Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula has found its way to the screen many times – we take a look at the finest performances to bring Stoker’s characters to life.
The Prince of Darkness has been stalking our media since Bram Stoker released him from his coffin back in 1897. The story of the original vampire travelling across the world, feeding on the flesh of humanity, has been so popular that he is the second literary figure to have the most scree nadaptations with 200 (the first being Sherlock Holmes with over 250!)
Across these articles, the plan now is to breakdown the main characters and some of the great performances and films to add to your list. It’s not a guide to every one of those hundreds of films, but instead suggestions of where to get started.
For the purpose of this written journey, I am focusing on the main characters that feature prominently across most of the Dracula films so, regretfully, I am skipping Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood. I am omitting Dr John Seward as well whose appearances shrink across the course of the movie adaptations, and after Patti LuPone played the role in television series Penny Dreadful, you can’t really best her.
Also, any other blood-sucking features such as Interview With The Vampire won’t get a shout out unless they feature Dracula. You could say, they don’t…count….
Abraham Van Helsing
Best Performance: Peter Cushing in Dracula (1958)
Before Van Helsing became somewhat his own entity, especially in spin-off Van Helsing which starred a long-haired Hugh Jackman, he was the smart man in pursuit of vampires. He has had many forms including Academy Award-winning Anthony Hopkins in a very campy version of the character and, famously, Edward Von Sloan in the classic Universal series.
However, Peter Cushing – who funnily enough is most famed for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes – takes on the role opposite the brilliant Christopher Lee in the Hammer Horror series. Cushing has portrayed Van Helsing in five different films – always in the same calm and collected way who is happy to burn or nearly die to save wretched souls from Dracula’s grasp.
Best Performance: Sadie Frost in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
The ill-fated best friend of Mina has a tough time in the early adaptations of the novel. Across a lot of the movies, poor Lucy Westenra has a handful of lines before she is killed by Dracula, and subsequently staked off-screen. She usually to do nothing more than be rich, scream loudly, and then suddenly she is gone with Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker wiping her dead dust from their hands. Worse still, sometimes her character gets rolled into Mina’s and it becomes a sorry mesh of writing.
However, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 movie, Lucy gets to do so much more, and Sadie Frost is clearly having the best time. Lucy here is sexually explicit and hopefully romantic. However, as the first person turned when Dracula hits English shores, Lucy is bitten by Dracula and becomes one of his loyal brides. Whilst scared at first, in this adaptation Lucy’s vampiric state is relished as she teases her three suitors and Mina with death, destruction, and utter depravity. Frost also gets to wear the best outfits anyone has worn across the Dracula screen adaptations.
Best Performance: Dwight Frye in Dracula (English, 1931)
I am going to say it: Renfield is a much more interesting character than Jonathan Harker. In nearly every faithful version of the original novel, Renfield steals the show.
In the original book, Renfield is an asylum inmate who was driven crazy by his fanged master and sent insects to feast upon as a reward. In the early adaptations, however, he kicks off the action. Renfield is an accountant sent to Dracula’s house to complete his bidding (on a house in Whitby,) and subsequently warns all who will listen (who is promptly no one,) that the Count is coming to feast on everyone’s blood.
He has been immortalised on screen, greatly, I might add, by Tom Waits (1991) and Pablo Alvarez Rubio (Spanish, 1931) but no one holds a candle to Dwight Frye. The actor is best known for playing horror sidekicks but, my god, does he perfect it in Tod Browning’s Dracula film. Those intense eyes and back of the throat laugh sends chills down your spine. Frye’s performance will stick with you eternally.
Best Performance: Bruno Ganz in Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
I’ve never been a huge fan of Jonathan Harker. For the most part, he does more damage than good. He spends a lot of time moping over Mina, then gets to Dracula’s castle where he immediately insults the count and then practically hands his fiancé over to the villain on a silver platter (okay, maybe not silver.) It’s no wonder he becomes quick prey to the brides of Dracula rolling around in the castle.
In the books, he is much more of a heroic character but in the films, he’s a sap. Sometimes he does climb castle walls and try to escape the villainous castle but, in the end, he never really feels like the main protagonist. Especially when Keanu Reeves plays him with that infamous English accent. However, Bruno Ganz does play him very well in Werner Herzog’s adaptation of the silent film. He’s my choice here.
Mina Murray (Harker)
Best Performance: Greta Schröder (as Ellen Hutter) in Nosferatu (1922)
Mina has been played many times. For the most part of the stories, especially the Universal Monster series, she is there to be wed to Jonathan and then fall into the clutches of Dracula. Some stories paint her differently such as making her Dracula’s long-lost love from many moons ago, or perhaps her own beast such as Mina Harker in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003.)
Yet in F W Murnau’s Nosferatu, she becomes an interesting figurehead. Before Dracula has even entered the scene, this morose and mindful Ellen is already haunted by him. As her fiancé heads to Romania to do the Count’s deals, Ellen starts having visions of the evil fanged beast which causes her to walk desperately at night. She is allured to him but frightened by that temptation to stroll throughout the shadows. Orleck is similarly bound to this version’s Mina and comes crawling from his castle, across countless shores, to find her.
As the counts shadowed hand grabs at Ellen’s heart, Ellen becomes prey to his clutches. It is a grim ending but a poetic one. Distracted by her beauty, Orleck feasts until sunlight, and whilst her blood is the sacrifice, she is ultimately the one to kill him.
Do check the film out if you’ve not had the chance. Greta Schröder is really quite something in it.
We’ll come to Dracula and the films themselves a bit more next time…
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