Vampires have a deep history dating back hundreds of years (although Twilight tweens would swear they’ve only been sparkling in the sunlight for a couple of years now) and they have been featured in more films than I can count. In modern days, vampires are known to fly without becoming bats, have superhuman strength and are very gory with their feeding. Originally though, vampires were nothing more than blood-sucking, neck-biting versions of Wayne Newton; they liked to seduce their prey, focusing mainly on women while they slept, and would only attack men if they were cornered. Somewhere along the way filmmakers forgot about that, because now it’s all about the blood, wherever it flows from.
However, in 1931, Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi and make-up artist Jack Pierce brought the world what is arguably the most famous monster in history, Count Dracula, in their original 1931 version of Dracula. Based on Braham Stoker’s classic 1897 tale, the 1931 film follows a couple visiting the Count in his castle in Romania, as he begins to prey on the woman Mina Harker (Helen Chandler). Focusing more on the gothic and morbid romance between Dracula and Harker, the 1931 movie leaves out all of the gory blood-sucking that audiences have come to expect. Necks are bitten and a slight corniness fills the screen but yet there is something that oddly compels you to continue watching. Maybe it is Dracula’s hypnotic stare? (Bet you forgot that is one of a vampire’s powers.)
In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola, like Branagh, took a more literary adaptation of Braham’s Stoker’s novel and made it more of a horror film (and not just because Keanu Reeves is in it). In Coppola’s adaptation of Braham Stoker’s Dracula, there were times where I was actually scared or creeped out by what Gary Oldman was doing on-screen as Count Dracula. There may not have been any throat ripping or devouring of entrails, but the blood-sucking scenes were just as strong visually and the focus was returned to the seductive lure of the vampire and not the bloodletting – on that front, Coppola succeeded. To date, I still consider it to be Gary Oldman’s best performance.
Even though Bela Lugosi’s name became, and still is, synonymous with Count Dracula, I can’t look past the incredible work Coppola and Oldman did in the remake. For that reason 1992 Braham Stoker’s Dracula and Gary Oldman win this contest.
Rounding out the quartet of classic movie monsters, we have The Mummy. There were very few novels and stories to go off when director Karl Freund went to make the 1932 Boris Karloff original, so the script was mostly original material. The filmmakers actually used the (then) recent discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb as the source material and did a “what if” based on that real-life discovery. And it worked.
Karloff transformed from the iconic slow moving, bandage covered mummy of Imhotep, into the human archaeologist Ardath Bey, all the while searching for his lost love Ankh-es-en-amon. Many deaths followed in The Mummy’s wake as he discovers a lookalike for his lost love in Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) and decides that she’ll do just fine. Eventually, the Mummy is dispatched and all is right in the world…that is until the numerous sequels came out. None, however, would ever be as good as the original Mummy.
In 1999, Stephen Sommers decided to give the The Mummy story another try, this time using modern SFX. Even though the sequels The Mummy Returns and The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor were far below adequate, The Mummy remake was – for the most part – a satisfying adventure. The story was kept basically the same as the original, with only the discovery of the mummy being changed. However, Sommers decided to focus more on the hero and heroines, giving them much more screen time and making the mummy’s story more of a secondary sub-plot. Arnold Vosloo was great for his part as Imhotep, but instead of transforming from a rotting mummy into human archaeologist, he just became a sorcerer. I never understood that part. Vosloo isn’t given many lines of actual dialog in the film but his performance is nonetheless great. I do realize that CGI is a big factor in all of Sommers’ movies but I would have preferred to see the original mummy still wrapped in bandages instead of as a rotting, decaying corpse.
So who wins in this showdown? Well, even though the remake had way more action and better SFX, the actual monster in the 1932 original is just too iconic to ignore. Boris Karloff and his Mummy win.
Anyway you look at it, there are plenty of classic horror films from the 30’s and 40’s for you to go out and rent this Halloween season. Expanded your mind and enjoy films from an era when the focus was simply on the monster. One of the (only) good things about Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing is that when you bought the DVD in 2004, you got the original Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man all on one DVD. I’ve talked my wife into a triple feature this weekend because she has never seen any of them.
What classic monster films do you enjoy and have they been remade? Which do you prefer and why?