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Night’s Black Agents won two silver ENnie awards for Best Game and BestWriting, and was nominated for Best Rules, Best Interior Art and Product of the Year. Find out why!

Night’s Black Agents puts you in the role of a deadly secret agent, taking down the forces of darkness. Get it now from the Pelgrane Store.

Bring your favorite high-octane spy thrillers to the table with Night’s Black Agents from legendary designer Kenneth Hite (Trail of Cthulhu). Have friends who love console shooters? This is the tabletop RPG for them! Access the eyes-only Resources page for blank agent dossiers, quick-reference sheets, a 20-minute demo and more — but sweep for tracking devices first.

The Cold War is over. Bush’s War is winding down.

You were a shadowy soldier in those fights, trained to move through the secret world: deniable and deadly.


ENnies 2013 silverThen you got out, or you got shut out, or you got burned out. You didn’t come in from the cold. Instead, you found your own entrances into Europe’s clandestine networks of power and crime. You did a few ops, and you asked even fewer questions. Who gave you that job in Prague? Who paid for your silence in that Swiss account? You told yourself it didn’t matter.

It turned out to matter a lot. Because it turned out you were working for vampires.

Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? You don’t know those answers yet. So you’d better start asking questions. You have to trace the bloodsuckers’ operations, penetrate their networks, follow their trail, and target their weak points. Because if you don’t hunt them, they will hunt you. And they will kill you.

Or worse.

Night’s Black Agents brings the GUMSHOE engine to the spy thriller genre, combining the propulsive paranoia of movies like Ronin and The Bourne Identity with supernatural horror straight out of Bram Stoker. Investigation is crucial, but it never slows down the action, which explodes with expanded options for bone-crunching combat, high-tech tradecraft, and adrenaline-fueled chases.

Updating classic Gothic terrors for the postmodern age, Night’s Black Agents presents thoroughly modular monstrosity: GMs can build their own vampires, mashup their own minions, kitbash their own conspiracies to suit their personal sense of style and story. Rules options let you set the level of betrayal, grit, and action in your game. Riff from the worked examples or mix and match vampiric abilities, agendas, and assets for a completely custom sanguinary spy saga.

The included hook adventure gets the campaign going; the included city setting shows you what might be clotting in Marseilles’ veins even now. Rack silver bullets in your Glock, twist a UV bulb into your Maglite, and keep watching the mirrors … and pray you’ve got your vampire stories straight.

Designer’s blog entries.

An interview with the publisher.

Listen to Ken Hite talk about Night’s Black Agents on the Fear the Boot podcast

Review Hightlights

Read all the reviews here.

As good as the toolkits that Night’s Black Agents provides are, the rules and advice deliver on the game and genre that they promise. Whether it is blood pumping action or heart stopping shocks, Night’s Black Agents is probably best shaken, and definitely has the “Vampire Spy Thriller” staked. – Matthew Pook

Vampires and spies – once you’re past the initial surprise, you’ll see that they work tremendously well in tandem. Well, I think they do, and I think the book’s an absolute knockout. – Sidney Roundwood


HandofGlory“Look! It burns clear, but with the air around,
Its dead ingredients mingle deathliness.”

— Robert Southey, Thalaba the Destroyer, a.k.a. “The Other Other Romantic Vampire Poem, You Know, The One That Gets No Respect”

From Gerard de Nerval to Harry Potter to the pub-rockin’ Smithereens, the Hand of Glory knocks so sneakily at our culture that of course I had to let it in. Also, unkind and waspish sorts might suggest that this is yet another Thing We Left Out of the Dracula Dossier, when in fact it is of course great fun for all games of horror and creeperie but yes okay fine there’s a Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum (DH, p. 177) so it might indeed be handy to have written up as a Director’s Handbook-style Object. But you can also use it in a properly occult Trail of Cthulhu game — the Minor Artifact version below fits right into the skeevy world of Bookhounds of London, for instance. And since it began as a cool-sounding mistranslation, it’s clearly ready for the Esoterrorists, to boot.

Quick Esoterroristic Diversion: Early modern magicians, caught in a game of one-upmanship with competing rogues and cunning-men, had to deploy ever more outré magicks to keep their clients happy. Digging through a grimoire one day (probably) in the mid-16th century, such a warlock stumbled over the Greek word mandragora, meaning mandrake-root, which brings sleep (because it’s actually the same thing as opium poppies) and grows beneath the gallows (because eww, which is to say, cool) and shines at night (see opium poppies, supra). He transliterated it into his native French as main-de-gloire, or “hand of glory.” Since that’s obviously not the same thing as a root, it had to be something else: the hand of a hanged murderer (gallows!) that you burn like a candle (shines!) to put people in a house to sleep (!) to rob them. And once warlocks started offering such things for sale, inquisitors started asking witches about them under torture and hey presto genuine occult legend is born. So thus in our early postmodern era, an eager-adopter Esoterrorist with only broken English reads about the Hand of Glory on the Internet. He (it’s always a he) decides it’s actually Hangloria, the possessed demon hand of someone who dies of autoerotic asphyxiation that glows like a computer monitor and puts your chosen stalker target into a trance. And then he tells all his Esoterrorist creepster buddies and sure enough Hanglorias come crawling out of closets all over Bangkok and Macao and Sochi.

Okay, now back to the Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum.

Hand of Glory

Appearance: Blackish-gray mummified human right hand. Forensic Pathology types it as severed after death, likely from a working-class man given the degree and type of bone deformation and callusing. Occult Studies might twig to the weirdness of a right hand being used as a Hand of Glory when traditionally the left, or sinister, hand was preferred. Of course, other traditions considered the handedness of the hanged murderer more important: the right hand of a dextral killer would be the “murder hand,” and thus more imbued with occult evil.

Supposed History: Research can trace this Hand of Glory back to 1935, when one Joseph Ford donated it to the Whitby Museum. Ford, a local antiquary, supposedly found it inside the wall of a cottage in Castleton in Yorkshire while repairing the stonework. More generally, a Hand of Glory (Occult Studies) is a magical thieves’ tool. Cut from the wrist of a hanged murderer (or thief, ideally at midnight in total silence) the hand is pickled with niter, salt, peppers, lime or borax, and an ingredient called zimat (possibly verdigris or iron sulfate) then sun-dried or oven-dried with vervain and fern. In some traditions, the Hand is potent enough now; in others you need a candle made from the fat of a hanged man, wax, and ponie (possibly one or all of: soap, horse dung, or sesame) to activate its magic. If you have the correct ingredients and a workable recipe, you can make a Hand of Glory in 28 days (17 if making the Hand during the dog-days of July-August) and a Candle in the night of the new moon. (2-point spend for all the ingredients, etc.)

Major Artifact: When the fingers of the Hand close around the Candle and the Candle is lit, the Hand has the following powers:

  • Any locked door, gate, portal, safe, etc. in the Candle light unlocks itself when the wielder spends 1 point (or 2 points for clearly impossible or advanced locks) of Stability.
  • When the wielder utters an incantation (usually given as “Let all those who are asleep be asleep, and let those who are awake be awake.”) everyone asleep in the building remains completely asleep regardless of noise or even attack. A Hand more suited to the world of 24-hour security might force a Difficulty 8 Stability (or Athletics) test to remain awake, or at least allow a +3 bonus to all surprise tests against those inside.
  • The Candle flares up blue in the presence of secret doors, buried treasure, etc. and its light reveals the invisible, including vampires. Vampires with Magic or Necromancy may of course be able to animate or otherwise control the Hand.

Seeing a Hand of Glory work inspires a 3-point Stability test in all witnesses, including the thieves. The Hand must be held in the wielder’s hand to activate the first two powers, although it can be set down upright and continue keeping sleepers somnolent, revealing the invisible, etc.

The Candle burns for 4-6 hours, and can only be extinguished by blood; the Hand lasts until destroyed.

Minor Artifact: To use the Hand, soak the fingertips in unguent or lighter fluid and light it up. When lit, the Hand has the following powers, depending on the number of Fingers (F; fingers including the thumb) it has remaining:

  • Adds +F to all the wielder’s tests of Mechanics, Infiltration, etc. to open a lock or door. Grants the Open Sesame cherry (NBA, p. 31) regardless of wielder’s Infiltration rating. (In Trail of Cthulhu, grants +F points of Locksmith.) The exception: doors warded with owls’ blood.
  • After the wielder utters the incantation, those asleep in the house remain asleep unless attacked. If someone is awake in the house, one finger goes out for each wakeful person. This does not diminish F unless the Director is feeling cruel.
  • Adds +F to the wielder’s (or anyone else watching) tests of Sense Trouble, Conceal, etc. for the purpose of finding hidden treasure, secret doors, the invisible, etc. Counteracts invisibility, e.g.: an invisible vampire adds +6 to the Hit Threshold to shoot her, but with a three-fingered Hand burning, that advantage is down to +3 to Hit Threshold.

Seeing a Hand of Glory work inspires a 3-point Stability test in all witnesses, including the thieves. The Hand must be held in the wielder’s hand to activate the first two powers, although it can be set down upright and continue keeping sleepers somnolent, revealing the invisible, etc.

The Hand burns for 30 minutes per Finger remaining on the Hand, including itself. So a Hand down to one Finger burns for 30 minutes. It can be extinguished by milk or blood; when it goes out it cannot be relit. After each use, one Finger no longer lights, so each Hand has only five uses.

Telluric Artifact: The Hand must be cut from the body of someone infected by the telluric bacteria, like a vampire. (Using the hand of a Renfield is only half as effective; use half F rounded up.)  The pickling, drying, etc. feeds the bacteria while (partially) shielding the wielder from infection. Until you light the Hand and inhale activated bacterial ash, of course. Its powers are the same as the Minor Artifact version, with a few tweaks:

  • The bacteria heighten the wielder’s hand-eye coordination and senses of touch and hearing, improving lockpicking, etc. tests by +F but also similar abilities such as Explosive Devices at the Director’s discretion.
  • The carbonized bacterial-zimat cloud puts everyone who inhales it to sleep except the quasi-infected wielder. If she has friends, they need gas masks or the equivalent to avoid the Difficulty 4+F Health test to stay awake in the same room as a burning Hand.
  • The bacteria also heighten the wielder’s predatory pattern-matching skills and awareness, adding +F to her Sense Trouble, Conceal, etc., and counteracting invisible (including tellurically invisible) targets as a Minor Artifact. Add F points of Notice to the wielder’s pool.
  • The bacteria also imbue the wielder with a rush of self-confidence bordering on the sociopathic. He must make an F-point Stability test to withdraw from the room, avoid touching the valuables, or generally not act like he owns the place.

Using a Hand of Glory requires an immediate 4-point Stability test.

It can be extinguished by anything that might normally put out a fire except milk or blood (or other high-protein or iron-rich fluids), which feed the bacteria and increase its effect on the wielder. (Wielder can now spend Health or Stability on any test improved by the Hand; the Stability test to resist its predator confidence is now Difficulty 4+F and costs F+2 Stability if failed.)

Fraudulent: The hand may have been mummified by actual thieves, or by a homeowner superstitiously trying to guard his cottage from thieves, or by a local antiquary who wanted his name in the paper, but it doesn’t have magic powers.

Connections: The formula for a true Hand of Glory might appear in Le Dragon Noir (DH, p. 273), or in another grimoire owned or coveted by the Bookseller (DH, p. 106). A true Hand makes an ideal target (or resource) for the Caldwell Foundation (DH, p. 160), Extraordinary Objects Department (DH, p. 161), or for the Psychic (DH, p. 96), Enigmatic Monsignor (DH, p. 114), or Online Mystic (DH, p. 126). As an early modern magician, Elizabeth Báthory (DH, p. 63) or her assets (DH, p. 135) may make use of the things. If the Sniper (DH, p. 131) has one, that could explain her ability to come and go from her hits; if Edom has one, it’s part of Pearl’s (DH, p. 52) kit. If Edom uses Minor Artifact Hands as standard field issue, that might put an intriguing spin on the origin of the term Lamplighter (DH, p. 123). In the latter case, if Pearl doesn’t keep tight hold of the stock, a Hand may turn up at Carfax (DH, p. 185) or buried inside the wall at the thieves’ target Coldfall House (DH, p. 188).


If you hang around my social media presence (or Ken’s, whose twitterings are to mine as Dracula is to a small fruit bat), you may have seen this funky diagram floating around.


It’s a map of every (or nearly every) node in the Dracula Dossier and the connections between them. I ostensibly built it as a proof of concept to show that you can start anywhere in the campaign and theoretically fight your way through that chain of clues all the way to Dracula, but mainly because I had gone a bit mad from cross-referencing annotations, which is why it looks like something you’d find in Renfield’s cell.

(It’s done, by the way, in Scapple, a very simple mind-mapping program. There are doubtless other more powerful and/or cheaper apps that do the same thing – I know people who use Campaign Cartographer – but Scapple was both easy and already on my machine, so I went for the lazy option. There’s a free trial of Scapple if you want to play with these maps – and it even exports straight into Scrivener for all your Edom-fanfic needs.)

That crazy mish-mash of a chart is utterly useless as a reference, of course, but mapping the nodes visually can be a handy tool for the harried Director. Here, for example, is a snapshot of a campaign that’s just started.


Discovered Clues
The players have decided to investigate annotation CU120. That annotation references the Jewelled Dagger, the Satanic Cult, Carfax, and Dracula’s safehouse network. Last session, the players began by using their contacts in Sothebys to research the provenance of the dagger. They then poked around Carfax and the old safehouse network, where they ran into the MI5 Agent and got warned to stay away from matters that don’t concern them (Make Inquiries on the Edom response pyramid). Unperturbed, they guessed that there might be hidden, unmapped tunnels leading to the cellars of the old Carfax building, and spend Network points to obtain ground-penetrating radar gear from the Seismologist.

So, what’s likely to happen this session? What should the Director prepare for? They haven’t followed up on the Satanic Cult lead yet, but if they do, the Psychic will probably come into play as an occult expert or the heir to the cult. If the Agents question him, he’ll point them at Coldfall House.

The Seismologist is currently just a background character who provided them with useful gear (dropping “canon” NPCs in as Network contacts is a fantastic way to enmesh the players in the world of the Dossier), but as soon as they realise he knows something about Operation Edom, he can point them to his old work colleague, the Retired Computer Boffin.

The Mole Hunt Who’s Who

Here’s a map of who-knew-who (or who was “supposed” to know who) during the 1977 mole hunt.

1970 Mole Hunt


You’ve got Cushing right in the middle, as the liaison between Five and Six. He’s got all his contacts and experts in London on the left side of the map, and the ongoing mess in Romania on the right. (Look at the Sculptor, off on her own unconnected to any other node – she’s a wild card in the investigation, a backchannel to connect any other two nodes.)

Plot 201

You can use these maps to plot different facets of the investigation. For example, say one of your players is really excited by the prospect of black magic, of forbidden tomes and underworld sorcery, and another one wants to get into the investigation of the war on terror and keep things relatively low-key and gritty. By pulling a selection of appropriate nodes into a map, you can find places where these two spheres of interest intersect, so both players get what they want out of the campaign. Here, I’ve grabbed a bunch of campaign elements that I know pertain to either the occult or terrorism, and smeared them across a canvas to see what suggests itself.


Right away, we’ve got a clear line of inquiry that runs from the DIFC Tasker through Holmwood and the British intelligence establishment through the Black Site stuff in Bucharest and into Al-Qaeda in Rum. We can hook in some occult elements along the way – maybe AQIR have gotten hold of an earthquake device (presumably, the one left behind by “Van Sloan’s” team in 1940. And that Spirit Board, sitting in the middle of the map – it’s tantilisingly close to the “Black Light” Black Site. The idea of interrogating people from beyond the grave could be fun, and reminds me of the Dead House in Munich.

We also have a bunch of smaller clusters or wholly unconnected nodes. Has the Archaeologist uncovered the Scholomance? Is the Caldwell Foundation operating out of the British Library? What’s the deal with the Bookseller?

Plot 202

Here’s a more evolved version of the same map, and the Satanic Cult comes to the fore.


You can see how they’re pulling the strings on both sides of the war on terror. Through Philip Holmwood (Minion version) they can influence Edom’s choice of targets. Through the Tour Guide, they’ve put the Medievalist (now an AQIR sympathiser) in touch with the Bookseller who supplied the Earthquake Device. The Caldwell Foundation is carrying out its own investigation, using the Psychic as a double agent – but the Cult are making arrangements to flip the Psychic by providing him with his longed-for copy of Le Dragon Noir. Maybe if the Agents can intercept the Smuggler, they can stop their plan and keep the Psychic on the side of the angels.

The Archaeologist is still off to the side, not really linked into the main plot. That’s fine – I can drop hints and foreshadowing relating to him that might never pay off, or I can bring him onstage later on if the campaign’s heading for a big setpiece involving the Scholomance or Zalmoxis. Similarly, I’ve left the Enigmatic Monsignor floating – I’m suddenly taken with the idea that the Black Site Interrogator’s off-the-books dabbling in necromancy have plunged him into religious terror, and the Agents could flip him by posing as priests and reawakening his lapsed faith. (Glancing at his writeup, I note that Ken has serendipitously given him an older brother in the priesthood – I might retask the Enigmatic Monsigor for that role).

Note the Arms Runner’s connection to Leutner Fabrichen and from there to the Syrian General. If the players get bogged down, I can have them run into the Arms Runner, giving them another avenue of investigation that’ll lead back to my main plot.

The other key map to your campaign, of course, is the Conspyramid. As you play through, keep building the Conspyramid from the bottom up as a tool for pacing. For example, here’s how part of the Conspyramid might look in this case.

Partial Conspyramid

I’ve added the Romanian Ministry of, er, Cult-ure as a Level 3 node to bridge the gap between the Tour Guide/Bookseller and the Cult itself.

(The upcoming Dracula Deck of cards works great for this sort of visualisation, too, if you don’t want to spend hours entering every node into Scapple again after forgetting to save the first two times, he muttered bitterly. Here’s a Scapple document containing every single node, also available in XML.)

Horror of Dracula (1958)

horrordracDirector: Terence Fisher

Dracula: Christopher Lee

Consider this film (just called Dracula in the UK) the anti-Coppola Dracula. Relentlessly modern (it was the first Technicolor vampire film) and breathlessly paced yet luridly Gothic to the core, carving to the heart of Stoker’s novel while discarding its plot almost entirely, it would be a great Dracula movie for those reasons alone. But it has in addition three advantages that no production has had before or since: Christopher Lee as Dracula, Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, and Terence Fisher’s sure, bold direction. Fisher’s sincere Christian vision, of Dracula as a fundamental story of good vs. evil, permeates the film. Lee’s Dracula both tempts and terrifies, fully animal and entirely demonic — all in only 7 minutes of screen time. Cushing brings Stoker’s multi-dimensional Van Helsing more than alive as well: pious scientist and plague-fighting philosopher, faith and reason joined. Cushing also depicts Van Helsing’s human tenderness and innate leadership qualities with economy and confidence, throwing into stark contrast his more-than-surgical strain of violence. To Fisher, the best of men can still be a beast; the worst of demons is all too attractive. But throughout, Van Helsing and Dracula remain almost polar opposites and their war is a war — is the War — for all humanity.

The film is not perfect, of course. The now-primitive day-for-night shots make exteriors chancy, the comic relief at the border hangs an unfortunate lantern on the claustrophobic setting (instead of countries across a continent from each other, civilization and Hell are in neighboring postal codes), and Hammer’s idiosyncratic love-hate relationship with the British class system mars the narrative of middle-class heroes reducing an undead aristocrat to dust. The third-act turn (taken from the cursed Deane-Balderston play), in which Dracula’s hiding place turns out to be the Holmwoods’ cellar, works thematically but not narratively. But across all that, Fisher shoots a realistic nightmare, building shots from parallel rising action, and filling the frames with color and natural motion — the wind effects in this movie alone should be mandatory viewing. Like Cushing’s Van Helsing, Fisher’s lens combines realism and even irony with faith and violence, that latter quality incidentally unleashing Christopher Lee to become a great actor and a generation’s dream of Dracula. Horror of Dracula, I submit to you, is the greatest Dracula movie ever made.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Here to catalogue books (and  your comments and responses) and kill vampires, it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order the glorious sunlight that is hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

In October 2015, Kenneth Hite created the 30 Days of Dractober – taking you on a tour through the cinema de Dracula! Every day he looked at one film version of the legendary story, from the classic NOSFERATU to the, um, less than immortal DRACULA 3000. Hit the Hammer highlights, the Lugosi limelights, and more — with suggestions on adapting any or all of them for your own vampire games – in advance of  The Thrill of Dracula, where Ken shows you how to build new yet mythic stories about the King of the Vampires or about your own creatures of the night, tuned for thriller adventure, cosmic horror, or even intense personal drama. Here are the links to the full 31 DAYS OF #DRACTOBER:


Count Dracula (1970)

Drácula (1931)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1973)

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

Drakula Istanbul’da (1953)

Dracula (1938)

Count Dracula (1977)

Blade: Trinity (2004)

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

The Return of Dracula (1958)

Dracula (1979)

Scars of Dracula (1970)

Buffy vs. Dracula (2000) 

Dracula (1968)

Dracula’s Curse (2002)

House of Frankenstein (1944)Draculaprinceofdarkness

Nosferatu (1979)

The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Dracula (2006)

Dracula 3D (2012)

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002)

Dracula (1931)

Dracula 3000 (2004)

Nosferatu (1922)

Dracula Untold (2014)

Horror of Dracula (1958)


Dracula Untold (2014)

dracula_untoldDirector: Gary Shore

Dracula: Luke Evans

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a shooting star! It’s a FIST OF BATS! This latest effort by Universal to revitalize their once-glorious monster universe franchise casts a cape-bedecked Vlad the Impaler as half combat-god Batman (“sometimes the world doesn’t need a hero … sometimes it needs a monster”) complete with silly post-Coppola rubber armor in a closet, and half death-from-above Superman complete with a Kryptonite-like weakness for silver. And let’s be honest with each other: the Supervlad parts of this movie are pretty bat-tastic. Considered solely as cut scenes, the forest-hunting bits and battle footage work well, the big impaling scene is Hammer Gothic (but too short), the FIST OF BATS redefines “out there”, and the final fight between Vlad and Mehmed the Conqueror (avert your eyes, history majors and/or people who can use Wikipedia) in a veritable Scrooge McDuck tentful of silver coins manages to be both spectacular and original. As a Dracula: Year One effort it also checks some boxes while performing the vital service of adding a completely screwy new turn to the mythos, in this case Charles Dance as Vlad’s nosferatu sire (intriguingly named “Caligula” in the script) trapped in a Carpathian cave literally lined with crushed human bones.

The actual script, not so much. Leaving aside the “brilliant warlord who never bothered to raise an army or teach anyone to guard a perimeter” problems perhaps necessary for proper superheroics, there’s at least one major scene missing (how do the Turks get into the monastery? how does Mehmed learn Vlad’s weakness?) and a crippling laziness at the story’s Braveheart heart. Turning epochal psychopath Vlad Tepes into Batman is bad enough, but making him William Wallace to boot is a bridge too far (and too well-trodden) even for a comic book movie. These decisions obviously weaken any pretense that Vlad is actually history’s (or legend’s) Vlad the Impaler, but they also weaken Universal’s notion that this pretty-boy superdad ever turns out to be, y’know, Dracula. In fairness to Evans, he’s never asked to play Dracula by the film, which walks back the one truly awful thing he does — raise an army of vampires from his Wallachian followers to gut the Turkish army — almost immediately. This is supposed to be the Faustian story of an evil warlord who finds even worse evil waiting, or failing that, of a good man who becomes a monster. Instead, it’s the story of a good father who gets a FIST OF BATS and somehow it doesn’t cheer him up. Although it makes me pretty happy.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Glutted on a skull-full of nosferatu blood (and on your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order 24-karat hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu-Original-PosterDirector: F.W. Murnau

Orlok: Max Schreck

To sum up: F.W. Murnau illegally adapted Dracula, changing the names (Harker becomes Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), Mina becomes Ellen (Greta Schroeder), Dracula becomes Orlok) and location (1890s London becomes 1838 Wisborg, Germany) while adding an apocalyptic plague element missing entirely from the novel. This fooled nobody, and Florence Stoker sued him into bankruptcy. The court ordered all prints of the film destroyed, which fortunately didn’t happen. The Murnau-Stiftung restored version from Kino Lorber is on Amazon streaming, and is in better shape than many other silent films of the era.

Critically, what else is there to say? It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple. Only its court-enforced obscurity allowed the Lugosi-Browning version to become the default cinematic Dracula, and with its return from legal un-death it has infused not only Werner Herzog’s direct remake (and the 2000 E. Elias Merhige satire Shadow of the Vampire) but Coppola’s free-roaming shadows, Maddin’s Freudian interiors, Argento’s insectile atmosphere, and Tim Burton’s fever-dream Gotham City. Max Schreck’s ratlike, pestilential Orlok serves as a skulking anima to the dominant seducer-Dracula, remaining always in the shadows of the archetype to become the Other to even the vampiric Other. Scriptwriter Henrik Galeen was Jewish and production designer Albin Grau a Crowleyite, but when you create a cinematic Other in the Weimar 1920s, you wind up with a hook-nosed Easterner spreading poison into the pure heart of Germany. Bram Stoker was a lifelong philosemite, and even he sipped from the anti-Semitic well for the novel. Galeen and Murnau also charged Stoker’s subtext of an impotent Harker vs. an omnipotent Dracula by infusing Ellen’s sacrifice with notes of erotic longing and eagerness missing from the novel’s Mina. Weirdly, Grau also Otherizes the occult: the Hawkins-Renfield blend Herr Knock (Alexander Granach) corresponds with Dracula in sigil-bespangled Enochian letters only to go mad, and the “Paracelsian” Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) remains almost entirely useless during the film, unlike his model Van Helsing. The end result is nonetheless, as I said, a masterpiece. As Roger Ebert wrote, Nosferatu “doesn’t scare us, it haunts us.”

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Restored by later cinephiles (such as our commentors and responders), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order carefully storyboarded hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

Dracula 3000 (2004)

Dracula_3000_posterDirector: Darrell James Roodt

Dracula: Langley Kirkwood

A Warning to the Curious: This is the worst film I have watched for this project. By far. Compared to this movie, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is Unforgiven. IMDB users have rated it the 37th worst film of all time. It is not “so bad it’s good.” The cheese promised by a film “starring” Casper Van Dien, Erika Eleniak, and Coolio (a holy trinity of terrible cable) is rancid and stale. Nobody cares at all. Even with two robots and a chunky Midwesterner making fun of it in the corner, it would be nearly unwatchable. Filmed on what may well have been a derelict freighter or abandoned factory or both (do spacecraft in the year 3000 have concrete floors? 1960s radio equipment? VCRs?) weirdly bedecked every so often with Soviet imagery, its lighting and sound convey no menace. The script is outright insulting, although it does convey a certain sweaty, herbed-up feel of junior-high D&D games complete with a discussion of the planet “Comptonia,” full of hos and weed.

Don’t worry, the rest of the references aren’t that subtle, or that well handled. For example, ship’s knowitall Arthur Holmwood (Grant Swanby, determined to lose the acting contest to Van Dien) discovers that Captain Van Helsing (Van Dien, determined to remember his next line) is descended from the vampire hunter who killed Dracula a thousand years ago. (Shouldn’t the knowitall be Van Helsing and the captain be Holmwood? Yes, but compared to swapping Lucy and Mina around this is admittedly a minor change.) They agree the chances of such a meeting at random are astronomical, it must be a setup or a plan! But when Van Helsing confronts Dracula (traveling under the name Orlock, perhaps out of embarrassment) with his identity, Dracula doesn’t care any more than the audience does. So you’re saying the script intends to indicate divine action in bringing them together to destroy Dracula? Of course not, because that might be interesting. Despite a very odd insistence that nobody in the film recognizes a cross (“religion was banned 200 years ago” they unsplain to each other) the whole topic is dropped unceremoniously, along with the whole hunt for Dracula, once Van Helsing-Dien is vampirized. Instead, the surviving crewman “Humvee” (Tiny Lister) and the android Aurora (Erika Eleniak) go off to have sex until the ship blows up. Which Dracula somehow prevented Udo Kier (!) from doing 50 years ago, but apparently even he agreed that this movie had to be stopped.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Expanded from this early version (stuffing your comments and responses into its tank top), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order pre-recorded hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

Dracula (1931)

lugosidracDirector: Tod Browning

Dracula: Bela Lugosi

Is it possible for a film to be simultaneously iconic and bad? Not “iconic for being bad” but plain old iconic — establishing the rules for cinematic Draculas to respond to or rebel against for the next century. In the first act of Dracula, Browning (and cinematographer Karl Freund) and Bela Lugosi combine their talents to present a Dracula inextricably tied to the past, to the Gothic, to aristocracy and queasy seduction, to brutality, to unnatural sex and inverted Christianity. All of these things (except mayyyybe the seduction) come straight out of Stoker, but Lugosi dials down the novel’s animalism and plays up the mesmerism (following the path of the stage play he’d performed the lead in for years) and scriptwriter Garrett Fort introduces the — iconic — line “I never drink … wine.” Even after decades of camp and detournement, Lugosi’s authentically Transylvanian accent still sells that line along with Stoker’s classic “children of the night” and the play’s “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime …” dis of Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). The play provided the evening clothes and opera cape, but it was Lugosi’s decision on stage and in film to code Dracula as a mentalist or magician, and to play him as a “Valentino gone slightly rancid” in Dracula scholar David Skal’s memorable phrase. Even Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman bow to Lugosi’s performance in their own, and Frank Langella purely updated Lugosi’s seducer to the 1970s.

The lesser parts have also felt the Browning chill: Dwight Frye’s unhinged Renfield has almost completely erased the novel’s genteel madman; David Manners’ (or rather the script’s and director’s) bland Harker has likewise nearly expunged the novel’s heroic lover. And here’s where we must take notice of the second half of the question, because Dracula is a bad movie despite its legendarily perfect first act. Browning wrested control from Freund but didn’t care enough to use it: shots become static and stagy, the actors are lost or falling back on instinct, whole plot lines ignored (Lucy isn’t staked in the film) or stepped on (Dracula is staked off screen). Why the movie drops dead 20 minutes in remains an open question: was Browning drunk, a silent director out of his element, pining for his dead muse Lon Chaney Sr. (who would have played Dracula had he not died of cancer in 1930), or sabotaged by a junky script based on the stage play and by Universal’s Depression-era penny pinching? The end result is a film as incompatible with itself as its famous armadillos are with Dracula’s castle, a film trapped between terrifying life and stultifying death.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Surrounded by armadillos (and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order mesmerizing hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002)

maddindracDirector: Guy Maddin

Dracula: Zhang Wei-Qiang

This Guy Maddin film, originally intended for Canadian TV but given a theatrical release thanks to its rapturous critical reception, is simultaneously by far the most audacious and nearly the most textually faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Foregrounding the novel’s subtexts of immigration panic, absentee landlordship, and “the Eastern Question” along with its more often cited wellsprings of female sexuality unleashed, it also takes the opportunity to incorporate little-used novelistic elements such as Mrs. Westenra’s role in her daughter’s death, Quincey Morris, and Dracula “bleeding money” when stabbed. Oh, and it’s a silent, expressionist ballet with a Mahler soundtrack (First and Second symphonies) and lightning-fast neo-Eisensteinian editing (by deco dawson, also credited as “associate director”). But then I said “Guy Maddin film” up front.

If you haven’t seen any Maddin films, this may not be the place to start. (Try Careful, or The Saddest Music in the World, first.) But there’s something to be said for just diving right in, the way Maddin does with this project. Given Mark Godden’s pre-existing adaptation of Dracula for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Maddin made the decision to make a “silent film that just happens to have dancing” rather than a dance movie, and to re-adapt the source material to suit his own idiosyncratic filming and visual styles. Maddin sends his cameras into the midst of the ballet, blending the dancers’ language of gesture and motion with silent film’s language of blocking and emotion into a roller-coaster of expressionism-squared. Zhang’s Dracula is emotion incarnate, mirroring the newfound lusts of his victims and then overmastering and devouring them. Color tints or washes, stark intertitles (often taken directly from the novel’s text), and sudden changes in lighting and resolution create discrete cinematic moments that nonetheless flash by like images in a zoopraxiscope. Maddin claimed to have only read the first half of the novel, and to not even like ballet, and yet he creates a dreamlike tour de force worthy of consideration alongside Murnau or Herzog while exceeding them textually and perhaps even poetically.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Filled with polluted blood (and with your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order red-tinted hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966)

billythekidvsdracDirector: William Beaudine

Dracula: John Carradine

And now for something completely different. This perfunctory, sleepwalking movie should not be as terrible as it is. Indeed, the premise and even the plot are sound: Dracula is in the Old West, and a recently reformed Billy the Kid, jealous of the interloper, returns to his criminal ways to gun down the Count. Slavoj Zizek says something about the act of paraphrase creating banality, but in this case, the paraphrase creates potential. It’s the execution that’s banal; Carradine at least has the excuse of having been drunk the entire time. Filmed in four days (or three, sources vary) by the legendarily uncaring William “One Shot” Beaudine, any flicker of potential was well and truly quashed.

A few surreal moments aside (such as Dracula, in full sideshow mentalist garb of top hat, floppy red cravat, and cape, announcing himself as “Mr. Underhill” from Boston) it just plods along from bad to worse, and not even “so bad it’s good” bad. I added this movie to the list for two reasons. First, I wanted to look at Dracula in the context of the Western, and I had entirely misremembered this flick from my misspent UHF-monster-movie youth. The movie I thought this was is the considerably more interesting Curse of the Undead (Edward Dein, 1959), which probably counts as the first vampire Western, a subgenre that encompasses the Iranian-American low-fi rebel flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014), John Carpenter’s 1998 Vampires (an homage to Rio Bravo), and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (the best vampire film of the 1980s, a very good decade for vampire films). Watch those instead of this one. The second reason I included this movie is that it is, after all, still John Carradine as Dracula and that has to count for something. Thankfully, this grease trap would not be Carradine’s final outing as the Count. Pretending for the moment that his brief cameos in softcore disco flick Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979) don’t, er, count, Carradine fans can take satisfaction in TV workhorse Glen Larson’s surprisingly decent “McCloud Meets Dracula” episode. Aired in April 1977, it was the last episode in McCloud‘s run; Carradine kills delightfully as the senile-actor-or-real-vampire villain. And given its cowboy-cop premise, it’s even sort of kind of (not really) a Western, to boot.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. With added footnotes in German (and mayhap your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order a silver mine’s worth of hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

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