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.