Since we looked at the greatest Frankenstein films recently, it’s only appropriate to take a look another horror story that has been adapted for the screen countless times—Dracula. As with Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s tale has been wildly changed in almost every adaptation, but that doesn’t make the movies any less iconic. Let’s take a look at the five best.
Dracula may have been the film that started Universal’s monster craze, and it cemented Bela Lugosi as a horror star, but it is far from a perfect film. While other classic Universal horrors hold up pretty well today, Dracula feels tired and inconsistent. So why does it make this list at all?
First and foremost, the scenes in Transylvania in the film’s first act are great. We get some great atmosphere in Dracula’s castle (even with the armadillos that are there for some reason. I guess it’s Southwestern Europe), and the performances of both Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Dwight Frye as Renfield stand out.
So why isn’t this film better? Well for one, it was supposed to be a truer adaptation of Stoker’s novel, but with budget constraints, it was changed to an adaptation of the stage play instead. Second, director Tod Browning wanted silent horror icon Lon Chaney (Sr., aka the first one who was walking with The Queen) to play the Count, and while a dead actor playing Dracula would be apropos, it wouldn’t be very practical. Browning wasn’t too happy about his movie being under budget and his star being underground, so he often let his cinematographer do the job for him. It often just looks like we’re watching a stage play, and a lot of the players act accordingly. It’s an important film sure, as basically any Dracula parody you see will be a caricature of Bela Lugosi, but it’s not a massively entertaining one.
4. Shadow of the Vampire
You may say “But this one doesn’t count” to which I would say “Who cares? It has Willem Dafoe as a vampire.” Shadow is both a fictionalized retelling of the filming of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and a dark comedy about prima donna actors and directors. German director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) goes all-out by casting a real-life vampire who uses the alias Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) as Count Orlock in his adaptation-of-Dracula-with-different-names-so-the-estate-doesn’t-sue Nosferatu (They sued anyway).
Just like Count Dracula, Schreck starts out as unsettling but doesn’t really do anything particularly evil… and then he tries to kill someone. His true colors are revealed more as the film goes on, as he tries to control Murnau in every way possible, even forcing him to create a huge model of a ship just so he doesn’t have to shoot at sea. Murnau is careless towards his crew and only cares about his creation (OK it’s kind of a Frankenstein movie too, just go with it), leading to a great climactic scene where Schreck begins to attack.
Dafoe is brilliant as Schreck, making us completely believe he is the 1920s character actor he’s portraying. Malkovich is gloriously over-the-top as Murnau, and there are also great supporting turns from Udo Kier, Eddie Izzard, Catherine McCormack, and Cary Elwes. It’s an enjoyable film for anyone, but especially for anyone who loves the art of film making.
3. Horror of Dracula
After Hammer put their own spin on the Frankenstein lore with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, they did the same with Dracula in 1958, creating Horror of Dracula (It was called Dracula in the UK and Horror of Dracula in the USA, but I’ll use the latter to avoid confusion.). They even utilized a lot of the same crew, including director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and stars Peter Cushing (cast as Dr. Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee (cast as Dracula himself).
Like basically every entry on this list frankly, Horror of Dracula plays fast and loose with the source material. Jonathan Hawker comes to Transylvania, not to negotiate a real estate deal, but instead to be Dracula’s librarian. He meets Dracula and one of his becoming brides… and then dies before the end of the first act. This is entirely unexpected, letting us know we’re in for something different.
The highlights of the movie are, unsurprisingly, Lee as Dracula and Cushing as Van Helsing. Everyone else does just fine, and the set pieces are lavish, but it’s Hammer’s two big stars who shine brightest. Lee’s Dracula is not as charming as Lugosi’s, instead choosing to be imposing (he was 6’5 after all) and vicious, without completely foregoing his air of affability. Dracula’s defeat at the end (I mean, spoiler I guess, but did you expect Dracula to win?) was incredibly controversial at the time, but it’s a great scene. Lee did not really care for the Dracula sequels that followed, but there’s no question his heart is in this one.
2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Yes, Keanu Reeves was in this. Yes, he was terrible. Can we talk about the good stuff now?
Francis Ford Coppola taking on a novel that has been adapted many times and casting Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins sounds like it should result in the definitive version right? Well, for some it’s great and for some it’s a mess… and for some it’s an enjoyable mess. For me, while it’s far from perfect, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
The visuals in this film are absolutely breathtaking. You could take a shot from any scene of this film and frame it as a painting. Coppola puts so much effort into the visuals that you’d think he’s overcompensating for bad performances, but with the exception of that one guy, he’s not. Sure, some of the performances (note, basically all but Reeves) are over-the-top, but it’s a Dracula movie. Look back over every other entry on this list: Bela Lugosi, Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Christopher Lee. These actor’s performances don’t exactly scream subtlety, and they shouldn’t.
Coppola’s film balances a lot of characters, so in that way it is a lot like the book, but it also builds a romance between Dracula and Mina (Winona Ryder), showing her as the reincarnated lost love of Dracula. It’s not necessary, but Ryder gives a great performance, so I have no problem with giving her these additional scenes. There is also a great minor performance by Tom Waits as Renfield (why is it the Renfields who always stand out?), which even people who don’t care for the film seem to like. It’s not the definitive Dracula film it was trying to be, and it goes without saying that it’s not Coppola’s best film, but it is a blast to watch.
It may be almost a century old, but Nosferatu holds up unbelievably well today. I talked here about how scary Max Schreck’s performance as Count Orlock is, but I can’t say enough about how effective the look of this character is. Almost every other Dracula focuses on his human side, but this one is completely inhuman. (If it interests you, the Dracula of the book was never as good looking as Lugosi’s portrayal or as hideous as Schreck’s.)
There are changes galore to the source material, but without them, we probably wouldn’t have the film’s most frightening scene—Orlock’s shadow climbing the stairs. Today, it’s still considered one of the most chilling scenes in horror cinema. F.W. Murnau’s film even introduced the concept of vampires being killed by sunlight. I’m not kidding—go read the novel if you don’t believe me. Dracula was weak to sunlight sure, but the dramatic death by dawn is all Murnau.
There’s something creepy about the fact that this movie is so old. We don’t know what these characters even might sound like. It leaves a heck of a lot to the imagination, but it also is not afraid to show its grotesque monster. The other performances are all fine too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s Murnau’s classic directing and Schreck’s iconic turn as Orlock that make this the best Dracula film of all time.
So did I leave your favorite off the list? Leave a comment and let me know what your favorite Dracula film is.