With the upcoming release of André Øvredal’s THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER — an adaptation of Chapter 7 of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA and its “Captain’s Log” from a doomed ship carrying the Count from Transylvania (well, Varna, in Bulgaria) to England — Dracula is seen (in the trailers at least) as a bat-like man. Complete with leathery skin, pointy ears, and tremendous wings, this Dracula is less of a man and more of a monster. But was he such in Stoker’s novel? And if not, where did the Dracula as man-like bat (or bat-like man) come from?
In the novel, Dracula can command bats, and even turns into one on occasion, but his form is that of a slightly larger than normal bat, and one that flies in a straight-line more than flutters about. Nowhere does he appear as he does on the posters of DEMETER. In fact, a concordance of the novel shows that the word “bat” is only used 11 times in a book of over 160,000 words — and none of those occurs in the Captain’s log from the Demeter.
Regardless, Stoker may at least have been aware of man-bat / bat-man imagery. He most likely read Sir Richard Burton’s VIKRAM AND THE VAMPIRE (1870) with its mention of “The Baital-Pachisi, or Twenty-five Tales of a Baital… the history of a huge Bat, Vampire, or Evil Spirit” from its Preface. Stoker, an Irishman, may also have seen an 1885 issue of Punch magazine that used the vampire as symbolic of the Irish National League; there, a human face is given to a huge bat. Regardless, Stoker’s bats are just that: bats. Even when Dracula takes to the air as one.
Films more likely influenced (and evolved) the depiction of Dracula as man-bat / bat-man. What many consider the first horror film, 1896’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL shows Satan transforming into a bat. Not a vampire. But close.
The unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA that was NOSFERATU (1922), gave actor Max Schreck an animalistic, almost bat-like appearance. Still, his vampire is more rat-than bat, though the image of the vampire on the deck of the Demeter makes for one of the more chilling scenes from any vampire film. Jump to Lon Chaney Jr.’s on-screen transformation into a (normal sized) bat in SON OF DRACULA (1943) and at last we finally see an attempt at the transmogrification itself. But neither Universal Studios nor Hammer would go on to show the Count (or any vampire) as taking on the form of human-sized (or bigger) bat.
Throughout the nineteen seventies and its dozens upon dozens of vampire films, there’s no undead bloodsucker with huge bat wings. Neither Jack Palance as Dracula in the 1974 adaptation, nor Louis Jordan (1977), nor Frank Langela (1979) transform into bat-men / men-bats. There’s an adaptation of Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT (made for TV) from 1979 that has a nosferatu-ish vampire named Mr. Barlow whose cloak appears much like bat wings, but’s he no full-blown bat.
In fact, it’s not until the highly original FRIGHT NIGHT (1985) that we see a revelation that within the man, there is large bat — and that, in the case of vampire Jerry Dandridge, his winged, pointy ears form is only revealed once the daylight strikes him and sets him ablaze.
But Dracula himself? Perhaps one of the first and most memorable transformations of Count Dracula into a bat-man / man-bat is in (Francis Ford Coppola’s) BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). There, when cornered by the film’s vampire hunters after some alone-time with Mina Harker, Dracula dramatically becomes a true amalgamation of man and bat. It is one of the more fantastic physical forms of Dracula in a film full of them.
FROM DUSK TIL DAWN (1996) seemed to borrow from Coppola’s playbook, creating a whole crop of full-sized bat / human hybrids. And by the time we get to the twenty-first century, bat-men and man-bats abound. The most notable being VAN HELSING (2004). Yet this particular film is so far from Stoker’s source material as to not even be worth considering.
That is has taken thirty years to come back to a Dracula based on Stoker’s own words that depicts the titular Count as a bat-man / man-bat is somewhat surprising. And like Coppola’s depiction, DEMETER looks to use mostly practical effects to bring its Dracula to life.
Javier Botet is the very talented man behind that mask, but will the bat -man / man-bat approach really work for LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER? From a Captain’s log that only records the appearance of “a strange man,” and “a tall, thin man” at that, is it a leap to give that man pointy ears and wings? Critics and audiences will decide, but whatever the critical or box-office reaction, the choice is — pun intended — novel.*
*Sunday, August 13: like the Captain’s log itself, my blog post, if found, should tell the whole story. And it’s this: that I saw LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER a few days after I wrote the above essay. The film is atmospheric, claustrophobic, and, at times, even a little unsettling (fans of children and dogs might get upset). It’s not a perfect movie by any means (and depending on how much of a purist you are, the ending might prove disappointing).
Some problems with the script of DEMETER and an often turgid pace prevent it from become more than a b-movie; it’s essentially ALIEN meets MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, but it’s fun. Judged by its visuals alone — especially Botet’s creepy performance and Øvredal’s adept handling of the careful (and often scary) reveal of the creature — the film is a fine and highly original addition to depictions of Dracula on screen.
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.
WIVES AND PLAYGIRLS
The little known (and for good reason) 1960 Italian film L’ULTIMA PREDA DEL VAMPIRO (English title: PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE) finds a troupe of burlesque dancers, their piano player, and a fumbling manager find refuge at a castle after a bad storm floods the main road (a familiar trope). The castle, of course, has its own vampire, in addition to a mysterious Count and his servants. Vera, one of the showgirls, is the spitting image of the vampire’s long dead wife, Margherita. She quickly becomes the focus of both the Count, and his distant relation, whom he apparently is trying to cure of vampirism.
Though not terribly romantic, (the vampire of PLAYGIRLS is more fiend than lover) is this Italian b-movie the very first instance of a vampire finding his dead wife resurrected? It may be important to note that the audience is shown the uncanny resemblance in an old painting (a trope which will be used many times in the years that follow).
Was director / writer / producer Dan Curtis aware of this Italian b-movie? Certainly, filmmakers in the UK and America were influenced by Italian horror — most notably Maria Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (also 1960). Though PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE didn’t find a U.S. release until 1963, Curtis may have seen it. It’s mere speculation, but it’s possible.
After all, in Curtis’ Dark Shadows soap opera, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) — a vampire written into the second season of the program in 1967 — was to be the spark to save the series after a disappointing first year. And it worked, with a romanitc plot involving resurrection. 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 show’s six seasons. 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. It is this painting which also shows his long lost love.
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, saved Dark Shadows, and it (and not some obscure Italian film) may have 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.
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.