Love Never Dies: Immortal Monsters and Their Reincarnated Lovers

“Love Never Dies” poster for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

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.


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…

Voneta McGee, as Luna, left to perish beside her immortal, but imprisoned, husband.

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.

Detail from PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE promotional poster, showing the dead wife’s grave.

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.

Josette DuPres and Barnabas Collins
Barnabas almost gets his way with marrying Maggie / Josette in the 1970 film HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS

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.


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.

Karloff as the titular character / Imhotep / Ardeth Bey, taking a break on the set of THE MUMMY (1932)

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.

Zita Johann
Zita Johann in THE MUMMY (1932) played the dual role of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon and Helen Grosvenor, a woman bearing a striking resemblance to 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.


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.

Ursula Andress in She (1965)
Ursula Andress in SHE (1965). As immortanl queen Ayesha, she sees the young Leo Vincey as the reincarnation of her lover Kallikrates.

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?


George Hamilton and Susan Saint James in LOVE AT FIRST BITE (1979). The reincarnated lover trope was used here, too.

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.

A Sane Man Fighting for His Soul? Renfield in Film

With the release of RENFIELD this week, Dracula’s devoted familiar has his own movie — a horror comedy starring Nicolas Cage as the Count (in what is sure to be an over-the-top performance), and Nicholas Hoult as the titular character. If the trailer is any indication, there appears to be quite a level of co-dependency going on between the two characters.  And that’s a big departure for the Renfield of Bram Stoker’s novel, as well as his filmic counterparts over what is now a century of film.

Appearing in some form or another at least a dozen times in movies (as early as 1922, if the character of Knock in NOSFERATU is thought of as a proto-Renfield) the zoophagous lunatic has been most notably played by Dwight Frye (in 1931’s DRACULA), Klaus Kinski (in 1970’s COUNT DRACULA), and Tom Waits (in 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA). All three play the madman effectively, though some imbue Renfield with more moments of clarity than others. What really separates the performances, however, is how the character of Renfield is written. And much of that depends upon how close to the novel script writers tend to be.

Stoker’s book as source material for the character is rich with mannerisms, behaviors, and memorable words spoken by this most famous patient of Dr. Jack Seward’s asylum. Arguably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia in the novel as much as the influence of the Count*, R.M. Renfield is more than his malady; he is seminal to the novel’s plot: promised eternal life, Renfield assists Dracula in gaining entry to Seward’s sanitarium, and thus get access to Mina’s room. As a character, however, he is much more than mere plot device. Though his bouts with mania make him more disturbing as the novel progresses, escalating as Dracula gets closer to the protagonists (acting as a sort of barometer), Renfield is ultimately a sympathetic character. He struggles with sanity, and experiences moments of great clarity, eventually warning Mina to leave the asylum (though he doesn’t tell her why).

“Don’t you know…that I am no lunatic in a mad fit, but a sane man fighting for his soul?” he tells Dr. Seward (Seward’s Diary, October 1 (Chapter 18). Indeed, he is a man battling both inner and outer demons. But it remains to be seen just how seriously RENFIELD (2023) will take this conflict. And will the character resemble any previous incarnations.

Dwight Frye as Renfield in 1931's DRACULA
Dwight Frye as Renfield in 1931’s DRACULA

There is a delightful dementia to Dwight Frye’s performance in 1931’s DRACULA.

Though a much modified character from the novel (thanks to being based n the Balderston / Deane stageplay), the Renfield of Tod Browning’s film is almost as iconic as Bela Lugosi’s Count— although here, he is an amalgam of Renfield and Jonathan Harker: a solicitor that goes to Transylvania to ink the deal that brings Dracula to England. And Harker? He’s Seward’s daughter Mina’s fiancé (confusing if one knows the novel well). But with these changes, Balderston / Deane and Browning are able to simplify and speed along the plot. Ironically, in the process of combining characters, Renfield is actually given more motivation for his mental illness than in the novel (though many scholars, and even Stoker’s greatgrandnephew Dacre Stoker, think Renfield preceded Harker as the first solicitor sent to work with Dracula [and for him]**).

Regardless, Frye makes the role his own. Though the New York Times’ review from 1931 simply mentions that Frye “does fairly well as Renfield,” it is Frye’s performance that sticks most in people’s minds when the name Renfield is mentioned. Bombastic, belligerant, and barmy, he is the most animated of the actors ever to play the role.

From his unforgettable laughter to his skulking about the carpet like one of the spiders he collects (pursuing his own [microcosmic] lust for blood), Frye’s Renfield is not only depicted as Dracula’s toadie, but almost as a vampire-in-training. When Van Helsing presents him with wolfsbane, Renfield reacts violently, as if he were already transforming. Until his end at the hands of Dracula, he claims devotion to Count, despite showing sympathy for Mina’s plight. In this regard, he is sympathetic — a man at war with his desire to serve evil, or try desperately to do good.

Most telling as to how Frye plays the character is his delivery of one single line: to vampire-hunter Van Helsing, he says “God will not damn a poor lunatic’s soul. He knows that the powers of evil are too great for those with weak minds.”

In the end, there is great pathos in Frye’s Renfield. He ends up unintentionally leading Van Helsing and Harker to Carfax Abbey where Van Helsing will find and kill Dracula. It is an accidental betrayal, but enough for the Count to strangle Renfield, sending the poor man tumbling down a massive staircase, putting an end to his misery.


Perhaps the most famous actor to have ever played Renfield, Klaus Kinski stars in Jesús Franco’s COUNT DRACULA (1970), a film which was billed at the time as the most-faithful adaptation of the novel ever made. Though the New York Times called it “a doggedly faithful adaptation [that] is plodding and dull,” the presence of Christopher Lee as Dracula (happily embracing the role more than in any of his Hammer performances) makes for a memorable, if flawed movie.

Silly rubber bats aside, there are some truly atmospheric moments, and Kinski — though in the film very little and mute for most of the time he is on screen — has a certain magnetic quality that draws the audience in.

Italian 2 panel poster for Franco’s IL CONTE DRACULA (1970) shows Renfield strangling Mina

If Frye’s performance is the pinnacle of mania, Kinski’s is the exact opposite: an almost catatonic Renfield that — in a wild departure from the novel (and any other film) — only shows true signs of life as he attacks Mina, strangling her for his master (as depicted in the Italian poster for the film where he seems more sinister than Dracula himself!).

In the end, Kinski is underused (as is Renfield), and the actor’s great talent, wasted. But scenes of Kinski in an all-white padded cell, with food smeared all over the walls, does make the viewer uncomfortable, as if the mental illness on screen is a little too real. This Renfield seems lost, and not only a pawn for Dracula, but truly a tortured soul trapped behind bars.


In Francis Ford Coppolla’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), musician/actor Tom Waits embodies what is probably the most faithful interpretation of Renfield in all of cinema (despite being outrageously dressed in Eiko Ishioka’s Oscar-winning costumes [including a contraption on the actor’s hands that presumably kept Renfield from chewing his own fingers, plus an impossibly long-armed straight jacket that allows Waits to gesticulate with what may as well be wings of black and white stripes]).

Waits as Renfield playing opposite Richard E. Grant’s Dr. Jack Seward. Note the contraptions restricting his hands.

Calling it “witty and self-mocking and in places almost hokey,” a critic from The Washington Post gave the film an overall glowing review, and referred to Waits’ performance in a way that could well sum up Renfield’s behavior: “grungy, insect acting.”

Indeed, Waits looks grimy, speaks gravelly, and leaves the audience feeling dirty as he and the other lunatics of the asylum sundown into horrible shrieks and fits of hysteria. Waits is particularly off-putting, and therein the nature of Renfield truly comes to the fore. For Renfield as a character is supposed to make us uncomfortable. He is the all-too-human manifestation of the vampire infestation that juxtaposes one poor man’s degradation with the unholy (and attractive) ascension that is the increasing power and influence of Dracula.

That Waits also delivers lines directly from the novel — including the crystalization of the character as Renfield insists he is not a lunatic, but “a sane man fighting for his soul” — adds a depth to the character that few other actors who have played Renfield are ever given the opportunity to explore.


Perhaps Nicholas Hoult will get that opportunity.  To figure out who Renfield really is, and who he could be. Sure, it’s going to be played for laughs in RENFIELD. That doesn’t mean Hoult can’t grow the character beyond the pages of the novel — or any previous film — and further explore just how much this lunatic servant of Dracula can also look to restore not only his sanity, but also his humanity.

RENFIELD comes to theaters in the USA on Friday, April 14.


*See the excellent “All in The Family: A Retrospective Diagnosis of R.M. Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula” by Elizabeth Winter in The Journal of Dracula Studies for more on the character, mental illness (specifically, dementia praecox, a diagnosis coined in the late nineteenth century), and how familiar Bram Stoker was with issues of mental illness. Curiously, it is from Renfield that we get the modern diagnosis of Renfield’s Syndrome, or clinical vampirism.

 ** Coppola’s take on Renfield in fact makes it very clear that Renfield is the agent who preceded Harker in working with Dracula. If Stoker intended that connection be made, it is unclear. Were Renfield not the first solicitor, then his madness becomes all the more interesting.

By Christopher Michael Davis