Did Bram Stoker’s world-famous Dracula character—perhaps the most culturally unkillable of all horror monsters—derive from Irish folklore? Search the Gaelic “Droch-Fhoula” (pronounced droc’ola) and, in addition to the requisite metal bands, you’ll find references to the “Castle of the Blood Visage,” to a blood-drinking chieftain named Abhartach, and to other possible native sources of Irish writer Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. These Celtic legends, the BBC writes, “may have shaped the story as much as European myths and Gothic literature.”
Despite all this intriguing speculation about Dracula’s Irish origins, the actors playing him have come from a variety of places. One recent incarnation, TV series Dracula, did cast an Irish actor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in the role. Hungarian Bela Lugosi comes closest to the fictional character’s nationality, as well as that of another, perhaps dubious source, Romanian warlord Vlad the Impaler. Protean Brit Gary Oldman played up the character as Slavic aristocrat in Francis Ford Coppola’s somewhat more faithful take. But one too-oft-overlooked portrayal by another English actor, Christopher Lee, deserves much more attention than it receives.
In ten low-budget films made by British exploitation studio Hammer, Lee portrayed the monstrous-yet-seductive blood-sucking nobleman as a very proper Englishman with “a certain lascivious sex appeal“—beginning with 1958’s Horror of Dracula (see a trailer above) and ending with 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula. I find Lee’s Dracula so memorable that I was delighted to hear the audio above of him reading an adaptation of the novel, in ten parts. The video begins with titles and an establishing shot from the Hammer films, then segues to images from a 1966 Dracula graphic novel, the source of the “pretty faithful” adaptation by Otto Binder and Craig Tennis, for which Lee wrote an introduction.
The audio here was also recorded in 1966 by the book’s editor Russ Jones. Comics blogger Steven Thompson remarks that “since Dracula is made up of a series of letters, journal and diary entries, the writers here logically take a more straightforward route of telling the tale while maintaining the episodic feel quite well.” Rather than the voice of Count Dracula, Lee reads as the novel’s epistolary narrator Jonathan Harker, and the Dracula in the artwork, drawn by artist Al McWilliams, “bears more than a passing resemblance here to actor John Carradine,” a notable American actor who played the character in Universal’s House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Nonetheless, Lee’s voice is enough to conjure his many exceptional performances as the prototypical vampire, a character and concept that will likely never die.
Scholar and writer Bob Curran, a proponent of the Irish origins of Dracula, argues in his book Vampires that legends of undead, blood-drinking ghouls are found all over the world, which goes a long way toward explaining the enduring popularity of Dracula in particular and vampires in general. We’ll probably see another actor inherit the role of Stoker’s seductively creepy count in the near future. Whoever it is will have to measure himself against not only the performances of Lugosi, Carradine, Oldman, and Meyers, but also against the debonair Christopher Lee. He would do well, wherever he comes from, to study Lee’s Dracula films closely, and listen to him read the story in the adaptation above.