent les morts!”: Long live the dead!

Stoker had written his novel while working as director of the Lyceum Theater, owned by famed actor and theater promoter Henry Irving, for many the model of the vampire that gives the book its name. It is known that, even before the publication of the book, Stoker had secured his right to bring the play to the stage, organizing a theatrical reading of the text in the same Lyceum, on May 18, 1897. With five acts and forty-seven scenes – and more than five hours long – this adaptation would never be shown again, and has been described as « clumsy, with endless lines, confusing scene changes and a staggering number of characters. »

Bram stoker

Then, in 1924, Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane – whose family owned an estate alongside Stoker’s father, and who was a friend of the family – obtained permission from Florence, the writer’s widow, to make an adaptation fit; Deane had founded his own company, the Hamilton Deane Company, in the early 1920s, and after a tour of England he presented the play at London’s Little Theater in July 1927. There it was seen by American producer Horace Liveright, who then asked fellow writer John L. Balderston to review it for his version.

It would be this version that Liveright took on a tour of the United States and that, after its premiere at the Fulton Theater on Broadway, in October 1927, would make him see Carl Laemmle, Jr., son of the president of Universal, the box office potential of the work. This, despite the eminent theatricality of the staging and its special effects, which were like something out of a magic show: flares on stage and a coffin in which, according to Leslie S. Klinger in The New Annotated Dracula , the vampire « vanished ».

Initially, Laemmle wanted his Dracula to be a spectacle on the scale of such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), lavish films that Universal had produced in an attempt to increase its status in Hollywood. Both, too, had been starred by the legendary Lon Chaney, Browning’s favorite to play the vampire. However, Chaney was to die of throat cancer not long before filming.

Shadow of the vampire

In the end, and despite Laemmle’s resistance, the role of the Count would go to the Austro-Hungarian Bela Lugosi, in his first major English-speaking role and who had already played the vampire in the Broadway production. In the role of Van Helsing also repeated Edward Van Sloan, and in the role of Mina, the actress Helen Chandler. The script would also have been inspired by Murnau’s version, as evidenced by a scene that is almost identical in both films and does not appear in Stoker’s novel: the first scene in Dracula’s castle, when Renfield (played by Dwight Frye, in another also memorable characterization) he cuts his finger by accident, and that has since been included even in Coppola’s version.

The truth is that this Dracula, who turns 90 this month, would not only be accused of being gimmicky, but he was even considered minor compared to the theatrical version, and the version in Spanish directed simultaneously by George Melford. Responsible for morbid but popular thrillers such as The Unknown (1927) or The Unholy Three (1925), Browning’s career in Hollywood stretched back to the silent era and, while he became a highly regarded director, it is known that the also actor never felt completely comfortable in the sound. Chaney’s death also likely dampened his enthusiasm for the film: it is said that the production would have been unusually « messy, » and that Browning would have left Karl Freund, director of photography, in charge of much of the shooting, which that would explain the expressionist style of the film. In fact, Freund had photographed Metropolis for Fritz Lang, and would direct The Mummy in 1932.

This drama typical of the theater can be seen in its special effects, which are again limited to the use of smoke and rubber bats, and there are in the film long periods of silence cut by long dialogue scenes, and resources typical of silent cinema , such as the use of intertitles. However, despite reservations, Dracula would be an undisputed box office success when it premiered at the Roxy Theater in New York on February 12, 1931 – and, two days later, on the 14th, in theaters across the country. . That same year, the studio had another hit with the James Whale-directed Frankenstein, again, based on Mary Shelley’s literary classic, but adapted from a stage version written by Balderston. Between 1931 and 1956, the year The Creature Walks Among Us was released, the studio had produced at least 130 genre films, including thrillers, mystery films and, of course, monster films.

In effect, Universal Pictures had created a genre.

So let’s toast to the memory of these monsters, preferably with a glass of good Chianti and even if one of them never drinks… wine. David J. Skal says that the story of Dracula, like a vampire, only seems to rejuvenate with the passage of time, and perhaps that is what the Count refers to when he says, through the mouth of Bela Lugosi, that to die, to really be dead, it must be something glorious. And from those vampires at the dawn of cinema to a psychopath like Hannibal Lecter, our fascination with the shadows of the spirit seems to have no end.

After all, it is impossible to kill the undead.

horror movies vampires

Antonio Camarillo Journalist and filmmaker, he has been a collaborator of Cine PREMIERE since 2002, host of Horroris Causa on UAM Radio 94.1 FM and member of the Mórbido team: International Horror and Fantasy Film Festival. Currently he teaches the subjects of Narrative, Screenwriting and Film Genres at SAE Institute Mexico, as well as short film script workshops.