Category Archives: culture

Cultural observations.

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.

Brides and Daughters: Women of Universal Monster Movies

Considering my most popular post to date has concerned the women of Hammer Horror, I figured it was time to turn my attention to the classic Universal Studios monster movies of the thirties and forties, and the actresses that made them great. Brides. A daughter. An invisible woman. Even before the age of sound, with its successful Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal was known for creating memorable monsters. But with 1931’s DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN,  the studio truly mastered the art of monster-making. No one denies that Lugosi’s titular count, or Karloff’s monster are a part of pop culture like no other monsters of the twentieth-century. And, unsurprisingly, it is Lugosi and Karloff  that are the actors most often discussed in regard to horror movie history. But Universal Studios’s horror films contain some equally memorable, frightening (and, at least on one occasion, funny) female characters.

A BEVY OF BRIDES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

The brides in DRACULA, for example, are truly threatening women. Ethereal creatures. And deadly. It is only through the intervention of the Count that they give up their pursuit of Dwight Frye’s poor Renfield. While Garret Fort’s script takes its cue from Balderston and Deane’s play, the scene gets close to the eeriness of the novel. The appearance of the brides is essential to the film (and the novel), as it establishes Dracula as both a vampire that can create other vampires (an infection), and women as more than mere victims of the Count (by no means the weaker sex). Though their screen time is short, the effect of the brides of Dracula is lasting — one of menace and death.

Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Franstein (1935)
Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Elsa Lanchester, however, as the titular BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) plays a more sympathetic character. Similarly on screen for mere minutes (at the very end of the film, unless you count her appearance as Mary Shelley in the opening to the film), Lanchester plays more of a creature to be pitied than feared — shocked more than shocking as she rejects the advances of the monster for whom she is made. Yet is is her character that is among those best remembered by the audience, with a scream that shreds the silver screen, She is there as men’s (and monster’s) plans literally crumble to dust.

A DANGEROUS DAUGHTER
Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

It is with the character of Countess Marya Zaleska in 1936’s DAUGHTER OF DRACULA that Universal found its first true female monster, a fully fleshed out (and blood curdling) character that is both sympathetic and threatening. Played with sophistication and mystery by the talented Gloria Holden, Zaleska is perhaps the first truly conflicted vampire in cinema history (long before Hammer made it a theme, Anne Rice made a literary career of it, and Twilight a hallmark of its series of films). Though Zaleska feeds (most notably in a scene that many consider the first cinematic suggestion of a lesbian vampire), she yearns for a cure to her condition. Tragically, it is not meant to be.

Invisible Woman (1940)
Press kit promotional still from Invisible Woman (1940)
TWO DUDS AND A DOCTOR

To the opposite extreme is the comedic INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940). Here, the horrible is played purely for laughs with the title character, played by Virginia Bruce, first getting revenge on a sadistic boss then playing foil to a group of thieving thugs. If there’s any doubt as to the silliness of the picture, know that Shemp Howard’s in it. Still, it’s not a terrible movie, unlike…

SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946). An outright misfire. Forgettable, despite a decent enough performance by June Lockhart (long before she was lost in space), the movie is by no means horror, and certainly not (intentional) comedy. Instead, it’s a dull mystery film where a woman believes herself to be a werewolf, responsible for a series of murders where victims had their throats ripped out. Spoiler alert: she isn’t.

Curiously, one of the most monstrous women in all of Universal Studios horror movies is Dr. Sandra Mornay (played by Lenore Aubert). A scientist in cahoots with Dracula to give the Frankenstein Monster a more obedient brain,  Dr. Mornay is a serious threat to the bumbling Wilbur (Lou Costello) in 1948’s ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. With its many monsters and truly memorable performances, the film is actually among the best examples of horror comedy movies. And it was definitely a highlight for Lugosi (only his second, and last time playing Dracula for Universal), whose career was well on the decline.

Lenora Aubert and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
Lenora Aubert and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
BEYOND THE MONSTERS

While some Pre-Code actresses got to play more complex characters, female characters of the late thirties, forties and fifties were too often relegated to roles of the good daughter, the imperiled girlfriend, or the dutiful wife. Women’s liberation was decades away, and Universal Studios, for the most part, played it safe.

Evelyn Ankers gives Lon Chaney Jr. a long overdue trim
Evelyn Ankers gives Lon Chaney Jr. a long overdue trim

Actresses like Evelyn Ankers served as beauties to Universal’s beasts. Ankers, most notable for THE WOLF-MAN (1941) was a Universal Studios staple, appearing also in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Captive Wild Woman (1943), Son of Dracula (1943), The Mad Ghoul (1943), Jungle Woman (1944), Weird Woman (1944), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), and The Frozen Ghost (1945).

Other talented women like Valerie Hobson and Gloria Stuart (both of whom also starred in multiple Universal Horror films) had long and varied careers. Just two among the many actresses that made those movies work as well as they did. Louise Allbritton, Helen Chandler, Mae Clarke. Julie Adams. Susanna Foster. Martha O-Driscoll. Jane Randolph. The list goes on and on.

Though their cult of followers is not as prominent as those for the women of Hammer Horror, the women of Universal’s monster movies are undeniably essential to the success and legacy of those films.

 

(for more on Universal monster movies, click here)