SHOW PEOPLE / Five hundred years at the top: 61. Count Dracula

SHERLOCK HOLMES comes close. Frankenstein has not done badly. Gerard Depardieu may have made more films. But none has left his mark on the screen like Vlad the Impaler, Count Dracula.

He comes in many guises, this prince of air and darkness; but by his deeds ye shall know him. He is older than the stones of the castle where he dwells, near the Borgo pass in far Transylvania, and has learnt the secrets of the grave. He has been a voyager through the dark woods on the plains of his native Walachia. Of all the scions of an ancient family, time has chilled him least. After all, few days go to make a century.

Before embarking on his long career in showbusiness, he was a great warrior. When the Magyar, the Bulgar and the Turk poured their thousands on his frontiers, he drove them back. He is of the Szekely race, a tribe so fierce that the invading Berserkers thought that werewolves had come among them.

When the Turks invaded his homeland once more in 1462, he and his force of 7,000 knights slaughtered 15,000 of the infidels and impaled as many again on stakes, as a message to the enemies of the Cross of Christ. But his wife received false news of his death and, unequal to life without her lord, committed suicide, and was denied Christian burial. The count turned his back upon the Church and chose to join her in perpetual damnation. Blood became his sacrament, and his soul would never know peace.

He lived, in his infinitely stopped moment, six more centuries, seeking neither gaiety nor mirth, nor the bright voluptuousness of sunshine and sparkling waters which please the young. His heart, through years of mourning, lost all memory of laughter. He came to love the shade and hug the shadows, and dwelt alone with his thoughts.

And then, in 1897, as another great age was drawing to its end, one Jonathan Harker came from London on business and disturbed the Count's rest for all the future. Bram Stoker wrote of their meeting, and decribed the count as a tall, old man, clean-shaven save for a long moustache, and clad in black from head to foot without a speck of colour about him anywhere. His lips had a ruddiness which showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. But the general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

As Stoker was writing, the cinema was being invented. The Count took to the new medium like a fang to female flesh. A canvas composed of light and shade, seen in the night, huge and flickering: it could have been made for him.

He arrived on the screen in Murnau's Nosferatu (1921), taking the form of Max Schreck, whose very name in his native tongue means 'terror'. He was not called Dracula, but he was the first vampire on the screen, and so convincing that Stoker's estate threatened to sue. His ears, as in Stoker, were pointed at the top, and he had long claws. He also had a pair of rodent-like incisors, and his arrival by deserted boat brought a plague of rats.

The Count's screen debut was good enough for another eccentric Central European, Werner Herzog, to do a remake, in 1979, that was virtually a shot-for-shot homage. This time the count was Klaus Kinski, who lent him a new dementia.

The first great screen incarnation, however, was Bela Lugosi. Born in 1882 in Lugos, Hungary, not long before Harker's fateful arrival, he was a count to be feared, not courted. His first words, 'I am Dracula', were an assertion, not an introduction. His lips were pinched, his hair was a skullcap as black as congealed blood, and he had the pallor of extinction. He was the first to realise the tragedy of the Count's condition.

Consider his plight: condemned forever to walk the night unloved. Who would not long for the release of eternal sleep? 'To die, to be really dead, that might be glorious.' Lugosi finally achieved that mercy, a year after being admitted to hospital as a drug addict. It is said that he was buried in the count's robes.

Many were called to the role in the middle years of the century, but the next incarnation of consequence was Christopher Lee. When he made his entrance (in Dracula, 1958), his feet were hidden beneath his cloak and he seemed to glide down his ancestral staircase, six inches from the ground. He was a suave, erotic charmer, who brought romance back into the Count's life after a lengthy absence. Stoker's melodrama became a love story between Dracula and the impressionable Mrs Harker. Indeed, Dr Van Helsing seemed more sunk in villainy than his quarry. What normal man always carries a stake and mallet in his briefcase?

And now the count is back. He has drunk, for the first time, of the great well of hype, and finds his name spattered across T-shirts and baseball caps. He takes the form of a man named Gary, who wears the mantle with due pride; though also, it must be said, with blue- tinted sunglasses. He will survive.

'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (18): from Fri, Odeon Leicester Sq and across the country.

(Photograph omitted)