Undead Again

This year sees the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most influential vampire novel ever written. To coincide with Halloween the NFT is staging a weekend of homage to the screen presentation of the caped Count. Just as the most famous Transylvanian resident can change himself into many forms, so has his character and Stoker’s plot been manifested in various screen appearances throughout the century, the most significant of which are included in the film programme.
Christopher Frayling, author of Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, argues that when Stoker published 3,000 copies of his yellow-covered work in 1897 he saw it as an adventure story, and intended to create a form of ‘turn-of-the-century techno-fiction with the inclusion of typewriters, phonographs and blood-transfusions’. The year of publication also saw Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and the peak of British Imperialism, leaving the reader and the sensible male characters in the novel to despise the evil Count, perhaps more for his Eastern European origins than his original recipes.

The novel has consistently remained as a prevalent cause for discussion, reinterpretation and controversy. Topics such as gender and sexuality have been most dominant in recent debates, whilst it has been speculated that the story’s fascination for adolescents lies with the fact that Dracula is concerned with sex from the neck upwards. Perhaps the most striking interpretation, using very memorable adjectives, was from a 1950’s Freudian theorist who saw the novel and screen representations as ‘a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic, all-in wrestling match’. Surely a banner to worry any mother and entice many a horror fan.

Besides the countless other vampiricle creations that Stoker inspired, Dracula has endured as one of the most filmed characters, second only to Sherlock Holmes.

The Count was captured on celluloid for the first time by the Hungarian Drakula of 1921, which is now lost, but it appears it was more about the factual basis for Stoker’s novel than the characters he created. Max Schreck can be regarded as the first actor to don Dracula’s cape in the 1922 German silent version Nosferatu : Eine Symphonie des Grauens, which suffered a ropy 70’s remake.

The earliest screen version which will be shown at the NFT, however, as part of the Halloween weekend will be Tod Brownings’ 1931 Dracula which launched careers in horror for both Universal, and Bela Lugosi, whilst also beginning a general horror boom for the 1930’s. Brownings film was based on the Broadway play, which unlike the earlier film versions had been sanctioned by Stoker’s widow Florence. Dracula has been criticised for its lack of pace and goriness, with the climax of the film occurring offscreen. The film was originally billed as ‘The strangest love a woman has ever known…a livid face bent over her in the ghostly mist!’ This makes the film sound a little dated, which is to be expected in over 60 years, however it still stands as the definitive representation of the Dracula iconography, and displays expert handling of the classic story. (Friday, October 31, 8.45 NFT1).

The screening of Dracula (1931 Spanish version), allows a rare opportunity for the two films to be compared. Universal filmed the Browning movie during the day, whilst making the Spanish version at night using the same sets and a direct translation of the script, but a different cast and crew. This version was lost for many years, but restored in 1990, and is actually regarded by some as the superior version, in both the actors’ performances and director’s innovation. (Friday, October 31, 6.30 NFT1).

‘Jeepers! the creepers are after somebody’ in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This is the best Abbott and Costello film, in terms of dialogue and action, and has accordingly been the most enduring, and should still manage to amuse most audiences today. The film sees Bela Lugosi return as the Count, with a cameo by Vincent Price as the Invisible Man. Bud and Lou, two railway porters, deliver crates containing the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man. They are left trying to prevent Dracula and a mad female scientist from giving the Frankenstein monster a brain transplant, courtesy of Brad. (Saturday, November 1, 4.00 NFT2).

Dracula, or Horror of Dracula (1958), was essentially a remake of the 1931 film, but better, with good use of colour and stirring performances from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. This is probably the best film to come out of Hammer studios, and added sexual and violent overtones, with the sex appeal of the Count becoming firmly embodied in the Dracula iconography. ( Sunday, November 2, 6.00 NFT2).

This sexual prowess was something expertly captured by Gary Oldman’s succulent portrayal of the Count, in various forms, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This sticks most firmly to the text out of any screen version and caused the resurgence of yet another vampire boom, coming as a welcome relief after the slasher horror flicks of the 1980’s. Many critics were disappointed by this version, and indeed it may be in danger at times of being ruled by style, and then of course there’s that Keanu Reeves British accent. These matters aside though, the film still remains a lavish, yet genuinely frightening adaptation, with inspired performances from Anthony Hopkins and Winona Ryder, Oscar winning costumes, and some effectively and appropriately surreal sequences. (Saturday, November 1, 5.50 NFT1).

Although the BBC TV adaptation Count Dracula does have strong made for TV production qualities, it is a faithful retelling of Stoker’s novel, which successfully brings out it’s sensuousness and it remains a period drama with a lot of bite. There is a strong cast, and the story moves speedily throughout the 160 minutes.

In addition to the screenings there will also be a fancy dress parade, at 8.15pm in the NFT’s new Film CafĂ© with a prize going to the best dressed vampire. The most striking fanged fiend will receive a weekend for two at the Mount Royal hotel in Edinburgh, and a bottle of Loch Dhu – the black whiskey, who are sponsoring the weekend, so everyone who goes to see one of the films will get to try some.

Elsewhere this year’s big Halloween treat is American Werewolf in Paris, the long awaited sequel of John Landis’ 1981 film American Werewolf in London. Even the cover for the video of the original used to give me nightmares as a child. Unfortunately, as the film will premiere in Britain, a print was still unavailable in time for our deadline, so a full review can’t be given here. However, the Paris excursion promises to be even more frightening than the London one with Anthony Waller directing, who gave us the grizzly and quite disturbing Mute Witness.

It was a brave move by director Billie August to adapt Smilla’s Feeling for Snow for the screen, especially after his unsuccessful The House of Spirits. As with all adaptations something is usually lost and little is rarely gained. This is just the case with the screen treatment Peter Hoeg’s 1992 best-selling novel, which loses all subtlety and ends up with a Bondesque finale.

The novel’s plot is exquisitely multi-layered, whilst the film version is left looking complex and even confusing at times. The plot, or what’s left of it in the film, centres on Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) a scientist born in Greenland, lived in America, and now Copenhagen, where most of the action takes place. Smilla befriends a young boy in her apartment block, and she has much more patience with him than his own mother. When the boy dies, some effectively chilling morgue scenes, leave Smilla determined to prove that it was no accident. As she gets deeper into the conspiracy she suspects, it is no longer clear who she can trust.

Ormond looks beautiful and her acting is satisfactory, but nevertheless her performance lacks any real inner depth to explain her relationship with the young boy, her potential lover, or, more importantly, her feelings for her ancestral Greenland. So we a left with a scientist who appears as cold as the snow that she is fascinated with, which might seem appropriate as she reveals ‘the only thing that makes me truly happy is mathematics’ (hardly normal) but this interpretation contradicts the passion of all her actions.

There are some remarkable and frosty shots of the Greenland landscape, with the wide expanse coming as a freeing comparison to the dull and claustrophobic apartment building, and we are even taken under the frozen sea with the seals. August also makes Copenhagen look at its smart and cosmopolitan best, very different to that shown in Pusher.

Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is not disastrous, but it is certainly disappointing, especially for admirers of Hoeg’s novel.

James Kleinmann

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