Unusual Vampire Films
I’m estimating that I’ve seen Béla Lugosi’s film Dracula (1931) at least once a year since I was about 6 —I’m picking that age because I know I watched Frankenstein (1931) on the original Svengoolie’s Screaming Yellow Theater circa 1971, so I was bound to have caught Dracula too. That’s 43 years ago, so I am thinking I’ve seen Drac 5o to 100 times, and the real number is probably teetering closer to 200. Compared to several other horror films from the Golden Age (1931-1939), Dracula falls short of my top ten list (however, it is in the top 20), largely due to uninspired and static cinematography (I think Browning had reins on Karl Freund) and the slow deliberate pacing of the later half. However, Lugosi’s performance is so mesmerizing I can’t help but watch the film every year during the Halloween season. Sometimes I’ll even live on the edge and tune into the Philip Glass Kronos Quartet score (Egads). To me, Dracula is Lugosi and Lugosi is the definitive count. Sir Christopher Lee is a bloody capillary length away as No. 2.
I also appreciate Edward Van Sloan as vampire specialist Van Helsing. He’s to vampires what Quint was to sharks. For a long time as a kid I thought Van Sloan was comparable to Charleton Heston in thesbian stature or heroic abilities, having played a slayer of vampires, an expert on the occult, and advisor to Dr. Frankenstein! This guy had the juiciest roles in filmdom as exemplified in this publicity still from Dracula, which stages Edward Van Sloan vs. Dracula.
This year I’m exploring a bit and have dug up a few unusual vampire films. They are not rare, but are discussed less than your garden variety nosferatu film du jour. These movies experiment a bit with vampire behavior and abilities, and push the boundaries of what we expect out of our blood-sucking Strigoi (to borrow from Romanian folklore and Guillermo Del Toro).
My friend and fellow horror film aficionado Dan opines that Dracula’s Daughter (1936), which came at the end of Universal first horror cycle is a better film than its predecessor. Just as I don’t follow the camp that says the Spanish version of Dracula is superior, I’m not buying into the notion that Daughter is a more enjoyable film. To me, Lugosi’s presence trumps direction, cinematography, pacing, lighting, casting, score and all those attributes rolled into a tightly constructed deliverable. Even a bad film like The Ape Man (1943) is watchable because of Béla. He’s that good.
I consider Dracula’s Daughter an unusual vampire film. On one hand it is a direct sequel to Dracula, starting immediately after the scene where Dracula is staked by Van Helsing, but it tries to stand on its own as a horror film with a fairly interesting story with Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska coming to grips that she too is a vampire, even after Dracula’s death, and an effective sub-plot with Van Helsing being investigated for murder. Edward Van Sloan is fine again as Van Helsing, but it is Otto Kruger as Dr. Jeffrey Garth who carries much of the film. I also like Irving Pichel (The Most Dangerous Game, 1993; She, 1935) as Zaleska’s henchman Sandor. Dracula’s Daughter is often cited as an early film with lesbian precepts —two of Zaleska’s victims are women. Compare this to RKO’s Cat People (1943), with obvious lesbian undertones.
Director Lambert Hillyer helmed several genre films including The Invisible Ray (1936), with Karloff and Lugosi, a Batman Serial (1943), and several westerns. While no classic, Dracula’s Daughter has some effective horror moments and is worth a look as a double-bill with Dracula.
Much has be written about the Spanish language version of Dracula (1931), which was filmed at the same time and using the same sets as the English version, but with a Spanish-speaking cast and alleged budget of $66,000. The film was thought to be lost, but was discovered in the 1970’s, and has since been restored and is available as a supplement film on various re-issues of Dracula on DVDs and Bluray.
I prefer George Robinson’s fluid photography in the Spanish language version of Drácula (1931) compared to Karl Freund’s (Metropolis, 1927; The Mummy, 1932; Mad Love, 1935) rather static camera in Dracula (1931). The best way to watch this film is back-to-back with the Lugosi version. You’ll notice several differences in staging and composition, particularly in the scenes through the Borgo Pass and those occurring at Dracula’s castle. I also like the romantic leads in the Spanish version. Lupita Tovar is stunning in the lead. However, I don’t agree with Tovar who has said in an interview that the only difference between Carlos Villarías and Lugosi was in the hands (Lugosi has long angular and expressive fingers). To me there is no comparison. While Villarías is ok, Lugosi had honed his role on stage and personified Dracula in film. However, Villarías is interesting enough where I would love to see him in his remaining 1930’s horror films The Mystery of the Ghastly Face (1935) and The Super Mad Man (1937).
The Spanish Dracula was directed by George Melford, best known as a character actor in many westerns produced in the 1940’s and 1950’s and for directing the notorious The Skeik (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino. The real star is George Robinson’s photography. Robinson went on to be DOP for several notables, including Son of Frankenstein (1939), Tower of London (1939), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), Son of Dracula (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), one of the best and most atmospheric Sherlock Holmes mysteries The Scarlet Claw (1944), House of Dracula (1945), The Cat Creeps (1946) and the seminal big bug classic Tarantula (1955).
Director Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) may be the oddest vampire film ever made. I’ve watched it a half-dozen times and still haven’t decided if I like it or not. The film was exquisitely lensed [through a thin veil of gauze] by DOP Rudolph Maté (The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); Foreign Correspondent (1940); Gilda (1946), When World’s Collide (1951)). The film is best described as an atmospheric dream [nightmare?]. Film historian William K. Everson believes Vampyr to be the greatest horror film of the 1930’s. It’s also plodding and difficult to follow.
But with images like these….
Vampyr is worth a look.
George Romero has been around as a director for approximately 45 years and has helmed less than 20 films. He is best known for his zombie films, but three of my favorites include the vampire flick Martin (1978), the unique Knightriders (1981), starring a young Ed Harris, and the disturbing Monkey Shines (1981), which affirms the notion that I will never ever own a “pet” primate.
Martin is a well-crafted horror thriller garnering a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.2/10 through IMDb. Romero has claimed that Martin is the favorite of all his films. Tom Savini provided the blood-letting. The film works by having real-life scenarios, with Martin doping victims and slicing wrists, and being treated by a religious Lithuanian zealot grand-uncle using Old World vampire exorcism techniques (use of garlic, wielding of crucifix, use of stakes). Romero has never been better.
Kenneth Tobey in a vampire film? Look no further than this 1950’s gem The Vampire (1957). John Beal (The Cat and the Canary, 1939) stars as a hometown doctor who is accidentally doped with a serum derived from vampire bats! This film has the irresistible low-budget aura like The Hideous Sun Demon (1959) and The Werewolf (1956).
Plus there are some shoking scenes!
Vampire was directed by Paul Landres, who is best known for his work on The Lone Ranger (1952-1953), The Cisco Kid (1950-1954) and the underrated The Return of Dracula (1958), starring Francis Lederer as the count (also worth a look). Check out John Beal as The Vampire….
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) is my vote for the most unusual of vampire films. Warning —Horror fans stay clear. This is a film adaptation of a ballet rendition of Stoker’s novel. It’s gorgeous to look at and the choreography is stunning as presented in an expressionistic style, but a little bit of dancing and music goes a long way. There are effective horror moments. Dracula’s resurrection is as effective as any I’ve seen in any film this side of Nosferatu (1922). Virgin’s Diary is an experimental film from the creative mind of Canadian Guy Maddin. Curious art-bent folks might enjoy this spin.
You haven’t lived until you see Wei-Qiang Zhang as Count Dracula.