ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 3 – THE (UN)LIFE AND DEATH OF THE CINEMATIC VAMPIRE
In many ways, the character of Dracula has become ripe for parody. Memories of Bela Lugosi delivering phonetically-rendered English have supplanted the nightmarish ghoul of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel;* the Count has appeared as a friendly spook everywhere from children’s' television shows to cereal boxes. The more terrifying attributes of the character have become so watered down and familiar that it's difficult for modern audiences to understand his initial impact on readers and viewers alike.
One can still catch a glimpse of this initial conception in F.W. Murnau's 1922 NOSFERATU, the first (and possibly best) screen adaptation of Stoker's masterpiece. Murnau's film predates the Universal and Hammer cycles, and his take on Dracula is strikingly different from those seen the later work of Tod Browning, Terence Fisher, and Francis Ford Coppola. Without the baggage of more than a century’s worth of preconceived notions, NOSFERATU remains one of the most faithful adaptations of a repeatedly buggered translation for cinema — in tone if not in content.
Having already plagiarized Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the form of DER JANUSKOPF two years prior, Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen set about creating a film that retained the basic premise of Dracula without paying copyright fees to the Stoker estate. As a result, names are changed and locations are shifted, but on the whole, the storyline remains consistent with the source material, albeit pared down significantly. Perhaps its faithfulness was its undoing, as Stoker's widow Florence held the rights to the character and story, such that when NOSFERATU appeared in 1922, the embittered woman underwent lengthy measures to have every print destroyed. Several versions survived, however, and existing prints were cobbled together to create the existing today.
The deviations in plot are obvious. London has been replaced by the town of Wismar in Murnau's native Germany, and key characters have been renamed to distance them from their literary progenitors. These, however, are mere brush strokes. The major changes lay with our chief protagonist, Ellen, and with the Count himself.
Murnau's vampire (here rechristened Graf Orlok) couldn't be more different than Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. Orlok abandons the trademark evening cloak and dark European flair later actors would give the Dracula character, and he possesses neither a sense of nobility or romanticism. Actor Max Shreck (whose name literally translates into "maximum terror") is instead given the appearance of a scurrying, human rat -- tall, hairless, ears pointed, nose hooked, teeth and claws hidden for no one. There is nothing seductive or attractive about Orlok, and much like Stoker's own description of the character, the Count is seen here as a walking corpse rather than an object of female desire.
While later directors fell into the trap of casting leading men in the Dracula role, Murnau rightly understood that vampires are fucking gross. They’re undead men and women who sleep in the ground. They’re icy cold to the touch, and stink of the grave. They exist only to feed on humans. They literally wait until you’re asleep, climb in through your window, and suck your blood out of your throat. Vampires aren’t sexy, people; neither do they sparkle. The casting of Orlok reflects this understanding. We feel no sympathy for the creature, no pathos, but rather a fear and disgust for this literal bringer of plague.
If Orlok represents a unique characterization that plays opposite to later stereotypes, so too does the character of Ellen. While Stoker wrote his heroine Mina as a sort of proto-feminist in Victorian England, later films reduced the character to a cringing, helpless damsel in distress, only to be saved by her male protectors during the final reel. Murnau took Stoker's original intentions a step forward by eliminating many of the novel's protagonists, and going so far as to sideline the exposition-delivering Van Helsing character (here called Professor Bulwer) to the role of mere supporting player. Even Ellen's husband, Hutter, is reduced in importance, and actually becomes a more helpless, feminine sort of character as Ellen steps forward to center stage.
Rather than being symbolically raped as she is in the book, Ellen chooses to lure The Count into her bedroom so that she might detain him until dawn; and because she is pure of heart and intent, Orlok perishes in the morning light.** In the end, she too dies from her sacrifice, but saves her husband (and all of Europe, one assumes). Some prints switched the film's prologue to the final moments, in which we see Hutter bringing his wife freshly-picked flowers from the garden, suggesting that both survived to see a better day. It was an unwise decision that robbed the film of its nihilism.
But it is this sense of loss, of death, of mourning, that makes NOSFERATU so different from later adaptations, or indeed other depictions of the Undead in on screen. Murnau injects his film with a heavy sense of foreboding, and a surreal and decidedly nightmarish quality that the limitations of the era served only to enhance. We have at all times the sense of a fever dream: a heightened and unsettling collection of images that remain with the viewer long after the film has ended. Moments such as Ellen awaiting Hutter's return by the seaside, or the slow and menacing arrival of Orlok's plague-ridden ship, underline the morbid, funereal themes that lurks within the film.***
Despite the importance of NOSFERATU in the annals of early cinema, what remains so fascinating about Murnau's film are these differences in light of how the Vampire genre would go on to be embellished. By the late 1920s, Bela Lugosi was touring America, performing the stuffy parlor-room melodrama that ultimately provided the basis for Tod Browning's DRACULA in 1931; nearly every film since has owed more to Browning than Stoker. Murnau's NOSFERATU, whether because of its rarity until the 1980s, or because of its "difficult" content, was rarely an influence until well after the collapse of Hammer in the mid-1970s. Consequently, it is a unique and singular vision of a story that had yet to become a stereotype.
Later takes on both the Count and his under army drew further and further away from that figure of revulsion personified by Orlok. Christopher Lee claimed a devotion to the literary source, but in many ways he simply picked up where Lugosi’s corny Valentino impersonation ended, with his aim to amplify the Sexy Dark Gentleman aspects that have become so ingrained in the character despite these traits never once appearing in the book. The sexualization of the Vampire as a concept was an element that Hammer ran with, particularly in later films in which themes of male and female homosexuality and incest were explored, either directly or through inference.****
If there’s anyone we can directly point to and blame for the current state of the Modern Vampire, it’s Anne Rice. Her debt to Hammer was enormous, but he author was not necessarily limited to this as a primary source;***** erotic literature and a sense of personal self-exploration ooze from every page. Rice removed any sense of gender identification from her bloodsuckers, and likewise did away with the notion that Boy Bites Girl and Girl Bites Boy. If anything, there was an overwhelming emphasis on the opposing perspective. Overlong and overwritten, The Vampire Chronicles nonetheless paved the way for Twilight, and the new-fashioned idea of The Sad Vampire.
The Sad Vampire. Few things are more depressing. Frank Langella moped his way through John Badham’s disco-take on Stoker (“Listen to them: the children of the night! What saaaad music they make.”); even Gary Oldman was made to play a scene with Winona Ryder originally written to play as rape, and re-contextualized onscreen as a naughty orgasm. Meanwhile, the “reincarnation of a former love” plot point had now entered the Dracula mythos, leading to story after story in which the Count doesn’t want to hurt you, damn it – he just wants to spirit away your girlfriend, who happens to be the spitting image of his tragically long-lost wife or girlfriend. It became such a conceit that even FRIGHT NIGHT’s satirical take on Hammer tropes managed to lift this particular element (born though it was of DARK SHADOWS), and it’s a convention that remains in the more Gothic takes on the genre.
Contemporary vampire films continue to underline the sexual nature of The Bite, or exchange/consumption of bodily fluids. While it’s a valid take — and one that goes all the way back to Jonathan Harker, lying on a couch in Castle Dracula, hoping those three goddesses with fangs would please bite him because he had no free will to stop them — it’s not the only one. Remember: vampires sleep in dirt, crawl out of holes, and they stink. They’re best compared to other loathsome, blood-sucking creatures like ticks, leeches, and speed cameras. This component has been shifted away, transforming the genre from one of terror, into mere titillation. Maybe if he’d survived his way into the Twenty-First Century, Graf Orlok might finally get some play that didn’t kill him at dawn.
*Though I use the word “novel,” the story is told in epistolary form: letters, newspaper clippings, and diary entries form the overall narrative. Given Dracula’s place in Horror history, it’s tempting to note it as the first, fully-developed vampire tale in the modern mode, as well as the literary equivalent to early Found Footage.
**Interestingly, Stoker's novel goes to great lengths to highlight the fact that vampires can move freely during the daylight hours, and it was NOSFERATU that in fact created the idea that the Undead were allergic to the sun. However, either as a mistake or simply to further thumb its nose at Stoker's "rules," we see during the moments before Orlok's death both the vampire's shadow, as well as his reflection — two ideas likewise at odds with the novel.
***Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT, takes great care to maintain not only the tone of Murnau's film, but in many cases, Herzog executed shot-for-shot recreations of many key sequences. Like Murnau, Herzog emphasized death, though to a much greater degree. His film remains not only one of the best (and most conceptually valid) examples of remaking an older film for modern audiences, but one of the best vampire films of all time. There is room to argue that in many ways, it eclipses the very work to which it lovingly pays honor. Another "remake" (of sorts) appeared in 2000. E. Elias Merhige's SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, which told the story of NOSFERATU's production with a twist -- actor Max Shreck (Willem Dafoe) was actually a vampire, hired to add realism to the film. Like Herzog's remake, SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE was lovingly crafted, and serves as a fascinating final chapter to an unofficial trilogy.
****Of the Hammer films – those with, and those without the Count – TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA remains, in my mind, the smuttiest, trashiest, and best of the series. The sight of a teenage vampire grinning as she stakes her screaming, wide-eyed father, contains more than a little subtext in this particular instance.
*****Touted as a wholly original, landmark novel, Interview with the Vampire is actually a shameless rip-off of Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, in which the titular character retells Stoker’s novel from his very biased point of view.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)