Dracula Extrapolated: Love at First Bite

Exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.

What if Dracula emigrated to New York City?

Central to the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the Count’s decision to abandon his castle in Transylvania and set his deadly sights on England. Such horrific relocation has provided a template for many subsequent vampire works, but not all of them are concerned with a specifically British invasion. The American comedy film Love at First Bite (1979) imagines a transatlantic Dracula. When the Count, along with his loyal if bumbling manservant Renfield, is evicted from his Gothic abode by the Communist government of Romania (so gymnasts such as Nadia Comaneci can use the place as a training facility), he chooses to become an expatriate exsanguinator. The eviction gives him the impetus to travel to America and pursue New York fashion model Cindy Sondheim, whom he has identified as the reincarnation of his beloved Mina Harker.

Since Love at First Bite is a vampire comedy, Dracula’s coming to America leads to some hilarious developments. After a baggage claim mix-up at the airport, the Count’s casket lands in the middle of a black funeral ceremony. His bat-flight into the apartment of a poor, starving Latino family quickly goes awry when the New Yorkers deem the intruder a “black chicken” and hungrily chase after him. When Dracula has to resort instead to taking a nip from a stereotypical wino, he gets terrifically tipsy, and ends up with a queasy stomach and bloodshot eyes (lamenting his nightcap, Dracula says the soused donor tasted “like the Volga River at low tide”).

In Stoker’s novel, Dracula plans his move to England with fiendish precision, but here in Love at First Bite he engages in a romantic lark. Accordingly, he is quite unprepared for what he encounters in the new world. This fish-out-of-water (bat-out-of-sky?) element propels much of the film’s plot, and because the Count is presented as more debonair than debased, he forms a sympathetic lead, not the frightful foreigner of Stoker tradition. Dracula is just an exaggerated version of any disoriented visitor to Manhattan, overwhelmed by the course of life in the big city.

Love at First Bite spoofs the Universal film Dracula more than Stoker’s book, as star George Hamilton affects the attire and accent of Bela Lugosi. The film’s transplanting of a classic storyline also works as a sendup of American modernity, by drawing extensively on the popular image of late 70’s New York City. The Big Apple is represented as an urban jungle, rife with street crime (in an early scene, Dracula makes like a nonlethal, nosferatu Charles Bronson when accosted by a group of hoodlums in Harlem) and subject to sudden outbreaks of chaos (the mass looting that transpires during the borough-wide blackout that forms the backdrop to the film’s climax). It’s a city of illicit subway trysts and discotheque glitz; narcissism and hedonism abound. Casual drug use is depicted, and inspires one of the film’s best lines. When Cindy offers Dracula some booze and a marijuana joint, enthusing that the latter is “really heavy shit,” Dracula evocatively responds: “I do not drink…wine. And I do not smoke…shit.”

This film proves that not all Dracula stories need be dire retellings. Hamilton is delightful as the undead Count, a dashing figure who dashes off a slew of deadpan jokes. Arte Johnson (who has the Dwight Frye cackle down pat) is hysterical as the insect-dieting, scene-chewing Renfield, and Richard Benjamin provides supreme silliness as the obsessive offspring of Van Helsing, Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg. From I Am Legend to Salem’s Lot and The Strain and the film/TV adaptations thereof, there have been plenty of (American-set) extrapolations of a vampire plague–the very epidemic of terror that Stoker’s heroes risked their lives to avert. Love at First Bite‘s Dracula Abroad storyline takes a decidedly more laughing approach, and remains quite enjoyable four decades after its cinematic release.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: “Abraham’s Boys”

The third installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.

What if Van Helsing was an abusive, delusional figure?

Professor Abraham Van Helsing gets the last word in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Quoted in a note appended by Jonathan Harker (dated seven years after the events of the novel), Van Helsing says of Mina and her son Quincey: “This boy will some day day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.”  Van Helsing strikes an adoring note here, and the dossier of documents that comprises Dracula is posited as a helpful educational tool that will one day teach the boy about his family history. Nevertheless, author Joe Hill’s 2004 short-story sequel to the novel (think Bram Stoker by way of the film Frailty) imagines a much darker development.

In “Abraham’s Boys,” Van Helsing is living in early-20th Century America with his two children, Max and Rudy (the family has emigrated to the new world after being forced out of Amsterdam and then England by the scandal over some “terrible thing” the doctor has done). Right from the opening scene, Max, the story’s viewpoint character, paints a frightful portrait of his father. Van Helsing seizes his son by the wrist (Max can actually feel “the bones separating in the joint”) and verbally assaults him : “You disobey in a stupor, without considering, and then you wonder why sometime I can hardly stand to look at you. Mr. Barnum has a horse that can add small numbers. It is considered one of the great amazements of his circus. If you were once to show the slightest comprehension of what things I tell you, it would be wonder on the same order.” Such verbal lashing, though, pales in comparison to what Max’s younger brother experiences soon thereafter: as punishment for breaking the strange curfew imposed on the children (to be home indoors by nightfall), Rudy is beaten by Van Helsing with a quirt.

Van Helsing’s violent, paranoid behavior (bulbs of garlic are hung over the doorframe of the family residence) hardly endears him to his children, who have no knowledge at this point of their father’s supernatural encounters in Dracula. Max believes that Van Helsing is responsible for the death of his mother, a woman who suffered with “a chronic infection of the blood which caused her to bruise at the slightest touch.” A woman, in fact, named Mina, who Van Helsing married after the death of her first husband (and Van Helsing’s vampire-hunting protégé), Jonathan Harker. Max’s feelings toward his parents (beloved mother, dreaded father) appear more than simply Oedipal-fueled; he seems on the mark in suspecting his father of foul deed. When he and Rudy sneak into Van Helsing’s locked study (a sanctum they have been forbidden to enter when their father isn’t there), they accidently break a frame containing a calotype of Mina, and discover a disturbing picture secreted behind it. A “murdered woman” is shown naked and bound to a bed, with a bulb of garlic stuffed like a ball-gag in her mouth, and a wooden stake protruding from her chest. A blurred shape looms in the background, and Max recognizes the figure as his father: “In one hand he held a hatchet. In the other a doctor’s bag.”

This illicit photo cuts to the heart of Hill’s exploration in “Abraham’s Boys”: was Van Helsing understandably traumatized by his experiences in Dracula, or fiendishly transformed by them? The man Max has grown up with is someone “who feared the night as a person who can’t swim fears the ocean. Max almost needed it to be true, for vampires to be real, because the other possibility–that their father was, and always had been, in the grip of a psychotic fantasy–was too awful, too overwhelming.” Van Helsing might claim that his overbearing behavior is an exercise in tough love and that his stringent rules stem from a paternal desire to protect,” but Max and Rudy seem to need shielding most of all from him, not nosferatu. The story’s climax accentuates this, as Van Helsing attempts to teach his boys the grim basics of the vampire-killing trade by having them practice staking and decapitation on the fresh cadaver of their neighbor, Mrs. Kutchner (who died from cancer, not vampirism). The good doctor is working to warp his children more than empower them, and his fixation on vampires loose in America suggests derangement. When a hesitant Max questions why the staked woman in the secret photo didn’t have fangs, he receives an answer that is neither convincing nor comforting: “His father stared at him, his eyes blank, uncomprehending. then he said, ‘They disappear after the vampire die. Poof.'” Van Helsing’s diagnosis of the woman as a “diseased bitch”–just like his determination that Mina was “hysterical” and “in need of firm instruction”–proves dubious at best.

Hill’s story never outs Van Helsing as a murderous madman with 100% certainty, but the unsympathetic portrait of the character pushes the reader toward that conclusion, and Van Helsing’s ironic fate at Max’s hands at tale’s end smacks of comeuppance. Rather than representing a radical revisioning of the Van Helsing depicted in Dracula, “Abraham’s Boys” forces one to reflect back on Stoker’s character (whom feminist critics of the novel have long targeted as the orchestrator of misogynistic violence).  The obsessive, if not unhinged, figure in Hill’s narrative points back to the instability hinted at in Stoker’s novel (such as when Van Helsing is subject to bizarre outbursts of laughter). In hindsight, the crypt-invading, corpse-violating Abraham Van Helsing might be viewed less as Dracula’s heroic opponent than as the vampire’s transgressive and savage-in-his-own-way double.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: “The Lady of the House of Love”

The second installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text. Tonight, I take a look at Angela Carter’s Gothic/erotic fairy tale, “The Lady of the House of Love” (first published in 1975; collected in The Bloody Chamber).

What if Dracula’s daughter were a reluctant vampire, bloodthirsty but love-craving?

The eponymous vampiress of Carter’s lush tale is “the last bud of the poison tree that sprang from the loins of Vlad the Impaler, who picnicked on corpses in the forests of Transylvania” (“The Lady of the House of Love” first appeared only three years after Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu’s In Search of Dracula mistakenly conflated the historical Wallachian ruler with Stoker’s fictional character). Her “habitual tormented somnambulism, her life or imitation of life” recalls the nocturnal and postmortem ventures of Lucy Westenra in Dracula. But the Countess Nosferatu (as Carter later titles her protagonist), with her unnatural beauty and her entrapment in a rotting, cobwebbed chateau, links most closely with the kept vampire women (the Count’s wife and daughters?) at Castle Dracula. The very “voluptuousness” with which the Countess feasts echoes Jonathan Harker’s diaristic depiction of the female vampires.

But Carter arguably establishes such a parallel to signal a deviation. When the vampire women speak of love to Dracula, perversion of the notion is easily discerned. Likewise, their sexually-charged advances on Jonathan point to nothing more than a wicked toying with their food. Dracula’s women revel evilly in their vampiric condition, whereas Carter’s Countess bears a “horrible reluctance for the role” of bloodsucking seductress. Harrowing as her dietary needs might be, the Countess is presented as more of a heroine. She’s “haunted” by her own uncanny kin, her “demented and atrocious ancestors” who form portraits of grim circumscription: “The beastly forebears [pictured] on the wall condemned her to a perpetual repetition of their passions.” The Countess genuinely yearns to be human, to be cured “of her disorder, of her soulnessness.” She hopes that love can one day free her from her frightful fate, from “the timeless Gothic eternity” of her vampirism.

Opportunity appears to knock in the person of a young British soldier who wanders into the nearby village and is ushered into the castle by the Countess’s human governess/procurer. Could he be more than the Countess’s next meal, and instead the incarnation of the Lover prophesied by her Tarot cards? The climax of the story is no doubt ambiguous (in no small part because the events on the night of the Countess’s and the soldier’s encounter are never fully related). Perhaps the soldier rescues the Countess by virtue of his gentle attentiveness to her: “in himself, by his presence, he is an exorcism.” The “Sleeping Beauty” (as the Countess repeatedly fashions herself) might at last awaken from her darkly enchanted state. Yet when the soldier arises the next morning, he seems closer to a Professor Van Helsing than a Prince Charming:

Then he padded into the boudoir, his mind busy with plans. We shall take her to Zurich, to a clinic; she will be treated for nervous hysteria. Then to an an eye specialist, for her photophobia, and to a dentist, to put her teeth into better shape. Any competent manicurist will deal with her claws. We shall turn her into the lovely girl she is; I shall cure her of all these nightmares.

Ultimately, the soldier doesn’t seem to recognize the Countess for who/what she really is, and instead seeks to mold her to his vision of feminine beauty and well-being. His paternalistic plans sound like a fate worse than undeath. The soldier soon discovers, though, that the Countess has since perished (after she deliberately drew the curtains and let the sunlight beam into her boudoir). He has been left with a “souvenir,”  a withered rose that serves as a highly symbolic stand-in for the Countess herself. The soldier subsequently rejoins his regiment, and attempts to “resurrect” the rose by placing it in his water-filled “tooth glass.” That evening, he witnesses an amazing revival: “a glowing, velvet, monstrous flower whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elasticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendour.”

At first, this ending might be read negatively: the Countess is (figuratively) reborn only to be reinscribed, to reprise her vampiric existence and resume the cycle of predation she loathes. Liberation, however, could be at hand at last. Stoker’s vampire women are abandoned/imprisoned at Castle Dracula (at least until Van Helsing destroys them), but Countess Nosferatu gets to move beyond her lonely chateau and the “huge, spiked wall” of corpse-fed roses that “incarcerate[d] her in the castle of her inheritance.” If the solider falls short as the lover the Countess envisioned, he nevertheless succeeds in carrying her a long way from her decadent Romanian home. Carter’s story abruptly concludes with the single-sentence paragraph “Next day, his regiment embarked for France.” The line suggests more than the soldier’s march to his likely death in the trenches of World War I. France is also a romantically-renowned country, and thus furnishes promising soil for the transplanted Countess. While Stoker’s narrative is driven by the terror of homeland invasion (by an emigrating king vampire), Carter’s answer to Dracula strikes a much less ominous note as it hints at the founding of a new, truer House of Love in the Western world.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is, in and of itself, a landmark of Gothic horror. It is also the most influential work of horror ever written, having inspired countless tales of vampire-themed fiction, not to mention an ever-growing number of film and television adaptations. Today, in honor of the 124th anniversary of the original publication date of Stoker’s novel, I am debuting a new feature here on my Dispatches from the Macabre Republic blog. Dracula Extrapolated will explore various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Stoker’s source text. I begin with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

What If the character Dracula was equated with the historical figure Vlad Tepes and then transformed into a tragic lover?

The opening scene of Coppola’s film intriguingly flashes back four centuries and furnishes an origin story for Count Dracula’s vampirism. While the Christian knight Vlad Dracula is off fighting a war against the Turks, a devious missive is sent to his beloved wife Elisabeta claiming that he has been slain in battle. Distraught over the (false) report, Elisabeta throws herself from the walls of Castle Dracula. Dracula returns home to grieve over her corpse, only to be told by the priests in attendance that as a suicide, Elisabeta is damned in the eyes of the Church and cannot be given a Christian burial. Enraged, Dracula desecrates the chapel, renounces God, and vows to return from his own death “to avenge [his wife’s] with all the powers of darkness.” His rash deeds and words earn him God’s curse, an eternally bloodthirsty existence as the undead.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Coppola’s film perpetuates a great fallacy–that Stoker based his fictional character on a real-life antecedent (scholar Elizabeth Miller devotes a whole chapter of her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense to debunking such myth, convincingly arguing that Stoker only found a name for Dracula in the historical Vlad and knew nothing about the Impaler’s grim proclivities and fearful reputation). Similarly, we can forgive the film’s derivative deployment of the reincarnated-love-interest (Elisabeta ends up reembodied as Mina) plot device whose history traces back to other Universal Monster films (cf. 1932’s The Mummy) and extends through vampire narratives of the 20th Century (the 60’s soap opera Dark Shadows; the 1973 Dan-Curtis-produced TV film Dracula). The question to consider here is: what are the ramifications of the Coppola film’s narrative maneuver?

On the positive side, the film’s prologue not only provides a rationale for Vlad the Impaler’s evil reputation as a scourging warlord, but also motivates the actions of the Dracula character. One of the weaknesses of Stoker’s novel is its resort to credulity-challenging coincidence: how convenient indeed that when traveling from Transylvania (where Jonathan Harker has been left imprisoned), Dracula lands in a spot in England that lets him to sink his teeth into Harker’s friend Lucy and his fiancée Mina (a choice of prey that later allows the book’s write-minded protagonists to compare notes and compose a plan for defeating the vampire). Here in the film there’s at least an understandable explanation for Dracula’s specific path of predation. Lucy serves as little more than a replenishing meal, but Mina’s pursuit by Dracula is a deliberate attempt to reunite with the woman he’s identified as his lost love.

But if the film clarifies Dracula’s motivations, it simultaneously muddles the character’s iconic monstrosity. In its determination to turn Gothic horror into Gothic romance, Coppola’s Dracula (calling it Bram Stoker’s Dracula surely creates one of the most misleading titles of all time) subverts its terrifying first act: the scenes set at Castle Dracula, where Gary Oldman cuts a supremely sinister figure as the Count. After his emigration to, and rejuvenation within, England, Dracula becomes a confusing person for the audience: should viewers actually root for the vampire to get the girl (who was already his bride in a past life)? Should we fear Dracula for his bloodlust, or pity him for being love-starved for so long? Dracula hardly strikes as imposing after Mina breaks off their affair (for the moment, at least) to wed Jonathan: Dracula’s bout of wild, dare I say womanly, weeping (an ugly display of emotion that turns the Count’s countenance grotesquely misshapen) makes me want to channel Tom Hanks and proclaim “There’s no crying in vampiring!”

The love story that film forces also radically alters Mina’s character. In Stoker’s novel, Mina is depicted as the epitome of feminine virtue (versus the more wayward Lucy) and arguably the driving impetus for the Crew of Light’s defeat of Dracula. Here in the film, though, she proves a cold-hearted adulteress (professing her love for Dracula even as he confesses to a fatal feeding on Lucy). Worse, Winona Ryder’s Mina emerges (as she grows more in touch with her Elisabetan nature) as a nearly-treacherous accomplice of the Count, someone whose gun points at her husband Jonathan and the other heroes during the climactic showdown with Dracula. This radical departure from the novel highlights the inexplicable leap the film has taken with its reincarnation plot. Why exactly has Elisabeta resurfaced (several centuries after her suicidal plunge) as a modern English woman? Simply so Coppola could romanticize Stoker’s narrative, it seems.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula features some absolutely stunning visuals: lavish costumes (Lucy’s wedding/burial dress; Dracula’s armor), grand scenery (orange-burnt skies; the mountain-topping castle) and frightful supernatural incident (Dracula’s morphing into a horde of rats). The sublimely Gothic look of the film is fortuitous, because it helps distract viewers from the ridiculousness (don’t get me started on the sappy ending, in which a teary Mina mercifully releases Dracula from his vampiric curse) that results from the attempt to transform Stoker’s revolting and unremittingly evil archvillain into a sympathetic figure.