Count Dracula is one of the most iconic figures in horror, if not the most iconic. He is the second most filmed fictional character after Sherlock Holmes. It’s only natural that many, many movies about the world’s most famous vampire would go unnoticed because it really is impossible to see them all.
Because of Dracula’s name appeal and his place in the public domain, anybody can do virtually anything they want with the character. This naturally has led to many, many terrible adaptations. They range from the 1940’s to today. There are a lot of movies featuring Dracula as either a starring or supporting character that are just too dismal to mention. Yet among them there are gems. Truly interesting productions that all too often go unnoticed.
The enduring appeal of the vampire is one that will last forever. There will be Dracula movies for as long as there are movies, and he will carry into whatever comes after that. Like the character himself, the films about him are immortal. Just when we think they’re finally dead, they return from the grave to terrorize us anew.
Count Dracula (1977)
The BBC miniseries of Count Dracula can, I’ll admit, be somewhat of a chore to sit through. With so many solid adaptations out there, it’s tough to justify the length of this one. But at the same time, the length makes Count Dracula feel like an event. It prides itself on being one of the truest, most faithful adaptations of the novel. In some areas, it is a very close adaptation, and in other areas it really isn’t. But it’s not lacking for atmosphere. There’s a legitimate creepiness to the vampires, and Louis Jordan shines as the Count. It also gets major points for shooting at some of the actual locations from the novel, including the English village of Whitby and London’s Highgate Cemetery.
That’s right, before Francis Ford Coppola’s beloved 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there was another to boldly declare that title. But things get even stranger than that. This version, starring Jack Palance, was about the Count fixating on John Harker’s young fiancé and her friend Lucy, believing her to be the reincarnation of his long-lost bride. That’s right, the two movies not only had the same title, they had the same plot. The major selling point here is the script by Richard Matheson, who was one of the all-time masters of both horror literature and film. It was directed by Dan Curtis, creator of Dark Shadows, and is so close to that show in style and direction that it almost feels like a spinoff. Curtis has somewhat hilariously declared in the past that this is the best version of Dracula there has ever been, better than even the novel itself. While I wouldn’t go that far, it’s worth a look nonetheless.
This film doesn’t seem to have too many admirers. But I’ve always thought Prince of Darkness had its own sort of charm. The second sequel to Hammer’s Horror of Dracula after the great Brides of Dracula, it sees Christopher Lee’s Count resurrected for the first time. He had been absent for Brides, so his return here was touted almost as the Jason Lives of its day. Lee hated the script so much, though, that he refused to say a single line. While his performances were always great, it’s almost doubly impressive to see how terrifying Lee can make the Count without any dialogue whatsoever. In this and a few other ways, it almost feels like a precursor to the modern-day slasher film.
Jess Franco’s Dracula is an interesting thing. It is very much a Jess Franco movie. It’s as overtly sexual and cheaply made as anything else in the director’s oeuvre. Interestingly enough, despite not being a Hammer production—and being Italian, for that matter—it stars Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. He plays the character much closer to the novel than he ever got to do in the Hammer films, sporting the look of the vampire from the novel and even starting out old and progressively getting younger as the feature progresses. With the film’s limited budget, is not terrifically executed but they get points for effort. Assembling a surprisingly great cast for a Franco production, it also includes Klaus Kinski as Renfield and Herbert Lom as Van Helsing.
This USA TV movie starring Rudolf Martin and Peter Weller is probably better than it has any right to be. It’s a rare thing, too: An actual biopic on Vlad II Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. The most shocking thing about this is how historically accurate it is for a low budget TV movie. It gets some of the major strides of Vlad’s story right and Martin nails the emotional conflict at the center of the character, as well as his decision to either surpress his inner darkness or embrace it. Of course, it takes the expected route by also tying in the roots of Dracula’s vampiric origins. While it would have worked just fine as a straightforward biopic it does well enough as an origin of the fictional Count as well.
Filmed on the same sets with much of the same wardrobe as the classic Universal movie, this Spanish version of Bram Stoker’s novel is—dare I say—better. Sure it falters in its lack of Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, but it makes up for that in virtually everything else. As terrific as the Universal classics were, Tod Browning’s Dracula was one of the most mediocre of that bunch and was saved only by its production design and its actors. This retains the production design and even though it doesn’t have Lugosi’s iconic performance, it tells a much more straightforward story and even works some action and visual flair into the piece. Where the American version feels like a filmed play, this actually feels like a movie.