Monday, January 26, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Universal's "Dracula"

(or "Undead Means 'Not Dead'")

When it comes to horror, Bela Lugosi's turn as the infamous Count Dracula has gone beyond simply being a classic, genre-defining role to become a pop culture touchstone. Millions (possibly even billions) of people who've never in their life seen the original 1931 film still know that vampires all talk in Hungarian accents and say things like, "Children of the night...what sweet music they make!" or "I never" Universal didn't have to think twice to realize that they had a bona fide hit on their hands, and even in an era where horror was becoming increasingly neutered due to film censorship boards, they were thinking 'sequel'.

There's only one small problem. The movie, the stage play and the book that both were based on all end with Dracula getting a wooden stake pounded through his heart, finally ending his eternal life once and for all. Um...oops?

This is actually a problem with more storytelling engines than you might think, particularly those in the horror genre. Historically speaking, lots of people have failed to realize that they have a potential series of films on their hands, and they go for the closure of seeing the villain meet his or her grisly demise instead of disappointing audiences with a teaser ending. (Heck, it doesn't even have to be horror. The Joker was slated to be killed in only his second appearance as a Batman villain, and only a last-minute addition to the art saved his life. Anyone want to imagine Batman without the Joker?) Freddy, Jason, Michael (who seemed to survive the first movie, but bit it in the second), and the shark in "Jaws" all shared Dracula's remarkably definitive fate.

This problem--how to resurrect a very dead yet very essential character--shaped every subsequent appearance of the character. "Dracula's Daughter" tried to escape the snare by being about, well...Dracula's daughter, not the Count himself (I know, the title led you to suspect a twist.) In fact, it opens with Marya stealing and incinerating Dracula's body in order to try to escape her own curse of vampirism. Unsurprisingly, she fails. Even less surprisingly, the sequel turned out to be less popular than the original, in no small part because when people go to a movie with "Dracula" in the title, they expect to see Dracula.

"Son of Dracula" decided to skirt the issue by being ambiguous. Count Alucard could be a vampiric descendant of the original count...or he could be Dracula, concealing his true self behind a pseudonym. The movie never really decides one way or the other, and it almost feels like the screeenwriters (Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor) were arguing about it behind the scenes. Whether imitating his famous father, or reprising his fate, Alucard nonetheless bites the dust (no pun intended.)

Which leaves the door open for the solution finally decided upon in the last two Universal films featuring Dracula, a solution later used by Hammer Films for their Dracula series, and for that matter by Freddy and Jason and all his pals. Namely, that Dracula's a resilient little cuss. "House of Frankenstein" has a scene where the evil scientist finds Dracula's corpse, stake still protruding from his chest...and wouldn't you know it? As soon as he pulls it out, phoomp! Instant Drac, just add blood. Sunlight, crosses, holy water, they all put him down but not out.

Which has also become part of the myth of Dracula. As Buffy says, "I've seen the movies. I know you come back." Dracula might have died back in 1931, but the power of imagination and our need to see him return has made him far more immortal than any vampire's bite ever could. It took Universal a little while (and several actors) to see that, but eventually they caught on to Dracula's eternal appeal.


magidin said...

Ehr, no: the book does not end with Dracula getting a stake through the heart; rather, he gets a chop to the neck with a "blessed" machete.

In fact, that is the plot device used by Saberhagen to bring back Dracula in "The Dracula tapes": since the Count was not terminated in one of the approved methods, he only had to wait long enough to regenerate and be able to come back.

John Seavey said...

I know you well enough to know that if I remember it one way and you remember it another, then I'm wrong, plain and simple. :)

I always remember that sequence as "stake to the heart", but I'll freely admit I remember the Classics Illustrated panel far better than I do the book. Something about the stricken look on Dracula's face as they say, "For Mina. For Lucy. For all mankind," just indelibly burned itself into my childhood brain far better than the book ever did.

magidin said...

Looks like we both only partially remembered it. From Project Gutenberg's HTML version (

" I saw the Count lying within the box upon the earth, some of which the rude falling from the cart had scattered over him. He was deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well.

"As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.

"But, on the instant, came the sweep and flash of Jonathan's great knife. I shrieked as I saw it shear through the throat. Whilst at the same moment Mr. Morris's bowie knife plunged into the heart.

"It was like a miracle, but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight. "

So he got a slash to the throat, and a stab to the heart, but not with a stake but with a bowie knife. He "crumbled to dust"... or so it seemed. (-: