It's Halloween season again, which means I've been revisiting some of my favorite vampire films. I kicked things off the way I usually do, with a viewing of F. W. Murnau's silent 1922 nightmare, Nosferatu.
A plagiarized version of Stoker's Dracula, it's amazing just how much of the novel Murnau's film manages to get right. The sense of creeping menace. The oppressive atmosphere. The looming evil of the Count himself.
For my money, no other adaptation has come close.
If you've never seen it, I highly recommend treating yourself. The 100th anniversary of the premiere was just a few months ago, so there's never been a better time.
Just do yourself a favor, and see one of the restored versions.
Or at least watch this cheap cash-in version, featuring a random introduction by David Carradine, and a soundtrack consisting entirely of Type O Negative songs.
No matter which version you watch, there's just something pure and refreshing about the portrayal of a Count that's an unrepentant monster. Maybe it's because that's the first story element so many modern interpretations discard.
One of the biggest offenders, ironically, is Bram Stoker's Dracula, the 1992 version directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starring Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder.
Don't get me wrong. There's plenty to love about Coppola's movie.
The practical effects are amazing. The cinematography and costumes are top notch, and the actors all turn out stellar performances. It's a lavish, big-budget adaptation that includes scenes, plot elements, and characters normally cut for brevity's sake.
My main complaint is the "reincarnated love" subplot. It's not just a nit-pick, either. Especially not in a film that works so hard to be true to the source material otherwise.
Making Dracula a simp for Mina was a massive misunderstanding of the character, and of the Old World evil he represented.
Stoker wrote a story about an ancient and powerful monster that creeps into modern society from the dark corners of the world. It was about men of science and faith standing strong in the face of a supernatural threat.
But Coppola's version discards this timeless theme, and dares to ask: “What if Count Dracula was just heartbroken and misunderstood?”
Make no mistake, Dracula is a novel open to all kinds of interpretation. It’s been said elsewhere that Dracula was the first techno-thriller. Van Helsing and company chase the Count with every modern tool at their disposal, including telegram, railroad, and phonograph.
There’s a strong subtext of the rational, new world versus the old, of civilization versus superstition.
But one thing the novel is not is the tale of forbidden, timeless romance.
Dracula’s attempt to turn Mina into one of his brides was a calculated act of psychological warfare, not love.
The heroes were onto him. They'd found him out. He tried to break their will, not just by killing a woman they all loved, but by damning her as well.
The impact of this scene is lost on modernists.
In the novel, Dracula forcing Mina to “drink from him” wasn't a taboo moment between star-crossed lovers. It was an unspeakable perversion of both a bride’s physical love for her husband, and of Holy Communion.
Dracula also timed it so all the men in her life—all of whom had a social and moral duty to protect her—witnessed it.
It honestly puzzles me how modern adaptations reinterpret this as an act of romance and passion. Dracula is spiritually and physically raping Mina, and he’s making her loved ones watch him do it. Then he taunts them over their powerlessness.
It is, without exaggeration, the most horrific scene in the book.
But in order to truly grasp the horror, you'd have to believe in Damnation, fidelity, and honor.
In the modernist worldview, immortality isn’t a curse. It’s a blessing. After all, why would being denied a place in Heaven matter, if Heaven were nothing but a fairy tale for adults.
Marriage isn’t sacred. It’s a tool of the patriarchy, and exists only to oppress women.
And on that subject, how dare you suggest a woman needs men to protect her?
For my money, this is the scene where Dracula’s true Evil is made plain.
One could argue everything up to that point was the behavior of an apex predator, looking for more fertile hunting grounds. But the pure malice of his attack on Mina can’t be explained in naturalistic terms.
It’s also worth noting that his malice is directed not at Mina, but at the (male) heroes.
He wants them to see how weak and powerless they are. He wants them to know they've failed. He wants them disheartened, demoralized, and broken. So he attacks their greatest weakness: Mina.
But again, this interpretation is unacceptable to modernists.
How DARE you suggest a man’s weak spot is a woman? After all, women are strong, and invincible, and fierce, and passionate, and self-actualized, and powerful, and confident, and beautiful, and free-spirited, and smart, and brave and--
Fact is, in order for this scene to work—for this to be the scene the real horror of the book turns on—you have to accept that Mina is an innocent and largely passive victim. Which is one reason modern interpretations do away with it.
In modernist ideology, women cannot be either of those things.
Dracula doesn’t "attack" her. She wants him.
And this, in turn, reduces Dracula.
He is not an ancient evil, stooping to depraved lows solely to attack his enemies. He’s a heartsick orbiter who’s creeping on his neighbor’s wife.
The real villains in this new interpretation? The boring, stick-in-the-mud husband, and the other men trying to come between Mina and Dracula's forbidden relationship.
Dracula's death in book is the triumph of faith, science, and courage against an unspeakable evil. Dracula's death in the Coppola film it the tragic and final sundering of a timeless love.
Like Mina, viewers are meant to question whether or not she made the right choice.
Doubtless, the filmmakers were trying to make Mina a "stronger" character. The changes were meant to give her a more active role in the story, and to give her more personal agency over the final outcome.
Ironically, if they wanted to see how it's done, they should have just looked at Nosferatu. In Murnau's film, Ellen—the copyright-friendly version of Mina—is the only character strong enough to stop the Count.
Murnau's film doesn't sacrifice the novel's central theme to make Mina/Ellen a stronger character. Nor does it sacrifice the Count's evil.
Of all filmmakers to tackle Dracula, F. W. Murnau got the point.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.