Dracula vs. Frankenstein
The Battle Between Hollywood's Most Enduring Monsters for the Title of Prince of Darkness
When one pops up in your local theater house, you can only assume that the other will soon follow. Since they first premiered in the Universal incarnations in 1931, both Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster have famously shared a screen legacy as the two most enduring cinematic demons of all time. Even after the authors of the novels, both published in the nineteenth century, are long dead, the spirits of their most famous creations seem to be locked in immortal competition for the king of our pop culture’s horror. Ever since 1931, when Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein issued in the dawn of the Universal Monsters (to be followed by familiar fright faces like the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Mummy), the two monsters have pursued one another like restless, obsessed spirits who refuse to let one outshine the other. The trend continues even today: When a film is released featuring one of these gothic nightmares, it is generally followed by the production of the other, put into production almost immediately.
Yet at a careful examination, the competition between Dracula and Frankenstein has surprisingly existed for far longer than their familiar incarnations created on the back lots of Universal’s golden age. It is strange indeed to note that both Frankenstein and the handsome, Victorian vampire who would inspire Dracula were conceived in the same night, in the same room, by the soon-to-be Mary Shelley and Dr. John Polidori (for more information, watch Ken Russell’s Gothic or the television documentary The Real Frankenstein).
Reaching back even farther in time, Radu Florescu’s insightful book In Search of Frankenstein (which was, of course, the follow-up to Florescu’s own In Search of Dracula) speculates that the historical Draculas and Frankensteins were mortal enemies—often locked in both political conflicts and bloody wars that probably ended with many Frankensteins impaled in Dracula’s front lawn, and the Frankenstein family playing active roles in the eventual fall and death of the historical Vlad the Impaler. When we consider the implications of this centuries-old battle between the two families, we are forced to wonder if the cinematic competition between the two is simply a manifestation of some sort of dark curse that Draculas and Frankensteins placed on each other when both Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker were merely twinkles in the eyes of their ancestors. The possibilities are tantalizing.
Also tantalizing is what both monsters seem to represent as they battle it out for supremacy. Personality-wise, they have as many similarities as they do differences. Both demons, if we go by their original incarnations as created by Stoker and Shelley, are articulate, graceful, supernaturally strong, and very, very persuasive—able to cast their victim under their spell (Dracula through hypnosis and the promise of power, the Monster through evoking sympathy to initiate his own agenda). Yet the key differences between the beasts lie in their origins: Count Dracula is the literal spawn of Satan—a bloodthirsty creature based firmly in the dark arts of the supernatural. Frankenstein’s Monster is also made from the dark arts, but arts grounded in science and man’s own selfish ambition. Dracula is evil by nature; the Monster chooses evil because of the hatred and rejection of man. Dracula is handsome and seductive, but limited by his supernatural origins: He must be invited into a house before he can enter, crucifixes and garlic stops him, he lacks power in the daylight. The Monster is hideous in appearance, but he is not hindered by relics or daylight: Days find him just as unstoppable as nights, and no crucifix will impede his vengeance. Both creatures also have deep personality flaws (as any great villain should, of course): Dracula is by nature a coward, more prone to send his mindless drones in to do his dirty work and to flee back to his homeland when pursued. The Monster is eloquent and sympathetic, capable of great love, but when unable to express it, he becomes enraged and bitter.
Perhaps the reason that Dracula and the Monster are so prominent and competitive is because of their ying/yang nature towards each other. Between the two of them, we have clear cases of the questions about human nature that we have always asked: Nature vs. Nurture, faith vs. science, fate vs. free will. In a way, Dracula and Frankenstein are simply manifestations of the great debates about ourselves that we have always asked—sort of the darkest mirror for ourselves and the way we work. If we are driven by nature, Dracula becomes the darkest possible form of our nature. On the other hand, if we’re driven by nurture, Frankenstein’s Monster represents the worst possible direction that nurture could take. There is perhaps middle ground found in a character like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who simultaneously represents both fate (we are naturally prone to evil) and free will (but we must choose to embrace evil before we become slaves to it), and while the Jekyll/Hyde character remains an equally important literary character, he has never found himself in direct competition with the likes of his two demonic brothers, who in representing the opposite extremes seem to leave no room for a middle man.
What, then, of the battle fought in the cinematic arena? Just in time for Halloween 2005, I have compiled a list of what I feel are the most interesting Dracula and Frankenstein films that have been made in seeming competition of one another. For good measure I have also included which film I felt is in each individual competition—though I think the relationship between the two monsters is far more interesting beyond naming an apparent victor. This list is hardly complete, but it is at least a guide to follow, in order to get a general idea of the sort of life that both Dracula and Frankenstein have had onscreen, and their relationship to one another.
Without further ado (and thanks for sitting through yet another one of my long-winded intros), let the game begin.
Frankenstein (1910) and Nosferatu (1922)
Before the clichés of the bolt-necks and “Blah!”, Frankenstein and Dracula made their first cinematic appearances in these silent gems. Frankenstein, directed by J. Searle Dawley and produced by Thomas Edison, is generally considered the first major monster film of all time, and it is certainly an atmospheric little chiller with a terrifying creation sequence that still holds up today. Charles Ogle, as the movies’ first Frankenstein Monster, cuts an imposing, almost bear-like figure. Nosferatu, directed by the silent cinema giant F.W. Murnau, is one of the benchmarks of silent cinema, and easily one of the greatest horror films of all time. The highlight is undoubtedly the spider-like Max Shreck as the dreaded Count Orlock (Murnau couldn’t get the copyrights for Dracula, so he changed the character’s name), who still might be the scariest cinematic vampire of all time.
The Winner: Both films are landmarks and well worth checking out, but Nosferatu is rightfully considered one of the greatest movies ever made, horror, silent, or otherwise.
Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931)
Here is where it really all began! Universal Horror films revolutionized horror as we know it today, creating low-budget but atmospheric shockers that can still hold our attention and demand our respect. Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein are still the most famous of the bunch, as they introduced the two cinematic demons as we recognize them today: Bela Lugosi’s thickly accented and caped Dracula, and Boris Karloff’s flat-headed, grunting Monster. Followed by countless spin-offs and sequels, but the originals are still the most enduring popular images of the monsters today.
The Winner: It’s hard to beat the motifs created by Whale’s Frankenstein—the foggy graveyard, the hunchbacked assistant, the lightening storm, “It’s alive!” Has there ever been a more influential film in our pop culture? Probably not.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Box-office returns guaranteed sequels for Universal’s two most famous monsters, and both quickly turned into successful franchises. Both film series began with similarly-themed follow-ups, featuring more sympathetic, female monsters—the bird-like female Creature with the world’s worst hair day, and the tormented Vampiress who longs to escape her father’s dark curse.
The Winner: Frankenstein generally has the upper hand in all of the Universal films; his movies are consistently far more interesting and well-made than those in the Dracula series. The Bride of Frankenstein is considered superior to its predecessor today, whereas Dracula’s Daughter has seemingly faded off into oblivion.
Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Son of Dracula (1943)
More Universal mayhem—this time with the sons of the dreaded monster maker and vampire picking up where their fathers left off.
The Winner:Son of Frankenstein gets the upper hand again. Son of Dracula (featuring The Wolfman’s Lon Chaney, Jr. in his only stint as a vampire) is an effective little creeper, but is nowhere as successful as the chilling Frankenstein sequel, arguably the best in the series. Basil Rathbone is superb as a son haunted by his father’s legacy; Bela Lugosi gives his best performance as the demented shepherd Ygor, and Karloff returns for the last time as the equally sad and furious Monster.
Dead Men Walk (1943) and The Monster Maker (1944)
Since Universal owned the copyrights to both Dracula and Frankenstein, other studios couldn’t copycat their success with either monster. That didn’t keep the micro-budgeted studio Producers Releasing Corporation from trying, and they consequently released these two low-budget monster flicks, directed by Sam Newfield. Featuring many of the same cast of the Universal films (albeit the minor players, now in larger roles), the films carried on the vampire and man-made monster motifs without ever mentioning the name Dracula or Frankenstein. Neither film is remembered much today, but it can’t be said that they don’t resonate with their own B-grade charm.
Winner:The Monster Maker, featuring a demented
J. Carrol Naish as a love-stricken mad doctor who injects a famous
pianist with a serum that turns him into a monster, has a slight
edge over the equally atmospheric Dead Men Walk, about
a vampire-ghost who returns to haunt his brother. The cast is
a little better, and Ralph Morgan makes for an imposing and tragic
House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945)
After several films featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, sometimes together and sometimes apart, Universal finally got the bright idea to mix them all together in colossal monster mashes, featuring all three in behemoth brawls with one another. The resulting films, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, are low on plot but high in spirit, featuring the now personality-lacking Monster lumbering about burning laboratories, the Wolfman continuing the brood over his lycanthropic curse, and John Carradine as Dracula, seducing helpless victims with the promise of an “old, immortal world,” or something like that.
The Winner: Neither of these films are masterpieces, but House of Frankenstein has the advantage in that it makes better use of all three monsters (in House of Dracula, both the Monster and the Wolfman only have a few scenes) and features the return of the great Boris Karloff to the series, this time as the mad scientist.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958)
Our two favorite demons met full-throttled, blood-red Technicolor in the 1950s, compliments of the great, B-grade British Production Company Hammer Films, which steered filmgoers away from atomic age science fiction and single-handedly revived the Gothic horror film. Featuring talented, Shakespearian actors Peter Cushing (who would play both Dr. Frankenstein and vampire-hunter Professor Van Helsing in multiple Dracula and Frankenstein films for Hammer over the next twenty years) and Christopher Lee (probably the most physically commanding of all the Draculas), who were quickly immortalized as genre-favorites, these Hammer pieces remain precursors to the splatter pictures. Today, they are still damn scary films loaded with low budget atmosphere and dread.
The Winner:The Horror of Dracula. Christopher Lee is Count Dracula, and this, his first film as the Count, features some of the most interesting sets ever used on a vampire film—not least of all the unnerving, foggy British graveyard where Van Helsing first encounters one of Dracula’s brides.
Billy and Kid vs. Dracula (1966) and Jesse James meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)
They don’t get much cheesier than these two, zero-budget Western-Horror films, featuring terrible casts saying even more terrible lines. God-awful by any standards, to the point that they are almost brilliant parodies.
The Winner: There are only losers here, but at least Jesse James meets Frankenstein’s Daughter has a longer, more laughable name and more outrageous accents.
Blacula (1972) and Blackenstein (1973)
Blacksploitation at its best, in the grand tradition of Shaft and Superfly! Dracula and Frankenstein are both given hip dialogue and afros here; the result is a sure sign of the times, now terribly outdated. Still, at least our two monsters went down in style.
The Winner:Blacula, hands down. Not only does William Marshall make a good vampire, but the whole production is respectable and hip—unlike the often laughable and lame-brained Blackenstein.
In Search of Dracula (1975)
and The Real Frankenstein (1993)
Based on the bestselling books by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally, which explored the real-life inspirations behind Dracula and Frankenstein. Director Calvin Floyd intended to follow up his In Search of Dracula immediately with In Search of Frankenstein, but when the former tanked, the production was put on hold. Florescu and McNally went on to make their Frankenstein film nearly twenty years later, and both films are very interesting looks at both the fictional mythos and the historical figures behind the two classic works of horror fiction.
The Winner: Both are fascinating documentaries and make for great viewing on Halloween night, though In Search of Dracula has slightly better production values and a better host in Christopher Lee.
Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) and Dracula (1979)
Hot on the tails of the Hammer horror films, Universal Pictures revived their two most enduring monsters in the 1970s, in an attempt the rekindle the flame of their 1930s and 40s films. Both films boasted splendid casts, including James Mason, Jane Seymore, Michael Sarrazine (as the Monster), Frank Langella (as the Count), Donald Pleasance, Lawrence Olivier, etc. The films also featured great production values, an increase in gore, and plenty of atmosphere, but neither managed to revive the gothic scares of Universal’s previous era. Still, these are very good films and well worth checking out.
The Winner:Frankenstein: The True Story is one of the most underrated horror pictures of all time, retelling the oft-told story in a refreshing, Freudian-laced update that left the viewers (well, me anyway) spellbound and terrified. A fantastic film all around, combining visionary ideas about human nature with classy plot-twists that makes the Frankenstein legend seem brand new. Horror films don’t get much better than this; no subsequent Frankenstein film has yet topped this one.
Dan Curtis’ Dracula (1973) and Dan Curtis’ Frankenstein (1973)
Dan Curtis, the creator of Dark Shadows, produced several made-for-television horror films, all relatively faithful to their original novels. The two most prominent are his takes on Dracula and Frankenstein, though neither of them were memorable enough to be much watched today. Good production values, acceptable casts, but bland storytelling.
The Winner:Dracula is slightly more memorable, probably due to the casting of Jack Palance as the Count (and in case you’re wondering, he’s really not bad at all). Curtis also gets points for being the first person to tie in the historical Vlad the Impaler to a Dracula film; otherwise, neither of these productions are especially interesting.
Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1974) and Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1974)
If you go into any movie with a prefix of “Andy Warhol’s” and don’t expect a film riddled with outrageous depictions of gore, sex, and other unforgivable, offensive material, you frankly deserve to be offended. Though Andy Warhol had nothing to do with these bizarre films, they’re true to his offensive spirit (“You have to f--- life in the gall bladder,” says Dr. Frankenstein). Both films feature Udo Kier as Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula, respectively, and I can’t help but note that in the history of his career, I’ve never heard Kier mention either film in any interviews. They’re not bad flicks, exactly, but they are audacious, off-color, and very, very weird.
The Winner: Andy Warhol’s Dracula is probably more funny and memorable—mainly because of the unforgettable final battle in which a gardener hacks off Dracula’s limbs repeatedly, and they continue to grow back. Both films are available from the Criterion Collection, and are best left to days when you are feeling particularly funky.
The Bride (1985) and Nadja (1991)
The Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter were both inexplicably remade as philosophical chick-flicks in the late 80s/early 90s. Both take themselves a bit too seriously and are not particularly scary, but they are at least well-cast (Sting as Dr. Frankenstein is an unlikely but inspired choice).
The Winner: Nadja slightly edges out The Bride for creating a main character slightly more credible. Sorry, but Jennifer Beals is a little too spacey and modern to be a believable, Victorian-age Frankenstein monster.
Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and Dracula Rising (1993)
Roger Corman’s return to the cinematic arena, directing both the cerebral, post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller Frankenstein Unbound, and producing the low-budget, ridiculously bad Dracula picture, assembled together hastily in the former’s heels. Both films are flawed; Dracula Rising is flawed and bad.
The Winner: Frankenstein Unbound, which demonstrated an understanding of the themes in Shelley’s novel probably better than any other Frankenstein film ever made. It’s a weird picture to be sure—throwing in time travel and laser battles—but it’s very interesting, and surprisingly poignant in its prophecies of global annihilation.
Young Frankenstein (1974) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
Frankenstein and Dracula get spoofed by Mel Brooks, whose playful pokes at the Universal Horror films are more than likely to send you chocking on your popcorn. If there has been a funnier movie character than Marty Feldman’s Igor (pronounced Eye-Gor) in the past thirty years, I’m hard pressed to think of who it is.
The Winner: These days, Young Frankenstein is a serious contender for the funniest film of all time, whereas Dracula: Dead and Loving It is hardly given a second thought. Which one would you rather see again?
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
Inevitably, Hollywood finally got around to producing massive, sprawling epics based on these classic works, featuring ridiculously large budgets, A-list casts (Gary Oldman as Count Dracula, Robert De Niro as the Monster), and eye-popping production values. But are they faithful to the original texts? It’s hard to say: Heavyweight director Francis Ford Coppola turned Dracula into a sympathetic prince, betrayed by God and searching for a reincarnation of his true love. The film is more of a love story than a horror film. Shakespearian director/actor Kenneth Branagh’s take on Frankenstein is wildly stylized and too nightmarish to be truly faithful to Shelley’s more philosophical work, but it generates some real scares, and De Niro is both sympathetic and brutally monstrous as the eloquent Creature. Both films were major hits at the box office, reintroducing the Dracula/Frankenstein craze and confirming that whenever one of the monsters appears, the other is always quick to follow.
Winner: I’m in the minority here, but I believe
that Branagh’s Frankenstein is the better film.
Coppola’s Dracula was too rushed, too ambiguous, and too
loud to be anything less than an incoherent mess. Branagh’s
film was self-indulgent, but at least he tried to adhere to the
text a bit more and made good use of his cast instead of drowning
them in production values.
From Dusk Till
Dawn and Mr. Stitch (both 1996)
writers of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarintino and Roger
Avary, followed their classic film up with screenplays that reinvented
and updated the vampire and Frankenstein stories. Tarintino's
From Dusk Till Dawn transforms the vampire into sinister
pimps and prostitutes living on the Texas-Mexican border, enticing
truckers and criminals into their bar so that they can feast upon
them at midnight. Avary's Mr. Stitch gives us a cerebral
Frankenstein, with a stitched-together killing machine created
by the army as the ultimate weapon deciding that no man will determine
his destiny. Both films are campy fun if you keep your expectations
turned down a notch; that said, Tarintino and Avary aren't trying
nearly as hard here as they were in Pulp Fiction. Gore-makeup
guru Tom Savini popping up in cameos also adds to the macabre
charm of the two pictures.
Winner: Mr. Stitch is smarter, but eventually
gets bogged down in its own intellectualism and hammy dialogue.
From Dusk Till Dawn doesn't have a single brain cell
in its head, but it's a whole lot of fun, with a far better cast.
Underworld (2003) and Frankenstein (2004)
Recent films have tried to update vampire, werewolf, and Frankenstein mythos into modern day, taking these creatures out of the Gothic and Victorian origins and having them assume mysterious, more wraith-like characteristics. Armies of vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein monsters now stalk us in secret, moving about us unnoticed as they implement their silent war on humanity. Underworld dealt with the secret conflict between the vampires and the werewolves; the Martin Scorsese-produced Frankenstein deals with a race of Monsters furtively created to replace mankind. It’s not a pleasant thought to know that such demons exist in our midst, but both films establish new mythos that convince us that such supernatural evil is possible, and that we ought to lock our doors before going to sleep.
The Winner: Both films are celebrations of style over substance, though I think Frankenstein ultimately has a more interesting premise. Because of Frankenstein’s Bmovie history, it is more difficult to translate the story into a realistic modern day setting. Frankenstein monsters make less likely ghost-like wraiths than vampires and other specters. This production, however, successfully updates the Frankenstein story and makes the Monster both fresh and frightening again.
Of course, there are also films in which Dracula and Frankenstein actually meet, as both friends and foes. None of them are particularly great films, but here are some highlights of these meetings, for better or for worse:
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein: A successful comedic romp a la Young Frankenstein that pits Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Glenn Strange’s Frankenstein Monster, and Lon Chaney Jr.’s the Wolfman against the bumbling duo.
Dracula vs. Frankenstein: A god-awful drive-in flick directed by Al Adamson, in which the two monsters battle in the woods and tear off each others’ limbs. Universal actors J. Caroll Naish and Lon Chaney, Jr. both made their final film appearances in this stinker, which really must be seen to be believed.
Ken Russell’s Gothic: Bizarre, dream-like film about Mary and Percy, Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and their haunted summer together, which led to the creation of both Frankenstein and Dracula. The characters all must battle with their personal demons, which come in forms similar to man-made monsters and bloodsucking vampires. Strange, discomforting, but very good.
Van Helsing: Universal again tries to rejuvenate their classic monsters in a mind-numbing action picture that does little to add to the monsters’ legacies. Dracula is a one-liner spounting jokester, Frankenstein’s Monster is a pansy, the Wolfman is practically non-existent. Still, at least this film generated enough interest to get the original Universal horrors released on DVD, and that counts for a whole lot in my book.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
"Frankenstein and Dracula: A Tale of Two Monsters." An invaluable essay.
In Search of Dracula by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally
In Search of Frankenstein by Radu Florescu
The Frankenstein/Dracula War. A comic miniseries from Topps. Features the most ingeniously plotted duel between the two classic demons, who remain faithful to their literary characterizations, that I have ever read. Expertly plotted by Lofficier; scripted by Roy Thomas; art by Claude St. Aubin.
We Shall Each Write a Ghost Story: Just because I appreciate my readers so much, here is my own treatment that I once wrote of the ultimate showdown between Dracula and Frankenstein. Happy reading, and feedback is welcome.
Questions? Comments? E-mail