Dracula Through the Decades

Jules Caldeira
October 31, 2023

In 1897, Bram Stoker unleashed the villainous icon known as Count Dracula upon the world, thereby establishing the character as one of the archetypes of Gothic horror.  In 1921, the first, rather loose, film adaptation, Drakula Halála (Dracula’s Death), was released in Hungary — co-written, incidentally, by future Casablanca director Michael Curtiz. Unfortunately, the film is now lost. The next year, F. W. Murnau chose Max Schreck to don the fangs of the Count in an unauthorized adaptation, Nosferatu. It was thus not until 1931 that the first official film adaptation — Bela Lugosi’s performance in Universal’s Dracula (1931) — was released, which set the standard for the Count’s image and performance for decades to come.

Photo-Illustration: Katch; Photos: Netflix, Universal Pictures, Film Arts Guild, Columbia Pictures, Miramax

Today, over a century after Count Orlok slunk through the shadows onto the silver screen, the character of Dracula has been portrayed hundreds of times. The quantity of content, from film and television to comic books and video games, is staggering, and a testament to the hold he still has over audiences. With the latest Stoker adaptation, The Last Voyage of the Demeter, it’s clear he has yet to take his fangs–er, fingers off the pulse of global pop culture. Being the season of scares, we at Katch looked under the cape at seventeen appearances of Dracula through the decades to ascertain just what keeps us coming back, hungry for more.

When taking a genomic approach, certain key characteristics rise to the surface, providing further proof of Dracula’s distinctive place within movie history.  What is a “genomic approach?” In short, a genomic analysis involves a detailed and granular accounting of each element or genomic category of a film — Context, Characters, Plot, Cinematography, Music, Mood, Aesthetics, etc. Each category is divided into subcategories, then sub-subcategories, and finally individual genes (over 2500), each of which is individually coded on a 10-point scale by a trained analyst — and then aggregated via a rule-based system into “genomic traits.”

The films used for this analysis include: Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Son of Dracula (1943), Horror of Dracula (1958), Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), Blacula (1972), The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), The Monster Squad (1987), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Dracula 2000 (2000), Van Helsing (2004), Dracula 3000 (2004), Hotel Transylvania (2012), Dracula Untold (2014), Renfield (2023), and The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023).

The context in which these stories are told is quite varied. Of the films analyzed, 29.4% took place in urban environments, while 17.6% each were set in rural or small-town locations, and only one film was a suburban story. The Last Voyage of the Demeter spent most of its runtime in the ocean, and 11.8% were in a fantasy-world setting. Almost half of the stories unfolded in (primarily Eastern) Europe, while another 35.3% were set in the United States, with Renfield, Son of Dracula, and Dracula 2000 being set in New Orleans. 47.1% are pre-modern tales, typically taking place around the late 1800s, with the novel’s initial publication as the accepted canon chronology. Another 41.2% were set at the then-contemporary time of release, the only exceptions being The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1904) and Dracula 3000 (3000).

When looking at diversity within leads, there was something to be desired. While 41.2% of films had women as leads, only one film, 7 Golden Vampires, could be considered an Asian-driven story. Likewise, only three films — Demeter, Blacula, and Dracula 3000 — have Black actors in leading roles. The films come to more of a consensus regarding character traits. 64.7% tell the story of true heroes, while 70.6% also include villains in leading roles. Interestingly, the villain is not always Dracula, seen in Hotel Transylvania or Dracula Untold, and occasionally Dracula isn’t even a lead. In more recent releases, we tend to see more flawed heroes than in older films, when characters were more distinctly good or evil. Whether hero or villain, a loveable lead could be found 64.7% of the time, and a detestable one 58.8%. The villain in the film, even if it’s Dracula, is not always completely detestable, as can be seen in Blacula, Dracula 2000, and Renfield. However, Dracula 3000 has a lead, Humvee, who is detestable, but is not the villain. Nearly every title had courageous leads, with only Hotel Transylvania and Renfield making use of comedic performances in leading roles.

Despite the variation between characters, the film’s plots had some overlap. A vast majority, 76.5%, followed the story of a protagonist’s life and times. Of those 76.5%, 23.1% were a story of self-discovery, 30.8% dealt with overcoming life’s obstacles, 46.2% were a tale of mishap and misfortune, and 30.8% confronted moral dilemmas, with some films engaging in more than one of these themes. 41.2% could be classified as adventure stories (Nosferatu, Billy The Kid, Van Helsing, Demeter), nearly all of which had either a fight for survival (7 Golden Vampires, Dracula Untold) or a desperate rescue mission (Billy the Kid, Van Helsing). Nearly every film was a battle between good and evil, and an incredible 70.6% involved violent crime. Exceptions include Dracula Untold, where most violence takes place within wars rather than with criminal intent, and the early films such as Nosferatu or 1931’s Dracula where deaths either took place offscreen or not at all, opting instead to turn them into vampires. Interestingly, 41.2% of titles were tales of the paranormal. That is, they contained fantastical elements in addition to vampires, including Katherine’s fascination with the occult in Son of Dracula, the possession and life-force elements of 7 Golden Vampires, and the overarching premise of The Monster  Squad.

When looking at the script and storytelling, 29.4% of these titles have dialogue with lots of arguments, with Dracula 2000, 3000, and Renfield also having raw, gritty scripts rife with vulgarity. Conversely, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Dracula Untold have smart, poetic scripts. Only 3 films, 17.6%, used humor to even a moderate degree. This includes The Monster Squad, Hotel Transylvania, and Renfield, the three that stray furthest from the norm tonally, contrasting with the horror and drama of the other titles. A majority are high suspense stories, often involving the death of a protagonist — hero or villain — and having a happy ending 41.2% of the time, though a sad ending does occur in 17.6% of films. Turning our attention behind the camera, 41.2% of these films were helmed by a unique and defining directorial vision. Perhaps most obvious would be that of Murnau or Herzog for their takes on Nosferatu, but Hotel Transylvania would likely be unrecognizable if not directed by animation titan Genndy Tartakovsky. Over half of these films elicited iconic acting performances, more often than not for the role of Dracula, with most also being eccentric performances. It’s not until after the Production Code era that we begin to see the implementation of sexy leads, beginning with Nosferatu the Vampyre and used in Van Helsing with Kate Beckinsale, Dracula 3000 with Erika Eleniak, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula with…well, everyone.

Regardless of release date, nearly every film showcased at least one visual aspect of production. 64.7% made a dramatic use of color, while 41.2% implemented sophisticated filming and editing techniques as well. 58.8% used elaborate costumes, but only about 35% also had impactful makeup. The musical scores leaned predominantly toward the orchestral, at 70.6%, though only 47.1% of all films used scary or creepy music to a large degree. As one would expect with many vampire films, a dominating 82.4% of titles on this list exuded a dark and gloomy mood, with The Monster Squad and Hotel Transylvania at the bright and uplifting end of the spectrum and Renfield falling in between. Although most of these titles fall into the horror genre, there were some glaring outliers: Billy the Kid Versus Dracula as the only Western, Dracula 3000 the lone sci-fi, and Dracula Untold being a war feature. While 41.2% of titles also share traits common in action films, 35.3% exhibit those more in line with the dramatic, and only Hotel, Renfield, and Monster Squad have a comedic flair. While 35.3% exhibit limited violence, seen only in titles released before 1980, nearly half have harsh depictions of violence and gore, all present from 1987’s Monster Squad onward. As times changed, with the Hays Code repealed and slasher films growing in popularity, so too did vampire films become more violent and gory.

It’s truly remarkable to see that through over a century of cinema, in Dracula films produced around the world, there are still common threads to be found. Whether they’re as obvious as a similar genre or character or less so, such as with plot themes or emphasis of production, through our analysis we can find something that ties each of these titles together in a bond stronger than blood: Katch data.

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