The Writings of Ingrid Pitt

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Ingrid's Obituary


Dracula

Where would the cinema be without Vampires? When you sit in your seat and listen to the heavy breathing in the row behind you sometimes wonder if you are witnessing a union of the Undead - Revitalised.
Bram Stoker

From where did Bram Stoker dig up Dracula?

Dracula was made for the cinema. When the Lumiere brothers, Auguste Marie and Louis Jean, were experimenting with the idea of showing moving pictures as a titillating entertainment for the jaded citizen of Paris in the Naughty Nineties, Bram Stoker was scribbling away in London on the story that was to take up more screen time than any other future subject - Dracula. Neither les freres Lumiere nor Stoker could claim to be the first in their preferred arena but they were guaranteed a place on the base pedestal. The year that Stoker sent his manuscript to his publishers, Constable, George Melies, another film pioneer from Paris, shot the first attempt at a horror movie with THE LADY VANISHES (1896). It is a bit of a stopper to find that THE LADY VANISHES (1979) from the novel , The Wheel Spins. by Ethel Lina White, was the film that wrote ‘fin’ to the studio that’s name became synonymous with Horror, Hammer Films. Not the same story, of course, but it makes you think. I guess film and Dracula arriving at the same time is the greatest single example of serendipity since Adam found he had a spare rib and no barbecue sauce.

Stories of Vampire like creatures have been told since campfires were invented. Strange, half seen phantoms, flickered in the shadows just beyond the fire’s light. Over the years the story-tellers built up a repertoire that entertained an audience and convinced the gullible that they should keep together for the benefit of their souls. By the sixteenth century mittel Europe was recognised as the home of the big time vampire. The stories spread until in 1728 Peter Plogojowitz dropped down dead after a rowdy night carousing with some of his drinking buddies. There was nothing suspicious about the death but what happened next took a bit of swallowing. He turned up at the marital home a few nights after his interment and demanded his shoes. Word got out and before long there were abundant stories of virgins awakening in the night to find Plogojowitz lying on top of them. The local Priest was prevailed upon to take a shovel and Peter P was revealed in his shroud for all to see. What cooked his chances of spending eternity with a whole body were globules of fresh blood on his lips. A stake was called for and applied. More blood gushed from the body. That did it. The Priest cut off his ex-parishioners head and threw it and the detached body onto a prepared fire. The Magistrate admitted that there was a strong possibility that Plogojowitz was indeed a vampire and that set up an orgy of grave desecration.

Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi was born to play Dracula.

The mayhem in Kisolava, Serbia, prompted an official interest in the subject of vampirism three years later when Arnold Paole, a Serbian veteran of the Austro-Hungarian army, fell off a haywain and impaled himself on a wooden pitch fork. Unfortunately, before his death, he had been in the habit of telling a story about how he had been attacked by a vampire when he was serving in Greece but had been saved by the intervention of a witch. He had been in his grave for about a month when reports of cattle and sheep found dead, drained of blood, began to circulate. There were even reports of sightings of Arnold cavorting around in the churchyard at night. The Priest wasn’t taking any chances. He sent a letter to the Governor in Belgrade. A week later a trio of army medical officers, under the command of Colonel Johannes Flukinger, turned up. After exhuming and examining Paole’s body the medical men agreed unanimously that they had a case of vampirism on their hands. And recently interred corpses were dug up, their heads cut off and head and body consigned to the purifying flame.
Then there is the Comte de Ste. Germain. This Frenchman seems to have amazing longevity. He has been sighted and had interaction with high flying members of society from the Shah of Persia in 1774 right up until his appearance on French TV in 1972. He claimed to be a couple of thousand years old and explained how he got that way. He was in the habit of drinking a daily diet of blood. Preferably straight from the vein.

By the mid 19th century the tales of bloody derring-do by the undead were becoming more factual. Those involved swore, hand on crucifix, that the events that happened at an isolated mansion called Croglin Grange, Cumberland in 1875, were true, They involve a young lady who was awakened by the sound of scratching on the window. This time the fiend who wanted to sup on the maiden was driven off. But he was persistent and a few nights later he returned. This time they found the girl’s brothers waiting for him. He was shot in the leg and chased back to the local cemetery. There he was found in a vault and the priest was brought in to say some Holy words over the body while the brothers made sure he wouldn’t be disturbing their sister’s sleep ever again.

Count Orlok in Nosferatu

Count Orlok fitted Stoker's description more closely than others.

But this was the Age of Enlightenment. And what could be more enlightening than examining that great mystery of the ages- death! Or at least Un-death!. The villain of The Mysteries of Udolpho, Signor Montoni, is almost a prototype for the soon to be conjured Dracula himself. He lives in a castle, consumes women and is tall, dark and sinister and a magnet to young ladies. The infamous Marquis de Sade has also been branded with the stigma of vampirism but he was just a pervert with a penchant for writing pornography. Germany produced Heinrich Van Kleist who wrote a feeble story about, The Marquise of O-’ but was so secretive it was hard to know exactly what he was getting at. And it had a happy ending! There was also a French monk that tried to get into the act but couldn’t find an audience. So it was down to Lord George Byron to jot down a paragraph or two about a vampiric character who lives in, and off, high society. His blood-letter and dope pusher, Dr. Polidori, told him what a wonderful story he had written and when Byron got tired of him departed with the ‘Fragment’ and had a greatly embellished version published under the Byron name. That didn’t sit well with the limping Lord but the story did just as well when it went out under the Polidori monicker.

Raymond Huntley

Raymond Huntley is credited with supplying the stand up collar on Dracula's flowing cape. For the stage.

By this time literary vampires were popping up all over the place. Varney the Vampire hit the shelves in 109 weekly stories which were then condensed, if that is the word, into a 850 page novel. Varney was in the Croglin Grange mold of vampire. Ugly, old and smelly - but for some inexplicable reason, irresistible to women. Sheridan le Fanu brought out Carmilla, which was later filmed as Vampire Lovers, and which has been mooted as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s masterpiece, Dracula. Carmilla was young, beautiful and loved to play with her food - without exception, young nubile girls. But she was an A Group guzzler and loved each and every one of the succession of young ladies she sucked dry.

The Bram Stoker story is complicated by the fact that everyone of modest literary pretensions in the Vampire field loves to trot out their elaborate theory of the inspiration behind Stoker’s tome. My own tends toward the story being an allegory on his relationship with his megalomaniac master, the actor Henry Irving, strained through a surfeit of Camembert , lobster and vintage port. Those that disagree cite Vlad (The Impaler) Tepes mixed in with a soupcon of Erzebet Barthori and Carmilla. But is it important - is it even relevant? Stoker wrote an unlikely anti-hero and it has survived fashion changes because of the cinema. It’s sacrilege I know but I found reading Dracula an ordeal that I don’t want to repeat. Again a matter of little or no importance. The Transylvanian Count Dracula has taken on a life of its own.

Christopher Lee

Chris Lee donned the cloak and appeared in full technicolor and never looked back.

There were a number of attempts to put Dracula into one and two reelers before Frederich Murnau pinched the story, called it Nosferatu and brought it to the silent screen in 1923. Bram was dead when this happened but Mrs. Florence Stoker was made of stern stuff and fought the German producer through the courts, won the action and Frederich Murnau was forced to destroy his copies of the print. Luckily not all were found and some have emerged to reveal a strange and creepy movie with the vampire, played by Max Schreck, a long stake away from the urbane Draculas that were to follow. It was hard to feel any sympathy for Nosferatu. He had no redeeming features. But Dracula doesn’t have it all his own way. Holidays on the Cote d’Azure are out. A trip across running water reduces him to a wobbly blancmange, Holy Water fries him and crucifixes send him into paroxysms of gyrating eyeballs and frenetic hand waving. So what if he can fly, metamorphose into any shape he fancies and has legions of gorgeous women just sighing for him to waft into the bedroom as a column of smoke? Does that help him to get a good night’s sleep when he knows that at any moment the coffin lid can be cast aside and a dirty great hickory stake driven through his starched dickie by the vengeful Van Helsing?

The modern depiction of the vampire starts with the stage performance of Dracula put on in the Little Theatre in Derby in 1924 by an Irish neighbour of Stoker, Hamilton Deane. Three years later it was transferred to the Duke of York Theatre in London. Stoker had described the Count as red faced from frequently imbibing blood. Deane decided that bucolic wasn’t for aristocrats. Besides it didn’t show up well on stage. So Dracula was tall, pale faced , wore white tie and tails for all occasions and would not be seen out in the moonlight without his trademark cape. Something else was needed. A high collar. Dramatic and having the added quality that it formed the perfect backdrop for the Count’s pallid features. Raymond Huntley was the lucky actor to bound on stage as the definitive Dracula and be received by the ululation of female victims.

Ingrid Pitt and Kate O'Mara

That's the way you do it. Ingrid Pitt goes for Kate O'Mara's jugular - or there abouts.

What was good enough for the stage was deemed good enough for the cinema and when Bela Lugosi took over the mantle and welcomed Gordon Harker to his castle in 1931 with the immortal words, “I ...am....Dracula,” he was kitted out in virtually the same sartorial splendour Huntley had popularised. Lugosi with tongue chewing English, frenetic eyes and reptilian movements was a wow and confirmed that Dracula was here to stay. Poor old Bela didn’t do much with the character he had created for the movies after that. He didn’t get a look in when Dracula’s Daughter hit the screen on 1936 and only had the role of a relative in the 1944 Return of Dracula. Which was odd to say the least. Various actors took on the role after that. Lon Chaney Jnr. became Count Alucard in Son of Dracula (1943) and John Carradine had a couple of shots at it in House of Frankenstein (1945) and House of Dracula (1946) but it wasn’t until Christopher Lee took over the cape for Hammer in 1958 that the Undead character became a winning cert at the box office. Lee was only on screen for 6 minutes but he confirmed the old acting adage that there is no such thing as a small part - only small actors. And Lee was big. He was identified so completely with the part that it threatened to take over his life. Every body, it seemed, wanted to have a hack at the role of Vampire King. Variations were penned and pursued. Blacula proved that the Count was multi-racial, Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (1965) proved that producers were getting desperate, Polanski’s 1967, The Fearless Vampire Hunter, proved that the crucifix was useless against a Jewish vampire and Love at first Bite proved that Dracula had a sense of humour.

The Vampire has come a long way since he was little more than a menacing shape on the cave wall. He has been imbued with a history in Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and aliases in hundreds of films. Unlike the western which was once the screen staple, the Count is able to adapt to the fashion of the time. Long may it continue.

MM September 2003

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt