As The Count is exhumed for another screen adaptation with Renfield, Sophie Monks Kaufman argues that the iconic character has become a cultural barometer, with each new version mirroring our ever-changing society.
Dracula has no reflection. Raise a mirror to the Transylvanian bloodsucker and it will show only the room in which he stands. Yet in each of his over 500 screen iterations, the infamous vampire – created by Irish author Bram Stoker in 1897 – reflects back at us something vital about the culture that awoke him from his slumber. Comedy-horror Renfield is the latest film to have a crack at raising the undead. Out for The Count this time is Nicolas Cage, who is stationed in a decrepit hospital in the modern Gothic location of New Orleans.
As the title suggests, star billing is given over to Dracula’s loyal familiar – typically portrayed as an unhinged, insect-eating 59-year-old in keeping with Stoker’s characterisation. In this version, Renfield (played by Nicholas Hoult) has lost decades and gained cheekbones. He has lost faith in Dracula and gained a pained politeness. The film’s biggest comedy coup is having Renfield attend group therapy for those in codependent relationships with narcissistic monsters. The dramatic irony is that while his peers are dealing with metaphorical monsters, Renfield has his wagon hitched to a real one. Dracula demands fresh necks to suck and offers no career progression. Renfield is feeling like it’s time to move on.
Obstructing his path is Cage’s scenery-chewing pantomime villain, indebted less to the source text than the jambalaya of Draculas and miscellaneous vampires that over a century of mythologising has simmered into being. There is an attempt to kill Dracula via a ‘throw everything at the wall’ approach, accompanied by the jokey confession that there is so much lore that they’re damned if they know which destruction method really works. We are in a hopelessly post-modern era. Although iconic fictional characters are as seductive as ever to creators, few dare to take a sincere approach. Instead, we have movie equivalents of one long wink-wink-nudge-nudge. What was once a truly sinister figure is now a maximalist parody.
The words ‘maximalist parody’ cannot be spoken without red eyes in the sky turning sideways towards Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992). Nineties grunge queen Winona Ryder brought Coppola the script as reparations for turning down a part in The Godfather Part III (1990). In return, she wanted the lead female role. Or roles. Mina Harker is a buttoned-up school teacher who falls under Dracula’s spell thanks to her solicitor fiancé Jonathan (Keanu Reeves) and, for extra erotic stakes, she is Dracula’s reincarnated 15th-century lover. The goal was to transition out of child roles and into adult territory. Be careful what you wish for, Winona…
Coppola’s Dracula is a seething mass of contradictions: one of the most loyal adaptations of the book with a grafted on framing device involving the 15th-century Voivode of Wallachia, it is a self-serious baroque opera that is sillier than words can convey. Except for Winona’s double-duty of tragic romantic heroines, all the women are – and there’s no other word for it, it was the Nineties remember – sluts. Lucy, in the novel demure and lovable, becomes depraved cock-mad Sadie Frost who sleepwalks into a writhing sexual assignation with a hellhound, a form that Dracula can assume along with bats, wolves and mist.
Coppola uses cinema’s entire history of visual trickery to animate this shapeshifting. Oldman in a frightwig dials his performance up to 11, scanning as deranged opposite the naturalistic stylings of Winona. We only need to watch Coppola’s Dracula to understand in our bones that the Nineties were an incoherent time: seeming to beckon new social freedoms, seeming to cut ties with the patriarchal past, but actually cocksure in extremis.
Horny Draculas and his sexy sidekicks were at their peak in the era of exploitation cinema. The 1970s gave us a swathe of films like Vampyros Lesbos (1970) and Daughter of Dracula (1972) by B-list king Jesús Franco, as well as William Crain’s blaxploitation version Blacula (1972). Some of the tale’s ingredients – sexy succubuses, crying children in sacks – framed with earnest horror in the source, were ripe for the exploitation eye. Credit for the first film to locate the wanton potential of the character must go to Hammer Horror and Christopher Lee, who originated the fanged look now synonymous with The Count. Never let it be said that the lowbrow has no influence.
The longest shadow, of course, belongs to Béla Lugosi, the Hungarian stage actor who achieved immortality for playing the title role in Tod Browning and Karl Freund’s 1931 film. No actor to play Dracula, before or since, has achieved the same iconic stature as Lugosi does when he appears on the staircase, seemingly 12 feet tall, wafting down to meet his soon-to-be hapless stooge Renfield. He is the epitome of sinister dignity, an otherworldly apparition whose evil deeds seem governed by forces beyond anyone’s control, even his own. He is a vessel who never breaks a sweat. It is this haunting composure that means he has endured as a hundred carbon copies fall away. Browning-Freund’s Dracula is less successful than its central performance – there is a preponderance of drawing-room conversations, the women are drips, the men fops. The film just so happened to luck out by casting the right person in the right role, meaning the stagey qualities that would otherwise date the film fall away before the soul-sucking charisma of its leading man.
Renfield – in its own goofy way – knows exactly what it’s up against and cannot hope to equal. For a brief narrated recap, Nicolas Cage is presented in black-and-white in the mode of Béla Lugosi on those castle stairs. As Stoker himself knew, sometimes our only hope is a transfusion of pure blood.