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Book Review: The Romance of Dracula: A Personal Journey of the Count on Celluloid by Charles E. Butler

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I just finished reading The Romance of Dracula: a Personal Journey of the Count on Celluloid and now I’ve really got my work cut out for me. Because, being the vampire lover that I am, now I’m going to have to go back and watch all of those old Dracula movies again so I can look for all the things I missed the first time around.

 If you’re a fan of the old-time vampires, the really scary vampires who knew how to use their fangs, as opposed to today’s sparkly, perfectly coiffed, love-struck, wimpy vampires, then you’ll love this book by Dracula aficionado, Charles E. Butler. Beware, though. Once you read it you’re going to be in the same boat I’m in. You’re going to want to get a copy of all of these movies and spend the weekend watching a Dracula movie marathon.

Butler completely disregards modern vampires like LeStat and Edward Cullen and goes straight for the throat, concentrating on 14 movies, each based on the original, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What a treat for traditionalists who remember the days when vampires were to be feared, not pitied.

Butler first gives us a little of the history regarding Stoker’s creation. Stoker (1847-1912), had already written several other novels and short stories before he wrote Dracula. Most are long-forgotten and not even worth mentioning. And even though Stoker died without ever seeing the success of Dracula he must have known he’d finally hit on something because it was the only one of his works for which he obtained a copyright.

The author rushes quickly over the standard-issue Stoker facts, such as how Stoker settled on the name of Transylvania and the fact that he used a certain blood-thirsty tyrant named Vlad Dracula as a model for the Count. These are facts that any true Dracula lover already knows. Worth mentioning, for sure, but there are so many other things to discuss.

For example, according to Butler, Dracula was actually written over a period of many years and Stoker apparently pulled pieces out of the book and put new pieces in whenever a new idea came to mind. In fact, Butler even suggests that Stoker plagiarized a couple of scenes at the beginning of the novel from a short story titled “The Mysterious Stranger,” written by an anonymous author, a book he’d read as a young adult.

Butler also suggests that using newspaper clippings and letters as a part of the story is a technique that Stoker stole from Wilkie Collins’ ghost story, The Woman in White.

Before he even gets to the movie reviews, Butler gives us a brief analysis of each of the characters. Again, thanks to the author, I’ve got another chore to add to my list – reread Dracula and look for all the things I missed the first time around!

It never occurred to me that the Count and Van Helsing are the only two characters who are actually physically described in the book. Everyone else is, for the most part, left to our own imagination. For example, we know that Jonathan Harker is visiting the Count because of a business deal but we have no idea what he really looks like.

The same can be said for Renfield, a character who appears in all of the different movie versions but one who isn’t ever really defined at all. In some cases, we get the impression he was Harker’s predecessor. In others, he may have been a servant of the Count. In any case, Butler chalks Renfield’s obscurity up to Stoker’s poor writing ability and tendency to easily lose focus on his story.

Mina and Lucy, the two female characters, get no definition either, but Butler points out, throughout his film reviews, that Mina was a dark, twisted character, and Lucy was just a little promiscuous for her time. I’m definitely going to have to go back to the movies for this one. I don’t remember that about either of these women characters. But then, I was only 10 when I saw the original Dracula movie, and I was more concerned about how to kill a vampire – just in case there was one hiding under my bed that night.

Unfortunately, when I picture Mina and Lucy, I picture Winona Ryder as Mina and, while I know there was a Lucy in that particular version of the movie, I can’t picture her at all. So yes, I’m anxious to get back to the original Dracula movie to see if I can match what I see to Butler’s rendition in his book.

It’s my personal opinion that today’s vampires are simply too wimpy, to sensitive, and too compassionate. Butler reminds us that Dracula was the original, true vampire by bringing to our attention his treatment of his brides:

“The three brides in his castle are generally half-starved ingenues, held at bay with promises of half-forgotten travelers, having to survive on rations of two-month old babies for their diet. When they steal from his plate, the Count simply hurls them to the floor like a depraved stepfather. They tell him that he never loved and reveal an impotency to his nature that is shocking in its revelation while accounting for and attesting to his many and constant bad mood swings.”

When Dracula bites Lucy, she doesn’t go into a love-sick swoon, she feels bitter, ill, and begins to suffer horrible nightmares. When she’s eventually “turned” she doesn’t accompany the Count to his lace-draped boudoir for a night of wine and romance. She becomes a wretch, with no conscience, who tempts and nibbles on children. And when Lucy is finally staked, Dracula barely registers the loss.

Butler begins his reviews with the 1922 version of Stoker’s book, Nosferatu, and gives a detailed synopsis of each film. But it’s the little facts and bits of history surrounding the actors and the films that are the most entertaining.

One of the most quoted lines from any Dracula movie is this, spoken by Dracula to the recently arrived Jonathan Harker: “Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make!”

And in each movie review Butler makes sure to include the version of this line. It’s interesting to see the different interpretations.

It’s also interesting to note that in the 1931 Universal Pictures version of Dracula, it’s not Jonathan Harker who first arrives at the castle, but Renfield who steps out of the carriage. See? Did you catch that when YOU saw this version? Add that to your list of things to watch for!

And I’m going to have to pay closer attention to Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker. Harker, according to Butler, was really kind of dense, and I never made the connection. But think about it – Harker is vehemently warned not to visit this remote castle, surrounding by howling wolves and filled with rats, bats, spiders and other creatures of the night. Yet off he goes anyway. The master of the castle never eats, never sleeps and climbs up and down the outside of the building like Spiderman. And when Harker cuts himself with a razor the Count licks the blood right off of the blade.

And Van Helsing fancies himself the king of the Vampire Hunters yet, when the time comes to put a stake through Mina’s heart, Van Helsing has to send Harker to find a stake?

Be careful when you read this book. I kept a notepad by my side and made a list of all of the things I want to look for when I re-watch these movies and re-read the book. And I can tell you – I’m going to be very busy for the next few weeks.

What’s that? Oh, that howling. That’s just the children of the night. What music they make! Now, please tell them to shut up. I’m trying to watch a movie, here!

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