Sunday, April 5, 2009

Modern Film: Dracula Genre as a Reflection of Evolving Society

Dracula in Film: Reflections of an Evolving Society

Since the creation of Bram Stoker’s most famous fictional character Dracula with the publication of his most famous novel in 1897, both Dracula and the societal culture in which he is placed have represented a duality that movies have since tried to reconcile. The figure of Dracula, and the concept of evil of which he represents, have undergone a spectrum of changes over time. The metamorphosis of Dracula himself, as he is portrayed in films, is a direct reflection of the time and culture of which the film was produced. The vampire and Dracula films, which have been made through the years, present a unique historical perspective of the evolution of changes of both women and sexuality in society. Furthermore, the vampire character, and the heroines as portrayed in a particular film reflect the sexual ideas of the culture of the audience for whom the work is intended.
The original Dracula, as portrayed by Bram Stoker’s novel, is a product of the late Victorian age in which the story was written. In the novel, the distinction between good and evil is clear. Christianity held a place of high importance in the late 1800s. There is no doubt that Stoker’s intent was to represent vampirism as an evil that had to be eradicated. In fact, the evil of Dracula’s curse is equated with Satan, the adversary of the Christian God.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Dracula’s complex character represented many contradictions that have been difficult for society to accept and reconcile. While a gentleman of perfect English manners and intellect that has the capacity to mesmerize and swoon his female victims, he was also a putrid manifestation of corruption and evil. While discrete, sexuality between Dracula and his female victims plays a sublime role in Stoker’s novel. With these characteristics of Dracula in mind, it is not difficult to imagine the difficulty a movie producer might encounter in producing a readily accepted character that supposedly has the ability the mesmerize and charm its victims despite the fact that he is deficient in all the contemporary characteristics of a physically attractive man. Additionally, it is hard to mold together into one character proper manners, personality and intelligence with an uncouth bestial instinct for survival
Since the dawn of the age of film, beginning with the earlier half of the nineteenth century, Stoker’s novel has been altered and adapted into numerous films. Dracula, the novel, presented so many challenges that film makers had to reconcile in order to satisfactorily produce both a character and a story into a movie that would be deemed acceptable to the audience for whom it was aimed. The vampire films: 1931 “Dracula”, the 1970s film, Werner Herzog’s, “Nosferatu the Vampire”, the contemporary 1990s film based Ann Rice’s novel, “Interview With the Vampire”, and the modern cinematic remake of Stoker’s novel “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, clearly illustrate the ways that Dracula’s changing image reflects that ever changing cultural ideas of good and evil, and of women and sexuality. Each film is unique in the means by which the vampire and women are portrayed, the meaning of evil, and in the expression of sexuality.
In Stoker’s novel, Dracula, the distinction between goodness and evil are very clear. Dracula is the embodiment of evil and evil is equated with Satan. During the time period of which the book was written, the religion of Christianity was an important aspect of Western society. Therefore evil was associated with Satan, as the case with the myth of the vampire. There is no doubt whatsoever that it was Stoker’s intent to portray Dracula as evil with Satanic roots. Upon entering Dracula’s lair in Carfax Abbey, Jonathan Harker noted that “corruption had itself become corrupt” with even the odor described as “stagnant and foul… composed of all the ills of mortality…[with] the pungent, acrid smell of blood…[and] dry miasma” (Stoker, 276) According to the Professor Van Helsing, vampires were “Un-Dead” creatures whose souls were cursed, “growing more debased” (Stoker, 236) in wickedness and evil as their unholy existence continued.
Vampires began when the first vampire, centuries ago, made a pact with the Devil, otherwise referred to by the Professor as the “Evil One” (Stoker 265). To live, the vampire must consume human blood. “He can fatten on the blood of the living” (Stoker, 263) As the case with Lucy when she became infected by Dracula, (and as the case with any other vampire), the only way to free her soul so that it might go to heaven was to kill her Un-Dead vampiric body. After her infection from Count Dracula, she became a hideous, foul “Thing” that had to be destroyed. Yet, just like evil and Satan, the vampire can only be destroyed with the aid of the power of God. “There are things which so afflict him that he has no power… as for things sacred, [the] crucifix… he is nothing”(Stoker, 264) according to Professor Van Helsing. The vampire feared the crucifix, and could only be repelled by the Host, the Christian representation of Jesus’ body. In fact, Van Helsing, Harker and the other men used the Sacred Christian symbols such as the Host and Crucifix to protect themselves upon entering Dracula’s lair.
It is clear that the Victorian stereotypes of women persist throughout Stoker’s novel. Nevertheless women are presented in a respectful light, yet they are within the norm for English Victorian society. Mina and Lucy are both young women who are preoccupied with the concerns of their impending marriages and their fiancés in the beginning of Stoker’s novel. While they are basically represented in the story as victims of Dracula and his curse, they possess respectable personality character traits that are acceptable for women of the Victorian era. Although women were respected their husbands and fathers often believed them that they were in need of protection. Both Mina and Lucy were concerned about scandal and maintaining a respectable reputation. This is evident when Mina takes great effort to cover her bare feet with mud, and Lucy with a cloak during one of Lucy’s sleep walking episodes, lest anyone should see them indecently dressed. Additionally, Mina considered the shock that other woman would feel in reaction to their large and unfeminine appetites. Neither had a desire to challenge the role of women in their society.
Lucy is portrayed as sweet, pure, and lovable innocent girl. Quincey Morris even referred to her as a “little girl” in an endearing manner. Mina is described as sympathetic and motherly, such as the case according to Arthur Holmwood when he looked to Mina for support after Lucy’s death. Despite the fact that Stoker’s novel holds onto the persistent attitudes of the feminine woman, he does not hesitate to attach masculine attributes to the female characters. In fact, the Professor praised Mina’s mental strength in his statement, “Wonderful madam Mina! She has a man’s brain… were he much gifted- and a woman’s heart.” (Stoker, 258). Nevertheless, the Professor at times had a protective attitude toward women, when he insisted that Mina must be protected and could no longer be part of their dangerous quest. Additionally, in his confidential discussions with Lucy when attempting to discover what was making her ill, his attitude was condescending as he questioned her and spoke to her as if she were a child.
It is certainly difficult to correlate sexuality with Count Dracula who was described by Stoker as man with pale skin, “hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere”, massive eyebrows, bushy hair, a mouth that was “fixed and cruel-looking… sharp white teeth” (Stoker, 19), pointed ears, hairy palms and long, yellowed fingernails. Nevertheless, there are some aspects of vampirism that appear to be sexual in nature. The act of biting the victim, and the exchange of blood that must occur suggests an intimate relationship between the vampire and his victim. During Harker’s imprisonment in Dracula’s castle, he described the beautiful, female vampires as both “thrilling and repulsive”, and possessing voluptuousness. Prior to her corruption by Dracula, Lucy was innocent and sweet. After succumbing to the curse of the vampire, as she transformed from her innocent nature and had acquired a “carnal and unspiritual appearance” she became a “devilish mockery” (Stoker, 235) of her former purity with her “pointed teeth, the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth” according Dr. Seward who had loved her greatly. Later in the novel, when Mina falls victim to Dracula, the blood exchange ritual she underwent with Count Dracula in her bedroom during the night appeared to be a perverse mockery of the genuine, pure love shared with her new husband Jonathan Harker. In the cases with Lucy and Mina, the transformation into a vampire transformed purity and innocence into debased wickedness and love into an unwholesome ,sexualized, carnal act of blood exchange.
The 1931 film, “Dracula”, directed by Todd Browning, which featured the actor Bela Lugosi,, represented a simplification of Stoker’s novel in many aspects. Rather than trying to produce a film integrating the complexities of Stoker’s complex character of Dracula, Browning discarded many of the count’s original characteristics and replaced them. Browning’s goal was to make a vampire that was visually and sexually attractive rather than grotesque. The physical attributes of Dracula therefore would be a means by which Dracula could hypnotize and swoon his female victims. In the early days of filmmaking, an audience most likely would not easily accept that a filthy, corpse- like beast could charm and swoon its victims without screaming in terror at his sight. Nor would the audience readily accept such a character. So, for the first time, with Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula, with his well groomed hair, tuxedo and cape, was portrayed as a sophisticated being that could blend well into proper English society. In fact, at their first meeting, long before she became his victim, Lucy was immediately attracted to the handsome, and exotic Count Dracula. In fact she referred to the Count as “fascinating”. Such could never have been the case if Stoker’s Dracula had been physically replicated on film. Additionally, In accordance with Stoker’s Novel, Browning’s Dracula was a man of proper manners. As a host, he welcomed Reinfield (who took the role as solicitor in the movie), into his castle with the well-known statement, “I bid you welcome”. Additionally, he provided a comfortable bed, cheery fire and attended to Reinfield’s needs. The clue that separated the count from ordinary man in the film was his glowing, piercing eyes that were evident in his hypnotic stare.
With the introduction of an attractive Count Dracula, sexuality was introduced into the film. While sexual scenes are entirely omitted from the story, it is alluded to in the fact that during the night, Dracula stealthily goes into the bedroom of his female victims as they sleep and bites them on the neck. The concept of Dracula biting his female victims on the neck seem analogous to an intimate kiss. In fact the actual movie omits the actual biting scene since obvious sexuality in film was not accepted in the early 1930s. Later in the film, Mina is swooned into Dracula’s hypnotic intimate embrace. While sexuality is not blatant in Browning’s film, it is present with Dracula’s handsome appearance, the attractiveness of Lucy and Mina, and the hypnotic embraces and biting of the neck in the bedroom.
The distinction between good and evil is not as clear cut in the film as in Stoker’s book. The evil represented by Dracula in Browning’s film seems analogous to a vague idea of horror that one might feel after reading a spooky story. Evil is not equated with the devil, and there are minimal references either to God or Christianity as being the means by which evil is combated. It is evident; by the way Professor Van Helsing and Dr. Seward methodically plan the means to kill Dracula, that the professor and the doctor basically see scientific and rational reasoning as the salvation to combat the evil of Dracula. This reflects the increasing secularization of 1930s culture as science and the scientific method are embraced instead of religion.
Produced in a society in which women’s rights and liberation were still in their infancy, this 1931 film reflects that fact that woman were not treated as equals to men. In fact women in society were equated with children, because it was believed that they needed men for direction, and protection in life. Consequently, in the film, women play a small role in the film other than as submissive victims. The females portrayed were either the naïve, overprotected young women Mina and Lucy, or the servile weak minded ignorant maids. In fact, after Mina falls ill after succumbing to Dracula’s bite, the men in her life are very condescending in the ways that they repeatedly question her as if she were a small child and not an adult woman. She is not taken seriously, and in response her fiancé tells her to “forget all these bad dreams and think of something cheerful”. Furthermore, it is Dracula who tells the men in Mina’s life not to worry because it was only her overactive imagination in response to the “grim tales” he told of his far off country in order to “amuse” her. Women are also portrayed as subservient to the men in their lives that cannot take responsibility for their own decisions, safety or welfare. On a number of occasions, Mina was ordered to bed or to get back indoors for her own good. Additionally, rather than speak up herself, Mina implores her father to speak to her fiancé on her behalf when Harker tries to convince the others to let him run off to London with Mina to keep her safe. It is clear that this film is a reflection of the cultural attitudes that women were the physically, and intellectually weaker sex. In the absence of religion, in a society that values physical strength and rational thought, where mostly men held position of power in higher education and medicine, women play little role and were treated in a condescending, child like manner.
Clearly, Werner Herzog’s film, “Nosferatu the Vampire”, is a product of the new culture of women’s liberation in of the 1970s in which it was produced. This film contrasts greatly in its portrayal of women from Browning’s film. While upholding the traditional ideas of good vs. evil, and that Dracula and the curse of vampirism is the embodiment of evil, the film deviates from the historically accepted roles of men and women. The character of Lucy challenges the Victorian notion that women are physically weak, submissive and helpless from evil. Furthermore, the film rejects the concept of the male figure as the savior against evil. In contrast, rather than a man, it is a woman who defeats evil and saves the town from the vampire curse.
As with Stoker’s novel, the curse of the vampire and the evil it represents is reinforced and expanded upon by the opening images of the dead, skeletal, decayed corpses, forever entombed in their horrific mask-like faces of death. The numbers of human remains of the victims entombed in the cave-like catacombs are analogous to the thousands of tortured, dead bodies of the victims of the Holocaust. Vampirism is an evil that is equated with a plague; something that is to be feared, rejected and overcome. In contrast to the original novel, to reflect the newly arising feminist movement appearing in modern culture, Jonathan Harker and Lucy switch roles. Harker assumes the role of the helpless victim who succumbs to the vampirism, while Lucy remains strong and seeks to destroy the vampire.
As with the Victorian novel, sexuality in Herzog’s film is very understated. In stark contrast to the debased horrible images in the opening scenes, Lucy is depicted as a beautiful, pure and proper woman, with long hair and dressed in flowing white gowns. In alignment with the sexual repression of the Victorian era, Lucy’s demeanor is stiff and unemotional, yet she is supportive of her husband. Lucy and her husband sleep in separate beds in night clothing that fully covers their bodies.
The inhuman, repulsive physical appearance of Count Dracula, with his sickly white skin, thin, bony fingers, long yellow nails, pointed ears, bald head and rat- like teeth, is a visible reflection of the evil that vampirism represents. Dracula’s lethargic and tired, appearance, and torn, tattered, dusty cape seem analogous to the symptoms experienced by one as he approaches death. Herzog’s conception of the vampire, Count Dracula is entirely different from both Stoker’s and Browning’s idea of Dracula. Unlike Stoker’s lively, vigorous and animated Dracula who began as perfect gentleman host to his guest, with the self-control to suppress the bestial aspects of his vampire nature, such was not the case with Herzog’s Dracula. While Dracula makes some feeble attempts towards acting like a proper host, he is subject to the vampiric disease, which enslaves him to his bestial and evil ways. As Harker takes his place at the dinner table to eat after a long journey to the castle, Dracula hawks over him, staring intently, just as a predator watches his prey. Dracula is unable to control is vampire nature as he impulsively reaches over to Harker when he accidentally cuts his finger, and in an uncouth fashion, sucks the blood. Upon his arrival to Harker’s homeland, the towns’ people succumb to rats, plague and death.
Traditional Christian ideas of God and faith are upheld, as evident in the fact that Dracula fears the crucifix which represent the power of good against evil, Lucy’s prayer to God for forgiveness and finally, the power of the Host, (which represents the body of Christ), to purify the coffins and restrain Harker in his corner after he is infected by the Count. Nevertheless, not all the ideas represented by the Christian religion are embraced. The idea of the male Christ figure that is the savior is rejected. According to the Christian religion, only a man, Jesus Christ, has the capacity to save the world from evil. In contrast, according to Herzog’s film, only “a woman pure of heart”, could save the town from the evil of Nosferatu’s curse. After attending a symbolic “Last Supper” (analogous to Jesus Christ’s Last Supper), with some townspeople who had realized they had fallen victim to the plague, Lucy assumes her special role as she sets off on her quest to seek out and destroy Dracula. Just as Jesus Christ, in accordance with Christianity, sacrificed his life to save the world, Lucy knowingly sacrifices her life to save the town from the vampiric plague. She sacrifices her life to Dracula’s fatal embrace, knowing it is the only way by which she might capture him in the daylight, thereby destroying him. In destroying Dracula, purity and strength of a woman defeats evil. The sunlight, which represented the power of goodness, destroyed the evil Dracula and his vampiric curse, shined upon Lucy illuminating her as she drew her final breath. Ironically at the end of the film, Harker, infected with the vampirism tricks escapes.
In the modern vampire movies of the 1990s, such as the 1990s remake of Stoker’s novel, “Bram Stocker’s Dracula” and “Interview With the Vampire”, there are several deviations from the trends of Stoker’s novel and the two filmmakers Browning, and Herzog. First of all, the notion that vampirism is evil and Satanic is rejected. Consequently, when the vampire is no longer associated with evil or Satan, he becomes humanized and seen as someone with whom to sympathize with. In a secular culture such as our modern American society, religion and Christianity play very little role. Therefore to appeal to modern audiences, less focus is devoted to religious explanations for vampirism in contrast to the earlier films and Stoker’s novel. Therefore it becomes necessary to find an alternative explanation for vampirism other than satanic evil. Furthermore, in a conversation with Armond, an ancient vampire, Louis learns that there is no such thing as God or the Devil, and that vampires are not doomed to Hell.
With the elimination of the idea that the vampire is evil or satanic, the character of the vampire becomes a being that can feel human emotion such as pain, regret and even love. In both of these modern films, it is established from the start that the condition of vampirism is not a result of evil, or choice but circumstance. Through the opening scenes, the audience can learn the sad circumstances, which led these emotional, caring men into the curse of vampirism. In fact the vampires of these film are depicted as loving devoted husbands during their mortal lives, who became victims after they had suffered greatly from the loss of their greatest loves, their wives.
In the case of Louis, the vampire from “Interview With the Vampire”, the loss of his wife and child led him into an unbearable depression, which led him to neglect himself, and left him vulnerable. In fact, according to Louis, “ I was attacked. It might have been anyone- and my invitation was open to sailors, thieves, maniacs, anyone. But it was a vampire.” Count Dracula from “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” became cursed after he renounced God and the Orthodox Church when he learned of the news of his wife’s suicide. The Orthodox priests proclaimed that since Elizabeth committed suicide she was ineligible to enter heaven. As a result, in sadness and anger he announced that he would forever seek vengeance for her death. In fact, in the film Religious Orthodoxy is portrayed as being evil for its responsibility for the vampire curse.
Additionally, as the concept of being a vampire is no longer treated with horror or disgust, vampirism becomes glorified like as exclusive club that must be guarded and protected against any outsiders. In both films, vampires are portrayed as physically attractive and beautiful, possessing great gifts such as strength, everlasting life, intelligence, wisdom and wealth. These vampires spend the movie protecting themselves from outside harm.
With physical attractiveness as one of the striking features of vampirism, along comes the onset of sexuality. In both films, there is heavy emphasis on the sexual aspect of vampirism. Both heterosexuality and homosexuality play a role in both films. When his youth was restored, after feasting on blood, Count Dracula became an attractive man who easily lured Mina to willingly become his lover. There are several intimate scenes between Dracula and Mina in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, with images of close contact, and bare skin. Additionally, Mina is depicted wearing suggestive, translucent night clothing as she rushes out during the night to find Lucy during one of her sleep walking episodes. Both Mina and Lucy join in a physical, intimate embrace in the night rain-, which subtly suggests homosexuality. In contrast to the traditional vampire films in which Dracula seeks out a female companion, the heterosexuality is secondary in the “Interview With the Vampire”. The subtle sexuality between the male vampire, Lestat with his male victims is evident during the film when Lestat seduces a young, naïve, and attractive, feminine man. In fact Lestat, with his flowing, curly blond hair, and delicate features is himself is feminized. Women are depicted as threatening and not to be trusted. The young cold and calculating female vampire Claudia murders Lestat. The other female vampires from the theater in Paris are aloof and emotionless. The relationships between the male vampires are stronger physically and emotionally than those between men and women. Woman are no longer portrayed as submissive victims, but rather as active participants in the sexual relationship.
When comparing Stoker’s original novel with the vampire films throughout the years we can see a clear evolution and transformation in the concepts of good and evil and of sexuality. We can see the historical change and growth of the cultural attitudes towards religions, sex and women that has occurred with the last 100 years. Films have ranged from depicting Dracula and the vampire as a grotesque, inhuman, animal-like, undead beast exhibiting no sexual appeal to an attractive, sophisticated being with the capacity to hypnotize and swoon its victims. The role of women in the vampire film originated as the helpless, naïve, and submissive victim to the strong, willful, determined heroine of the modern era. The degradation of the role of Christianity and religion in favor of humanism is also exhibited in the transformation of the condition of vampirism as being associated with Satanic evil which must be combated by God, to the rejection of the idea of evil in favor of the explanation that vampirism is a condition of circumstance.
Society and its ideas of women, sexuality and the role of religion have undergone a spectrum of changes over time which the novel and films about vampires have captured. The films’ portrayal of Dracula, the vampire, and the supporting male and female characters are a direct reflection of the time and culture of which the film was produced. The image of the original creature created by Stoker has been altered by the directors’ imaginations in reaction to the changing cultural concerns of its audience in the areas of sexuality, women and the concept of evil. The plethora of vampire and Dracula films available to today’s modern audiences, which have been made through the years, offer a unique historical perspective of the changes in cultural concerns undergone by our society.

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