‘Living dead’ tales have abounded since ancient times and in most cultures, but few have persisted in fame as those about vampires, werewolves, zombies and man-made monsters such as Frankenstein and the Golem. Regardless of where or when those fear-inducing tales were written, the usual setting was Romania or Hungary. To readers in the 19th Century in Western Europe and the Americas, Eastern Europe was as exotically mythic as Far Asia and Saharan Africa.
Sure, Western Europe and the Americas had its own folk tales of ravenous wolves, witches and minions of Satan that donned the guise of any number of animals from bats and cats and rats to wolves, crows and crawlies. Rats could be poisoned, and black cats burnt at the stake along with witches, but it was dangerous to take on flying bats, ravenous wolves, hissing poisonous snakes, or any creature endowed with fangs–including vampires. All lent themselves as cautionary tales to scare little Sarah or Silas into familial or societal compliance. Certainly not to lull them to sleep.
Oddly, women authors such as Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley found they could crack into the male publishing world by writing Gothic horror novels. And for movies, there was a mother lode of eerie tales of evil spirits that could be shaped into gauzy figures on foggy nights that easily vanquished stalwart males who failed to bring along a crucifix or stake and mallet, then crept toward the souls and bodies of innocent maidens. Free of interference, the vampire then had his way with said maiden’s presumed purity.
Bestselling horror books quickened the lust for movies about vampires and monsters. Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, was first published in 1897, and did not linger long on book shelves before movie producers began a never-ending series of films about vampires. Mary Shelley introduced man-made monsters into the brew, prescient to many during the dawn of the modern industrial era.
For a century, Max Shreck’s desiccated Dracula in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu has been one of two prevailing images of Dracula. The other has been Bela Lugosi’s sleek Count that is the more imitated by other actors, comic impersonators, and as the model for cartoon characters.
Gary Oldman (b: 1957) split the difference. By day he is finely attired, a withered, seemingly civilized relic of old aristocracy. By night, he is a vampire. When Coppola’s Dracula film was first released in 1987, the late and still beloved, movie critic Roger Ebert wrote: “Like a few gifted actors, [Gary Oldman] is able to re-invent himself for every role.” (To that I add Oldman’s appearance, voice and manner of movement.)
Oldman’s roles over his 50-year screen career have ranged from the gay pranking playwright Joe Orton to punk rocker Sid Vicious, to assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, Harry Potter’s tragic Sirius Black to John LeCarre’s calm and dutiful spy-hunter George Smiley—to Dracula. And yet it took until Oldman portrayed Winston Churchill for him to be awarded a best actor Oscar in 2017.
Most of us, safe from real-life intrusions by mummies, zombies and creatures of the night, enjoy sitting contentedly in our comfy armchair, perhaps with with hot cocoa, to read or watch exciting stories about Dracula as he flaps impatiently against our window, demanding to be let inside. Or as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster grunts as he pounds at the door to our imagination, and supernatural creatures slither about our feet. All in deadly black and white.
Francis Ford Coppola offers us lushly saturated color scenes of love and the supernatural to contrast with black and grey battles and cruelty in his Dracula movie. In most vampire movies, Dracula just is. In Coppola’s, he shows how Vlad becomes the Impaler becomes Dracula, with flashbacks of Vlad’s heartfelt love that endures even after his adored wife is killed. And for that, humanity, including film watchers, will not be spared his vengeance.
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Frank Cullen is a show business historian whose collection of show biz artifacts was deemed the largest private collection in the USA when it was donated to the U of AZ in Tucson. Frank Cullen with Donald McNeilly wrote seven Porridge Sisters Adventures and the two-volume Vaudeville Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America (2006) Routlege Press, for which the pair were awarded for “Excellence in Theatre History Preservation” by the New York Museum of Theatre History.