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Thursday 8 November 2012

Icon Series: Bram Stoker and Dracula

English: Bram Stoker (1847-1912), novelist bor...
English: Bram Stoker (1847-1912), novelist born in Ireland, author of "Dracula" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Seeing as Google has reminded me that it is Bram Stoker's 165th birthday, I almost felt obliged to put something up here on the bloke. He is not what I would consider to be an icon, but he certainly created one. The Dublin-born Stoker seems to be cast as a most unlikely candidate to pen one literature's most successful figures of the Gothic and the macabre. He was no Edgar Alan Poe in his lifestyle and psychology and, despite working in showbusiness, couldn't have been further from a Lord Byron. Being the business manager of the Lyceum theatre, accounts have him trying to impress and being totally dominated by the overbearing actor, Sir Henry Irving. However, Stoker was a close acquaintance of Oscar Wilde's - going back to their student days where Stoker had proposed him for membership to The Philosophical Society - and I heard once on a "South Bank Show" special documentary that Wilde had an affair with Stoker's wife. I am not sure what the evidence is for this claim, but Wilde was certainly a suitor for Florence Balcombe, a celebrated beauty of Victorian society. Wilde was apparently upset about Stoker marrying Florence, but later they reconciled and they remained friends even after Wilde's fall.

Stoker was a successful writer and created many works of fiction and non-fiction, but virtually all of these writings are lost in the shadow his most famous creation, Dracula. Ken Russell did make an adaptation of "The Lair of the White Worm" in 1988 and "Dracula's Daughter", made in 1936, was apparently inspired by "Dracula's Guest" (a short story Stoker sold on the success of Dracula and was, in fact, a chapter edited out of his original novel). However, they are barely footnotes compared to the huge volume of material inspired by "Dracula".


Below are my reviews of my favourite Dracula related works: 

"Dracula" - "115 Years After its Creation and it Still Hasn't Lost it Bite"

Plot:

Newly qualified solicitor Jonathan Harker is given an assignment to provide legal support for a mysterious Transylvanian count who is buying real estate in London. Count Dracula resides in a secluded castle in the Carpathian Mountains. Harker’s journey is full of dark foreboding both from the superstitious villagers he meets on route and, as he gets closer, by what he starts to see for himself. However, this is nothing compared to what the young solicitor will experience when he reaches the castle. Despite the warm and gracious welcome he receives from the eerie count it isn’t long before he uncovers some terrifying truths about his host. Dracula is a vampire and he wishes Harker to be his prisoner. 
 
This is just the beginning of the horror, as Dracula sets his sites on spreading his vampirism to England, to the innocent Lucy Westenra and her friend, Mina, Jonathan Harker’s fiancé…
 
Background: 
The name comes from Vlad III, “The Impaler” (aka Vlad Tepes) Prince of Wallachia. He was known as Dracula, meaning Son of the Dragon, after his father, Dracul, the Dragon. However, there is dispute as to how much this historical character served as an influence for Count Dracula. I had this in mind when I recently re-read “Dracula” and was actually very surprised about how many references Stoker does make to the count’s historical past. They are largely inaccurate if Vlad Tepes was supposed to be the man intended to become the vampire, but I am not convinced that that is more down to Stoker’s bad researching and the inadequate secondary source texts he consulted. The Victorian era is notorious for the tremendous amount of bad history and mythologizing that was published. Another supposed influence for Stoker’s book was Elizabeth Bathory, known as the “Bloody Countess”. Myths about her bathing in the blood of 600 virgins to restore her youth among other things were almost definitely created almost two centuries after her death and there seems to be a certain amount of politically motivated lies spread about her during her lifetime. However, the 19th century was a time where sensationalism and the tales of the supernatural rode high in the minds of literary fans, and both Bathory’s and Vlad’s stories would be absorbed by readers without much questioning at the time. It is perhaps also worth noting that many avid fans of Stoker’s novel that visit Romania to see Transylvania, the Carpathian Mountains and the legacy of Vlad Tepes are doing far more than Stoker did.

The mould for the character of Dracula and today’s popular image of the vampire can be traced to one individual – Lord Byron. The image of the erotic rakish aristocrat comes from Dr John William Polidori’s 1819 short story, “The Vampyre”. This short story was inspired by Byron’s attempt at a novel, now often referred to as “A Fragment”. Polidori was Byron’s physician and part of the group that were challenged by Byron to create ghost stories on a stormy night when they stayed with the exiled and scandalized poet at the Villa Diodati. That night is also seen as the genesis of “Frankenstein”, written by Percy Shelley’s then lover, Mary. Polidori’s lead protagonist is Lord Ruthven, a name previously used by Byron’s scandalous lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, the woman who called him “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”, in her first novel “Glenarvon”. Ruthven is a vampire that spends most of his time seducing the female characters in the story, much the same as Dracula. 
 
The almost fully fledged vampire archetype followed over two decades later in the story “Varney the Vampire” by either James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Preskett Prest. Again the story was clearly influenced by the concept of the vampire as created by Polidori, but the author of “Varney the Vampire” further eroticized the character by introducing the puncture marks on the neck of vampire victims. Varney also possesses superhuman strength, has fangs and hypnotic powers. However, it is a confused epic story, original presented as a series of “penny dreadfuls”, and has nothing like the polish of Stoker’s work almost half a century later.

The refinement can be better found in Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, “Carmilla”, which is more daring than “Dracula” with its heavy inference of lesbianism. Stoker clearly drew upon a lot of Fanu’s ideas and Dracula’s female victims, particularly Lucy, are clearly inspired by the vampire Carmilla. Also, among Fanu’s influences we find the aforementioned mythology created around Elizabeth Bathory. Many literary critics have considered Bathory to have been on of Stoker’s influences alongside Vlad to the point that the historical countess has been labelled and even portrayed in popular media as “Countess Dracula”. However, I am less convinced that this is a direct influence on Stoker’s work. Carmilla is discovered to have been a countess in the story and I think this is probably what led Stoker to making his vampire a count. The setting in Styria was once considered by Stoker as the homeland for his vampire villain and is perhaps influential over the author’s decision to have an invading foreign foe. Lord Ruthven’s origins are never revealed, but Stoker clearly wanted an antagonist coming from faraway lands in line with the “Invasion Literature” fashion of the time. The other major contribution to “Dracula” the novel I see coming from “Carmilla” and nowhere else is the character of Baron Vordenburg, who is the novella’s vampire expert. 
 
The final and most direct influence on the character of Dracula came in the form of the Shakespearean actor Henry Irving, Stoker’s boss at the Lyceum Theatre. Stoker was his assistant and the theatre’s business manager. Irving was apparently an overbearing yet charming personality, much like Dracula. Stoker intended him to play the role of the count in the stage adaptation of the novel. The adaptation was written to help protect the copyright of the story and apparently wasn’t very good. According to one story, Irving listened into part of one reading and dismissed it as “awful”, walking out before ever hearing the rest.

The catalyst for Stoker’s novel supposedly came in the form of a dream he had regarding the three Brides of Dracula. He wrote this down and it would form the basis for a famous episode in Dracula’s Castle, where the three vampire women attack Jonathan Harker. There are other elements taken from the local news, such as the shipwreck that would influence the episode when the ship The Demeter arrives in Whitby baring Dracula and its tragic crew. However, without a doubt the book’s central strength and the thing that makes it a classic and very readable story over a century after it was written lies in the story’s central character. Most members of the public will be able to tell you about him even if they don’t know the whole story of the novel. 

Review:

“Dracula” is perhaps the most straightforward and superficial of the classic Victorian Gothic horrors. From what I have read surrounding the conception of “Dracula” I have seen nothing to convince me that there was any conscious effort by Stoker to write an allegorical story. However, there is plenty that the book might reveal about the attitudes of the time and the author’s own psychology. The novel’s roots are fascinating too and touch upon a myriad of different famous personalities and institutionalized fears. The story is very simplistic, told in an episodic fashion made up fictitious journals, diaries, newspaper articles and letters. Epistolary fiction was neither a new device for 19th century literature or for the Gothic genre. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, for example, uses this device. 
 
However, Stoker’s decision to use a wide range of narrators, including reports from newspapers, is a clearly a device used to make the fantastical elements in the story seem more believable. This is a big part of the story. The Victorian age saw a tremendous amount of change and different extremes, where the reasonable and the esoteric were often pitted against one another. Stoker, it is believed, was actually a supporter of scientific progress in favour of superstition and wary of mystical fraud. This was balanced with an interest in the occult and, in particular, mesmerism – both Dracula and Van Helsing use hypnotism, and Van Helsing brings its use in line with supernatural ideas. However, and this is possibly intended to be ironic, there are more than enough digs given at rational scepticism (a philosophy I prescribe to) and western science, as Dr Abraham Van Helsing slowly brings his younger colleague, Dr Seward round to the belief in vampires, and it continues afterwards in its celebration of romance and adventure.

This is all part of what Stephen King describes as the process of knitting together the everyday with the fantastical. However, where King turns a normal story gradually into a horrific supernatural nightmare over the course of the whole novel, Stoker repeats the same formula at least three times. Unfortunately this, along with the longwinded descriptions and dialogue common in fiction at the time, does tend to slow matters down in-between the book’s genuine thrills. Better written novels of the Gothic genre, such as Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, make the dialogue or descriptive passages witty or heavily layered, but this is not the case with Stoker. The “talkie” bits tend to be typically stuffy and pompous in the stereotypical Victorian mould. 
 
Bram Stoker is often painted as a somewhat oppressed Victorian man of his age. He was surrounded by luminaries in one shape or form. He won the hand of his wife, the famous beauty, Florence Balcombe, over Oscar Wilde, a hugely flamboyant and later scandalous figure of his time; a libertine to rival Byron one might say. Some historians have also suggested that Wilde had an affair with Balcombe, but I haven’t seen the sources for this. This cuckolded image, along with the thought of Stoker suffering under the tirades, egotism and lack of appreciation of Henry Irving, would present the idea of a mortal out of his depth among gods of his age. It helps steer the reviewer to thinking about the repression present in Dracula regularly let out in scenes of graphic horror. It is easy to see why so many modern reviewers see these feelings of repression in the female characters. They all become “voluptuous” (Stoker’s word) once Dracula has started turning them into vampires and, with it, brazen and more sexualized. Their destruction could be seen as symbolic of a rape punishment from the penetration of the stake, a type of violent intercourse, to the beheading, the ultimate way to shut someone up. As I said before, I don’t see these as being intentionally symbolic more of a possible revelation of the male psychology of the time.

There is also the fear of foreigners invading the British homeland, taking their women and colonizing, which was a big part of the “Invasion Literature” I previously mentioned. “Dracula” clearly fits this bill. Van Helsing even references a battle waged by Dracula against the Turks to explain how he understands Dracula’s plan. Citing Dracula’s underdeveloped “child brain”, he believes that the count will always return to simple patterns he has always followed. Therefore, even when he is beaten back from Britain, Van Helsing argues he will recoup and return to win, just as he did with the Turks. 
 
Van Helsing delves into psychology quite a lot and it is in the lunatic character of Renfield that we see Stoker’s connection between the science of the mind and the supernatural. It’s another exploration into the unknown designed to make readers fearful and better suspend their disbelief. It is largely successful and Renfield, the inmate who progressively devours the lives of larger animals, flies to spiders, spiders to birds and so on, and develops a subordinate mental connection with Dracula is perhaps the second most interesting character in the whole novel.

Conclusion: 

“Dracula” is an effective horror novel of the Gothic genre that still rightfully deserves its place among the greats of literature. It is not a profound piece of work and pretty much serves the purpose most effectively for what it was intended. In this respect, it is scarier and more atmospheric than Robert Louis Stephenson’s more cerebral “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, Wilde’s far more sophisticated “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and even Mary Shelley’s moral fable, “Frankenstein”. It is dated in some ways, such as the many discussions and descriptive passages. However, once these scenes have been carefully edited I have found that many young readers find the story un-putdown-able as either a listening experience or a reading one. Despite the fact that this book has now provided us with many clichés for its genre, it still thrills and the atmosphere is as effective as ever. Furthermore, the ideas that drove this giant of horror fiction branch off in many fascinating directions.

"Nosferatu" - "The Silent Grandaddy of Vampire Horror"

Luckily for us a print survived the Stoker estate's forced destruction of F.W. Murnau's attempt at bringing the Dracula story to the screen.

Despite the film's obvious similarities with Bram Stoker's story the film took on a life and look of its own. Characters are changed around a little, names and places are altered, but these are just obvious superficial attempts to unsuccessfully avoid copyright infringement. However, the vision of bubonic plague accompanying vampirism might seem like overkill on paper, but works superbly in Murnau's vision. Vampires are seen as a type of vermin creeping into humanity and this certainly served as an inspiration for the Count Orlock character. The Count Orlock persona influences horror to the present day. Think pale skinned bald headed maniacs or monsters, and there is probably at least something of Orlock's DNA in their genesis.
The film is full of iconic moments from the creeping shadow ascending the stairs to the stiff upright body rising from the coffin; Orlock is the embodiment of the bogeyman. There are distinctly Freudian aspects to him as well. He was described by one critic as "A penis with teeth". The atmosphere of the film can really transport you back not just to the period world that Murnau was trying to recreate but the feel of the dark times of the Weimar Republic, a time and place that would spawn two infamous real life "vampire" serial killers and an environment where Adolph Hitler would be seen as the nation's saviour.

"Dracula" (1931) - "I Never Drink... Wine"

Tod Browning's 1931 production of Dracula sparked the beginning of Universal Pictures very successful and incredibly influential 15 run of horror films. Starring the Hungarian-born actor, Bela Lugosi it created the image we have of Bram Stoker's 1897 supernatural villain and helped further cement the character's position and the world's most famous vampire. The "talkie" film had arrived, but as was quite common at the time, Dracula was an adaption of a successful stage play. The Marx Brothers, for example, did this a lot with their first few films and even defined the complex physical style through using live performances to gauge public reaction. Several decades later Steven Spielberg would use the same technique with preview screenings of his horror "Jaws", producing some of the most cleanly executed fright scenes in the history of cinema.The 1924 English play was written by Hamilton Deane and later revised by John L. Balderston for its Broadway run. Deane had already taken many liberties with Bram Stoker's original plot, but Balderston went even further and it is this version that Tod Browning directed for Universal Pictures. Lugosi played the part of Dracula during its Broadway run and Edward Van Sloan played his nemesis Professor Van Helsing. Both actors were chosen to play roles for Browning's film.

I won't go into a scene by scene discussion of the many deviations taken by the film from the novel, but one is especially interesting. The character of Renfield, played memorably by Dwight Frye, takes on solicitor Jonathan Harker's role in the first act. Harker will not appear until Dracula arrives in London. We see Renfield becoming a raving lunatic and under Dracula's influence because of his visit to Castle Dracula and his experiences with the Count. Renfield then arrives on the boat that secretly transports Dracula and is then confined to Dr Seward's sanatorium. The rest of the film's action takes place at the Seward household, rooms and garden of the sanatorium and the finale at Carfax Abbey, the property Dracula had originally engaged Renfield to lease for him.
 
Dracula is an atmospheric picture, but that entire atmosphere is confined to the first act. It is here we see the interior of Dracula's Castle with it gigantic cobwebs, Dracula's rising bride and other peculiar oddities like an armadillo moving around the ruins. Then there is Lugosi's marvellous entrance, where he gives all his most memorable accented lines. Even the simple introduction "I am Dracula" is iconic. Then there is, of course, the often quoted words "Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make". He is not adverse to a little bit of humour either, "I never drink...wine". Unfortunately the humour doesn't stop with this dry black style and in a move that seemed like sensible cinematic drama at the time but come across annoying distractions today, there is comedy relief in the form of the character of Marin, a member of Seward's staff.
The rest of the film is quite clearly a stage play lifted virtually verbatim off Broadway and put on a set. Much of the action, such as Dracula transforming into a wolf, is described as it occurs off-screen. On the plus side it means that there is a need for more dialogue between Dracula and his enemies. Considering how rarely this happens in later adaptations, it can be a little refreshing. Lugosi's lingering presence with his staring "hypnotic" eyes looked great in the first act, but it is protracted and awkwardly long in modern day hindsight. In many respects, the silent German "Nosferatu" film was a far better film. Released nine years previously, the atmosphere is pretty consistent throughout the picture and the use of symbolism through the expressionist art concepts work far better than the obvious staginess of Browning's picture. James Whale's "Frankenstein", produced and released to capitalize on the success of "Dracula" also does a better job at keeping the Gothic atmosphere leading up to a much more exciting climax.
 
If these examples weren't enough to flag up 1931 Dracula's flaws, then there is the much better work Browning did in his much more even "The Freaks". On the basis of this we could argue that it is all mainly down to the material. That is if we didn't also have the Spanish production of the film that was simultaneously made at the same studio. This is scene for scene the same film, but made with a Spanish cast and crew. Despite having the same restrictions of Browning's film it just seems to be a slicker film that flows better. Perhaps this is all really down the general unevenness of the entire picture, both in terms of the way Browning handles the direction and with some of the larger-than-life actors. Because what the Spanish film can't hold an atmospheric candle to is Bela Lugosi and the film is undoubtedly his success. All scenes are so much dressing around Lugosi's performances as the Count. They may seem very stagey and hammy by today's standards, but save for his overdoing of the staring scenes later in the film they fit perfectly in the dark fantasy world Universal Pictures were creating. It is such as shame that this was a peak of Lugosi's success. Only in his portrayal of Igor in "Son of Frankenstein" and "Ghost of Frankenstein" and, of course, as Dr Richard Vollin in 1935's "The Raven" would the actor come close to the performance he now best remembered.


"Bram Stoker's Dracula" - The Perfect Gothic Romance

Bram Stoker's Dracula is not a very good horror film. However, it is a very effective Gothic romance and adventure story, and one of my favourite films for a number of reasons.

Firstly it is the most faithful big screen adaptation of Stoker's novel. In fact, the only film version I have seen that can compete with it is the 1977 BBC drama and that diverges on the plot in places where this version doesn't. There is even a decent attempt to make Dracula look like he is described in the novel, at least in the first act. For the record he is not described as a bald headed rat-faced "penis with teeth" (contemporary quote) as he is portrayed in the undeniably classic silent movie "Nosferatu". He is not a slicked back 30 something Hungarian (although Transylvania is pretty close) as seen in Bella Lugosi's memorable rendition. And he is not the athletic figure presented by Christopher Lee. This film presents him as an ancient otherworldly aristocrat with long sharpened nails and hairs in his palms, just as Stoker described. That is before the blood of a ship full of sailors returns him to youth.

Francis Ford Coppola does a brilliant job with his inclusion of the historical Dracula. Of course, we know now just how little Stoker took from the true story of Prince Vlad "The Impaler" Tepes, but it is a good creative move on the part of Coppola and one that has inspired more historical investigation into medieval Romania. The cast is a heavyweight array of talent. I have always admired most of Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins work. Oldman pulls off a reasonable Romanian accent, although I have been told otherwise. Hopkins is great as an eccentric Van Helsing. In addition to this Winona Rider and Sadie Frost manage their roles reasonably well, which is more than can be said for Keanu Reeves. Reeves is the single disappointment in this film. His accent has met pretty much universal criticism and there is nothing to save this performance.

Not being scary doesn't bother me. There are minor shocks and certainly some eeriness along with some horrific imagery, but this is dressing for what is essentially a great Byronic hero story. When one considers that Lord Byron was indirectly responsible for the creation of the Dracula persona, this is an interesting homage. Other more overt references to source material include the great classic cinematic Draculas and the use of film special effects that would have been used in 1897 (the year the book was published and where this film is set).

The set designs are brilliant, only certain scenes let the mask slip a little (the gypsy chase towards the film's finale for example). The costumes of Eiko Ishioka are among the real stars of this film, however, and they really help to shape the film's almost operatic style. Speaking of opera, both the score by Wojciech Kilar and the single song, "Love Song for a Vampire" by Annie Lennox go into my top ten movie soundtracks and top ten singles lists. Pure atmosphere and emotion all the way.

The best DVD edition currently available is the 2007 double disc "Collector's Edition". It contains a few interesting, if a little short, documentaries on the film, trailers, including the great teaser, plus an introduction and audio commentary by Coppola. Nevertheless, it is all a little sparse and I am grateful that I really got into this film when it was first released, taping some of the great documentaries released a the time, including The South Bank Show special.



Don't forget to check out Jamie Clubb's main blog www.jamieclubb.blogspot.com
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