Bad Things Come in Threes: The Weird Sisters of Dracula

Three Fates. Three witches in MACBETH. Three brides in DRACULA. Omne trium perfectum. Everything in threes is perfect or whole. The primary colors. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Three little pigs. Of course, celebrity deaths also come in threes. Christ was tempted three times in the desert. And in WWI, lighting three men’s cigarettes on one match meant death for the third man, as it would likely draw the fire of an enemy sniper. Then in rhetoric, there’s a rule of three. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Veni, vidi, vici.  Stop, drop, and roll. Sets of three just seem to make sense to us. We’re hard-wired to respond to them.

Greg Hildebrandt's The Harem
Greg Hildebrandt’s gorgeous illustrations for DRACULA include this one entitled “Johathan (sic) dreams of the vampiresses” (Unicorn Publishing, 1985)

That Bram Storker deliberately chose to put three vampiresses in his 1897 novel DRACULA has been written about many times before. Some scholars point to the power of three, finding ancient symbolism in the number, or a mirroring of Lucy Westenra’s three suitors (Holmwood, Morris, and Seward) in the attraction Jonathan Harker feels toward them.  Some even argue that the vampires that tempt Harker represent an inversion of the Holy Trinity. But the truth behind Stoker’s choice to have three female vampires tempt Jonathan Harker may be as simple as this: Stoker worked in the theater.

SISTERS, DAUGHTERS OR BRIDES?

Introduced in the third chapter of DRACULA, the vampire brides, as they have come to be known — but are never mentioned in the novel as such — are referred to in the fourth chapter as “those weird sisters” (from Jonathan Harker’s Journal, June 29). Two are dark (hair presumably?), with “aquiline noses, like the Count.” The other was “fair as fair can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.”

As Leonard Wolf questions in his annotated edition of DRACULA, one wonders if the resemblance to Dracula of the first two suggest they may be related to him (sisters? daughters?). Of the three, the blonde, his apparent favorite, may be his wife. After all, the other two defer to her for right of first bite: “Go on! You are the first,” says one of the dark-haired sisters, “and we shall follow; yours is the right to begin.” Is she Dracula’s wife? Are the others his children? Is the Count a polygamist!

That they are called sisters by Harker (and later in the novel by Van Helsing) is telling. Nowhere in the book are they referred to as brides, though in popular culture, they have become to be known as such. In the taking of blood (or exchange, as when a transfusion of Holmwood’s blood temporarily aids Lucy), perhaps Stoker was suggesting a type of husband / wife relationship. Or a perversion of traditional marriage, perhaps.

This much is certain: the sexually suggestive aspect of the vampire that may well be born of the repressed fantasies and insecurities of an Irishment writing in the late nineteenth century certainly finds its most open expression of sexuality in the films of the twentieth.

AT THE MOVIES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

Filmic versions of the novel definitely suggest Dracula having a sexual relationship with the vampire women. Perhaps it is from the movies that the term “brides” comes. But the vampire women of Todd Browning’s 1931 production are definitely not the source of the label. These vampires are uncredited. And they are more ghostly than provocative. Ethereal. Creepy. Sexual in suggestion. But not in action.

In both DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA (1953) and Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the sex is there, but there are not three vampire women. Only one in each of these adaptations. And neither is called a bride.

Valerie Gaunt, in the latter, is credited only as “Vampire Woman.” And though Hammer would go on to make a sequel entitled BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) — originally scripted under the more appropriate title “Disciple of Dracula” — there are only two, not three, vampire women: Greta and Gina. Over a decade later, Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) — though bearing the title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE upon its release in America in 1979 — credits not three but four “vampire girls.”

Vampire Brides of COUNT DRACULA (1977)
The Brides — credited as such — of BBC television’s COUNT DRACULA (1977). Susie Hickford, Sue Vanner, and Belinda Meuldijk

Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, would reinstate the three brides in his made-for-television adaptation of the novel in 1974, with the three vampire women referred to as “vampire wives.” Close, but not exactly brides. Of course, none of them are referred to as “sisters” either. It is not until 1977’s production COUNT DRACULA starring Louis Jordan that we may have the first instance in film or on television where the vampire women are actually credited as “Brides of Dracula.”

The Three Sisters
The Brides of Dracula are referred to as such in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). From left to right are actresses Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu

Perhaps more famously, Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) also refers to the vampire women as brides as the end credits roll. It is in Coppola’s film that the brides are very definitely highly sexualized, and made to appear like women in a harem more than the ghostly figures of earlier productions. Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu are exotic, alluring, and layered deep with eastern-European garb and language.

As for Frank Langella’s turn at the titular Count in Universal’s 1979 “remake,” the vampire women aren’t even there (as it is based upon the Balderston / Deane stageplay).

STOKER, THE STAGE AND MYTHOLOGY

Regardless of how the label “brides” came to be, there’s still the issue of why Stoker chose to call the vampire women “sisters,” or, specifically (for Harker) “weird sisters” in the first place.

Working for the famous actor Henry Irving since 1878, Stoker would have been familiar with his employer’s repertoire ten years on. That year, 1888, saw Irving (who some suggest inspired certain aspects of the character of Dracula) purchase the Lyceum Theater. Among the first of performances was a revival of his Macbeth.

The Weird Sisters of Macbeth
G.J. Bennett, Drinkwater Meadows, W.H. Payne as the witches (1838) from the Folger Shakespeare Library

In Act I, Scene 3, the first of the witches that go one to prophesize Macbeth’s rise and fall, asks of the seocond: “Where hast thou been, sister?”

It might be as simple as that. Borrowing from the Bard, Stoker may have been intentionally drawing comparisons of his vampire women to the witches of Macbeth.

And Shakespeare? He most likely drew his inspiration from  Greek mythology: the Moirae — Lahkesis, Atropos, and Clotho — who dictate the destinies of humankind by spinning, drawing out, and cutting the threads of each life.

BACK TO THE POWER OF THREE

None of this is to say that the Greeks, the Bard, or Stoker didn’t subconsciouly make the choice of three women because the number itself holds some sacred or semiotic significance.

Across cultures, the number three is of undeniable importance. That it is applied to a group of vampire women is thus no great surprise. Literary critics have noted numerous supposed subconscious drives that led to Stoker to his choices — including the three vampire women. Whether it is us that only see the connections to the power of three, or Stoker (knowingly or not) who found significance in numbering his “sisters” as such, is immaterial in the end.

It would seem that putting anything together in sets of three is only natural — or supernatural — as the case may be.

Unyielding in Their Mystery: Cats in Horror Films

Cats as mysterious creatures is more widely accepted among cultures worldwide than is certitude that the earth is round. You  will never find anyone arguing the former. Ubiquitous are tales of cats as otherworldy animals — from ancient Egypt to the modern day. It’s only natural, then, that the mythology and folklore of cats would find its way to film. And no films are better suited to tales of cats than those of the horror genre.

An 1894 short called “Falling Cat” by French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey is believed to be the first film in history to show a live feline; it consists solely of a cat falling down and landing on its feet. Why do we say a cat has “nine lives”? Its righting reflex, apparently. Mystery solved. But not really. Throw all the science you want at it; the fact remains that cats are mysterious creatures. The supernatural in our homes.

That writers of the nineteenth century inspired filmmakers of the twentieth is not surprising. And that Edgar Allan Poe is first and foremost among them is no surprise either.

Poe’s titular black cat alone has been the subject — even title — of several films. Boris Karloff totes one around in the 1934 film bearing the name (with little other resemblance to Poe’s classic). Similarly separate from anything resembling Poe is 1941’s THE BLACK CAT — a semi-comedic film in the “old dark house” style with the now common trope of a crazy cat lady.

Closer to Poe is 1966’s THE BLACK CAT where a mentally disturbed man is convinced his black cat is possessed. Closer still is Roger Corman’s wildly entertaining TALES OF TERROR (1962) that finds Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in a mash-up of Poe’s story with another of the author’s works: “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Vincent Price as Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia
Vincent Price as Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia

But tales of a cat as a truly supernatural being get no better than Corman’s atmospheric Poe adaptation TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). There, Vincent Price as the mournful eccentric Verden Fell (one of the best named characters in all of horror films… with the coolest sunglasses) has the spectre of his wife’s death hanging over him.  Her spirit seemingly inhabits a black cat that torments his new wife, Rowena.

“The eyes, they confound me,” says Fell of cats. “There’s a blankness, a mindless sort of malice in some Egyptian. They do not readily yield up the mystery.” By film’s climax, the cat attacks Fell as Ligeia’s tomb burns down around him.

Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Written by Robert Towne — best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for CHINATOWN (1974) — TOMB OF LIGEIA takes Poe’s theme of the dead having influence over the living and adds possession to the mix. Is it metempsychosis? Or is it paranoia? That the cat could be a symbol of Fell’s unnatural love for Ligeia, or her undying influence (and possible revenge?), is left to the audience to decide.

Shadow of the Cat (1961)
Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Revenge, however, is definitely at the heart of Hammer’s 1961 SHADOW OF THE CAT, starring studio regulars André Morell and Barbara Shelley. There, a cat named Tabitha who witnesses the murder of her owner, exacts revenge on her killers just as they try, and continually fail, to kill her.

Cats exacting revenge runs throughout Rank Organization’s THE UNCANNY (1977). Although it performed poorly at the box office, and is pretty much universally panned, it is notable for star Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Wilbur, whose book about cats — as supernatural creatures and the devil in disguise — frames not one but three tales of feline revenge.

The theme of a cat as avenging devil may be at its most gory and over-the-top entertaining in an adaptation of a 1977 Stephen King short story entitled “The Cat from Hell.” Directed by George Romero as the second of three stories in 1990’s TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, “Cat from Hell” finds a wheelchair bound old man named Drogan hiring a hitman to kill a black cat (whose visage graces the header of this blog post). Drogan believes the cat is murderous. Downright evil. When it is revealed that the man’s pharmaceutical company killed thousands of cats while testing a new drug, it becomes clear that the cat is not evil as much as it is vengeful: exacting its revenge as it kills Drogan’s sister, friend, butler, and hitman, before ultimately dispatching Drogan himself.

A young Drew Barrymore holds General, her savior, in Cat's Eye (1985)
A young Drew Barrymore holds General, her savior, in Cat’s Eye (1985)

But cats are not always killers. Sometimes, they are our saviors. 1985’s CAT’S EYE, written by Stephen King, finds a cat named General figuring into three separate stories. The last — and most effective — is the one named for the cat, which finds General at the home of a little girl whose mother dislikes the animal — going so far as to have it euthanized. But General knows that a malevolent troll has moved into the little girl’s home. And it’s up to the cat to fight the troll and protect the child.

Then there’s the unassuming white kitty in 1999’s remake of THE MUMMY. By merely walking across piano keys, it scares Imhotep, the titular character, and the monster runs away.

Avengers. Saviors. Emissaries of the dead, or the dead themselves transmogrified, cats will undoubtedly continue to capture the imagination of audiences eager to delve into their many mysteries for years to come.

Insofar as to how they have been used in horror films, this post has only scratched the surface.

By Christopher Michael Davis