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MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Did Dracula (and vampires in general) not have vampire fangs in films until a 1950s Turkish movie?
We as readers and viewers of popular culture do an interesting thing that I like to call “intellectual consolidation.” When given a number of different films, shows and stories about a particular topic, whichever aspects that stand out most to us end up squished together into a patchwork collective memory, whether it’s accurate or not. I’ve written before about this effect, also in relation to a horror film, specifically the fact that there was no assistant named Igor until the third Frankenstein, and yet now Dr. Frankenstein having an assistant named Igor is considered an ingrained part of the story. Along the same lines, it was a surprisingly long and strange journey before we saw the motion-picture introduction of the classic vampire fangs we are all familiar with in the story of Dracula.
While vampires (or vampyres, as it was originally spelled) existed in folklore before the 19th century and had even appeared in some literature, it was not until John William Polidori’s 1819 short story “The Vampyre” that we began to see a somewhat-consistent depiction of the supernatural beings, especially the idea of a charming killer (in this story, the vampire’s name was Lord Ruthven). The 1845-47 serialized vampire story “Varney the Vampire” was the first to actually refer to sharpened teeth, specifically noting, “With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth.” Of course, as you might note, the teeth were only fang-LIKE. But by the time Bram Stoker wrote the most popular vampire story of them all, 1897’s Dracula, sharp fang-like teeth were a constant of vampire literature.
But while they were a constant om vampire literature, that wasn’t the case for depictions of vampires in stage and screen. In the case of theatrical plays, the idea of wearing fake teeth was likely just an impractical one. Who in the audience would be able to see your teeth? And if you made them big enough for people to see, the actors probably wouldn’t be able to get speak their lines.
One of the first famous vampire films was Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized 1922 adaptation of Dracula, starring Max Schreck as Count Orlok. The key to the film was that Murnau didn’t have the rights to Stoker’s novel, so he instead made a point of changing some details (like Count Orlok instead of Count Dracula, and referring to the bad guy as “Nosferatu” instead of as a “vampire”). Along those same lines, the makeup had to make Schreck look different from Dracula, so Orlok had rat-like incisors instead of what we think of as classic vampire fangs.
In 1931, Stoker’s novel was given a proper adaptation by Universal Pictures, with Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula. That film became the definitive depiction of vampires for the next two decades (even Lugosi’s famous Hungarian accent became an accepted part of Dracula lore). However, Lugosi didn’t have fangs in the film. Similarly, then, all the sequels (and other films featuring vampires, a few of which featured Lugosi himself) also were fang-less, so to speak.
It wasn’t until a Turkish adaptation of Dracula (based on a Turkish novel Kazıklı Voyvoda that translated and slightly altered Stoker’s novel) Drakula İstanbul’da (“Dracula in Istanbul”) that the famous vampire fangs were first seen on screen.
Five years later, Terrence Fisher directed a British adaptation of Dracula for Hammer Film Productions that starred Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. Lee’s vampire had fangs, and soon that depiction became the norm for vampires. You will rarely if ever see a vampire without fangs in films or television since the Hammer Films’ Dracula (released in the United States as Horror of Dracula to avoid confusion with Universal’s 1931 Dracula with Lugosi).
So remarkably enough, vampire fangs in films only go back 60 years.
The legend is…
Thanks to reader Jonathan S. for suggesting this one to me last Halloween! And thanks to Catherine B. Krusberg for her remarkable scholarship on this topic.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.