Sunday, October 24, 2010

Assembling the Dracula Bad-Dream Team

I haven’t done any research to back up this claim, but I’ll still wager that no book has been adapted to film and video more times than Dracula. Well, maybe The Bible, but who cares about that thing? According to imdb, there are some 175 movies and TV shows that feature someone named “Dracula”, and I’ll further wager that few of those characters haven’t at least tasted blood. As many times as Stoker’s tale has been brought to screens large and small, it has never really been staged with a perfect cast. It’s often the case that so much effort is put into making the vampire a formidable presence that the other characters are reduced to cardboard standees. Or certain Dracula portrayers are so iconic that others can’t help but pale in comparison (Pale! Because vampires are pale! Get it?). But what would be the prefect Dracula cast? Who’s the greatest count? Which Renfield was the most memorable fly-eater? And, nearly as important, which Lucy Westenra best embodied Lucy Westenra and which Quincey Morris made all other Quincey Morrises look like hackneyed hacks? We will try to answer these questions and more as Psychobabble assembles the Dracula Bad-Dream Team! “Bad” Dream Team… because Dracula give you bad dreams! Get it?

Here goes...

Dracula : Bela Lugosi

This required no thought at all. And as you read the words “Bela” and “Lugosi” next to the word “Dracula”, you, kind reader, most likely thought the very same thing. Granted, Max Schreck of Nosferatu was the scariest Dracula, Frank Langella of the 1979 version was the sexiest, and Christopher Lee was the actor who played the count more often than anyone else. But everything you think of when you hear the name “Dracula” can be traced directly to Bela: the thick accent, the intense eyes, the cape and medallion. Even the sexiness, although Lugosi may not quite embody contemporary concepts of sexiness the way that teenager in that crappy movie about crappy teenage vampires does. And though modern audiences sometimes accuse his classic performance of being too mannered, it is a great performance. He’s commanding, yet at times, rather genial. And if Dracula was the most unapologetically evil and least conflicted of the classic Universal Monsters, Bela’s affecting delivery of “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious! … There are far worse things awaiting man than death” suggests that even he realizes vampirism is not all it’s cracked up to be. Lugosi is Dracula to the degree that every other serious Dracula film feels lacking simply because the master is not present.

Dr. Abraham Van Helsing : Peter Cushing

Christopher Lee was a perfectly fine count, but Hammer’s Dracula franchise rarely gave him much to do. In some of those films, Lee doesn’t even utter a word. That leaves Peter Cushing to carry those films as fearless vampire killer Abraham Van Helsing. Not only does Cushing do a fine job of picking up the slack but he goes above and beyond by bringing heroic energy, fatherly sweetness, and doctorly caring to the character. Look at his eyes, he seems to always be thinking, always to be scheming how to thwart Dracula in their latest contest. Gasp as he leaps at those curtains like Indiana Jones, yanking them down to reveal the sunlight that fries Drac in Horror of Dracula. Cringe as he cauterizes his own bitten throat with a red-hot iron in Brides of Dracula, then marvel at his bravery and resolve. Cushing played a villain plenty of times in stuff like Hammers’ Frankenstein films and Star Wars, but he was always most convincing playing valiant Van Helsing—something he did more often than any other actor.

Renfield : Dwight Frye

There have been some memorable Renfields— particularly Tom Waits in the generally shitty 1992 version (more on that below) and Klaus Kinski, who did his own bug-eating stunts in the 1970 one,— but Dwight Frye in Tod Browning’s film is as iconic in his role as Lugosi is as the count. His mad eyes, his inimitable lock-jawed cackle, his hunched posture as he rivetingly describes a vision in which Dracula presented him with a squirming sea of rats. Even before Renfield goes mad, Frye is a colorful presence, expressing freaked fear as he gets Dracula to sign the paperwork on Carfax Abbey. But it’s that image of him peering from the shadows of a ship’s hull, crazy and hungry, that is the most haunting in Browning’s film.

Jonathan Harker : Gustav von Wangenheim

As many terrific Draculas, Van Helsings, and Renfields as there have been, the key role of Jonathan Harker is often played perfunctorily by a bland presence like David Manners or John Van Eyssen. Keanu Reeves’s performance in Coppola’s Dracula is a downright disaster of wooden acting and inept British-accenting. Strange then that the wonderful Gustav von Wangenheim, who played Harker (or Hutter, as he’s named in the film’s original intertitles) in the very first cinematic adaptation of Dracula, was so un-influential. This is particularly odd considering how influential so many other aspects of Nosferatu were. Yet no other actor even tried to recreate von Wangenheim’s robust performance. His glee when he dismisses superstition by spiking a book of vampire folklore on the floor of his room, and his absolute horror when he realizes that book wasn’t as hokey as he thought, are the most memorable Harker moments on film.

Mina Murray-Harker : Lupita Tovar/Isabelle Adjani

This was kind of a tough one. Like her hubby, Mina Harker is rarely acted with the zing of the other main characters in Dracula. However, there are two great Mina performances—and, ironically, neither of those characters are named Mina. Still, Lupita Tovar as “Eva Seward” in the 1931 Spanish-language Dracula and Isabelle Adjani as “Lucy Harker” in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu are clearly playing the Mina role as described in Stoker’s novel. 19-year old Tovar brings a vivacious freshness to the role that makes her transformation into Dracula’s concubine both weirdly exciting and terribly tragic. Kohl-eyed Adjani, on the other hand, is ethereal and wan, the ultimate Gothic beauty. She seems as though she must have been vampiric long before falling into the count’s clutches.

Lucy Westenra : Jan Francis

More confusion: the Lucy Westenra character in Universal’s 1979 version of Dracula is not only named Mina, but she’s Van Helsing’s daughter. I won’t even begin to try to figure out why so many Dracula-filmmakers felt it necessary to jumble character names and relationships, but no matter what you name her, Jan Francis’s Lucy is the greatest. Why? Because she’s the most terrifying. The scene in which she confronts her “daddy” in a crypt after having been vampirized is the scariest in any Dracula film. Francis also does a fantastic job of capturing the eager lustiness that makes her such an easy target for the count.

Dr. John Seward : Richard E. Grant

As I’ve suggested (or, perhaps, screamed) above, I have little fondness for Francis Ford Coppola’s misleadingly titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a wretched mess of ostentatious special effects, bad ideas (why does Dracula turn into a sort of Bat Man rather than a normal bat? So stupid!), and awful acting (Keanu). Yet it also houses perhaps the only genuinely distinguished portrayal of asylum-overseer, Lucy-suitor, and vampire-hunter Dr. John Seward. Richard E. Grant, who was so wonderful as scummy drunk Withnail in the cult classic Withnail and I, once again proves his ability to play it stoned (even though Grant is actually a teetotaler). His Seward is a funky, half-crazed, somewhat hammy morphine addict who gets some scenes with Tom Waits’s Renfield that rise above the crapitude of the rest of the film.

Arthur Holmwood : Michael Gough

Arthur Holmwood is another important character in Stoker that is generally reduced to a device to move the plot along in Dracula movies. Honestly, even the quite likable Michael Gough’s performance as Holmwood in Horror of Dracula is nothing spectacular, but he wins by default for playing such an unusually significant role in the film; he’s Robin to Van Helsing’s Batman. In keeping with the film’s lack of reverence for Stoker, Arthur is not Lucy’s suitor but her (or, umm, “Mina’s”) brother and Mina’s (or, umm, “Lucy’s”) husband. Confused yet? Well, perhaps the calming presence of Michael Gough will sooth your over-taxed mind. He is, after all, quite likable.

Quincey Morris : Jack Taylor

Of all the main characters in Stoker’s book, none are left off the screen more often than Quincy P. Morris. According to imdb, there are only five Dracula films that include a Quincey character. This is possibly because there’s something kind of wrong about placing an American yahoo amongst all the British and Transylvanian aristocrats that are the main populace of Dracula. So, which Quincey wins? Let’s say Jack Taylor from Jess Franco’s extremely faithful 1970 version does. Don't say I never did anything for you, Jack Taylor.

So, there you have it. The ultimate Dracula cast. Now all we need is some Internet-savvy, film-editing wiz to build the ultimate Dracula film by cutting all these performances together. Get cracking, Internet-savvy, film-editing wiz.
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