THE BITE STUFF
Total Film|October 2021
DRACULA has been terrifying readers ever since Bram Stoker first created the ultimate vampire. As Bela Lugosi’s screen turn as the bloodsucker celebrates its 90th birthday, Total Film examines the appeal of one of horror’s most enduring icons.
JAMES MOTTRAM

When Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was published in 1897, the critics were intrigued, if a little taken aback by the mordantly powerful nature of this sinister tale of a vampiric count. “It is, however, an artistic mistake to fill a whole volume with horrors,” noted the Manchester Guardian. “A touch of the mysterious, the terrible, or the supernatural is infinitely more effective and credible.”

‘Less is more’ may well be a good maxim for writers, but a “whole volume of horrors” never did Stoker’s novel of Gothic terror any harm. For a book that has never been out of print since it first hit shelves, it seems apt that a story about the undead should remain eternal, sparking appeal for each new generation. Second only to the character of Sherlock Holmes, Dracula has been re-animated for the screen more than 200 times.

Told in epistolary form, Stoker’s tale of Count Dracula, a Transylvanian nobleman who feasts on the blood of others and meets his demise in the English seaside town of Whitby, hit a nerve. “Stoker’s myth is powerful because it allows evil to remain mysterious,” wrote critic A.N. Wilson. And yet it’s so much more than that: a book that, in late 19th-century England, touched on fears of immigration, sexual promiscuity and moral degeneration.

Dracula was not the first to deal with vampiric myth and folklore. Two decades earlier, fellow Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla told of a young girl preyed upon by the titular character – revealed to be the lesbian vampire Mircalla, Countess Karnstein. And yet Stoker’s work somehow dug deep into the collective psyche. Only this year, staff at Whitby Abbey were forced to put up a notice that said: “Please do not ask staff where Dracula’s grave is as there isn’t one.”

No doubt, the permanence of Dracula has been aided by his multiple incarnations on the silver screen. This year marks the 90th anniversary of Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi in a striking performance in the title role. Lugosi had already starred in a stage version four years earlier, alongside Edward Van Sloan, who portrayed vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. Both reprised their roles for the Browning film, which stamped its authority on the vampire movie like no other movie ever would.

At the time, like Stoker’s novel, it was enthusiastically received. “This picture can at least boast of being the best of the many mystery films,” wrote Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times when the film was released. The critic noted how enraptured, or even mildly terrified, the audience was. “There was a general outburst of applause when Dr. Van Helsing produced a little cross that caused the dreaded Dracula to fling his cloak over his head and make himself scarce.”

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