Count Dracula was the creation of author Bram Stoker, based on the gruesome legends surrounding Romanian despot Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler. First published in 1897, the novel also introduced another iconic character, Dr Van Helsing.
The first movie of the novel was made in 1931, with popular horror actor Bela Lugosi in the title role. It was fairly faithful to the original, but Lugosi set the tone for most cinematic Draculas, with his smooth, hypnotic appeal and heavy accent – “I never drink…wine” became synonymous with the character.
Literally hundreds of vampire movies have been made, many drawing on the novel by Stoker, but the numbers of actors who have made an impact in the iconic role are far fewer. Lugosi was the first to star as Dracula in an English speaking movie, and will always be remembered for that.
In 1958, the British movie company Hammer introduced an acting team that would define vampire movies for decades to come. Christopher Lee as Dracula, and Peter Cushing as his nemesis Van Helsing, became arguably the most famous purveyers of the Dracula legend in Hammer’s first foray into Stoker’s novel.
Hammer’s second vampire movie, Brides of Dracula, kept van Helsing but tried to introduce a younger, sexier blood sucking count. But it was Christopher Lee that audiences craved, and so he returned in Hammer’s third vampire outing, Dracula Prince of Darkness. From then on, the tall, lean, eerily sexy actor became synonymous with Dracula on the silver screen.
Surprisingly, he only starred in seven Hammer movies as Dracula, and made three more for other companies, yet he became even more associated with the role than any other actor. Lee brought elegance and charismatic good looks to the role as well as giving audiences a glimpse into the depths of loneliness and isolation suffered by the undead who crave human blood. It was an extraordinary portrayal that has never really been bettered.
Dracula has been spoofed, ‘blaxploited’, and generally been tweaked to appeal to any number of specialized tastes, but film makers always go back to the source sooner or later. In 1979, Frank Langella joined the ranks of the most memorable Draculas, mainly because he was so darned handsome. Surely the sexiest Dracula of them all, Langella’s swoony eyes and languid manner set a new standard. He also had a most impressive van Helsing in celebrated British actor Laurence Olivier.
At about the same time, George Hamilton (Gorgeous George, as he was known) also tried for the sexiest Dracula title in Love at First Bite. This took Dracula to New York, where he discoed with the object of his desire, Cindy Sondheim, played by Susan St James. Hardly classical but it started a booming trade in humorous Dracula movies, and was given an amusing switch in the 80s with Jim Carrey and Lauren Hutton in Once Bitten.
Most notable in the ‘funny Dracula’ portrayals was Leslie Neilson, whose Dracula: Dead and Loving It was quite a popular parody. All these parodies were fun, but after Frank Langella, would anyone ever seriously attempt to portray the King of the Vampires on screen again? Well, clearly he had fenced off the corner on good looks but in 1992, Gary Oldman tried for most authentic in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It was a brave production, with the distinguished Anthony Hopkins as van Helsing, Richard E. Grant as Dr Seward, and Winona Ryder as Mina. Keanu Reeves was an odd but attractive choice for Jonathan Harker. It closely followed the novel, and its success saved the Zoetrope studio from bankruptcy.
Since Oldman, no one actor has claimed the role as his own, although Dracula movies continue to be made, of varying quality, and vampires clearly haven’t lost their cinematic hold. The success of the Twilight films is a case in point. But there is no doubt that Dracula will be back, perhaps even a teenage version. Some other actor will try lay claim to the title of Best Movie Dracula still held, many believe, by Christopher Lee.