Cinema’s First Vampires: Theodor and Leo Wharton’s The Mysteries of Myra and Alexander Korda’s Mágia

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on February 20, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with , ,

Vampire: ‘a preternatural being of malignant nature (in the original and usual form of the belief, a re-animated corpse), supposed to seek nourishment, or do harm, by sucking the blood of sleeping persons; a  man or woman abnormally endowed with similar habits.’ OED

In searching for the cinema’s first vampires, it is wise to go back to basics. Though we might identify unnatural longevity, castles, bats and an aversion to sunlight and stakes with vampirism, it is clear that the consumption of blood is a decisive factor yet it is significant that the  above description stops short of specifying that the notional vampire sucks the sleeper’s blood from their veins. The distinction between actual bodily ingress and the gorging on a victim’s haemoglobin at some subsequent remove might seem pedantic but it is an crucial one in the early history of vampire films.

George Méliès’s Le Manoir du diable / The Devil’s Mansion (1896), a very early horror production is often cited as the first vampire film. This is principally because the film starts with a view of a large, whirling bat transforming into Mephistopheles in a haunted house. Yet despite the Devil’s designs on the film’s two mortal intruders in the mansion and one of these men seeing off the demon with a large crucifix, there is not even a hint of blood-sucking or consequent devilish immortality.

After the appearance in 1910 of a young destructive seductress in William Selig company’s The Vampire, the titles of ‘vamp’ and ‘vampire’ began to be employed to designate a range of heartless female predators. Theda Bara took up the theme in films such as Frank Powell’s A Fool There Was (1915), the title a quotation from a Rudyard Kipling poem.

1. Theda Bara in a publicity shot.

Hence, there are a raft of films which use the vampiric nomenclature including: Vampires de la Côte /Vampires of the Coast (1909), The Vampire’s Trail (1910), In the Grip of the Vampire (1913) and Robert G. Vignola’s The Vampire (1913).

2. Poster for Alice Guy’s The Vampire (1915)

The so-called vampires in such films mostly turned out to be conniving and heartless adventuresses as in the case of Mme. Petrova in Alice Guy’s The Vampire, mentally-ill sirens, pirates or brutal thieves as in Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires.

3. Marfa Koutiloff performs the vampire dance as Stacia Napierkowska in Louis Feuillade’s serial Les Vampires (1915-6).

There were, however, several variations on these themes, where the vampire of the film turned out to be a ghost or a partly supernatural animal. In the lost British film Vampire (1913) an explorer shoots a ‘vampire’ who has killed his friend; she goes on to turn herself into a snake and destroy him yet, again, bloodsucking or blood consumption is not involved. Unfortunately, we have no stills from or reviews of this film.

Yet this type of cinematic evasion from the vampire’s more sanguinary excesses changed in Theodore and Leopold Wharton’s The Mysteries of Myra film series (1916), freely adapted from an original serialised story written by Hereward Carrington. Carrington was seriously interested in psychic and occult phenomena and, one of his acquaintances, Aleister Crowley became a consultant in the making of the films. Howard Estabrook plays Dr. Payson Alden, a local doctor interested in astral and occult phenomena. He discovers that the life of one of his neighbours: a wealthy young lady called Myra Maynard (Jean Sothern) is being threatened by a Satanist cult called the Black Order. We discover that the Order is responsible for the death of Myra’s father and is seeking to destroy her both because of her psychic abilities and in order to steal her rich and extensive estate.

4. Poster for Theodore and Leopold Wharton’s Mysteries of Myra serial (1916)

Several reels of this film series survive as it follows the repeated attempts of the Order on Myra’s life and soul with Alden devising a series of bizarre machines capable of disrupting the Satanists’ spiritual attacks. Alden’s closest ally in this struggle is an old friend: the ‘Hindoo’ white magician Professor Haji (actor uncredited) who, at one point, manages to infiltrate the devilish Order. Haji’s cover is later blown and he is murdered by the Satanic acolytes. In one of his psychic assaults on Myra (Episode 11: ‘The Fire-Elemental’), the Order’s Grand Master (Michael Rale) manages to raise a blazing Elemental Fire spirit who agrees to attack the heiress in order to gain a ‘blood sacrifice’.

5. The Fire Elementals arrive

Glimpsed in stills, the arrival of the devilish, laughing Elementals inside their billowing nimbus of double-exposure flames is a rare moment of provocative mischief and horror. In an attempt to create confusion and bewilder Myra’s protectors, the Elemental abandons his fiery appearance and takes on the form of the deceased Haji.

6. The Elemental has taken on the murdered Haji’s appearance

Meanwhile Alden, in Myra’s mansion rooms, has been warned of the spirit’s approach and he sets up an apparatus comprising large coils of electrical tubing emitting ultraviolet rays and a bowl of animals’ blood to capture him. (Though the evil spirit’s target is obviously Moira’s blood, the distancing motif by which the only blood which the viewers will see consumed that of an animal supplied by a butcher is important.) The corresponding newspaper serial supplies the doctor’s thoughts on the impending confrontation:
‘“I may be crazy”, he muttered “to believe some of this but they say […] that elementals are vampires and are blood hungry.”’ It is clearly stated in the serial and suggested in the film, that this supernatural spirit is a vampire who drinks, preferably human, blood to survive.
Alden’s technical wizardry is effective and the malign ‘vampire’ spirit is trapped under the complex tubing. In the film, the bowl of blood is realised as a large glass jar on which the vampire stands and which is placed inside a magical circle, presumably so that viewers can see the blood vanishing as the spirit sucks it up the liquid psychically.

7. The vampiric Fire Elemental in the guise of Haji is trapped on top of the
jar of blood from which he feeds.

Therefore, (always with the caveat that many early films are lost and might subsequently be re-discovered), currently I believe that when we gaze on the image of the Fire Elemental from The Mysteries and the evaporating blood, we are witnessing that which is the first reifiable vampire in film.

There are other characters relating to vampires in some vestigial sense in the Wharton’s serial. Elsie Baker plays a figure known as the ‘vampire woman’ yet, though her role involves an ancient, evil spirit given the Elixir of Youth in order to seduce Alden and she is later trapped by stepping over a sacred parchment, she isn’t shown to feed on blood.  There are also several other characters in the series who are equipped with ambiguous vampire fangs.

8. Elsie Baker as ‘The Vampire Woman’ confronts Dr. Payson Alden (Howard Estabrook)

(It seems an irony of the first magnitude that Baker cropped up again in The Munsters TV series nearly 50 years later in 1964.)

We might obviously wonder why the writer and directors used the vampiric blood-sucking motif without the Fire Elemental battening directly onto the victim as there is every suggestion that he could. In 1916, Bram Stoker had only been dead for four years. Carrington had been actively involved in the Society for Psychical Research since 1900, had written over 100 books on psychic phenomena and was probably only too acutely aware of Stoker’s novel and the problems that any direct borrowing might cause in terms of litigation. Carrington’s book DEATH, Its Causes and Phenomena (1921) includes a section on vampire lore and his work was one of the first influences in Valentine Hillyer’s interest in revenants. As F. W. Murnau and Prana Film were to find out six years later, legal action as a response to copyright infringement was a very real threat. It also needs to be noted that perhaps audiences and the censor were not ready for such psycho-sexual scenes in Mysteries, a film released during the long-term carnage of the First World War. (The appearance of Murnau’s vampire is clearly indebted to the traumatized, bug-eyed and crop-haired German soldiers of the trenches and, in his role as a reverse Pied Piper transporting rats to the heart of the city and his fangs, he recalls the horrific feral infestations of the Western Front.)

It is then fascinating to move on a year and view the inventive and daring ways in which the storywriters, Frigyes Karinthy and Kálmán Sztrókay, approached and yet simultaneously avoided the major vampiric motifs associated with Stoker’s Dracula in Alexander Korda’s film Mágia (1917).

9. Poster for Alexander Korda’s Mágia (1917)


Karinthy was a popular, wily and transgressive author who was well-equipped to evoke the spectacular aristocratic evil of an Hungarian Dracula surrogate (as, after all, hadn’t Stoker plundered eastern European traditions?) and yet also to couch his tale in such vivid traditional and alchemical lore as well as Science-Fiction ideas of time travel, that any litigation by Florence Stoker would be bound to founder.   In Mágia, Merlin (Nyaráy Antal) is a direct descendant a famous alchemist, Sinisais (or Synissia), names linked to the esoteric idea of ‘Synthesis’.

10. Count Merlin, the vampire (Nyaráy Antal) with his Countess (Labass Juci).


In visiting the count’s castle in the Hungarian countryside, Paul (Varkony Mihaly), a poor philosopher from the Pest district of the capital, finds a book in the magician’s library called Mágia, which tells of how, every few generations, Merlin needs to drink blood of a young person to fulfil the alchemical Mysterium, (a perfect work of alchemical transformation), and so maintain his own eternal youth. Folded into this book there is a parchment which tells of Merlin’s mirror in which everything which one is thinking becomes clear. The Countess (Labass Juci) Merlin’s young and attractive wife is increasingly-alienated from her bad-tempered husband and begins to be attracted to Paul. For his part, Paul finds the alluring, dark-haired noblewoman fascinating and is only too willing to spend time with her. One day they discover the ancient mirror described in the book secreted in a hidden drawer.

11. Paul, (Varkony Mihaly) a roaming philosopher, shows the Countess a magic mirror in Count Merlin’s library.

The mirror shows them how that Merlin, in his 15th century incarnation as Sinisais, killed his assistant to drink his blood and so extend his own existence by a life-time. The stunned Paul recognises his own lineaments and character-traits in the murdered young man. The pattern is repeated each millennium (a term loosely applied in this plot), with Merlin latterly taking on the form of Danton during the French Revolution and, at the right point in the lunar cycle, having a young man guillotined so he can imbibe his blood. Again the victim resembles Paul. In the Biedermeyer era, Merlin lures a crowd of guests to his estate and poisons another man who resembles Paul with a potion poured into his drink from a ring which once belonged to the Borgias (though what this does to the quality of the victim’s blood, one can only guess.) Though stills suggest that, subsequently, the count materialises out of thin air in his laboratory (shelved flasks and alembics) behind the weakened Paul sprawled in a chair, there is no suggestion that the villain battens on his victim’s neck, only that he will drink his blood soon after by some method.

12. The Count materializes over Paul’s shoulder in his alchemical laboratory.

Fearing that the moonlight is approaching the point of time for a new sacrifice and realising Paul’s vulnerability, the Countess and the philosopher try to escape but the Count’s own vigilance and his servants foil this attempt. June 6th, the fatal day arrives and Merlin starts the ritual of blood sacrifice, inviting a crowd of guests to see his scientific exhibition in his alchemist’s laboratory. Amongst these guests are a troupe of players who have brought with them a young, exhausted woman, Lubja (Nagy Magda). Lubja was in fact Paul’s lover in the capital, who has roamed the countryside looking for him but whose strength deserted her close to the castle grounds. Paul sees Lubja and their force of the couple’s renewed love seems to offset his present danger. That evening, the Countess (probably aware that Paul’s reviving love for Lubja has supplanted her in his affection), wanders the battlements, stumbles and plummets into a rocky ravine. On seeing her body lying in the depths, Merlin jumps to his death. When Paul glimpses the Countess’s broken body in the ravine below, he attempts to leap to join her but Lubja saves him by standing in front of him. The pair leave the castle together: the power of the Mysterium is broken.

In his wonderful study “Drakula halála’ (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula’, Gary Rhodes, argues that Karoly Lathjay’s later film  is our first real glimpse in film of themes associated with Stoker’s novel.

13. Poster for Károly Lathjay’s Drakula halála’ (1921)

Yet Karinthy and Korda’s film, despite its wily evasions and alchemical sub-plot, was far closer to Stoker’s tale. The main similarities and differences between Karinthy and Sztrókay’s Merlin and Stoker’s Dracula and their narratives are as follows: Both evil protagonists are Counts whose home is an ancestral high and battlemented castle in the remote Eastern European countryside. Both figures have imbibed blood for generations in order attain eternal life, though Merlin sucks the victim’s blood from flagons and vials, not from his victims’ veins. Both monstrous Counts undergo magical transformations and become invisible or partly invisible at times. Both noblemen possess notable libraries and both select a male victim and trap him in their castle with the assistance of their servants. Both their victims: Paul and Jonathan Harker, involved in sedentary occupations, take part in physical struggles with their hosts and are subsequently drained of their energy. Mirrors are involved in different ways to expose the true nature of the vampire’s threat. Amorous ties are involved in both narratives, with Dracula’s designs on Lucy and Mina and Paul’s incipient passion for the Countess. The Counts’ powers are strongly linked to moonlight in both narratives. Though there is no hint of Merlin invading Western Europe in Korda’s film, (apart from his past adventures in France and Germany), both vampires wish to proceed onward through space and time, seeking renewal through their victim’s blood. In each tale, the Count is finally defeated with a woman or women assisting in his downfall. As Rhodes’s own translation of the prose basis for Lathjay’s Drakula halala/ The Death of Dracula makes clear, though the composer associated with the vampire (incarcerated in a sanatorium) in that film may have access to a castle, he does not suck his victim’s blood.

14. Erik Vanko (Paul Askonas) as Drakula

At one point we hear of unspecified wounds’ on the heroine’s body but this is a vague detail and it is far from clear whether this Drakula actually is a vampire, a delusional patient or simply the subject of the main female character’s dreams and fantasies. It is a mystery how Lathjay’s production with its use of Stoker’s title avoided his wife’s legal censure. Perhaps Rhodes’s conscientious account of the film’s strangely delayed and staggered launch provides clues regarding anxieties about contemporary international copyright law.

There are other contemporary films which might invite our curiosity regarding vampirism.  Richard Oswald’s Nachte des Grauens / Night of Horrors (1916), a feature-length production, purportedly featured a whole crowd of revenants thirsting for blood but there is currently no further information or graphic evidence of this in terms of reviews or stills. There is currently some suggestion that the purported existence of this film is due to an error in several critical books. In Erich Kober’s Lilith und Ly (1919)  an inventor Frank Landov, played by Hans Marshall, is tantalisingly warned of the danger of blood passing through the lips of a statue of a female vampire  but this theme is again sublimated  into the evil female draining her creator of his energy psychically, the peril of somatic invasion transfomed into the theft of a red jewel. To judge from surviving stills from this lost film, camera-man Willy Hameister’s visual sense was very impressive but the more one hears about the plot-line: the scientist falling in love with Lilith, seeing her on a screen, his ‘Fernsehspegel’  which reveals her to be a vampire who is slowly sucking his life essence from him, the more one realises that Kober and his writers were apparently drawing ideas from Mágia and previous films without approaching the theme of the vampire more closely.

15. Erich Kober’s Lilith und Ly (1919)

There are reports of a missing Russian version of Dracula from 1920 but the only evidence of this currently is a few seconds of film (very badly faked) and a poster which surfaced on the internet and which were both obviously created very recently.

Currently, many viewers and critics judge the puncture marks in Thomas Hutter’s (Gustav von Wangenheim’s) neck in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as landmarks in horror cinema. They are, many believe, the first implied registration of Count Orlok’s (Max Schreck’s) direct vampiric activity, and so the first of all tell-tale signs of a vampire in cinema. Yet this is not a settled claim and it is important for us not to forget the ingenious invention of the blood-consuming Fire-Elemental transformed into  Haji’s guise in The Mysteries and Nyaráy Antal’s character, Merlin, in Korda’s film as embodying graphic evidence of genuine vampiric presence. I would argue that, in fact, these are the first faces of vampires in film. Even judging exclusively from stills, posters, a review and lobby cards, Antal’s Count is a brooding and menacing presence, watchful and prescient. It is very doubtful that Murnau, Schreck or Bela Lugosi were aware of The Mysteries in 1916 yet, whether or not they had seen Mágia a year later, Antal is shown dominating his castle rooms, materialising behind Paul in his laboratory and stalking women with all the menace of later cinematic revenants. There may well be other genuine portrayals of gore-sucking proto-vampires in films of the period 1910-21 as yet to re-surface from the daunting vacancy surrounding lost films but we have yet to glimpse them. What is clear, though, is that the ways in which Carrington, Karinthy and Sztrókay progressed, by indirection and skilful re-invention, towards portraying cinema’s first true vampires have been largely forgotten and yet their strategies are as fascinating as Murnau’s brave engagement with Dracula‘s motifs in 1922.



I would like to express my sincere thanks to Gyöngyi Balogh of Hangosfilm for permission to use the images from Mágia and to Dr Tim Jones for his invaluable technical help. I am also indebted to the Hangosfilm website texts for my descriptions of this film.

A version of this study was delivered at the International Vampire Congress at the Bram Stoker Film Festival, Whitby, November, 2016.

I am indebted to the work of Eric Stedman, Terry Harbin, David Sorochty and Renee Villeneuve on The Mysteries of Myra.

See also Gary Rhodes ‘Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula’, Horror Studies, Volume 1 Issue 1, January 2010, 25-47.





Tiny URL for this post: