Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.
Is there competition? Sure. There’s Sherlock Holmes. Ebenezer Scrooge. Ulysses or Odysseus. (You can’t have both.) Merlin. Hamlet. The list, of course, goes on.
Dracula’s creative lineage is so vast, so varied, so deeply ingrained in our cultural DNA that it seems like he was always there. He wasn’t an invention; he was a force that was eventually set to paper.
Even today, long after the novel’s initial rush of popularity, there are important echoes. He is the driving force behind the events of the Castlevania video games. He is hawking boxes of chocolatey breakfast cereal. A numerically obsessive clone of his is teaching children to count.
He’s lamenting the death of his beloved Transylvania Twist while everyone else does the Monster Mash. He’s offering batty counsel to Herman Munster. He’s inspiring a series of blaxploitation films.
And all of this is to say nothing of the straight adaptations of and sequels to his original story, across all media. Stage shows, radio dramas, films. And, as you might imagine by the very nature of this article, parodies.
Dracula, like its title character, endures. It lives forever. It adapts now and then to suit the times, and it’s surprisingly resilient.
You know Dracula. You can make a list of all of the things that make the character what he is. There’s an accepted canon of features and accoutrements that define him. You know his fangs, his cape, his ability to turn into a bat, his taste for blood…you can continue the list yourself, because if I keep going I’ll eat up most of the article.
Whatever the power of Stoker’s original, though, it was the 1931 film version of Dracula that permanently fixed the character in our minds. Actually, that’s not entirely true: Bela Lugosi’s starring turn in that film fixed the character in our minds.
When we think of Dracula, we think — directly or not — of what Lugosi brought to the role. (A role he perfected on stage before playing the part on film.) It’s Lugosi’s take on the Transylvanian accent that Count Von Count, Count Chocula, and nearly every other portrayal of Dracula in popular culture imitates.
And that’s for good reason; Stoker invented the character, but Lugosi, three and a half decades later, gave it life.
With that film Dracula (like Frankenstein’s monster the same year) instantly became a classic movie villain, with his literary origins feeling now like a footnote. Certainly when we hear the name “Dracula” we have a very clear image in our minds, and it’s an image that we saw on film…not one that we independently conjured up while reading a book.
Stoker explained who Dracula was in his novel, and Lugosi fleshed it out with his performance. Deviations don’t feel like alternate interpretations…they feel wrong.
Which is perhaps why Mel Brooks — zany satirist, manic showman, incomparable comic mastermind — was remarkably respectful with his (ostensible) parody, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
Brooks opens his film with a slow zoom in on a copy of the novel. Not an actual copy, as Brooks has to superimpose the title, but the intention is clear.
As the word Dracula gets larger and larger on our screen, Brooks appends his subtitle, “Dead and Loving It.”
That small moment is a perfect metaphor for the film’s entire approach to the source material; present it faithfully, and tack on some fun original material where we can.
If this sounds critical, it is…but only partially. People setting money aside for a Mel Brooks film wanted to laugh. Constantly. Brooks’ then-recent parodies — Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights — set a gag-a-second precedent, and audiences wanted waves of dumb jokes to fill the space between the great ones. They wanted copious visual jokes and a thoroughly irreverent spirit. They wanted comedy first and foremost, and on that front Dracula: Dead and Loving It largely fails.
But that failure becomes a different kind of success, as Brooks actually made a legitimate (and sometimes legitimately good) Dracula film instead.
Critics weren’t kind, as they had largely the same expectations that audiences had, and shared in their disappointment. The trailers understandably spotlighted the gags alone, which baffled viewers who wished for them during the long — and not infrequent — stretches of drama. People, frankly, didn’t know what to make of it, and I can’t entirely blame them.
Sadly, the film’s toxic reception (it lost around $20 million dollars) either convinced Brooks to stop making movies or served as a very convenient excuse.
To this day, Dracula: Dead and Loving It is Brooks’ final film…a fittingly thematic final nail in the director’s coffin.
But by no means is it anywhere near as bad as its reputation suggests. It wasn’t the movie anyone wanted, and it may not even have been the film Brooks wanted to make, but twenty years on we are able to appraise Dracula: Dead and Loving It on its own merits, and we should, because it’s actually pretty good.
It’s obvious that Brooks did not return to the Stoker original when he gathered up source material for his film. His visual and narrative touchpoints span the entirety of the character’s history on film, rather than in literature. In fact, two early gags, nearly back to back, feature the shadow from 1922’s Nosferatu and the absurd hairpiece from 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Those represented, at the time, both ends of Dracula’s cinematic legacy.
Brooks relied on previous adaptations for at least two reasons. Firstly, and primarily, it’s because audiences are vastly more familiar with Dracula as a movie monster than they are as a character in a book, and Brooks’ comedy relies on familiarity. Secondly, though: it’s damned difficult to do a film that’s true to the original novel.
Here’s a big surprise for modern day readers of Dracula: Dracula is barely in the thing.
For Stoker, Dracula was less a character than he was a presence. We meet him at the beginning, spend a lot of distressing time in his company, and then he vanishes. For the overwhelming bulk of the novel, he’s not even there. Other characters talk about him and his horrific deeds — usually without connecting one to the other — but the vampire himself is pointedly absent.
This is almost unimaginable today. Dracula is a showman! He’s theatrical! He’s a major name, and filming a version close to Stoker’s original means he’d only appear at the very beginning and, perhaps, prostrate at the end. The rest of the runtime would be taken up by characters speaking about their romantic entanglements, a runaway wolf, the behavior of patients at the sanitarium…and this simply wouldn’t do.
It wouldn’t do because of Lugosi, whose iconic performance showed how much fun we could have by actually keeping Dracula around. He could bare his fangs, flourish his cape, suavely manipulate women and deflect the suspicions of men. He became perhaps the very first film character that audiences could love to hate, and a Dracula film that doesn’t take advantage of that opportunity would feel hollow and misjudged, however true to the original text it may be.
Lugosi, theatrical showman himself, sunk his teeth deeply enough into the role that he is still the standard by which Draculas (indeed, vampires in general) are judged. He arrived fully formed on the screen, and defined the character for generations to follow. Which is good, because the brief material that actually features Dracula is by far the best stuff in the novel, and films expanding on that are only richer for it.
Another issue that directors of a faithful adaptation would face is the fact that Dracula isn’t a traditional narrative. Rather, it’s a collection of documentation that, when taken together, forms a rough story. For a few pages you may be reading from one character’s journal. Then you’ll find yourself reading an exchange of letters between two other characters. Then you might find a ship’s log, a newspaper clipping, a telegram.
All of this helps Stoker to sustain the suggestion that this really happened.
It’s entirely a work of fiction, of course, but this scrapbook approach implies non-fiction, just as somebody might piece together real world evidence of a similar kind in order to form a rough narrative about Jack the Ripper.
In fact, the Whitechapel murders would have been fresh in Stoker’s mind, having occurred only about ten years before he published Dracula, and indeed he would have glimpsed that sequence of horrors in similarly oblique ways…through correspondence, through discussion, through newspaper coverage.
In structuring his tale this way, Stoker was an extremely early pioneer of a genre that would become quite popular a hundred years or so later: the found-footage horror film. Dracula, of course, would make his home on the screen long before The Blair Witch Project and its ilk prepared audiences (and Hollywood) for such an approach, so we’ve instead gotten to know him through much more traditional narratives.
There must have been something about that distance from the action that appealed to Stoker. Perhaps he thought it made the story scarier, or perhaps he thought that it created a buffer for his readers, helping them to not feel too scared. I’m not sure of the reason, personally, but it’s interesting to return to the source text and find an unexpectedly unique and fragmented approach to a story that almost every time since then had been told through basic, straight-forward plot progression.
All of which, of course, is to discuss the general interplay between the original novel and the many filmed versions of Dracula to follow. This background, though, is helpful before we dig into Brooks, and the approach he took.
Brooks made a film that was, by design, a few degrees removed from the original. His film is already filtered through the films of others, and that’s clear from the opening sequence, in which poor Renfield visits the Castle Dracula in order to finalize the sale of Carfax Abbey.
That’s a cinematic invention of the classic 1931 Dracula. In the novel, Renfield never visits the Castle Dracula; he is always a patient in Dr. Seward’s sanitarium, and it’s Jonathan Harker who visits Dracula.
Brooks’ interest in previous Dracula adaptations is further emphasized by the character’s appearance here, which hews very closely to that of Dwight Frye, who played the character opposite Lugosi.
Brooks tapped Peter MacNicol (Ghostbusters 2, Ally McBeal) to play Renfield, and it has to be said that he does a fantastic job.
MacNicol is a gifted actor, and his pivots between serious victim and comic lackey serve very effectively as a metaphor for the entire film. He’s tasked with playing both extremes in a movie that’s a bit tonally confused, and he handles them both very well.
He has the most thankless and the most difficult part in the entire production, and he’s still great.
He actually steals the film from Leslie Nielsen several times, which is no mean feat, as Nielsen does impressive work as both a comedy version of Dracula, and as a proper portrayal.
It’s difficult to think of Nielsen now as anything other than a comic actor, but he appeared in more than 50 films before he first flexed his comic muscles in Airplane! In fact, part of what made him such a great comic actor was the fact the was already a good actor in general.
He understood emotion, character, motivation. He knew how to sell an idea subtly, and if that seemed to get lost in his later films, it’s undoubtedly due to the roles he was hired to play, and the directors making specific demands of him. Moments of legitimately great acting find their way into Dracula: Dead and Loving It, as Brooks is a kindred spirit who knows that the best comic actors are actors first and foremost.
There’s a scene early in the film during which Count Dracula meets four of the other main characters in a theater. He is immediately taken with the fetching Lucy Westenra, and she’s clearly taken with him as well.
She catches him staring at her.
LUCY: Count Dracula?
DRACULA: I’m sorry, my dear…but you have such a lovely ucipital mapilary.
LUCY: What’s that?
It doesn’t play like a joke. It doesn’t have the cadence of a joke, it’s not performed like a joke, and it’s not shot like a joke. There is an element of dark comedy here, but it’s chilling more than it’s funny. It’s probably the best of this particular Dracula’s moments, and it’s a perfect distillation of the seductive menace that defines the character in general.
Nielsen, sadly, didn’t do much of merit after this film. He starred in a few children’s movies and limp parodies that aimed to capture the Naked Gun audience without understanding why those films worked at all. It was all downhill from here until his eventual death in 2010. That makes it even more disappointing that Dracula: Dead and Loving It is so often overlooked. It’s not just our last chance to experience the directing talent of Mel Brooks; it’s the last chance to see a truly solid performance from Leslie Nielsen.
The ucipital mapilary moment is also an example of Brooks making a proper vampire film, something which, indeed, he does for unexpectedly long stretches. Dracula: Dead and Loving It as such feels less like a sendup of Dracula adaptations than it does like one that happens to veer now and then into self-contained comedy sketches.
What’s interesting about this is that the story of Dracula seems to be as seductive and powerful as the character itself. Even the restless comic mind of Mel Brooks can’t help but revere it, sectioning off his own (largely very funny) comic interludes from the actual narrative of the film itself.
These include a scene of Renfield trying to secretly consume bugs during his meeting with Dr. Seward, an effectively silly stretch that allows both MacNicol and an underutilized Harvey Korman to have a great deal of fun while still both attempting to act the straight man.
There’s also a self-contained scene introducing Dr. Van Helsing, played by Brooks himself, who delights in being able to get an entire class of students to faint during his especially gory autopsy lesson.
“I’ve still got it,” Brooks says, in a film that with sad irony had a lot of critics disagreeing.
Most notably, though, there’s the scene in which Steven Weber, as Jonathan Harker, drives a stake through the heart of an undead Lucy Westenra. Watching it is the only way to understand the full comic impact of the absurdly powerful gushes of blood that follow.
They exist for no reason except that it’s funny to see such large amounts of obviously fake blood absolutely drench an actor, and in a relatively subtle gag (to be fair, anything would be subtle next to that), Brooks’ Van Helsing hides behind a column in order to stay dry.
It’s a great scene, and the film’s funniest, and it actually uses its own predictability as a punchline by subverting the rule of three. After the second staking and jet of blood, Harker is dripping with Lucy’s vital fluid. Brooks steps over to encourage him. “She’s almost dead!” he says.
Jonathan Harker replies, “She’s dead enough.”
It’s a great comic sequence, but it also, by design, stands apart from the rest of the film, and also stands apart from the arc of poor, doomed Lucy Westenra.
Lucy’s demise in the book is also exaggerated to almost comic lengths, but, obviously, humor was not Stoker’s intention, so much as a profound and prolonged despair.
In Stoker’s original, Lucy is slowly drained of her essence by the repeated visitations of Count Dracula. Van Helsing and Dr. Seward manage to keep her alive for a couple of uneasy weeks with transfusion after transfusion, but she slowly, inexorably, dies. Hers is not a peaceful death nor rest by any means; she suffers thoroughly, and this is not a new emotion for her.
Prior to being targeted by Dracula, Lucy had to deal with her own erratic romantic attentions from three men, her jealousy of her friend Mina Murray, her rapid engagement to a man for the seeming sake of upstaging (or at least keeping up with) Mina, and the encroaching death of her sickly mother.
Brooks — like most directors — eschews these entanglements, and positions Lucy not as a woman facing the latest in a long line of misfortunes (and bad decisions), but as a target solely. She is tragic not by nature, but by virtue of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Brooks has Dracula meet her and become infatuated (or his vampiric equivalent) at the theater, and he visits her at night, slowly drinking of her blood until she is dead.
The truly funny thing? Brooks handles this seriously.
There are very few jokes related to the slow death of Lucy Westenra, and those that do occur are tangential (Van Helsing repeating “she will become one herself” in a mock-dramatic stage whisper) or occur after her death (prudish Jonathan’s mixed reactions to her sexualized vampiric advances).
As she dies, Brooks treats it seriously. He films it as any director of a serious adaptation would. His performers are serious and subdued. If it weren’t for Weber’s (excusably, for a comedy) poor British accent, it would be easy to stumble upon these scenes and not realize at all that you’re watching a parody.
This works, in some ways, against the comedy. In other ways it enhances it, as it reduces the expectation of a laugh every few seconds. This both makes the big comedy setpiece scenes stand out in sharper relief, and allows smaller jokes to feel bigger than they really are, simply because they’re less expected.
There’s a scene in which Nielsen dreams he is cured of his condition. He walks through a park in the brilliant sunlight, appreciating the warmth, the colors, the people. Somebody offers him some wine, and he hesitates. And then he takes it, saying warmly, “What the hell!”
It’s a perfect line reading with a great deal of innate comedy, but it registers, I feel, mainly because the rest of the film isn’t so manic as to drown it out. Later in the dream Renfield shows up to caution him against being out in the daylight, but Dracula assuages his concern. “Renfield, look at me. I’m drinking wine and eating chicken!”
These aren’t jokes, but they’re humorous. They’re funny because it’s innately funny for Leslie Nielsen to be dressed as Dracula in the middle of the park eating a chicken drumstick. It’s certainly not setup / punchline, but it’s affectingly absurd.
This film is packed with moments like this, and I love them. They’re funny in a passively light-hearted way that would get lost in a film that aimed exclusively for the bigger laughs, or at least the bigger clusters of laughs, and it makes me appreciate the more general, quieter comic approach Brooks took with this one. (The scene ends with Dracula realizing he had a “daymare,” so it’s not as though those expecting sillier, more obvious comedy left completely disappointed.)
Dracula: Dead and Loving It is more a humorous vampire film than it is a parody of one. Brooks has his cake and eats it, as he legitimately made an adaptation of Dracula as he spoofed it.
This certainly works in favor of the film overall. It’s easy to get caught up in the story before an unexpected gag — or the sight of Leslie Nielsen’s head on a bat — reminds you of which version of Dracula it is that you’re watching.
This is especially true in a scene toward the end of the film, when Harker, Seward, and Van Helsing arrange to expose Dracula at a gala event.
Dracula and Mina dance together, and a wall-length mirror is unveiled as they do. While the narrative purpose of this moment is to prove to the crowd that the count casts no reflection, what we get in the audience is a long, artful sequence in which Mina, played by a very game and quite lovely Amy Yasbeck, dances both with Dracula and by herself.
The camera pans elegantly from scenes of Nielsen and Yasbeck together to the reflection, in which Yasbeck dances alone.
While it’s by no means a perfect effect, it’s impressive from both a directorial and an acting standpoint. It mixes both practical effects (Yasbeck dancing with an imaginary partner) and special effects (the invisible count spinning her so quickly that she leaves the floor).
It’s a great sequence, one that’s fun to watch without containing jokes or even being funny, exactly. It’s Brooks relishing the vampire film he’s making, and falling into rhythm with the beats and opportunities for flourish that come along with that.
That’s not the only flourish of his, either. Early in the film he establishes a running gag of Dracula’s shadow having a mind — if not a life — of its own. From lunging unprovoked at Renfield to rigorously humping Mina, the count’s shadow seems to be a manifestation of the character’s darker background.
It hearkens back to the more overtly villainous character that Stoker created, the one that springs forth only to take what it wants, before once again retreating to the darkness.
Nielsen’s Dracula, on the other hand, behaves more like his cinematic predecessors. Suave, charming, romantic. He’s seductive rather than forceful. He beckons rather than seizes. He coerces rather than insists.
The separation between this Dracula and his shadow is the separation between the Dracula we’ve come to know and the Dracula that was originally intended. It’s always there, rarely acknowledged, and able to shock devastatingly when given its chance.
It also, funnily enough, survives the film where Dracula does not, as the shadow is smart enough to flee the scene when Van Helsing storms Carfax Abbey.
Brooks never had any difficulty stuffing his films with actors who could bring more to their roles than sheer comedy, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It is no exception.
Nielsen, MacNicol, and Yasbeck we’ve spoken about already, but they’re not the end of the strong performances. Harvey Korman and Lysette Anthony (as Lucy Westenra) both deliver their material very well, as odd as it must have been for them to be asked to sell far more tragedy than comedy in a Mel Brooks film.
Korman, at the very least, makes up for this by setting up the great final punchline of the entire movie:
SEWARD: Your master is gone forever, Mr. Renfield. You are your own man now.
RENFIELD: I am?
SEWARD: Yes. No one will ever control you again.
RENFIELD: You’re right!
SEWARD: Come, Renfield.
RENFIELD: Yes, master.
The biggest surprise for me was Mark Blankfield, who turns a nothing role of Martin, a sanitarium security guard, into one of the genuine comic highlights of the film.
Blankfield makes the most of his small amount of screentime, and also gets a great exchange with MacNicol, who I’m seeing more and more is this film’s real comic MVP:
MARTIN: You’re free to go.
RENFIELD: Free to go? Why? How?
MARTIN: Good behavior.
RENFIELD: But I’ve only been in here for a moment.
MARTIN: Well, for that moment your behavior was very good!
Brooks has long been in the habit of giving himself memorable bit parts in the films he makes, and surely few bit parts are more memorable than Van Helsing.
That’s naturally who he plays here, and of course he inhabits the learned Dutchman with the sprightly Yiddish heart that he brings to all of his characters. As in Stoker’s original, Brooks’ Van Helsing is the one character who knows what’s going on and how to stop it. Unlike the original this Van Helsing is a bit prideful and petty, getting dragged into a war of “last words” with Count Dracula that serves as a great running joke, as well as a comically minor symbol of their mutual antagonism.
Steven Weber gets a bit less to do from both a dramatic and comic standpoint, and he’s probably the weakest of the cast as a result. There’s no real spotlight for his talents and nothing that pushes him to be especially memorable, aside from taking two gushes of blood to the face. He’s meant to be prudish and proper, but he also comes across — probably intentionally — as a bit dim.
Which actually leads to some accidental resonance. The popularity of Dracula as a character — and the immediate recognition of his traits, abilities, and weaknesses — works against a straight adaptation of the novel.
In the original text, Jonathan Harker is holed up in the Castle Dracula for roughly the first quarter of the book, with only a vague idea that something is amiss. During the second quarter of the book — in which Lucy Westenra fights in vain for her life — Seward, Van Helsing, and others are confused for a long time before they understand what they’re up against.
But for us, we who have grown up watching the count, dressing as the count for Halloween, watching cartoon characters square off against the count, eating the count’s breakfast cereal, learning to count with the count…well, it’s hard for us not to see the characters in the book, and therefore in a faithful adaptation, as slow learners having trouble keeping up.
So ingrained in our consciousness is Dracula, and so well-versed are we in his mythology whether or not we’ve even seen the movies, that it seems odd and foreign that somebody wouldn’t immediately put the dual incisions on the neck together with the loss of blood together with the mysterious flapping at the window and conclude “vampire.”
And yet these characters don’t, with the unintentional effect being that they don’t seem especially smart by our standards. It feels like the equivalent of a hypothetical Christmas film in which characters stand around for three quarters of the runtime trying to figure out who the fat guy in red is who flies in on a sleigh and leaves gifts for everyone.
For the characters in a universe without that knowledge, it’s understandable. But in our universe we have that knowledge, and watching characters try to figure out what we already know can be unreasonably frustrating.
Fortunately, adaptations of Dracula don’t treat the characters that way. Directors assume we can piece enough of it together in the audience, which relieves Van Helsing of a lot of exposition and frees up the count to be what he never had any interest in being in the book: social.
The popular portrayals of Dracula are much more interested in socialization than the original, who could be seen as an extreme, cautionary introvert. That cannot possibly be said about Lugosi, who recontextualized the character as one who wished to integrate himself into high English culture. Sure, he did so for his own selfish interests, but…well, who doesn’t? His interests happened to be supernatural, is all.
And that’s the Dracula we remember. The one who steps into the room with a flourish of his cape. The one who smiles disarmingly and tries to be friendly until somebody gets a bit too curious. The one who gets to know his victims face to face, eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder, charming them to keep them off guard, pretending to be the grand and cultured noble that he once actually was…just to get closer…
Just to get…close enough.
It’s not Stoker who gave Dracula such an incredible, irresistible presence; it was Lugosi, who fought tooth and nail, against the wishes of the studio, to play the character on film.
Lugosi understood — consciously or not — that there was one way to play the count, one way that would resonate, one way that would take a character people thought they knew and turn it into something nobody would ever forget. In some alternate universe, he failed in his overtures, and the part went to somebody else.
I’m glad we live in this one, where the role was built so firmly into what we know today. So firmly, in fact, that even cinema’s greatest parodist couldn’t resist treating it reverently.
But maybe that’s Brooks’ best joke, after all. Dracula was a monster that had already lost his monstrousness. He was already a joke, as any monster must be by the time he’s reimagined as a cartoon mascot. Lugosi cemented him so strongly and effectively and indelibly in our minds that he became familiar. Safe. Forgive the pun: toothless.
Brooks, in very large part, presented the story straight. Not entirely straight, but straight enough to make a point.
And his point was that Dracula could be both silly and frightening. Brooks bridged the gap between the character as we know it, and its original shadow. Between the non-threatening likenesses that we’ve all grown up with, and the genuinely dangerous original. Between modern sensibilities, and the simple stories that so long ago terrified generations of readers.
And it’s a good joke. It’s the joke that sneaks up on us when we all think it’s safe to laugh.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It
(1897, Bram Stoker [as Dracula]; 1995, Mel Brooks)
Book or film? Book
Worth reading the book? Yes. It’s not great, but it’s deeply fascinating to encounter one of literature’s most famous characters in his first incarnation.
Worth watching the film? Yes. It’s both funnier and better than its reputation suggests.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Of course not.
Is it of merit in its own right? Definitely. Ignore everything you’ve heard against Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Brooks neither made a riotous satire nor a proper Dracula film, but he split the difference in a fascinating way. It wasn’t the movie anyone was expecting it to be, but it’s a lot of fun, and, at times, a surprisingly effective film in its own right.