Dracula movies, and their box office troubles

Nicolas Cage as Dracula in Renfield.
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Neither had the Count above the title, but both of Universal’s Dracula movies, Renfield and The Last Voyage Of The Demeter, underperformed at the US box office this year…

NB: This feature contains major spoilers for the 1931 and 1958 versions of Dracula, and 2014’s Dracula Untold.

As we’ve previously observed on the site, Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford are doing just fine at the box office. But you know who’s having a really terrible time of it in 2023? Dracula, who’s been reduced to supporting roles in Renfield and The Last Voyage Of The Demeter, two of the most widely reported box-office underperformers of the year.

More troublingly for the Count’s box-office prospects, they’re also two very different films. Renfield casts Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage as the title character and his dark master, respectively, in a toxic anti-romcom that lands somewhere between Warm Bodies and Kick-Ass. On the other hand, Demeter is a more traditional horror flick based on Bram Stoker’s original novel, covering the voyage to England where Dracula is the deadly cargo.

Renfield grossed $26.7 million off a $60m budget, while Demeter cost $45m but remains unreleased in many markets, drawing just $21.6m worldwide. If Dracula had been one of the many cameos in The Flash as well, he’d probably be looking at sacking his agent by now.

Interestingly enough, both movies come from Universal, the studio that first brought Dracula to Hollywood in the 1930s and has had a few more goes at reviving the Count over the years.

While ‘The Mixed Box-Office Fortunes of Dracula’ might sound like the title of an especially arch Christopher Lee movie, it’s just how we’d describe a trend that’s had its ups and downs at the multiplex for more than 30 years now. With franchises like Twilight and blockbusters like I Am Legend, the top 10 highest-grossing vampire movies of all time look very different from the top 10 featuring Dracula.

Oh, and from a movie trivia angle (there’s no stopping me), can you guess which is the worldwide highest-grossing movie featuring Count Dracula? I bet you can’t…

What movies they make…

The screen history of Dracula stretches back to the earliest days of cinema. Beyond assorted European silent adaptations and the unauthorised Nosferatu, the first major sound films came when Universal bought the rights to Stoker’s novel in 1931. That’s ‘films’ because notoriously, the studio concurrently produced 1931’s Dracula by day and the Spanish-language version by night, using the same sets.

Starring Bela Lugosi, the Hollywood version was buoyed by sensational reports of audience members fainting in shock at its premiere. The film made a tidy profit for Universal, and helped launch its original wave of monster features; the sequels Dracula’s Daughter, Son Of Dracula, and House Of Dracula followed over the next decade and a half, and the Count made various other appearances in the studio’s other monster movies, too.

The other, perhaps better-loved Dracula franchise-starter came from the UK’s Hammer Productions, with Christopher Lee defining the role for a generation in 1958’s Dracula. By then, the story was known to US audiences, but the film was still a big hit at home in the UK and across the world.

Like the 1931 film, 1958’s Dracula ends with the Count being vanquished, and like the 1931 film, it had a load of sequels anyway. Speaking to John Landis for his 2011 book Monsters In The Movie, Lee recalled the underhanded methods by which Hammer kept persuading him to return for a total of six sequels:

“The telephone would ring, and my agent would say, ‘Jimmy Carreras [President of Hammer Films] has been on the phone, they’ve got another Dracula for you.’ And I would say, ‘Forget it! I don’t want to do another one.’ I’d get a call from Jimmy Carreras, in a state of hysteria. ‘What’s all this about?!’ ‘Jim, I don’t want to do it, and I don’t have to do it.’ ‘No, you have to do it!’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He replied, ‘Because I’ve already sold it to the American distributor with you playing the part. Think of all the people you know so well that you will put out of work!’ Emotional blackmail. That’s the only reason I did them.”

These earlier movies were obviously successful, but not so much that Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t blow them out of the water in 1992. In the UK, its opening weekend take of £4m was the highest recorded up to that point, and worldwide, its overall haul of $215m landed it among the top 10 highest-grossers for the year. Simon’s covered that film on a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can find below:

Indeed, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a big-enough hit that Sony swiftly greenlit Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which Coppola produced) for a 1994 release, but that wasn’t nearly as much of a success. And if you guessed Coppola’s film was at number 1 though, I can tell you there are five movies featuring Count Dracula since then that have outgrossed the 1992 film at the worldwide box office. And none of them were Dracula: Dead And Lovin’ It, the Mel Brooks parody starring Leslie Nielsen, which drew $10m worldwide at Christmas 1995.

The next big movie to feature Dracula came in further down the top 10 – Dimension’s Dracula 2000, a film that famously only got made, according to its producer Bob Weinstein, “because it’s called Dracula 2000”(and it wasn’t even called that in some international territories, including the UK, where the belated release was titled Dracula 2001).

Despite the mighty Gerard Butler playing Dracula, the film’s timeliness only got it excoriating reviews and a global haul of $33m. That’s still more than Renfield for those keeping score.

Universal got on much better with 2004’s Van Helsing, from The Mummy director Stephen Sommers, grossing $300m but against a budget of just over half that. We’re not the first to observe it, but truly, it feels as if the studio’s best shot at a Dark Universe would have been having Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz go up against Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monster, et al, in various Mummy sequels. (Van Helsing is also in the top ten highest-grossing Dracula movies by the way.)

Anyway, it would be several years before Dracula was above the title again, and this time, it was the vanguard of Universal’s attempt to reboot its classic monster movies as a Marvel-style cinematic universe. No, not the Tom Cruise Mummy one – the version that was supposed to kick off with 2014’s Dracula Untold, starring Luke Evans as Vlad “The Impaler” Drăculea.

The influence of both Marvel’s Iron Man and Game of Thrones was clear in Gary Shore’s film (Dracula Untold's composer Ramin Djawadi even worked on those earlier productions). It’s a medieval war movie in which the Transylvanian prince resolves to use his vampiric curse for the good of his people; he even finds himself in the present day by the time the closing sequel hook rolls around, Captain America style – presumably ready for a team-up with other contemporary characters.

Despite reshoots to add that hook, Universal insisted that the $217m-grossing reboot wasn’t meant to kickstart a cinematic universe and later emphasised that The Mummy was the first instalment in a new continuity. To give you an idea of the oceans of time between Coppola’s and Shore’s films, the latter outgrossed the former and yet apparently wasn’t a big enough hit to be retroactively folded into the new Dark Universe.

And yes, that’s one down. By now, some of you might have clocked that the top five for Dracula also includes animated films. Hotel Transylvania became the highest-grossing Dracula movie to date following its release in 2012 and its take was surpassed by its sequels in 2015 and 2018, but not before the current number one got in there. Hotel Transylvania 3, 2, and 1 still only sit at positions two, three and four respectively on Drac’s all-time hit-list.

We’ll leave you in suspense just a little longer about the highest-grossing movie to feature Dracula – a billion-dollar-grossing animated movie no less…

Out for the Count?

The Last Voyage Of The DemeterLet’s bring things up to date, with the two Universal movies that feel like they landed in a bit of a John Carter situation. Back in 2012, Disney released Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of John Carter Of Mars under the less self-explanatory title, John Carter, and for various reasons, the film went on to become one of the more infamous box-office bombs of the 2010s.

A simpler explanation would be that Dracula isn’t the headline character in either film. Renfield puts a lot of stock in Nicolas Cage’s batty performance as the Count in the trailer, but the title duly focuses on Nicholas Hoult as his put-upon assistant. In screen adaptations, Renfield is not always as prominent as, say, Van Helsing, but then that’s kind of the joke in Chris McKay’s horror-comedy.

Less obvious is why they didn’t at least release The Last Voyage Of The Demeter as Dracula: The Last Voyage Of The Demeter, but then again, this one was in development since Bram Stoker’s Dracula came out. The screenplay, by Bragi Schut Jr, is based on the seventh chapter of Stoker’s original novel, and it had been developed for Robert Schwentke, Marcus Nispel, David Slade, and Neil Marshall to direct at various points over the last 20 years.

Indeed, by the time it arrived in US cinemas this summer, directed by André Øvredal, the concept had already been made into a feature-length episode of BBC One’s 2020 Dracula miniseries, from Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. The second episode, ‘Blood Vessel’, takes place almost entirely onboard the Demeter, with Claes Bang’s unctuous Count making its doomed crossing even more unpleasant – it’s a cracking episode and all.

(Meanwhile, it’s not until the finale that Gatiss himself turns up as Renfield, a pious solicitor who’s seen cramming “DRACULA IS MY LORD” into crosswords where it doesn’t fit.)

In terms of box-office, it didn’t help that The Last Voyage Of The Demeter was released in the slipstream of the Barbie-Oppenheimer juggernaut in August. In turn, its US box-office performance has spelled trouble for international releases. UK distributor eOne had already stopped releasing films on this side of the pond, but numerous other distributors pulled their release of Demeter in other territories after the film’s disappointing $13m opening weekend in the US. Hasbro has sold eOne to Lionsgate, but this film remains more likely to randomly drop on a streaming service someday than see the inside of a UK cinema.

Along similar lines to these Dracula Untitled features, Karyn Kusama had a modern Dracula adaptation set up at Blumhouse and Miramax with the working title Mina Harker, starring Hamilton original castmember Jasmine Cephas Jones as the title character. Kusama exited the project over creative differences with Miramax. Also on the off-brand side of things, Robert Eggers is having another go at Nosferatu too, and that will probably hit cinemas next year.

More straightforwardly, Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao is reportedly still pressing forward with her Dracula, a sci-fi western take on the story that Universal put into development after the success of Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man in 2020. It’s unclear if the studio’s recent bad luck with Dracula movies will have changed this, but as of March this year, Zhao is still working on it.

Meanwhile, 2003’s Blade Trinity is one of the top 10 movies featuring Dracula, and rumours persist that he’s also going to be an antagonist in Marvel Studios’ much-delayed reboot of Blade. That might change the make-up of Dracula’s all-time box-office top five.

However, it’s unlikely to topple the number 1, which if you haven’t guessed is 2015’s Minions. The Despicable Me spin-off has an early scene where the daft lads serve the Prince of Darkness in a montage of their previous evil bosses. The film grossed a whopping $1.15 billion worldwide, almost twice as much as the nearest Hotel Transylvania film.

Between this and the fact that the two big underperforming Dracula movies of 2023 still made enough bank to chart 10th and 11th in the all-time list, it’s fair to say that the character’s never been up there with the bigger blockbusters of recent years. Then again, Marvel might soon let him in, and time is on his side…


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