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Bad Things Come in Threes: The Weird Sisters of Dracula

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 reason Stoker chose to have not one, or two, but three female vampires tempt Jonathan Harker may be as simple as this: he worked in the theater. And from theater he took his inspiration.

First things first: what to call these three.

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 Irishman 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 (so I will give them credit here: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw). 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” (arguably, Joanna Lumley‘s Jessica Van Helsing is meant to be the titular bride).

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 AND THE STAGE

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 many 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 may be as simple as that.

[note: the following amazing (to me at least!) revelation has been added in November, 2022, after reading Dacre Stoker’s and Robert Eighteen-Bisang’s edited and annotated version of the novel, released upon its 125th anniversary]

The proof was waiting there all along for Dracula scholars, hiding in a typescript lost for almost a century.

A TYPESCRIPT IS FOUND

As noted by Stoker and Bisang in the 125th Anniversary edition of DRACULA, no copy of the manuscript for the novel was ever found among Bram Stoker’s personal possessions. It was assumed any complete version was lost to time. Until 1997, when a printer’s copy was found on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Titled “The Un-Dead,” the typesecript went to auction at Christie’s. Microsoft’s Paul Allen came to possess. Scholars were allowed to study it — including Robert Eighteen-Bissang. And in it? The following excised lines from the novel (underlined as in the 125th Anniversary edition), from Harker’s diary, June 29; on the date of his last letter, Harker hopes to never see the Count again:

“I dared not wait to see him return, for I feared to see those weird sisters. How right was Shakespeare, no one would believe that after three hundred years one should see in this fastness of Europe the counterpart of the witches of Macbeth.”

Turns out Bram had originally intended to make it quite clear: his vampire sisters were counterparts of the witches of Macbeth.

THE POWER OF THREE

As for 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.

None of this is to say that the Greeks, the Bard (inspired by classical literature), or Stoker (inspired by Shakespeare) didn’t on some level make the choice of three women because the number itself holds some sacred or semiotic significance.

Omne trium perfectum. Everything in threes is perfect or whole.

The primary colors.

Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

Father, son, and Holy Ghost.

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 threes — be they witches of Macbeth, or Stoker’s weird vampire women.

Solitary and Abhorred: Vincent Price as The Last Man on Earth

Last Man on Earth, British Quad Poster
Last Man on Earth, British Quad Poster

Richard Matheson’s seminal post-apocalyptic vampire novel I AM LEGEND (1954) has been adapted into film three times * — most closely as “Last Man on Earth,” an English-language Italian production starring Vincent Price from 1964. Based on the book — with Matheson writing a first draft that was later abandoned — “Last Man on Earth” is often overshadowed by 1971’s “The Omega Man,” starring Charlton Heston, or 2007’s CGI-heavy “I am Legend,” starring Will Smith. Yet the 1964 film, despite its immediately apparent (incredibly) low-budget, is certainly the most faithful to the spirit of the novel. And it has as its star the always brilliant Vincent Price. Here, he is at his most melancholic. But he is no Robinson Crusoe, stranded on an island. Instead, he IS the island, stuck in a sea of desolation.

GRIEF AND DEPRESSION

While the book, and each adaptation, explore the isolation of the main character, only Matheson’s novel and “Last Man on Earth” spend considerable time on grief and depression.

“Another day to get through,” is the voiceover that opens the film. “Better get started,” Price adds, as if another intolerable day holds no meaning beyond survival.

It’s a tone that is repeated over and over again throughout the film. This is not the confident swagger of Charlton Heston in “Omega Man,” or the dedicated scientific curiosity and concern that is Will Smith’s turn. Clearly, Price is neither the last bastion of mankind’s art and culture (Heston) or its self-appointed savior (Smith). He has lost family, friends, and a purpose. He is a man with little hope for the future, spending his waking hours looking for survivors, and killing vampires.

MONOTONY AND MEMORIES

That these others are vampires is almost immaterial. Sure, they are repulsed by garlic, can’t stand mirrors, and are easily dispensed with a stake to the heart, but Price’s character never seems to think of them as monsters. He is more sympathetic to their situation. And the horror clearly comes from his memories of what was. Of what these people once were. His family, and friends. The horror of isolation. The horror of of remembering how things used to be.

While not part of the voiceover, one line from the novel could well be the theme of the entire movie.

“In a world of monotonous horror
there could be no salvation in wild dreaming.”

Memories and daydreams bring no peace. Even the temporary elation of finding a dog for a companion eventually leads to despair. Even the dog is infected. It must be put down.

THE TRUE MONSTER

SPOILER: in the novel, it is made clear by the final chapter that in a world populated by vampires, the vampire-killer becomes the monster. Neville / Morgan is feared as the man who brings death while the rest of the world sleeps. It’s only with the main character’s execution that the world rid itself of the true monster and move on.

“Last Man” and “Omega Man” both find their Morgan / Neville characters killed before the movies’ closing credts (both ultimately dispatched by spears in scenes of obvious Christ symbolism]). The plot of “Omega Man,” however, makes clear in its world of survivors, that “civilized” man’s art, culture, and, particularly, its science, are to blame for the plague. The survivors rally around a charismatic leader who refers to his “Family” — a none too subtle reference to Charles Manson (who, himself, had prophesized a (race) war).

In “Omega Man,” the fall of mankind is tied to biochemical warfare. And it raises the question of man’s hubris with waging wars that no one can win. But there is no doubt about it; Heston is the hero. Not the monster.

Similarly, Will Smith’s Neville is heroic, although a little misguided. The monsters exist because of a cure for cancer gone wrong. He experiments on them in an effort to return their humanity. It raises the question of man’s hubris with altering nature. Its subtext — and theatrical ending — become matters of bio-ethics. Smith lives, and there’s hope by the film’s end.

Price’s death, however, is the closest to the spirit of the novel where Neville is outright executed. Morgan is killed simply because he exists. It doesn’t matter what caused the plague. There are no politics. He’s just in the way of the future.

SOLITARY AND ABHORRED

“Last Man on Earth” has absolutely no pretensions to condemn mankind (or a single man) for hubris. Instead, it focuses on the psychology of the individual who craves human contact.

In that respect, Neville / Morgan is much like another misunderstood creature: The Frankenstein monster. Its an inversion of sorts, where one creature finds itself shunned by mankind, and one by its replacement.

Price could very well have added voiceover taken directly from Shelley’s novel, and it would not sound out of place:

“Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

LEGACY

“Last Man on Earth” did not get particularly good reviews upon its release, but has since enjoyed relatively good reception as more and more people discover it. It currently holds an 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its detractors, however, point out the slow pace and the low budget. Decide for yourself. You can watch it in its entirety on YouTube.

Four years after its release, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” changed the horror movie landscape. And in a 2008 DVD release of the film, Romero made it clear that “I had written a short story, which I basically had ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend.” It is not too much of a stretch to think that the Vincent Price film may have influenced him, too, especially with its relentless horde of zombie-like creatures pounding on the walls and doors of a house — in deliciously stark black and white!

Whatever its legacy, “Last Man on Earth” is memorable if only for Price’s performance. As with most films in which he starred, he steals the show, and it is haunting just to hear him lament his circumstances: the monotony, and the horror of it all.

Note: I realize that the novel has technically been adapted four times, with the fourth being 2007’s “I am Omega,” released at the same time of the Will Smith movie. Such films are often referred to as “mock-busters” — b-movies meant to capitalize on larger mainstream releases. I haven’t seen it, and, frankly, don’t intend to!