Before Lugosi: Vampires of the Silent Screen
With his slick black hair, Hungarian accent, suave costume and penetrating glare, Bela Lugosi emerged as the definitive screen vampire after starring in Universal’s 1931 film of Dracula. The actors who played Count Dracula afterward, such as Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman, sometimes homaged Lugosi and sometimes subverted him, but they always performed in his shadow.
That said, Bela Lugosi was not the first of the screen vampires. While he and Universal established an archetype in 1931, other actors, directors and studios had crafted their own, quite distinct takes on the vampire theme in the years beforehand…
The Origins of the Vampire Film
The beginnings of the vampire cinema is muddied by the fact that many of the earliest screen vampires were of the figurative variety. Actress Theda Bara made a career out of playing mortal temptresses in films such as A Fool There Was (1915), which was based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem “the Vampire.” Her characters were popularly referred to as vampires, or vamps: “I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin,” she said in 1917.
Critic and screenwriter David Rudkin cites Georges Méliès’ 1896 trickfilm Le Manoir du diable (known in English variously as The Haunted Castle or The Devil’s Castle) as the first vampire film. Certainly, the three-minute short uses a lot of the imagery that would later turn up in vampire films, showing a supernatural character who transforms into a bat and skeleton and is warded off by a man with a crucifix—although the being in question is clearly the Devil, rather than a vampire. Also deserving of an honourable mention is the ten-part French serial Les Vampires, released from 1915 to 1916; while the vampires of the title are actually a gang of criminals, one of their victims—a ballerina played by Stacia Napierkowska—wears an extravagant vampire costume on stage.
When it comes to films about vampires of the supernatural kind, the story begins with films based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula—although even then, the early details are murky. Certain sources indicate that an adaptation entitled Drakula was produced in the USSR in 1920, but information on this film is so scarce that it may never have existed in the first place (the purported clip published on YouTube is a forgery).
The 1921 Hungarian film Drakula halála (Dracula’s Death) is lost, but a few images and a rough plot synopsis still exist. Directed by Károly Lajthay, the film was not a true adaptation of Stoker’s novel, but rather an original story about an insane man (played by Paul Askonas) who merely believed himself to be Dracula. The fanciful poster depicts Askonas’ character with devil horns, which he presumably never sported in the film itself. From what little material survives, it would appear that Askonas was the most Lugosi-like of the silent vampires.
Nosferatu and Count Orlok
Vampire cinema did not begin in earnest until 1922, with the release of Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror). This film is an unauthorised adaptation of Dracula, compressing Stoker’s plot and changing the characters’ names: most prominently, Dracula himself (portrayed by actor Max Schreck) was renamed Count Orlok. Although directed by F. W. Murnau and written Henrik Galeen, Nosferatu was the brainchild of Albin Grau. It was Grau who hit on the idea of a film about vampires, and who invited Murnau to direct; and it was Grau who crafted much of the film’s aesthetic, providing concept art influenced by the German Expressionist movement.
One of Grau’s artistic influences was Hugo Steiner-Prag. Amongst other things, Steiner-Prag illustrated Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel Der Golem, where the legendary man of clay was portrayed not as the stocky creature immortalised in German cinema, but a ghostly figure with distorted, reptilian features. It is not hard to imagine that Grau had this conception in his head as he imagined his cinematic vampire.
Grau was also a dedicated occultist, and was attracted to the supernatural themes of Stoker’s novel. He wrote a short article on vampires to promote Nosferatu in Bühne und Film magazine; here, he revealed how, while he was stationed in Serbia during the First World War, a comrade began a conversation about the living dead. “Before this wretched war, I was over in Romania,” said the man. “I myself know that horrible thing of seeing an undead … or a Nosferatu, as vampires are called over there.” As the article continues:
One day, while his father—who hardly led the life of a saint—was out cutting down trees, he was crushed by a falling tree-trunk. He passed away without the benediction of a priest. Four weeks after his burial, the people in that solitary Carpathian valley suddenly began to die in large numbers! At first, plague was proclaimed. But soon a rumour took shape, and became a terrible reality. Here and there, some peasants, their faces filled with terror, claimed to have seen that dead, unblessed man. Whenever he would withdraw, like a trail of mist, from a farmhouse at night, he would leave behind a dead body. Finally, under pressure from residents of the community, the authorities got to work. Some courageous fellows, whose sons had been lost, took themselves at night to the cemetery. By the glow of their torches, they dug up the coffin. The coffin was empty!
The man then showed Grau an official report, dated 18 May 1884: “When we dug up the aforementioned Morowicz, we found him in a perfectly healthy colour … his teeth, which had become astonishingly long and pointed, prevented his mouth from closing … we planted a stake in the vampire’s heart, upon which he passed away while releasing great moans.” (Translated into English by Craig Keller, for Eureka’s DVD release of Nosferatu.)
Critics such as Lotte Eisner have questioned whether Grau’s account is truthful or simply a publicity stunt. For one thing, the location of the vampire outbreak—Progatza, Romania—is nonexistent. Whatever the reality, the article shows that Grau, like Bram Stoker, appreciated the vampire’s folkloric origins.
At the time Stoker wrote Dracula, the definitive English-language vampire text was John Polidori’s 1819 story “The Vampyre,” in which the title character was a thinly-veiled caricature of Lord Byron. This interpretation carried over, in watered-down form, to James Malcolm Rymer’s mass-market imitation Varney the Vampire. But Stoker dug further, researching vampire beliefs of Romania and inventing a supernatural antagonist with deeper folkloric roots than Polidori and Rymer’s creations. Universal’s Dracula could be said to reflect the Byronic vampire, and has its origins in showmanship: Lugosi’s Count developed from stage conventions, while director Tod Browning worked in carnivals and vaudeville prior to entering film. The imagery of Nosferatu, on the other hand, feels as though plucked directly from folkloric memory.
Dracula was published in 1897, and has a contemporary, close-of-the-century setting. The Count himself may be a creature of age-old legend, but the world he invades is a thoroughly modern one of trains, phonographs and blood transfusions; tension between the superstition of the past and the scientific thought of modernity is one of the novel’s main themes. The Universal film adaptation retained this concept by moving the action to an early 1930s setting.
Nosferatu, on the other hand, consciously turns the story into a period piece harking back to an earlier age of literature. The film takes place in 1838, during the Romantic era: the careers of Byron, Shelley, Hoffman and Goethe would have been fresh in the public memory, while Bram Stoker would not be born for another nine years.
The film opens with Thomas and Ellen Hutter (based on Stoker’s Jonathan and Mina Harker) frolicking together in a German town, before Thomas heads off to work. His employer, Knock, offers our first introduction to the film’s supernatural themes: he is shown reading a document filled with mysterious symbols, to indicate that he is in league with the vampire. Knock then sends Thomas Hutter off on an errand to the Carpathian Mountains to meet Count Orlok, who wishes to move into town. Along the way, Hutter stops off at an inn, where the local villagers express shock at the name of Count Orlok. This scene could have come straight out of the Universal films from the subsequent decade; but once Orlok appears onscreen, the differences between Nosferatu and later vampire films become apparent.
In Stoker’s novel, Dracula is an intangible, ever-shifting presence even before his supernatural transformations come into play. He shows a fondness for multiple identities: he is first introduced apparently masquerading as his own coachman, and later disguises himself as his prisoner Harker to terrorise the local village. Later film adaptations generally downplay this aspect of the character, but Nosferatu embraces it.
As per the novel, the vampire first appears in the guise of a coachman who arrives to collect the protagonist. The film uses primitive special effects to add a supernatural atmosphere, with the coach’s movements sped up and one shot shown in negative. When Hutter disembarks at the vampire’s castle, Orlok-as-coachman speeds off into the distance … only for Orlok-as-Count to appear in the castle shortly afterwards, having apparently teleported there. Through trickfilm techniques established in the previous century, Murnau succeeds in capturing the uncanny atmosphere of Stoker.
In terms of physical appearance, Orlok bears little resemblance to the Draculas portrayed by Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. The black cape—a theatrical convention—is nowhere to be seen; instead, he wears a long, button-up coat. In contrast to the well-groomed Lugosi, Orlok sports claw-like fingernails and (where he is not bald) scraggly hair, recalling the misconception that nails and hair continue to grow after death. While later screen vampires would bear the lethal canines of a carnivore, Orlok has the long, thin incisors of a rodent. He has a permanently startled expression on his face, like an animal that hides from the light. His entire demeanour is rat-like—and, indeed, he is later accompanied by scurrying rats, with the bats favoured by both Stoker and Lugosi completely absent.
An uncomfortable aspect of Orlok’s portrayal is his resemblance to anti-Semitic stereotypes seen in Nazi cinema. Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew, 1940) notoriously depicted Jews as being hook-nosed, parasitic, and comparable to rats, all traits shared by Count Orlok. On the other hand, Paul Coates’ 1991 book The Gorgon’s Gaze points out the “potentially anti-Semitic elements” of the film but also notes that, at the time Nosferatu was made, these had not yet obtained “their full future racist charge.” It is also worth noting that, in Henrik Galeen’s original script, the innkeeper—a benevolent figure who represents the community terrorised by the vampire—is specifically identified as being Jewish. Furthermore, Albin Grau was no friend of the Third Reich: after the Nazis came to power they imprisoned him in Buchenwald, although he later escaped to Switzerland with his disabled daughter. Murnau and Galeen, meanwhile, had already left Germany by that point.
Returning to the distinction between Nosferatu and Universal’s Dracula, we come again to the multi-faceted nature of Dracula as described by Bram Stoker: as different as they are, Orlok and the later Lugosi/Lee interpretations are equally faithful to their source material. Stoker’s Count alternated between old man and young man, between genial host and jailer, between society man and inhuman monster. Lugosi and Lee reflect the charismatic, even charming side of the character; Orlok, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, captures all of the squalor and decay behind that façade.
Nosferatu captures this ghostly aspect of the Stoker’s Count. The Dracula of cinema, for all his shapeshifting abilities, tends to favour solid forms: a man, a bat, a pile of ash. Stoker’s Dracula is not restricted to physical bodies, however, and can turn into intangible forms such as vapour. Orlok, similarly, is able to fade in and out of view as a semi-transparent figure, or vanish as he walks through a closed door. Elsewhere, doors open or close in the vampire’s presence through stop motion. In one of the most iconic sequences in the film, Orlok’s coffin suddenly springs open and the vampire himself rises out—his body remaining stiff as a board all the time.
A famous scene in the novel has Harker look out of a window, and see Dracula climb lizard-like down the castle wall. Nosferatu reworks this by having Hutter look out of a window and sees Orlok piling a set of coffins onto his coach. The scene is run at high speed so that Orlok scurries about inhumanly fast, and after he climbs into the top box, the lid slides on top through stop-motion animation before the horses pull the coach away, ready for Orlok’s coffins to be loaded onto a ship.
Count Orlok is the only vampire in the film: Nosferatu’s abridgment of the novel omits the three vampire women residing in Dracula’s castle, along with the plot thread involving Lucy Westenra’s transformation into a vampire. It does, however, retain the ambiguous nature of Mina Harker.
In Stoker’s novel, Mina falls under the influence of Dracula after he attacks her, an incident that begins the story’s climax. Nosferatu re-orders events by having Mina’s counterpart, Ellen Hutter, fall under Orlok’s spell before he has even reached the Hutters’ homeland. When her husband embarks on his journey Ellen shows unexplained foreboding, perhaps hinting at psychic sensitivity; later, while the vampire is on board the ship, Ellen is shown getting out of her bed and sleepwalking to the balcony, as though trying to reach him. This scene may have been drawn from Stoker’s portrayal of Lucy turning into a vampire; as it became a tradition in Dracula films to mix and match elements of Stoker’s characters, we should not be surprised if Nosferatu conflated Mina and Lucy to create Ellen.
The film’s final deviation from the novel comes at the climax. While Stoker has the male protagonists slay Dracula, in Nosferatu it is Ellen who realises how to kill the vampire after reading an occult book. She lets Orlok into her home, commencing the famous sequence where the vampire is portrayed only as a sinister shadow climbing the stairs to her bedroom. Ellen collapses when the shadow of Orlok’s hand falls onto her breast, implying that the shadow is an extension of the already-intangible vampire.
Orlok drinks from Ellen’s neck, but he lingers too long. Outside, a cock crows, and the sun rises. Light pours in through the window and the vampire fades from view one last time, leaving only a pile of ash. The idea that vampires are killed by sunlight has no basis in Stoker’s novel, which had Dracula freely walking around during the day; but the image seems fundamentally right somehow, and later became a cast-iron genre convention. The film ends on a melancholy note as the exsanguinated Ellen dies in the arms of her husband, another indication that she was based partly upon Stoker’s Lucy.
Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, was not amused by Grau and company’s unauthorised adaptation of her husband’s work. She pursued legal action and successfully had almost every copy of the film destroyed, with screenings restricted to private film clubs. Prana-Film, the studio founded by Grau with an eye on making further occult films, was forced to close.
Because of the film’s underground nature, it is debateable how much influence Nosferatu had on cinema during the first few years of its existence. Hollywood director Robert Florey had seen the film, and made an obvious attempt to imitate the climax in the 1932 Universal picture Murders in the Rue Morgue, where the shadow of the vampire was unsuccessfully replaced with the shadow of a man in a monkey suit. Universal’s Dracula, on the other hand, shows no sign of having been coloured by Grau and Murnau’s interpretation.
That said, Dracula director Tod Browning had brought a more Orlok-like vampire to the screen prior to Lugosi’s turn. In 1927, Browning directed London After Midnight, in which Lon Chaney—the fabled Man of a Thousand Faces, whose other roles included the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame—portrayed Hollywood’s first screen vampire.
While the cinema of Weimar Germany was filled with vampires, ghosts and golems, America’s silent-era film industry was leery about supernatural subjects. If studios were to attempt stories of ghosts or devils, they were expected to rationalise these spooks as being merely men in costumes, as in The Cat and the Canary (1927) or Seven Footprints to Satan (1929); only with the Lugosi Dracula in 1931 was this taboo broken. London After Midnight, as per tradition, reveals Chaney’s “vampire” to be merely a detective using an elaborate disguise to scare a confession out of a criminal.
Still, Chaney’s make-up job as the false vampire is impressive, enough so that his appearance remains iconic even though the film has long been lost. Surviving stills show him as a manic ghoul with wide eyes staring from darkened sockets, a cape shaped like the wings of a bat, and a mouth filled with pointed teeth. He looks distinct from Max Schreck’s Orlok, but it is easy to imagine the two ghouls as close relatives, with Bela Lugosi existing on a more distant branch of the vampire family tree. Of the two main archetypes, though, it is the latter that came out on top: when Browning remade London After Midnight in 1935 as Mark of the Vampire, the Lon Chaney role went to Lugosi.
Vampyr and Marguerite Chopin
But even as Lugosi was establishing himself in the public imagination as the definitive Dracula, the silent vampire had one last gasp in the form of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr.
Vampyr was Dreyer’s first sound picture, and he designed it to be easily translated into different languages, with minimal spoken dialogue and heavy use of onscreen captions. Consequently, it has the overall feel of a silent film. Meanwhile, the influence of Universal’s Dracula—almost inescapable across the following generation of vampire films—is nowhere to be seen. Vampyr, like Nosferatu, has the feel of an age-old folktale somehow captured on film.
Vampyr’s credited source material is In a Glass Darkly, an 1872 collection of short stories by Irish author J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Out of all the tales in this volume, Vampyr’s most obvious debt is to the vampire story Carmilla. Dreyer ignored much of Carmilla’s overall plot but borrowed a number of now-familiar ingredients: dreamlike apparitions of a vampire, an ailing victim of the undead, and the final ritual of a stake driven into a heart. As Bram Stoker is generally agreed to have been influenced by Carmilla, Le Fanu’s story could be described as a common ancestor to both Nosferatu and Vampyr.
The plot follows a character, named either Allan Gary or David Gary depending on print, as he visits the small French village of Courtempierre and finds that is being terrorised by a vampire named Marguerite Chopin. Played by silver-haired, stern-faced Henriette Gérard, Chopin looks nothing like the girlish vampiress of Le Fanu’s Carmilla and more like a conventional wicked witch.
As with many of the performers in Dreyer’s films, Gérard was not a professional actor. Ralph Holm, Dreyer’s assistant, discovered her quite by accident, as recounted in Jean and Dale Drum’s book on Dreyer, My Only Great Passion:
[Holm] searched far and wide with no success, looking in the less attractive parts of Paris for a sufficiently evil-looking old lady. A long trek through the filthiest alleys of the city had led him to find his latest possibility hopelessly drunk, and he was ready to give up. That afternoon, he went to the home of an actress and, as she was not home, her mother answered the door. ‘There stood my vampire and I seized her immediately.’
Like Nosferatu, Vampyr uses a book read by the characters to establish its version of vampire lore. The book reveals that a vampire can control the shades of executed criminals; this is illustrated when Gray catches sight of a running figure reflected in a river, even though no-one else is around—where Stoker had a man with no reflection, Dreyer has a reflection with no man. Gray follows the image and comes to a building, filled with disembodied shadows: one digs with a shovel; another climbs a ladder; still another plays a fiddle, causing yet more shadows to cavort in a Danse Macabre for the age of camera tricks. Finally, the vampire Chopin enters the building and tells the unruly shades to be quiet.
Amongst Chopin’s minions is a gunman with the ability to detach his shadow and send it on dark errands. This shade shoots dead a man who lives in a nearby manor, and Grau intervenes to help protect the two daughters of the victim. One, Léone, has already fallen under the spell of the vampire; the other, Giséle, appears to spend much of the film in a state of shock.
Like Ellen Hutter in Nosferatu, Léone begins sleepwalking; at one point Gray and Giséle find her lying outside, with Chopin stooping over her neck before being chased away. This sequence is unusual, as it is one of the rare moments where Vampyr resembles later, more familiar entries in the genre. After this, Léone begins sporting a weird, malicious grin, indicating that she is becoming a Carmilla-like vampire.
In Dreyer’s interpretation, the ultimate aim of a vampire is not to kill their victim directly, but to drive their victim to suicide. Léone sinks further into despair; her path to self-destruction is sped on its way by the village doctor, who is secretly a servant of Chopin. The doctor tries to leave a bottle of poison by Léone’s bed, but the sleeping Gray is alerted to this plan when he dreams of an animated skeleton carrying the bottle, and wakes up to thwart the doctor.
One of the household servants reads the book and learns about mysterious deaths that has occurred in Courtempierre previously; doctors blamed the plague, but many locals pinned the deaths on Marguerite Chopin. Notorious in life for unspecified crimes, Chopin refused sacraments as she died—rather like the vampire in Albin Grau’s article. Having learned the name of the supernatural wrongdoer, the servant and Gray each head to Chopin’s grave. They hammer a stake into the heart of her preserved body, which then dissolves into a skeleton. Finally, the ghost of the girls’ father—represented by an enormous face and accompanied by thunder and lightning—appears before Chopin’s two henchmen, who flee in terror. The gunman falls down the stairs and dies, while the doctor reaches his end when he is suffocated beneath a pile of flour while hiding in a mill.
Perhaps the most famous scene in Vampyr is the one in which Gray, having fallen asleep, has an out-of-body experience in which he sees himself being placed in a coffin with a glass window. This sequence was lifted not from Carmilla but from another Le Fanu story, The Room in the Dragon Volant; small surprise, then, that it has almost no bearing on the overall plot of the film. But then, Dreyer spends much of Vampyr going off on strange narrative tangents, adding a sense of dreamlike intangibility to what is essentially a straightforward (if often unorthodox) vampire tale.
With its stylistic experimentation, Vampyr has inspired few imitators, despite being universally regarded as a classic. Nosferatu has been remade, homaged and spoofed many times, with Orlok’s bald pate and pointed ears turning up in countless works from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Fast Show, but few if any filmmakers have recreated Marguerite Chopin and her cavorting shadows.
The Legacy of the Silent Vampire
After he played Dracula onscreen, Bela Lugosi became the go-to choice for vampires. As well as the aforementioned Mark of the Vampire in 1935, Lugosi starred in The Return of the Vampire in 1943. He later resorted to self-parody in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, before donning a black cape one last time for footage that ended up in the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space. Along the way he inspired countless respectful homages and loving spoofs; few would deny that he is the definitive screen vampire.
But at the same time, Lugosi’s predecessors carry a faith in their subject matter, a sense of an underlying reality, that is missing from many later vampire films. Carl Dreyer, director of Vampyr, once remarked that “a director must believe in the truth of his subject: he must believe in vampires and miracles.” Roger Ebert commented that Nosferatu “seems to really believe in vampires.” In the 1960s, critic Ado Kyrou humorously suggested that Count Orlok was, in fact, played by a vampire—an idea that later formed the plot of the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire. Even London After Midnight, in which the undead characters turn out to be frauds, spawned an urban legend alleging that some of the cast members were true vampires.
Bela Lugosi is what we imagine a vampire to look like on film. But the likes of Orlok, perhaps, are what we imagine a vampire to really look like.