How Blumhouse Can Reinvent 'Dracula'
Dracula has risen from the grave! Following the success of Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man in February, Blumhouse is forging ahead with another character in Universal's stable of classic monsters: Count Dracula. On Tuesday, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that director Karyn Kusama and writers Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay, the team behind The Invitation (2015) and Destroyer (2018), will bring Bram Stoker's legendary character into the modern age. The film will be unconnected to The Invisible Man, with Universal having abandoned its Dark Universe plans following the critical and financial disappointment of The Mummy (2017). Under Universal's recent filmmaker-driven approach to its classic monsters, Kusama will have free rein to do something with the character that hasn't been achieved in decades: make Dracula scary again.
Because of his place in the public domain, Dracula is literature's most adapted character, having been brought to life — figuratively speaking — in films, television and stage adaptations throughout the world. Yet for all of those adaptations, there are only a few that have emerged as classics within the genre. And even fewer have managed to be truly frightening to audiences in the adaptations' respective eras. Even Universal's Dracula (1931), which launched Universal's classic monsters and set the stage for the popularity of the horror film, is often regarded by connoisseurs of the genre to be a lesser adaptation of Stoker's novel, despite Bela Lugosi's iconic performance and the film's historical significance. While the film, from director Tod Browning, has become more ingrained in public consciousness, George Melford's Spanish-language film, shot on the same sets as Browning's film, is considered the superior adaptation. Regardless, Dracula proved popular enough to appear in five sequels during the '30s and '40s. John Badham directed a new adaptation of Dracula in 1979, with Frank Langella taking advantage of the perception of the character, thanks to Lugosi, as a romantic figure.
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When it comes to the adaptations of Dracula that have transcended time in their ability to chill audiences, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel, and Werner Herzog's remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) remain, in my opinion, the gold standard. Hammer Horror's Dracula (1958) starring Christopher Lee follows closely behind and brought a classy Gothicism to the property. Lee's six portrayals of the character became just as iconic as Lugosi's. The most recent theatrical adaptation of Dracula to be both evocative and startling, can hardly be considered recent anymore. Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula from Columbia Pictures, starring Gary Oldman, envisioned the story as an epic, complete with all the grandeur a character as fascinating as Dracula, and a director as ambitious as Coppola, could muster. That film in turn inspired Mel Brooks' satirical gem, Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). While Dracula hasn't gone anywhere in the almost 30 years since Coppola's film, his presence has waned even as the popularity of vampires grew in the new millennium. Universal's last two attempts to resurrect the character, Van Helsing (2004), which is far more of a good time than it's given credit for, and Dracula Untold (2014) which took a dull, horror-lacking, Batman Begins approach to the character, did little to strike fear into the hearts of audiences.
Dracula's cinematic past is crucial to looking forward to Kusama's upcoming adaptation. There are sure to be questions about the need for another iteration of Dracula and lament over the fact that Blumhouse isn't tackling a less frequently appearing monster. But it's been too long since a new take on the character took a chance on redefining the mythos, and on the nightmares of audiences. As BBC's Dracula miniseries proved this year, there's still an immense hunger to see the character approached through a new lens and to see him function in the modern world and still be scary, a factor critics of the BBC series were mixed on. Part of the struggle to bring Dracula to the present, something we've seen attempted before in the critically maligned Dracula 2000 (2000) and Blade: Trinity (2014), is the desire to stick close to past characterizations, while simultaneously pushing Dracula into the nu metal club scene. The juxtaposition between images becomes unpleasantly anachronistic. Perhaps to make Dracula nightmarish again, there has to be a realization that the character, despite his immortality, can exist separately as a figure of the past, or as a figure of present, but rarely both.
Blumhouse's project with Kusama is one of several Dracula-centric projects in the works. Rocketman filmmaker Dexter Fletcher is directing Renfield for Universal, a horror comedy centered on Dracula's familiar and based on a pitch by Robert Kirkman. André Ovredal is attached to direct The Last Voyage of the Demeter for Amblin, based on the chapter in Stoker's novel that saw the count traveling from Transylvania to London. Matt Stawski is developing Monster Mash for Universal, a musical based on the novelty song of the same name and set to feature Dracula. Robert Eggers is still mulling over a new adaptation of Nosferatu, currently on the back burner in favor of his Viking epic, The Northman. And on the TV side of things, ABC has ordered The Brides, centered on the Brides of Dracula and starring Goran Visnjic as the count, and there have been talks of a second BBC Dracula miniseries. After years of being pushed out of the shadows, Dracula finally has his day in the dark.
Each of these upcoming Dracula projects seems compelling in its own right, showcasing the flexibility of the character and the horror genre. But in terms of the films, Kusama seems likely to hit first given Blumhouse's efficient time schedule. This means Kusama could very well set the tone for our contemporary understanding of Dracula as a horror character. While no plot details have been released yet, Kusama, Manfredi and Hay did a masterful job of infusing modern allegory with horror in The Invitation. Just as The Invisible Man stripped away familiar iconography and focus, I expect Dracula will be a similar reinvention that rightfully strays from the narrative specifics of Stoker's novel, but not the metaphors and concerns of isolationism, xenophobia and colonialism that were presented. Given what's happening globally right now, and the fears over the coronavirus, there's arguably no better time for a new Dracula film to tackle those subjects. And there's no better director than Kusama to prey on fears that can't be solved with religious iconography or a stake to the heart.
by Aaron Couch, Graeme McMillan