Well where better place to start with our Halloween series than with Count Dracula? He’s pretty much the ultimate vampire and is the most filmed character of all time, appearing in over 230 separate movies. That’s one hell of a legacy and tonight I’m going to try and figure out just why he’s considered one of the greatest Horror Icons in all of cinema.
It’s difficult to know where to look with this character, the books or the films? Well I guess both are needed but I’ll focus a bit more on the films seeing as I’ve seen a handful of them and Bela Lugosi’s 1931 portrayal is where we get the (nowadays cliché) image of not only Dracula but of vampires in general. So what is it that makes Dracula so intimidating? Well the main theme of the film is the fear of foreigners and in Victorian England Dracula stands out as the ultimate foreigner. He has a think European accent, he wears very different clothes to the conventional London gentleman, he comes from a pretty uncivilised country, he’s of nobility which makes him mysterious, he lives in a dilapidated castle which is literally falling apart around him and he preys on the young women of England. Dracula epitomizes the xenophobic view of foreigners, being completely obvious about his roots and acting as a threat to the more innocent and vulnerable levels of society. Dracula comes from Eastern Europe, Transylvania to be precise, which is viewed in this really rustic light complete with superstition and rumour of nefarious forces. In the book and film the locals are wary when night falls and their fears are a stark contrast to the locals of London. Within the first 5 minutes of Dracula being in London he kills a girl selling flowers and the entire scene is reminiscent of something from Jack the Ripper. He’s even wearing conventional Ripper clothes (top hat and cloak) and the attack takes place in an empty back alley, so I guess it could be argued that maybe there is a little bit of that in Dracula as a character. Maybe there is an element of Jack the Ripper to him.
So yeah I know what your thinking, does the whole foreigner thing hold up today? I guess it kinda does but the main punch has been taken out of it. The world is no longer as distant as it once was and, as a result Dracula is no longer based solely on xenophobia, although I’d argue there are still some aspects that hold strong, especially the idea that this is someone from a strange, arcane land with far different customs from our own is still relatively relatable today. There is, however, more to Dracula than just xenophobia. The appearance of Dracula also plays a huge part. The general view of him has always been wearing a cape with a cowl. It’s a pretty spooky look in itself but the thing that really makes Dracula is the eyes. Everybody says it and Bela Lugosi makes it. It’s such an iconic part of the performance and of the character, Lugosi does it masterfully, he conveys so much power with his eyes and the lighting exacerbates it perfectly, I mean just look at them.
It’s creepy beyond belief and it isn’t just Lugosi. Christopher Lee (god that he is) also does it brilliantly. Admittedly Lugosi probably has more going on but even so, look at the rage and blood lust in this, it’s almost animalistic.
It is a massive reason why Dracula has such a powerful cultural impact and why he’s considered one of the greatest horror icons of all time. Naturally you’ve got to talk about the idea of vampirism in itself. The idea of a creature of the night who steals you humanity via drinking your blood is creepy because it breaks cultural and social norm. Perhaps the creepiest versions of vampires are those that aren’t human like at all, like Nosferatu. These portrayals show vampires to be frail and bald with palish-yellow skin and long pointed features and they probably are most disturbing than Dracula simply because they are so inhuman, but with Dracula you have the incorporation of a charismatic, attractive gentleman and that’s chilling in its own way. The idea of a charming man with a very demanding presence who preys on beautiful young women is one that is rooted firmly in reality and I guess that’s where Dracula really has his strength, in the same way that all Horror Icons do, it’s the mix of excessive fantasy with a pinch of brutal reality. Dracula works as a character because he takes the idea of combining the realism of xenophobia with the taboos and perversions of a man who murders gorgeous young women and drinks their blood and adds to it some great acting and expressive face work and you have a horror icon that will never die, no matter how many stakes you use.