Dracula has been in more movies than any other fictional character (at
least any fictional character who wasn’t in the Bible). At latest
count, according to IMDB, the good Count has appeared in 205 films.
Frankenstein’s Monster isn’t as popular; he hasn’t even made it into a
hundred movies yet, but with 80+ under his belt it shouldn’t take so
much longer.

These characters are two of the most recognized
monsters in movie history. And when you think of them, you think of a
specific incarnation for each. For Dracula it’s Bela Lugosi’s slicked
back hair and satin cape, for the Monster it’s Boris Karloff in
platform shoes with a flat head and bolts in his neck. Other versions
have existed, but these are the eternal versions of the monsters; you
see these versions on Halloween decorations and in cartoons. A true
diehard might think of a Bernie Wrightson illustration when
Frankenstein comes up, but most of us thin of that Jack Pierce design
(in fact most of the Universal Monsters’ most famous looks were
designed by Pierce).

The modern monsters have sometimes been
compared to these most famous creatures. Freddy and Jason and Michael
Myers are the modern world’s Dracula and Frankenstein and the Mummy,
we’ve been told by fans eager to cement these villains’ place in the
popular consciousness. But that hasn’t really been true. Not until
lately. Not until the remakes.

Which is sort of ironic,
considering how many fans seem to despise the remakes, in both concept
and execution. But it’s true – these new, updated versions of the
classic monsters of the 80s could make them eventually live forever.
It’s certainly what made Dracula last beyond the 30s and 40s. Platinum
Dunes’ Brad Fuller, who has been behind the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,
Friday the 13th
and now A Nightmare on Elm Street remakes, thinks it’s
all part of the natural cycle. ‘Horror itself has been reinventing
itself from the beginning of time, so what we’re doing, although people
see it as sacrilegious, it’s what the movie business has been from the
beginning. I think that a lot of people that take runs at us don’t know
their film history and aren’t aware that that’s what’s been going on
since the beginning of time.’

He’s right. The first time Dracula
was done on screen he had a different name – Count Orlok – but
Nosferatu is nonetheless an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel
(illegally so, and briefly threatened with extinction when Stoker’s
widow tried to get all copies destroyed. Frankenstein’s Monster hit the
movies in 1910 in a Thomas Edison film. That means that the versions of
the monsters that we know best are essentially remakes themselves. And
these are just the ‘name’ characters; mummy movies were being made in
the silent era, as were werewolf films. Hell, looking at the list of
Universal Monsters – the most classic monsters of them all – it could
be argued that it took the studio until 1954’s Creature from the Black
to come up with a truly ‘original’ character, as all their
previous monsters had been adaptations, remakes, remakes of adaptations
or variations on a theme (arguments could be made that the Mummy was an
original, but as early as 1903 Bram Stoker had published a novel called
The Jewel of the Seven Stars, about a plan to resurrect an Egyptian
queen mummy, and other movies about mummies coming back to life hit
after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankahmen. Technically the Mummy
(both versions – Karloff’s Mummy is a different character from the
Mummy in the later sequels) was original, but he was heavily informed
by preceding concepts and characters).

‘People are going to say
we’re the devil because we’re making Freddy Krueger and it’s not going
to be Robert Englund,’
Fuller says. ‘I’ve certainly read that more than
once, and I get it from a 14-year-old kid who’s typing from his
basement, but the reality is, they’ve been remaking The Mummy for the
past hundred years. And the person who invented The Mummy isn’t the
person who made the second Mummy or the third Mummy, and Freddy Krueger
is today’s Mummy. In twenty years… they’re going to make another
Freddy Krueger movie, because Freddy Krueger is the Mummy.’

There is one major obstacle that’s stopping Freddy and Jason and Mike
Myers and Leatherface from really getting to that position of being
among the truly eternal monsters of filmland: copyright. While the
versions of the Universal Monsters we love are copyrighted in terms of
their appearance (although a zillion manufacturers of Halloween
ephemera have skirted the edges of that legality), the characters
themselves are in the public domain. This is what has allowed them to
become such prominent forces in film, keeping them going in permutation
after permutation. If Universal outright owned the characters then
Hammer, for instance, would never have been able to reinvent them in
the 50s and 60s (my colleague Ryan Rotten very astutely notes that what
Platinum Dunes is doing with the characters of Jason, Freddy and
Leatherface, and what Rob Zombie is doing with Michael Myers, is very
similar to what Hammer did with the Universal Monsters, recasting them
and re-presenting them for a new generation with new tastes). In fact,
the copyright on the Gill-Man from The Creature from the Black Lagoon
may be one of the things keeping him from really ascending and going
places as a character. Being tightly controlled by Universal keeps him from escaping into the pop culture world at large.

Freddy, Jason and Leatherface got a real boost of cred when they were
included in the Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, making them
kissing cousins to the classic Universal Monsters. The remakes have
turned these characters into something more than nostalgia pieces for
children of the 80s, and have allowed a new generation to experience
them as living, immediate monsters. But until Freddy can appear in 200
movies, until Jason can pop up as a cameo in a sitcom, they won’t be
eternal. Right now they represent specific characters, but it won’t be
until they come to represent something bigger, just as Dracula and
Frankenstein’s Monster have, that they’ll really go on forever. And
they can’t get there without someone keeping them alive and relevant to
new generations, which these remakes do.

It’s not always easy – many of the Universal Monsters got savaged in Van Helsing, while Michael Myers is taking a beating in Rob Zombie’s Halloween films – but in the end even the bad movies keep them alive. The best monsters don’t live on shelves or in archives, they live on screens, scaring people on opening night.