In honor of Halloween, I have been re-reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. At the same time, I’ve been sampling various film adaptations of the book – and I am struck by how many go so far wide of the mark. Upon reading the first four chapters of the novel – the Jonathan Harker chapters – you realize you are in the hands of a master. Remember his early readers had no idea Dracula was a vampire. He weaves a web of slowly dawning horror and claustrophobia, with no sudden scares bu…t with touches of horror that will raise the hair on the back of your neck…assuming you have any.
I can think of four truly horrific moments witnessed by poor Jonathan that are almost never in any of the film versions. Take Francis Coppola’s version (please). His Dracula is so immediately weird, I don’t know why Jonathan doesn’t head for the hills at once. In the book, Dracula tosses a squirming bag to his horrible wives and Jonathan deduces from a small noise that the bag contains a child. Coppola has Drac give them a baby in full view. And please – why does he dress the wives like the onstage girl band in Cabaret? And the less said about Lucy acting like she’s starring in a low-budget porn film the better.
This weekend, I started (and quickly stopped) a version starring Jack Palance. It begins with a pack of wolves that are so OBVIOUSLY German Shepherds I expected the theme to Rin-Tin-Tin to begin playing over the credits. Jack makes a fine Drac, but when Jonathan finally escapes from his room, he finds himself in gorgeous chambers lined with tapestries and lit candles guiding him through the bright and cheery halls. Since when does the Count lights candles in his part of the castle?
The silent film Nosferatu is truly hideous – but so hideous you cannot imagine anyone believing for a moment he’s actually an eccentric, yet harmless, aristocrat in Romania.
So at this point I must vote in favor of Tod Browning’s 1931 Bela Lugosi version. Even there, they conflate Jonathan with Renfield, but at least there is a genuine attempt at Gothic horror.
Do yourself a favor. If you like horror at all, and have never read the original, prepare to be blown away. There is a reason it is considered the greatest horror novel ever written. Bravo Mr. Stoker.