In film and fiction, reincarnated love has become a popular trope where lovers are fated to encounter each other every time they reincarnate. The spin placed on it by the horror genre is usually this: that the immortal (predominately male) monster loses a loved one (invariably, tragically) and encounters them again centuries later in someone who is (usually) unaware that they are a dead ringer for the lost love. Perhaps most famously used in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), the trope was front and center in Francis Ford Coppola’s purportedly faithful adaption of the novel — propelling the plot, and especially the ending. “Love Never Dies,” read the popular poster, and for two hours plus, the melancholic titular count (Gary Oldman) finds his re-incarnated wife, Elisabeta, in the person of Mina Harker (Winona Ryder).
So effective was this theme in Coppola’s film that many believed it came from Bram Stoker himself. That Mina is not Dracula’s romantic love interest in the novel at all begs the question of where this particular spin on the popular trope comes from.
DRACULA, BLACULA, AND SOME DARK SHADOWS
Another BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA— this one from writer Richard Matheson (of I am Legend fame) and producer Dan Curtis (creator of Dark Shadows) — was apparently the first to tie the trope to Dracula himself. Released in 1974, it stars a somewhat unconvincing Jack Palance, and is often overshadowed by other “fathful” adaptations from the seventies (Franco’s COUNT DRACULA (1970) for example, or the excllent BBC telvision adaption from 1977, starring Louis Jordan). Still, Curtis’ film is unique among other seventies’ offerings in that it makes that reincarnated love connection quite clear. From the trailer alone, we learn that this proported faithful adaptation is “a terrifying love story that reaches back into the dead past.” The film plays out with very little resemblance to the novel, but the connection to reincarnated love makes it nonetheless notable — if not quite altogether original… because…
Two years before Dan Curtis’ movie, the oft-celebrated blaxploitation film BLACULA made its absolutely central motif the pursuit of a reincarnated love. One of the top-grossing films of 1972, it was the first recipient of the Best Horror Movie award at the Saturn Awards. And is certainly unique among vampire films.
In BLACULA, African prince Mamuwalde (played with gravitas by Shakespearian actor William Marshall) is cursed by Dracula himself to carry the somewhat silly titular title. Having made a pass at Mamuwalde’s wife, Luna (Vonetta McGee), Dracula gets into a scuffle with Mamuwalde, puts the bite on him, then leaves him to suffer for eternity in a sealed coffin. And Luna? She’s imprisoned in the crypt by his side, and left to die as he suffers immortality alone.
Of course, you can’t keep a good vampire down. And after being revived in the twentieth century, Mamuwalde encounters Tina, the spitting image of Luna. His reason for (undead) life is restored. He is smitten, and plot is propelled by his love for her.
So that’s it? The vampire as sympathetic creature in search of his lost love began with BLACULA? Nope. This woulnd’t be much of a post if the story ended there.
It was the aforementioned Dan Curtis that apparently first tied the bloodsucking undead with a reincarnated love in his Dark Shadows soap opera. Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), the vampire written into the second season of the show in 1967 as an attempt to keep the show afloat, was to be the spark. And it worked. The story of Barnabas’ lost love, Josette DuPres and her uncanny resemblance to modern-day waitress Maggie Evans became one of the more popular plots of the six season series. Kathryn Leigh Scott plays the dual roles of Josette and Maggie. The twist here? Barnabas seems to have cast a spell on Maggie, slowly bringing out the Josette within her.
A curious aside: Josette had committed suicide in 1795 by throwing herself from a cliff. Vlad the Impaler’s first wife supposedly likewise committed suicide by throwing herself off of Poenari Castle to flee from the Turks in 1462. A coincidence? Radu Florescu’s In Search of Dracula, published in 1972 co-written with Raymond T. McNally, was perhaps the first scholarly pursuit that tied the vampire Dracula to the his fifteenth century Wallachian namesake. In it, the suicide of Vlad’s wife is mentioned, but Curtis couldn’t possibly have known this, having written of Josette’s suicide in the the sixties. But Curtis definitely was aware of the Vlad Dracula connection, as his Dracula (Jack Palance) has a painting of himself in his castle that bears the nameplate: Vlad Tepes.
AN IMMORTAL OF A DIFFERENT KIND: THE MUMMY
That Dan Curtis and writers of Dark Shadows found the reincarnation sub-plot to be equal parts creepy and romantic may have, indeed, then, been the inspiration for vampires seeking to find their long lost loves in the (literal) face of modern-day women.
But it was definitely not the first time horror films had used the trope. And, oddly enough, the honor does not even belong to a vampire film.
Though Universal’s DRACULA (1931) was promoted at the time as “the strangest passion the world has ever known,” Dracula pining for lost love was never a plot point. Many believe the campaign was simply launched to sell tickets to women who would otherwise not be interested in a horror film. Universal’s THE MUMMY, however, released a year later, had its monster’s love at its core. Wrapped in the trappings of Egyptology, THE MUMMY (1932) is a love story — one spanning centuries, where reincarnation is neither a spell nor a suggestion.
With a script by John Balderston (who, coincidentally co-wrote Broadway’s Dracula, on which the 1931 film is based) the mummy of the title is high priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff). Guilty of sacrilege by trying to ressurect his forbidden lover, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, Imhotep was buried alive for his crimes. Brought to life again by archeaologists reading an ancient scroll, Imhotep takes the identity of eccentric historian Ardeth Bey. When he encounters Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a woman bearing a striking resemblance to the princess, Bey believes she is the reincarnation of the princess. And he attempts to bestow upon Helen immortality by first killing, then mummifying, then resurrecting her.
That Helen is ultimately saved when she recalls her ancestral past, and prays to the goddess Isis to help her, is poof that she is, indeed, the reincarnation of the princess. And the idea was apparently all Balderston’s, for the story on which he based his script (a tale of Cagliostro by novelists Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer) contains nothing of the reincarnation plot.
So it is Balderston to whom we can attribute the trope? Not quite, but we’re on the right track. For it is with other tales of mummies that the first instance(s) of a reincarnated lover in film may be found. Silent films. And their literary roots.
EGYPTOLOGY, SILENT MOVES, AND H. RIDER HAGGARD
For much of what follows, I owe a debt to Richard Freeman and The Mummy in Context from a 2009 issue of The European Journal of American Studies.
In his article, Freeman zeroes in on the theme of reincarnation in THE MUMMY (1932) and traces it to many sources — all dealing with the Western World’s fascination with all things Egypt since the late nineteenth century discovery of tombs in The Valley of The Kings.
Finding in H. Rider Haggard’s Smith and the Pharaohs (seriallized between 1912 and 1913) a modern Egyptologist who discovers his fascination for an Egyptian princess is tied to HIM being HER reincarnated lover, Freeman believes he found the literary source of what will ultimately inspire six silent films that feature the reincarnation trope.
For example, there is 1912’s WHEN SOUL MEETS SOUL, and, in 1914, THROUGH THE CENTURIES, where reincarnated lovers restore life to a three-thousand year old princess. Ultimately, it is the 1917 drama THE UNDYING FLAME that, Freeman argues, resembles 1932’s THE MUMMY most. In it, an young English girl is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian. Not a dream. Not a coincidence. Not two reincarnated lovers reviving a mummy. But the actual reincarnation.
To this, I would add one final piece of the puzzle. Indeed, H.Rider Haggard’s Smith and the Pharoahs would appear to be the first tale of a modern Egyptologist and reincarnated love. But 25 years earlier, Haggard himself published whas is considered his masterpiece: She: A History of Adventure (1887). Therein, the title character of the novel, Ayesha, reveals that she has learned the secret of immortality and that her ancient city, Kôr, has been around for millenia, predating even the Egyptians. Her purpose in living? Awaiting the reincarnated return of her lover, Kallikrates (whom she herself had killed in a fit of jealous rage). Convenient then that among the adventures who have discovered Kor is Leo Vinvey, a man Ayesha believe to be the reincarnation of her Kallikrates.
It doesn’t work out well for her.
A curious aside: …did it, however, work out for Dan Curtis that the reincarnation plot in Hammer Studio’s SHE (1965) happened just a few years before his immortal Barnabus finds the reincarantion of his love, Josette? Was Curtis inspired by the Hammer film? Have we come full circle?
When all is said and done, tracing the trope through nineteenth century tales of adventure and early silent cinema about the mysteries of Egypt doesn’t really address the attraction of the reincarnated lovers trope when it comes to those who write vampire films.
Beyond the movies already mentioned, the trope is a plot point in the delightful LOVE AT FIRST BITE (1979). It is (suggested) in the wonderful 1985 entry in the vampire genre, FRIGHT NIGHT (with vampire Jerry Dandritch owning a painting of a woman that bears a resemblance to the protagonist’s girlfriend). And it is used again in a movie made shortly after Coppola’s film: the terrible EMBRACE OF THE VAMPIRE (1995), which was billed as “the sexiest vampire movie ever made” (it wasn’t).
That it was probably used thereafter — and will continue to be used well into the future — is no suprise. It is the idea of the romantic vampire (and not the grave-escaping ghoul of folklore) that fused the trope of reincarnated lovers with that of bloodsuckers. Mummies are dry. And an immortal (and violent) warrior queen? A little intimidating. But a handsome, melancholic, and tortured monarch cursed to live for centuries without his true love? It’s irresistably romantic.
Many of us wouldn’t mind being Dracula. As he lays dying at the end of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) — the final death blow delivered by his beloved Mina / Elisabeta — it is an effective ending worthy of some Shakespearian hero; the camera looks skyward to a fresco on the ceiling where the lovers are forever entwined, ascending into heaven.
Makes Ardeth Bey look like the dried-up husk he is.