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Local takes on the original Dracula put Twilight to sparkly shame

From graphic novels to rock operas, ATL likes its vampires Vlad to the bone

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SERVING SPLATTER: One of many prized possessions in Morton's monster collection is a plate (center) he bought on the top of Mount Brasov, one of the tallest of the Carpathian Mountains, near Transylvania. The plate features a painting of Vlad the Impaler. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • SERVING SPLATTER: One of many prized possessions in Morton's monster collection is a plate (center) he bought on the top of Mount Brasov, one of the tallest of the Carpathian Mountains, near Transylvania. The plate features a painting of Vlad the Impaler.

Instead of Disney characters like Jiminy Cricket, vampires and other famous monsters provided a young Shane Morton with imaginary playmates. Morton vividly remembers being 5 years old and his father helping him dress up as Lon Chaney Sr.'s vampire from the silent film London After Midnight. "He used a black trash bag cut out like bat wings for a cape, cut a row of fangs from a white plastic milk jug, fashioned a top hat from a sheet of poster board, then burnt a wine cork to do the makeup," says Morton.

It was a formative experience. At 44, Morton champions classic creature features as the host of the Plaza Theatre's Silver Scream Spook Show and creates gory spectacles like the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse. Morton is part of the creative team for 7 Stages' Dracula: The Rock Opera, which sounds like a blood-spattered dream come true for a man with a Bela Lugosi tattoo on his left forearm. "I tell people I'm working on Dracula: The Rock Opera and they say. 'Wha-aat?' They bring up Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Dracula puppet musical from the end of that. No, this musical is awesome," he says.

Created by Rob Thompson, musician and co-owner of Java Lords coffee shop, Dracula: The Rock Opera has its seeds in a different show involving a famous figure who rises from the grave. In 2005, Thompson assembled the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra for a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, where he performed as Judas. In subsequent years, Thompson and 7 Stages artistic director Del Hamilton talked about a follow-up project, and Morton suggested they rock out with their Drac out. In February 2011, the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra performed the first act as a work in progress called Haus Von Dracul.

Thompson has long black hair, an intense gaze, and the relaxed magnetism you'd expect of a rock 'n' roll Count. He says that in preparing the script with co-composers Sam McPherson, Chris Love, and Naomi Lavender, he's made an effort to stay as faithful to Stoker's book as possible. "While writing, I had a copy of Dracula beside me and I would constantly refer to the parts I was writing about," says Thompson. "I pulled everything out of the book and did not add anything new, like a love story. Many times words right out of the book would serve as lyrics."

Musically, Thompson took inspiration from Jesus Christ Superstar. The show opens with Harker (Love) singing the song "To Transylvania," inspired by Judas' introductory solo. "I wanted a classic rock style," says Thompson. "'Carriage of the Dead' is a real fast-paced, heavy metal song. But there's some really pretty 'Hotel California'-type songs, too." The Dracula role has a recurring musical motif that harks back to his home region. "The main theme is this gypsy/Arabic/Hungarian scale, which becomes Dracula's theme. Whenever the show gets back to Dracula, that exotic sound returns."

Previews begin Sept. 13 for Dracula: The Rock Opera, which will transform the Little Five Points playhouse into a chamber of horrors featuring 15 performers in addition to the five-piece rock band. Morton promises a huge, grisly spectacle with decapitations and spraying blood as well as filmed effects. "A lot of our sets are projections of different environments, like the landscapes," he says. "For the 'Carriage of the Dead' song, we made miniatures of Dracula's castle on rocky terrain, and filmed it with a Steadicam. The minute details on the model end up really big, but they look great."

As the Count, Thompson wants to convey the presence of the larger-than-life, larger-than-death character. "I'm trying to make him powerful and creepy at the same time. Sometimes he's low and menacing, sometimes he's louder and more forceful. Early on, I was wondering if I'm supposed to sing this like Dracula," Thompson says, pronouncing the words in a thick Lugosi accent.

"It was starting to sound like Professor Morte. Rob made it sound more like a powerful rock singer," says Morton.

In addition to crafting a big, 1970s-style rock spectacle, Thompson wants to restore Dracula to his core villainy. "I hate vampire stories that are all about love," he says. "A lot of people think of the vampire as this romanticized figure. No, he's a predator, a hunter, a creature of the night. Twilight's the total opposite of that."

Despite being staked, beheaded, and exposed to disintegrating sunlight, Dracula always returns. Thompson points out that dark, powerful, timeless bad guys will always be popular. Morton adds, "It would be great to live forever and feed on healthy young girls and not go to jail for it, just disappear in a puff of smoke."

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