The History of Dracula on Film (Part 1)
In Eastern Europe during the 1400’s a man was entrusted with ruling the Wallachia and defending it from the Islamic invaders feared by the European church. The man seemed destined to be a great warrior since his father was a member of the elite fighting group the Order of the Dragon. Raised by his nation’s enemies, he took the throne and ruled with an iron fist using fear as his greatest weapon. This man was known as, Vlad Dracula. More popularly known as Vlad the Impaler due to his favorite form of execution. His brutality became legendary throughout the region, and soon the rumor began to circulate that he consumed the blood of his victims as they died.
Flash forward several centuries. An Irish writer by the name of Bram Stoker toiled under the employment of stage legend, Sir Henry Irving. While in this position, the writer was inspired to write a novel of a vampire who left the wilderness of Eastern Europe to stalk victims in the fog shrouded streets of Victorian Great Britain. While conducting research he learned of the warlord of the region his vampire originated from, thus his vampire now had a name. A name that is known and feared throughout the world; Dracula. The novel evolved from a guilty pleasure of the Victorian era and became a cultural phenomenon. Today it is revered as a literary classic which continues to inspire horror writers.
In the twentieth century, the world began to change and a new art form began to rise to prominence; film. Ever since W.K.L. Dickson had discovered a way to record moving images and the the way to distribute them to the masses came about, film had become a popular form of entertainment to say the least. By the 1920’s the Silent Era of Film was in full swing as stars like Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, and Lon Chaney lit up the screen. The United States was not the only country to dive into the film business. In Germany films were used to express a very Expressionistic view on society. From this world came the first Dracula film, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.
The brainchild of famed German filmmaker, FW Murnau, it told the tale of Dracula but in a German setting. Murnau’s biggest trouble came from the estate of Bram Stoker which fought him the entire way, due to the fact that Prana Film never got their approval to adapt the novel. This forced him to change his blooduscker’s name from Count Dracula to Count Orlock. Unlike the suave and sexy vampire pop culture has become familiar with, Count Orlock was much more rodent-like and demonic in appearance than modern audiences are accustomed to. Actor Max Shrek played the role perfectly with the proper blend of theatricality and subtlety needed to portray the character without a line of dialogue. Nosferatu also stands as a milestone in pop culture history for introducing a hallmark of vampirism. In the climactic finale Orlock is killed courtesy of sunlight, which until then had never been utilized. For those unaware in Stoker’s novel, sunlight only weakened the vampire. Eventually the Stoker family won out in the battle over this film and every copy they could find was destroyed. Fortunately the film resurfaced many years later and has become regarded as one of the greatest milestones in film history.
Many miles away in Hollywood, the immortal bloodsucker was in the process of being brought to the silver screen in America. Universal Studios owned the rights to Dracula and had every intention of using it as a starring vehicle for the greatest horror actor of the Silent Era, Lon Chaney. During the 1920’s Chaney had broken the mold in Hollywood by playing disturbed and physically deformed characters, terrifying audiences in his wake. In the now lost film London After Midnight, the actor even tried his hand at playing a “vampire”. Many think that the look he would have created for Dracula would have owed a bit of inspiration to his make-up in that flick. Universal was so sure that Chaney would take the lead role that they even hired his frequent collaborator, the Tim Burton to his Johnny Depp, cult filmmaker Tod Browning to direct it. But tragedy struck without warning, shortly after completing his first and only talkie, The Unholy Three, Chaney passed away. The studio was thrown into a scramble as they now had to find a new actor to wear the cape of Dracula. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country on the Broadway stage, Hamilton Dean and John Balderston’s theatrical version of the novel was winning rave reviews with a Hungarian actor, named Bela Lugosi in the lead role. Little did the executives at Universal know, he would be the solution to their problem.