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Hollywood bloodsuckers

Published Oct. 18, 2005

HOLLYWOOD GOTHICThe Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen

By David J. Skal

Norton, $39.95

In the light of day, he seems a silly figure. The cape. The fangs. The slick black hair and even oilier accent. Dracula can seem innocuous and exploited beyond his fear-inducing capabilities. There's even a breakfast cereal with his face on it.

Yet there are few more enduring and appealing icons of fear in modern society than the legendary bloodsucker from Transylvania. Despite the many blundering versions of the Dracula story on film, despite mediocre stage plays and merchandising that has put Drac's image on everything from bubble-gum tattoo transfers to plastic models, Dracula is still scary.

"Without knowing anything of the myth's origins, most of us can recite without prompting the salient characteristics of the vampire . . ." writes David J. Skal in his new Dracula book Hollywood Gothic. "We have received this information by a curious cultural transfusion, not by direct experience . . . and yet on some psychological level it must reflect some kind of universal knowledge, however veiled or obscure."

The reasons for his enduring reign are unfortunately a small portion of Skal's study. Though Skal gives a good summary of Dracula's historical precedents and a swift inspection of his spread through popular imagination, his scholarly but readable book is less a cultural history of Dracula than a tale of actors, agents and contracts. Although much of the book reads like a particularly lucid entertainment law article, Hollywood Gothic is shot through with such enthusiasm and love for Dracula that a moderately interested reader is willing to follow Skal through the bidding wars and copyright disputes.

Note the caveat about interest level. Hollywood Gothic should not be the first, second or even third Dracula book for the horror enthusiast, since there are more thorough studies of the legend itself and the individual qualities of the vampire.

Skal's story is centered far more on the life of Florence Stoker, wife and widow of novelist Bram Stoker whose Victorian novel Dracula was a far greater creation than he ever imagined. The character of the caped count was practically all Stoker bequeathed his wife, and she stubbornly gripped the vampire as his story was plundered and transformed in several nations and by new technology.

Skal follows the twisted trail as Dracula is pirated for the German Expressionist classic Nosferatu, which is almost destroyed in semi-successful litigation by Florence Stoker. The novel is legally adapted in England into an aesthetically slight play that drives audiences mad and keeps the box office ringing in profits.

Skal is meticulous in charting the transformation of the novel from book to stage to screen, following the tangled negotiations for various production rights through letters of the participants. Are most people interested in knowing what Universal Pictures paid for the American rights to the novel ($40,000)? Or the foggy world of conceptual ownership in which playwrights and agents vie to sell the same character?

Though the answer may be no, it is indicative of Skal's thoroughness that all the amounts and excerpts of letters are there to follow. Skal interviewed many of the people involved in the film and stage versions of Dracula, providing an interesting historical perspective on the film industry. He also explores the role Dracula played in the lives of people associated with the character, especially the tragic Bela Lugosi.

Skal's most original work is in his discovery and analysis of the Spanish-language version of the 1931 American version that starred Lugosi. Filmed simultaneously by Universal as the Lugosi version, the Spanish-language Dracula used the same sets as the American version and began filming when that crew left for the day. The actors were paid less, worked harder and were directed by wiser artistic hands than in the American version. Skal's scene-by-scene comparison of the two versions is fascinating.

Insights like that keep Hollywood Gothic a general readership book _ barely. The rare period photographs and drawings, the thumbnail chronology of Dracula's genesis and the extensive bibliography provide grazing horror fans with entertainment and true buffs with something to sink their teeth into.

Russell Stamets is the performing arts critic for the St. Petersburg Times.