Whither, Dracula? Vampires have maintained a fairly steady hold on American popular culture in the past twenty-five years or so, from the height of the popularity of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and on into the Twilight books and films and HBO’s popular series True Blood. But in all that time, with the notable exception of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992 and a trilogy of apparently unwatchable movies “presented by Wes Craven” that began in 2000, Dracula has rarely made an appearance and has certainly not captured our collective imagination.
Why is that? During the monster movie craze that lasted from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, roughly the same period that Hammer Films produced its monster movies, the terror of Dracula reigned. He was the title character in dozens of movies; had his own Marvel comic book, The Tomb of Dracula; and was featured regularly in the magazines Famous Monsters of Filmland and Monsters of the Movies, the latter even devoting most, if not all, of an issue to Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, the first of the Peter Cushing/Christoper Lee Dracula films, with stills from the film that were, to me, in the sixth grade, mesmerizing and frightening.
Perhaps Dracula was finally destroyed not by Van Helsing driving a stake through his heart, but from overexposure. Let’s face it, being in dozens of movies isn’t always enviable, especially when they include Dracula A.D. 1972 or Dracula’s Dog (which also seems to have the only slightly more promising title: Zoltan: Hound of Dracula). Still worse, how could any character survive the ignobility of Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It, a movie that nobody, absolutely nobody demanded be made?
It seems that as Dracula’s luster has faded, vampires became increasingly sexier. Granted, there was already eroticism in Bram Stoker’s original Dracula, the link between sexuality and vampirism unmistakable, and that connection might be an important component of all vampire myths. But today, the template is definitely less Bram Stoker and more Anne Rice. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sexy people necking (I’m sorry, I couldn’t pass that up), and it appears that the new Dracula series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers will be just that. I mean—it stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers, for god’s sake.
Still, think about all that the old Dracula represents that sexy vampires kind of miss. The original novel was written by Irishman Bram Stoker about a Transylvanian spreading vampirism in modern London, the heart of nineteenth century imperialism. There’s already so much rich material there: fears surrounding immigration, global capitalism, infection, the barbaric other (written by one considered barbaric at the time) … Layer onto that Victorian ideas of sexuality and gender roles that are associated with Dracula, as well as questions of sanity and insanity that are raised in the book, most starkly with the madman Renfield though not limited to him, and one can see how Dracula allows storytellers to show us that the specters of those antiquated ideas still haunt us in the twenty-first century. Let’s end the dictatorship of the beautiful vampire and bring back something more aristocratic. We ninety-nine percent could use a look at some things that should truly scare us.