Dracula as Absolute Other
The Troubling and Distracting Specter of Stoker’s Vampire on Screen
Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company, 2019
Paperback. vii+206 p. ISBN 978-1476675381. $45
Reviewed by Alain Morvan
Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3)
Simon Bacon’s control of Dracula’s progeny on screen is impressive, and so is his grasp of its conceptual implications. The ‘Filmography’ section of the book itemizes no less than 113 film or TV serial titles. Not surprizingly, however, considering the abundance of the existing corpus, the list fails to reach exhaustivity – Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows, for example, is duly mentioned, but not Tim Burton’s namesake movie of 2012.
The book’s full title adequatly reflects Bacon’s line of argument : “troubling” and “distracting” are indeed two categories which, he observes, can be “used to describe the state when one’s identity is disordered, or one is no longer oneself” . The apparently tautological ring of such a definition does not impair its demonstrative reliability.
The structure of Dracula as Absolute Other could not be simpler: after the Introduction, which might have disclosed a little less of what follows, the book is divided into five chapters, each of which analyzes five different works. The first chapter, entitled ‘Undead Memories and Troubling Histories’, focuses on Dracula as a monster from the past who consequently disrupts the minds and environment of his victims. Pride of place is not unreasonably given to Tod Browning’s memorable Dracula (1931), with Bela Lugosi as the Count. For some reason, the author wants us to believe that the location of Browning’s story is America, not Britain. Be that as it may, he draws a thought-provoking parallel between Renfield’s condition after he is bitten by the Count and post-World War One shell shock, and he aptly comments on the subsequent ‘feminization’ of Renfield (who, in this version, is the character who visits Dracula in his castle, Harker’s role being pretty secondary).
Chapter II, ‘The Land Beyond the Forest’, examines the issue of the Count’s foreignness. Quite sensibly, it starts from Murnau’s magnetic Nosferatu (1922), perhaps overestimating the film’s alleged antisemitism. In Richard Elfman’s Modern Vampires (1998), the undead, Bacon argues, is both “other” and local; a character called “the Count” (but hardly ever referred to as Dracula) offers “a symbol of historical white European Imperialism”, while Dallas, another vampire, would stand for “(modern) America”  and embody the film’s real avatar of Dracula – which sounds defensible enough. On the other hand, the author is a little less persuasive when calling Elfman’s Van Helsing a fascist, or when he endeavours to decode characters and situations in the light of the Trump era.
In Chapter III (‘The Trouble with Money’), with regard to Robert Siodmak’s The Son of Dracula (1943), Bacon duly refers to Franco Moretti’s view of the vampire as the archetype of capitalism; Karl Marx also crops up when the author addresses the Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers (2008), but that type of interpretation might as well have been traced back to Voltaire, for whom vampires should not be looked for in cemeteries but in “palais fort agréables”, the abodes of bloodsucking financiers; Bacon rightly shows that Charles Bromley, the vampire chief executive officer of a gigantic pharmaceutical firm, whose obsessive task is to maintain an adequate provision of human blood in a world where non-vampires get fewer and fewer, is the real Dracula figure in the Spierig film. While describing the new vampire life style as “extreme consumerism” , Bacon proposes a shrewd decoding of characters in Daybreakers with reference to the protagonists in Stoker’s novels.
Chapter IV, ‘Violent Distractions’, devotes a few pages to Ubalda Ragona’s and Sidney Salkow’s The Last Man on Earth (1964), an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s captivating novel I Am Legend (1955). The film shows how, owing to a global virus, men (except Robert Morgan, known as Robert Neville in Matheson’s text, played here by Vincent Price, and a community of hybrid creatures, infected by the virus yet still alive) have morphed into vampire-like zombies. The first images in the film, focusing on urban areas turned wasteland, renders the essence of solitude with forcible restraint. Bacon observes that Neville’s violence has made him the Absolute Other, which is consistent with his overall argument; it is however more difficult to follow him when he submits that he is “more monstrous than the vampires”  (even if it’s true that the way he exterminates the undead he hunts or comes across is vaguely evocative of some sort of sanitary Endlösung) – or, for that matter, that he embodies the values of “heterosexual white males” . One only wishes Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) had been referred to.
Chapter V, ‘Distracting Technologies’, offers the book’s potentially most original and convincing reflections; among the works analysed, apart from Charles Barton’s hilarious Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), in which the scientist’s monster, whom the vampire wants to revitalise by implanting a new brain, calls the Count “Master”, David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977) is certainly the most relevant. Paradoxically, no obvious Dracula-like character turns up in the film, but the themes dealt with make the rapprochement meaningful. The Dracula substitute is a young woman, Rose, who suffers heavy wounds caused by a motorcycle crash ; after Dr Keloid, an avant-garde surgeon, has implanted “morphogenetically neutral” tissues on her skin, a phallus-like tentacle happens to protrude from her armpit, which enables Rose to survive by feeding on human blood. As a result, a devastating epidemic sweeps through Montreal. With its focus on ground-breaking biotechnology as accessory to vampirism, the film undoubtedly reactivates the Dracula paradigm, even if the Van Helsings in Rabid wear hazmat suits and leave garlic alone. Bacon seems to endorse such a reading, though he goes much further, suggesting that Rose’s vampirism and its dependence on technology link up with “the most basic instincts of consumerism” .
The five-tier organization structuring the book is clear and soundly didactic, though it entails some limitations; some of the works the analysis focuses on could have been usefully explored in other chapters as well. The concept of violence, for instance, is highly relevant to most of the twenty-five items under close examination. As for the theme of money, if Stan Dragoti’s Love at First Bite (1979) is dealt with at some length in Chapter II for its treatment of foreignness, it might also have been singled out in Chapter III as well, owing to its relevance to economic and financial issues : Bacon rightly identifies the film’s appositeness to the communism vs. capitalism debate, Dragoti’s Dracula being driven away from his castle in Romania by peasants and collectivist apparatchiks – though, once in the USA, he manages to subvert (at least symbolically) the American way of life, which this delightful vampire comedy mildly derides. That money should be repeatedly thematized is hardly surprising, since one cannot forget that the original Dracula template originates in a piece of business – i.e. the purchase of an estate in England. In the same way, Daybreakers, which Bacon analyses at length as an example of the concern with money, could have been convincingly referred to in the chapter on technology.
Another limitation is that the films and series considered in each section are, to say the least, of heterogeneous artistic interest. If Bacon’s strictly thematic line of argument lends itself well to a taxonomic review of his sample, aesthetic criteria, on the other hand, are too often lost sight of. One may legitimately question the necessity of devoting as much print to the cheap sensationalism of Gary Shore’s Dracula Untold (2014) as to Nosferatu. And, incidentally, it is not a little hard to understand why Coppola’s superb Bram Stoker’s Dracula is practically ignored. It is a great pity that such a masterpiece had to be content with three beggarly references.
Something might have been made of the way their respective soundtracks uphold the meaning of those works. In Browning’s Dracula, for instance, the Wagnerian solemnity of the overture of Die Meistersinger in the scene at the opera tells a lot about the Count’s otherness. In an altogether different context, the hauntingly pulsatile rhythm of Caleb’s Blues (by the German rock group Tangerine Dream) in Katherine Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) is a potent reminder of the endurance and adaptability of vampire æsthetics.
In the last analysis, however, Dracula as Absolute Other has much to offer to vampire studies buffs. More essentially, it sheds a stimulating light on the book / screen dialectic.
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