Local takes on the original Dracula put Twilight to sparkly shame 

From graphic novels to rock operas, ATL likes its vampires Vlad to the bone

click to enlarge MADE UP MONSTER: Rob Thompson, creator and star of Dracula: The Rock Opera - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • MADE UP MONSTER: Rob Thompson, creator and star of Dracula: The Rock Opera

Women screamed at the first sight of the new century's dominant vampire. Were they cries of terror? If only.

In autumn of 2008 I attended a screening of Twilight, the first movie based on the hugely popular series of teen Gothic romances from Stephenie Meyer. When new girl in town Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) saw dreamy high schooler Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) enter a classroom, the young ladies in the audience erupted with piercing vocal appreciation. Pattinson's pasty-faced but hunky 100-year-old vampire provoked a response worthy of the Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

It's easy to see why tweens and teens would go for Edward, a tall, pouty leading man, passionately in love with Bella yet resolutely chaste outside of marriage. When direct sunlight shines on Edward, he sparkles like diamonds, making him both the perfect boyfriend and the perfect accessory. Apart from a craving for blood, however, he makes a pretty sorry excuse for a nosferatu. As Shane Morton, aka host Professor Morte of the local Silver Scream Spook Show says, "They really cut his balls off and turned him into a whining milksop."

One can only hope that the Nov. 16 release of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2, the fifth and final film in the series, will close the lid on the would-be sexy, anemic undead that overcrowd pop culture. It seems like ages since vampires have been scary, or even minimally interesting, yet they've been unavoidable. As the title of the parody film Vampires Suck attests, Twilight is so boring that it doesn't even make good satire, like an old-school bloodsucker that fails to cast a reflection.

Twilight merely serves as the most prominent example of the aesthetic emptiness of a once-potent monstrous antagonist. Vampires have been a cultural mainstay for generations, but Joss Whedon's ingenious TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" so thoroughly deconstructed the tropes of the undead, someone should have pulled vampires from circulation for a few years so they could regain their mystique. Instead, authors, filmmakers, and TV showrunners flooded the market with black-clad fanged poseurs, from the four Underworld films to the pumped-up monster mash Van Helsing to the CW's Atlanta-based production "The Vampire Diaries." HBO's "True Blood" is trash, but it at least makes an effort to put its hard-bodied antagonists in the steamiest, bloodiest, nakedest Southern trappings possible.

With any luck, Breaking Dawn Part 2 will provide a wake-up call for bringing back the father of vampires to show his misbegotten offspring how to commandeer the popular imagination. "With modern vampires, they all really start with Bram Stoker's Dracula," says Van Jensen, an Atlanta-based graphic novelist whose Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer offers a surprisingly faithful, vital take on the supernatural mythos.

The original Dracula isn't tame, isn't safe, and definitely isn't sparkly. In the Irish author's 1897 novel, the undead Transylvanian count exudes such a malignant presence, he practically emerges from the page. This fall, two innovative pieces of Atlanta-based art — Jensen's graphic novel series and 7 Stages' world premiere of Dracula: The Rock Opera — return the Count to his menacing, mesmerizing roots. The graphic novel and the rock opera may foreshadow a new trend in which adaptations strive to be as authentic as possible to Dracula's scary, old-school source. It's time to invite the real Dracula back over the threshold of our consciousness. He can't enter without our permission.

Bram Stoker begins Dracula with young English lawyer Jonathan Harker's journey to Transylvania to finalize a London land purchase for an Old World aristocrat. Despite the Count's veneer of gentility, Harker finds him innately repulsive: "As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a wave of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal."

Dracula didn't look like a debonair gentleman in his first movie appearance, and he wasn't even called Dracula. The 1922 silent film Nosferatu didn't acquire the rights to Stoker's book, so it delivered a thinly disguised version of the story, with actor Max Schreck playing Count Orlok. When Marietta's Strand Theatre screens Nosferatu on Oct. 28 with live organ accompaniment, you can see the title character as a bald, ghoulish figure with a face like a skinned bat

The enduring image of the sexy vampire began with Bela Lugosi's career-defining turn in Universal Pictures' Dracula in 1931."I don't find Bela Lugosi particularly scary or particularly seductive. I've read that women would swoon over him and wonder, 'What kind of crack were they smoking?'" says Georgia Tech professor Carol Senf, associate chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication.

An award-winning scholar of Dracula and Bram Stoker, Senf acknowledges the erotic allure of vampires particularly for sexually repressed societies like Victorian England. Senf finds vampires equally fascinating as threatening figures from the past. "If you look at Stoker's Dracula, he's a medieval figure, a warlord. At a time that prides itself on being modern, we can get sucked into this primitive, animalistic behavior," says Senf.

GORE TECH: Shane Morton stands in the corner of his bedroom. “My Girlfriend wanted me to paint it like an enchanted forest.” It feels more like being inside of a heart. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • GORE TECH: Shane Morton stands in the corner of his bedroom. “My Girlfriend wanted me to paint it like an enchanted forest.” It feels more like being inside of a heart.

In the book, Dracula relocates to London, leaving Harker behind as a snack for his feral wives. The count preys on English ladies until an escaped Harker and a group of crusading men, led by Abraham Van Helsing, organize Scooby-Gang style and turn the hunter into the hunted. Dracula embodies the chauvinistic, xenophobic anxieties of the 19th century as an exotic, supernatural figure ravaging the nation's virgins. For today's audiences, Dracula embodies more fears and dark desires than any other famous monster, partly by passing as a human being in ways that rotting zombies and furry werewolves cannot.

"In Stoker's Dracula, the vampire's very refined, almost regal, this marriage of aristocrat and monster. He's this respected authority figure who turns out to be incredibly evil. We wanted to go in a different direction," says Jensen, who writes the scripts for Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, illustrated by Dusty Higgins.

"I was never a vampire person," acknowledges Jensen, who says he never watched "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" until after he finished writing his four-volume graphic novel series. The comic book originated with a conversation in the mid-2000s at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where Jensen was a crime reporter and Higgins was the editorial cartoonist. Higgins drew a doodle of Carlo Collodi's famous puppet staking a toothy fiend, and the pair shared a laugh. In 2007, after Jensen had relocated to Atlanta, Higgins suggested they do a graphic novel based on the kickass puppet concept, and it caught on.

You can imagine how Pinocchio Vampire Slayer works. When the enchanted marionette lies his wooden nose grows, giving him an endless supply of stakes for striking down the undead. The gimmick gives Pinocchio a pretext for irresistible action-hero-style quips: "I hate killing vampires." SHIK! "I'm sorry about this." SHIK! Thanks to Higgins' stark, shadowy art and Jensen's balance of humor, horror, and respect for his characters, the series evolves past a one-joke premise to a supernatural epic that crisscrosses 19th-century Europe and draws inspiration from commedia dell'arte, author Italo Calvino, and Gothic horror.

The series' final installment, Of Wood and Blood, is being published in two parts, with the first recently released in August and the second due in early fall. Jensen and Higgins introduce an appropriately menacing, loathsome version of Dracula as the saga's Big Bad. "We always knew from the first book that there would be an explanation of where Pinocchio comes from, and it would connect to where vampires come from," Jensen explains. "You can see Vlad's castle in one panel of the first book. There was always a chance that we'd only sell like, two copies, but if we made some more books, we wanted to be able to say, 'We knew what we were doing all along.'"

Jensen explored the source material for all of the book's characters, and for Dracula, went back to both Stoker and European history. Originally Stoker planned to name his villain Count Wampyr, but chose the name Dracula from the descendants of Vlad II of Wallachia, who took the name Dracul after being invested in the chivalric Order of the Dragon in 1431. Stoker never equates the character with the 15th-century warlord Vlad Tepes III, aka Vlad the Impaler, who resisted the Ottoman Empire's invasion of Europe. The historical association frequently deepens the character's complexities, and Jensen finds the connection fascinating. "You find out he's a lot more interesting than the Vlad the Impaler stereotype. As a boy, he was given to the Turks as a hostage by his father. That's the kind of thing that can mess you up as a kid," he says. "For that part of the world he's a hero, like a very dark George Washington figure. Sure, he had a habit of putting people on spikes, but that was a pretty dark time."

Higgins draws Dracula as a corrupt hulk in medieval garb leading a small army of vampires from his castle. "I think our Vlad is more barbaric than usual. He's not slick, he doesn't use subterfuge, he's a very powerful presence with evil ambitions. He's bloated, almost as if he's stitched together," says Jensen, who finds a psychological justification for Dracula's behavior. "This monstrous, terrifying guy does these monstrous, terrifying things because he's frightened of death and trying to keep himself alive. That makes an interesting conflict."

Of Wood and Blood culminates with a showdown between a talking puppet and a fictionalized, undead take on a medieval campaigner. Neither adversary is technically alive, yet the fear of mortality casts a shadow over their confrontation. It's a far cry from the singing crickets and mischievous cats of Disney's Pinocchio.

SERVING SPLATTER: One of many prized possessions in Morton's monster collection is a plate (center) he bought on the top of Mount Brasov, one of the tallest of the Carpathian Mountains, near Transylvania. The plate features a painting of Vlad the Impaler. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • SERVING SPLATTER: One of many prized possessions in Morton's monster collection is a plate (center) he bought on the top of Mount Brasov, one of the tallest of the Carpathian Mountains, near Transylvania. The plate features a painting of Vlad the Impaler.

Instead of Disney characters like Jiminy Cricket, vampires and other famous monsters provided a young Shane Morton with imaginary playmates. Morton vividly remembers being 5 years old and his father helping him dress up as Lon Chaney Sr.'s vampire from the silent film London After Midnight. "He used a black trash bag cut out like bat wings for a cape, cut a row of fangs from a white plastic milk jug, fashioned a top hat from a sheet of poster board, then burnt a wine cork to do the makeup," says Morton.

It was a formative experience. At 44, Morton champions classic creature features as the host of the Plaza Theatre's Silver Scream Spook Show and creates gory spectacles like the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse. Morton is part of the creative team for 7 Stages' Dracula: The Rock Opera, which sounds like a blood-spattered dream come true for a man with a Bela Lugosi tattoo on his left forearm. "I tell people I'm working on Dracula: The Rock Opera and they say. 'Wha-aat?' They bring up Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Dracula puppet musical from the end of that. No, this musical is awesome," he says.

Created by Rob Thompson, musician and co-owner of Java Lords coffee shop, Dracula: The Rock Opera has its seeds in a different show involving a famous figure who rises from the grave. In 2005, Thompson assembled the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra for a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, where he performed as Judas. In subsequent years, Thompson and 7 Stages artistic director Del Hamilton talked about a follow-up project, and Morton suggested they rock out with their Drac out. In February 2011, the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra performed the first act as a work in progress called Haus Von Dracul.

Thompson has long black hair, an intense gaze, and the relaxed magnetism you'd expect of a rock 'n' roll Count. He says that in preparing the script with co-composers Sam McPherson, Chris Love, and Naomi Lavender, he's made an effort to stay as faithful to Stoker's book as possible. "While writing, I had a copy of Dracula beside me and I would constantly refer to the parts I was writing about," says Thompson. "I pulled everything out of the book and did not add anything new, like a love story. Many times words right out of the book would serve as lyrics."

Musically, Thompson took inspiration from Jesus Christ Superstar. The show opens with Harker (Love) singing the song "To Transylvania," inspired by Judas' introductory solo. "I wanted a classic rock style," says Thompson. "'Carriage of the Dead' is a real fast-paced, heavy metal song. But there's some really pretty 'Hotel California'-type songs, too." The Dracula role has a recurring musical motif that harks back to his home region. "The main theme is this gypsy/Arabic/Hungarian scale, which becomes Dracula's theme. Whenever the show gets back to Dracula, that exotic sound returns."

Previews begin Sept. 13 for Dracula: The Rock Opera, which will transform the Little Five Points playhouse into a chamber of horrors featuring 15 performers in addition to the five-piece rock band. Morton promises a huge, grisly spectacle with decapitations and spraying blood as well as filmed effects. "A lot of our sets are projections of different environments, like the landscapes," he says. "For the 'Carriage of the Dead' song, we made miniatures of Dracula's castle on rocky terrain, and filmed it with a Steadicam. The minute details on the model end up really big, but they look great."

As the Count, Thompson wants to convey the presence of the larger-than-life, larger-than-death character. "I'm trying to make him powerful and creepy at the same time. Sometimes he's low and menacing, sometimes he's louder and more forceful. Early on, I was wondering if I'm supposed to sing this like Dracula," Thompson says, pronouncing the words in a thick Lugosi accent.

"It was starting to sound like Professor Morte. Rob made it sound more like a powerful rock singer," says Morton.

In addition to crafting a big, 1970s-style rock spectacle, Thompson wants to restore Dracula to his core villainy. "I hate vampire stories that are all about love," he says. "A lot of people think of the vampire as this romanticized figure. No, he's a predator, a hunter, a creature of the night. Twilight's the total opposite of that."

Despite being staked, beheaded, and exposed to disintegrating sunlight, Dracula always returns. Thompson points out that dark, powerful, timeless bad guys will always be popular. Morton adds, "It would be great to live forever and feed on healthy young girls and not go to jail for it, just disappear in a puff of smoke."

MONSTER MASH: Dozens of cartoon monster masks hang from the ceiling of Morton's home. Some are very rare. Shane has collected many of them from around the world, most of them dating back to the '60s. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • MONSTER MASH: Dozens of cartoon monster masks hang from the ceiling of Morton's home. Some are very rare. Shane has collected many of them from around the world, most of them dating back to the '60s.

"Who doesn't want to live forever? But it comes with a price. It requires one to become other than oneself, and that's both attractive and repellent," says Senf.

"As long as people are interested in vampires, Dracula's going to be right there," says Jensen. Even though he finds that vampire characters represent the fear of death, while writing Of Wood and Blood he entertained a different perspective. "There's something almost hopeful about vampires, in that they represent a triumph over death. As terrifying as they are, they represent a hope that we can survive death and death can be overcome."

Horror tradition depicts vampirism as a communicable disease, and Draculas are proliferating. On the silly end of the spectrum, Sept. 28 sees the release of the CGI feature Hotel Transylvania, with Adam Sandler voicing the count as an overprotective dad trying to keep his vampire daughter from dating a clueless human.

Looking further ahead, the Atlanta Ballet will be remounting Dracula to coincide with Valentine's Day in 2013. Hollywood studios are developing a reboot of Van Helsing and a film called Harker, which reimagines the young lawyer as a vampire hunter and may star Russell Crowe. Mostly intriguingly, Centurion director Neil Marshall fleshes out a chapter from Stoker's novel with the Viggo Mortensen film The Last Voyage of the Demeter, an account of the ill-fated ship that transports the vampire from Transylvania to the shores of England.

While generic vampires provide low-budget, low-calorie stake fodder, Dracula offers a bottomless well of horror themes and dark symbolism. Artists willing to take the plunge will find Bram Stoker's count can enrich the culture even as he drains his victims. As Dracula said, and will say again many times in the future, "The children of the night. What music they make!"


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