Those old familiar faces
Our language gives us the capacity to bottle pure lightning in words. There are people who will tell you this is the final act of magic our modern world will allow. They’re words that were created to allow us to express terror or wonder. They are words that feel like they’re carved from the foundations of the world under our feet. Words like genius or awe. Words like love and spirit. Words like monster.
We use that word a lot these days. Monster. Looking around, it seems to have two meanings. It can either be used to describe a human being who has done something truly unthinkable and inhuman to other human beings or it can be used for that guy or girl from that horror movie you grew up with, who you can now buy as a collectible toy.
I’ve been thinking about the iconic monsters of horror a lot recently. A long time ago, I was obsessed with trying to create one of my own. I fell very much down the rabbit hole of monsters who reflect the irrational fears of their times. Recently, I was reminded of this when I found out Bram Stoker died on the date of my birthday.
Last year I listened to a sample of Big Finish’s stunning audio version of Stoker’s original novel and it reminded me just how clever Dracula is as a novel. It’s still sharp enough to strip away all the cliché and pastiche that we’ve hung on it over the years. Reading (or listening) to that story shows you the staggering achievement Stoker pulled off. He created a novel that navigated through diary journals, captain’s logs and letters as eye witness reports of a growing threat. An approaching terror. He wove all of them together to tell a tale that the world still holds close to its heart, in one form or another. A tale that gave us one of the all time great monsters. The godfather of the modern monster, really.
Back when the novel came out, Count Dracula was a figure of pure terror. A foreign fiend. An invader of our country and our souls. An absolute villain and a creature of the night. He was a beast that could walk amongst us once the sun began to set. A titled gentlemen, a count no less; but within him there was a hunger that could never be suppressed. A greed surged through him. A greed for our blood, our land and our very spirits. Readers must have turned the pages of that book and been gripped by a desperate need to see what The Count would do next. Would he win? Could he claim our world as his own?
In the novel, Dracula had few weaknesses. Sunlight and stakes through the heart. One of the which, if we’re being honest, is a weakness for most of us. His real weakness, in the end, turned out to be linked to his infamous and fictional longevity in a way. It was fame that killed the beast. It’s become a career blueprint for so many horror icons that had followed in his shadowy footsteps.
Once the novel had the world’s attention it was only a matter of time before there were stage plays and silent movies. Then, of course, there was the nightmarish Nosferatu which is definitely not Dracula, just in case any lawyers are listening. Eventually Mr Lugosi would step in front of the camera and, through his suave ghoulishness, give the world a Dracula they could comfortably fear from their cinema seats. It would take a few years before Bela lost his cape to the mighty Christopher Lee.
There really is no denying that Lee feels like he was made to play Dracula. He has an elegance and regal charisma to him, but there is always a darker side to his performance. It lurks at the corners of his voice and just behind his eyes. The animal within the man. It’s always there. You can see he was a man who had been to the shadows himself in the name of a cause. There’s no denying that gave his Dracula a certain power which fit very nicely with Stoker’s original cruel machinations.
Sadly, just like Lugosi before him, it was overwhelmingly positive response from audiences to those machinations that led to his Dracula hanging up his blood lust and replacing it with cheap Halloween mask. Of course, by the time Mr Lee was applying his fangs, Dracula had already dabbled in pop culture. He had chased Abbot and Costello. He had been a Looney Tunes villain. The change would continue as Christopher Lee and Hammer worked through a deepening spiral of slaloming sequels. It wasn’t long before he turned up in a movie with a Beatle or a few other wonky cameos. It wasn’t long before America gave us Blacula either.
Dracula and his growing family of wannabe misfits would never quite escape the gravitational pull of popularity again. He would become a caricature of that sly, thin, well dressed man who arrived in London and set his sights on a brand new empire of the night. The character accepted paycheque after paycheque and was soon the bloke in the cape with a pantomime accent and a near Benny Hill like need to chase after women in white, flowing nightgowns.
By the time I was a kid, Dracula had been replaced with Duckula. Either that or he was hassling The Monster Squad. During which, for my money, the scariest moment still has to be the Werewolf transformation in the phone box.
As we got into the nineties, Coppola staked (sorry) some of his dwindling career on making a decent Dracula movie, but the results were mixed. Most people seemed more interested in Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves than the monster they were fighting. For my part, I spent a lot of that film fuming at the fact none of my friends recognised Tom Waits. I’m still fighting that particular battle.
By the time we got into the 21st century, Dracula was a cameo in an episode of Buffy or one of a cluster of villains in a ramshackle Van Helsing movie. Recently, Universal tried to carve him out as some sort of medieval Batman in Dracula Untold. The title being a warning to us all. That story was untold for a reason.
Popularity really is a dangerous force to apply to monsters. It can warp horror too far from its original shape and intentions. It can steal that nightmare power and replace it with cheap thrills, catchphrases and motifs. Take the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It that’s coming out later this year for example. The novel is famous for featuring one of the all time great scary clowns. When I first read the book, I was terrified. When I saw the two part TV movie with Tim Curry in the clown make up, I remained pretty terrified. Now people look at the new trailer, which I think looks decent, but they don’t feel that way. They just nod like they understand what’s happening. Evil clowns, sure they get that. They’ve seen the other terrible movies, the cheesy toys and the YouTube videos. Exposure really is the enemy of horror creatures.
The xenomorphs in the Alien movies are another prime example. Ridley Scott made a haunted house movie in space and I still reckon it’s one of the greatest horror movies ever made. One reason for that sustained terror is you barely ever see the lithe, lethal monstrosity that’s loose on the ship. It crawls in the duct work. It hangs from chains. It lingers in smoke and steam. It hunts from the shadows. Jump ahead a few years and you’ll see one, fully lit, fighting a Predator in some terrible cos play wrestling match. That first Alien movie came out in 1979. By the time I was seven or eight, there were Alien comics in the newsagents. There were toy xenomorphs you could buy out of the Argos catalogue. Aliens of all different shapes and colours and sizes, all ready for you to collect. They came with little eggs and I’m pretty sure some of them came with slime. Not long after that, one occasionally turned up as a gag in Animaniacs. It’s that terrible cycle again. The event horizon of the popular black hole, distorting a classic creature into something far more safe and sellable.
Freddy Krueger got his own board game and TV show. Jason Voorhees went from one of the great final scares in a blockbuster horror movie to the monster shot into space for some reason. Poor old Michael Myers pushed out of the third movie in his own franchise. Then there’s Hannibal Lecter. He’s not supernatural or paranormal monster in the slightest. He’s a well dressed, well mannered, refined serial killer, but he’s not safe from being pulled into parody. He’s turned up in cartoons and kids shows. He’s had dogs and cats mimicking him. He even ended up with a prequel movie where he was the hero.
Maybe, at the end of the day, this is all to do with how we make sense of our monsters. After all, we do laugh at terrible things sometimes. I guess it’s all a form of processing. Perhaps once our collective consciousness accepts a new monster into the ever growing pantheon, we just feel a bit safer if we clip the talons and blunt the fangs a little. Perhaps we feel better for seeing their caricature, instead of their spectre, lurking outside our window at night.
Still, there is a wonderful twist to this ending. Yes, we have declawed our beasts and chained them away on supermarket shelves but, every so often, a fan of the modern versions will go back to the well. They’ll pick up an original novel and peer into it. There, they won’t find their cartoonish vampire with a broken heart. They will stare into the night that Stoker hung as the bottomless background to his novel and a pair of hungry eyes will stare back at them. Back into them. You see, the true beating heart of the monster never dies. Sure, they will put on costumes and dance for pennies, but the monster is still there. It’s underneath the make up, hiding from the studio lights. Biding its time. Waiting to be seen past the words that locked it to the page. The lightning released. The fear awoken once again.