This could not be damnation. But if it was, the fire was far too sweet to resist…
As usual October means I will be subjecting friends and family to a schedule of seasonally appropriate movies (I shall forever secretly remain a frustrated repertory house programmer) and this year it is all Dracula. Or Draculas
The 1931 adaptation by Tod Browning for Universal Studios turned Bela Lugosi into the first (male) goth sex symbol, was based on a 1924 stage play (also starring Lugosi). If you find it creaks a little 90 years on, you could check out the Spanish-language version, filmed on the same sets at night with the different cast and crew (including Mexican superstar Lupita Tovar). While often described as a shot-for-shot remake from the era where Hollywood was still trying to figure out how to deal with foreign markets and the advent of sound, that is not quite true: the Spanish version runs about 30 minutes longer and feels a little more sexy a little less stage-bound.
After Universal ended its cycle of Dracula-adjacent films, the British Hammer Film Productions started a long run of films starring Christopher Lee as Dracula in 1958. The next 50 years would see adaptations by artists diverse as Andy Warhol, Guy Maddin and Dan Curtis (of “Dark Shadows” fame, starring Jack Palance [!!!]).
I personally am a fan of Blacula, which despite the low budget and tacky marketing, might be the most genuinely tragic version of the story. .
At the turn of the 21st century, we were “treated” to Dracula 2000, rather nebulously “presented” by Wes Craven (and apparently fully financed by Virgin Records…) starring a roster of TV stars (and Christopher Plummer!); reimaging Dracula as Judas Iscariot and playing to rapidly diminishing returns in two sequels starring martial arts star Jason Scott Lee (and Roy Scheider, looking like he wished he had signed on for some more Jawses instead…)
And of course, we can’t forget Bram Stoker’s Dracula (or Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Keanu Reeves’s Generation X’s Dracula), a monument to early 90s excess, a live-action movie that seems to desperately want to be an animated feature, with outrageous art direction that remains influential 30 years later and a tone that swings wildly from camp to sincerity and back again. I still can’t decide if I love it or hate it.
I suspect that the success of Coppola’s film inspired (or at least paved the way for publication) of Mina, which shares some of those sensibilities.
Background: Guys, I am going to try not to linger on the plot of Dracula, because frankly it is a lot.
YOU WILL RECALL: law clerk Jonathan Harker is sent by his firm to conduct some simple real estate transactions in the Carpathians, but he is instead imprisoned in a castle and seduced by a trio of lady-vampires. After he escapes and is hospitalized in Budapest, his fiancée Mina Murray travels to marry and nurse him back to health. London is terrorized by vampires. There is an interlude at an insane asylum, where Mina is “ravished” by Dracula. Aided by Professor Van Helsing, the party returns to Dracula’s castle where there is a big vampire fight, all vampires are destroyed, and Mina is freed from the curse.
The Plot: OR IS SHE???
Kiraly notes in her forward that while Dracula had an epistolary format, featuring firsthand accounts by different characters, including Mina Harker, who is out to avenge the death of her best friend, save her fiancée and herself, but whose account is abandoned by Stoker after her “ravishment.”
And like its predecessor, this one is also kind of a lot, retreading the end of Stoker’s novel, while adding both glib 90s-style Girl Power (Mina gets a new BFF who is a suffragist) and a more serious critique of the male gaze, ultimately shifting almost totally away from the male characters, leaving us a Dracula without Dracula.
The first part picks up near the end of Stoker’s novel, as a “secret” diary kept by Mina, in which she confesses she was the willing subject of Dracula’s seduction in the doctor’s quarters at the asylum. We also get her perspective on the final showdown at the castle, including her finding the bloody scene where Van Helsing killed Dracula’s brides (not instantly turned to dust as he reported); from here she takes a diary that will drive most of the plot back in England.
The Harkers settle in Exeter, where they have inherited a house and servants from Jonathan’s late employer. Mina (and everyone) is still dealing with the grief and trauma of the recent months, but she also finds herself chaffing against the expectations of her new social class and paternalistic concern of the men around her. Victorian marriage isn’t all its cracked up to be either:
Now Jonathan is working downstairs, and I am alone as always. I find myself longing for days on the Continent, when we were so close, so caught up in the horror and adventure of the chase. I feel restless, anxious. I think of the pledge I made to Dracula in my dreams. I would follow my desires, I said. I thought it easy then. It has not been so.
She finds a new confidant in Winnie Beason, a slightly older, richer married woman, secure enough to flaunt convention, although madly devoted to her husband (he pays the fines when her suffragist activities get a little out of hand); through Winnie Mina meets local playboy Lord Gance, who promises to help her secure a translator for the diary. They soon begin an affair, which soon involves liberal bloodletting.
The rules get a little fuzzy, but it seems that neither Mina nor Gance is a full-on actual vampire. And despite his extended dalliance at Castle Dracula, Jonathan just seems pale and mopey.
While modern concepts like trauma and survivor’s guilt are touched upon, the focus is on the blood and sex, and Kiraly delivers a pleasantly pulpy prose, true to the original. In a meta-meta touch characters are constantly reading The Strand magazine.
After a series of misadventures and murders, Mina secures a translation of the diary, which belonged to Karina, a Slovakian princess who had mysteriously gone missing 100 year earlier. Mina learns that Dracula’s other “brides” are his first wife, Illona, and his sister, Joanna. When Karina becomes Dracula’s lover, she learns that scorned Illona is the one she has to watch out for:
“So, you can take a bride after me? No, husband. Never.”
Illona denied it all to me. Her nature is utterly dark, with not a ray of her past life able to pierce its blackness. How I loathe her. How I envy her freedom.
Mina still feels Dracula’s pull. Is he still alive? What about the brides? After her husband briefly imprisons her in the asylum after learning of her affair, Mina escapes and travels with Gance back to Dracula’s castle, where he escapes from her clutches, seeking out the Brides and immortality for himself:
“I am Winston Gordon, Lord Gance. I have wealth. I have houses in London, in Paris, in Bonn and in Budapest. I can give you shelter there. I can give you freedom from this place.”
He thought he heard a woman’s laughter, followed by another’s and another’s.
If Gance had not known what sort of creatures the women were, he might have thought them ghost, or dreams, for this castle seemed ideal for dreaming.
Mina seeks out an Eastern Orthodox priest and finds a solution (yet to be revealed) that is stunning in its simplicity.
At the castle Mina confronts the two remains Brides (Karina has beheaded the jealous Illona, an act that was about a century coming) and addresses herself to Dracula (she uses the name Karina knows him by):
I stood Dracula was all around me, impossible to see or touch. “Tepes! Will you exist like this, an impotent ghost in a deserted castle?” I asked him. “You were the servant of God, the savior of your people. You are a saint to them even now.”
“Tepes! What is blood but life and water? This vessel is blessed by a holy man, a priest of the Orthodox faith. Your blood in me is blessed as you were once blessed before you rode into battle. Take my body. Use it to reclaim the heaven that even now you deserve.”
In this way Mina is also able to restore Gance to mortality and grant death to Karina, concluding her tale awaiting word from Jonathan:
If there is justice for both of us, I will meet him in that little garden. I will kiss him as I kissed my other lovers, and he will respond.
If he does not come, there will be life and happiness without him.
Vampires remain a favorite for teenagers and YA readers, from American International Pictures 1957 I Was a Teenage Vampire flick Blood of Dracula to The Lost Boys, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Twilight juggernaut, and I think Kiraly’s take neatly fits right in with these.
Ok, Constant Readers: your turn, tell me in the comments what your favorite Dracula variation is or any I missed out on!