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Mad About Vlad: A Dracula Countdown

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Dracula has captured the public’s imagination for more than 100 years...

Meet Count Dracula. Night owl. Bloodsucker. … Action hero? Yup. The world’s most famous vampire guns for nothing less than superhero status in his latest blockbuster, Dracula Untold. The 2014 flick is based on the popular (albeit disputed) notion that Dracula author Bram Stoker found inspiration for his fictional count in a real-life historical monster — Vlad Tepes, the infamous 15th-century Romanian prince whose nickname, the Impaler, gives a pretty good idea of some of his more well-known atrocities. The new origin story, complete with new love interests and superpowers, posits just how and why a bloodthirsty but noble prince became king of the undead.

Dracula Untold isn’t so much of a remake as a reboot for Universal, part of the studio’s plan to drag its classic monsters into the modern age (see, for example, Van Helsing). And it’s not the first time the vampire count has been given such a makeover. Dracula has captured the public’s imagination for more than 100 years — some say he’s second only to Sherlock Holmes in number of film/TV appearances for a literary character — in horror, romance, comedy, mysteries, action, and more. So who is the “real” Dracula? The truth is that he’s constantly adapting. Here, then, are five Dracula movies that show his evolution:

Nosferatu (1922)

This early silent film, the first feature adaptation of Stoker’s 1897 novel, shows vampirism at its most grotesque. The plot was so close to the book that the filmmakers were sued for copyright infringement by Stoker’s heirs, but it also draws on age-old Eastern European folklore for its Count “Orlok” (Dracula in all but name, played by Max Schrek). With his rat-like ears and super creepy long fingernails, the tall, thin Orlok cut a monstrous shadow as he stalked his victims. Today, the film is hailed as a classic of German Expressionism and the image of Orlok remains one of the most recognizable. (Google “Knottsferatu” for a good laugh.)

Dracula (1931)

If you’ve dressed in a vampire costume for Halloween, you most likely looked like Bela Lugosi in this Universal Studios black-and-white classic. Lugosi’s aristocratic count, with his thick Hungarian accent and formal dress complete with starched cape, cut a figure both handsome and haunting, capturing Stoker’s descriptions of the character as a charming if unsettling man. The script follows the novel fairly closely, with a journey from England to Transylvania and back wherein three dashing heroes seek to rid the world of this vile creature preying on their good women. But thanks in great part to Lugosi’s iconic performance, after this film’s release no slayer could ever truly keep Dracula down. Fun fact: Lugosi was buried in a version of that cape.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Just a few years before Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt would make vampires sympathetic sex symbols in fancy clothes in Interview with a Vampire, Francis Ford Coppola presented this equally lavish affair, starring Gary Oldman as the Transylvanian prince of darkness. Coppola mashed up Stoker’s novel with the brutal legends of Vlad the Impaler and came up with a bloody good romance about crossing “oceans of time” to be with Winona Ryder. The title is somewhat misleading (since so much came from Coppola’s imagination and not Stoker’s), but spellbinding practical and in-camera effects, along with sumptuous costumes, make it one of the most memorable and essential versions of Dracula. It firmly established the count as both a lover and a fighter (even if it did feature one the worst English accents ever committed to celluloid, courtesy of Keanu Reeves).

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Premise: what if Max Schrek, the actor from 1922’s Nosferatu, really was a vampire? This black comedy starring Willem Dafoe as Schrek/Orlok and John Malkovich as the film director F.W. Murnau is the culmination of a century of vampire storytelling, using bits and pieces from other works to show all the different sides of the character. This exchange sums up the tone nicely: Murnau: “Why him, you monster? Why not the ... script girl?” Schrek: “Oh. The script girl. I’ll eat her later.” An overlooked cult gem.

Dracula Untold (2014)

There’s a good chance this whole movie was written around a scene where Dracula commands an army of bats like a symphony, a seriously impressive special-effects trick. Horror fans bristled at the count’s portrayal as a good guy on a respectable mission, and historians decried the poetic license taken with Vlad’s origins — it’s a far cry from both literary and cinematic vampire convention. But if you’ve been waiting for Dracula to get medieval on a bunch of bad guys, this is your movie. And in the grand Hollywood tradition, it sets us up for a sequel. Dracula is immortal, after all.

Liisa Ladouceur is the author of How to Kill a Vampire: Fangs in Folklore, Film and Fiction