I started working on this post last night, and despite multiple draft saves, the server saw fit to make me start over this morning. Yay. If this seems a bit frustrated at points, now you know why.
“Love Never Dies.”
The poster and promotional material for 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula boldly declared that, and with that statement, we turned a corner on the Dracula mythos. To be fair, the corner began turning with 1979’s Dracula starring Frank Langella as the Count, more or less fashioned in Lugosi’s and Lee’s images, but somehow defanged a bit. Whenever I find fans of that particular version, I always hear how “dashing” and “romantic” he is in that. It used to be that with a Beauty and the Beast type setup, Beast had to learn to be human and give up being a monster before Beauty would accept him. After Langella, it became ok for Beauty to learn to love unconditionally, usually at the cost of the would-be nice guy who storms in to rescue her. That’s the ingredient that continued with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of The Phantom of the Opera, and so that theme is now on full display right here in Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic vampire. This is the point where Mina and Dracula are now and forever a couple in the minds of our collective consciousness, and in many circles, this is where Mina becomes a vampire in her own right when the credits roll, both concepts being completely alien to every intent of Bram Stoker himself.
Another corner got turned around this time. Neil Gaiman’s Vertigo title Sandman picked up steam and followers, initiating the world to the idea of goth, where it was a statement to declare oneself as “so dead inside that nothing else could harm me.” The outsides had to match the sentiment, and soon people were dressing in black and heavy makeup. It seemed scary if you were on the outside looking in, but that was the point, sort of like the porcupine prickling up to defend their tender insides. But then the statement became fashion, and the rest sort of disintegrated into pop culture as it tends to do. It was the early 90s, when everything needed to become “darker, grittier, edgier” to get an audience’s attention, let alone hold it for more than five minutes.
That meant that society was more or less primed for the return of the Prince of Darkness, provided the vampire’s cast and crew could overcome the stigma of everything that made it classic in the first place. Step one: lose the opera cape. Step two: explore what the idea of gothic really means, in a big way. In other words, say goodbye forever to the character as envisioned by Lugosi, and say hello to the new era.
The Victorian era, from whence Bram Stoker’s original novel hails, is also considered the Gothic era. This has nothing to do with darkness or evil overtones. Quite the reverse, the term is short for Gothic Revival, wherein the Victorian society opted to recreate a kind of monolithic greatness by returning to the art and architecture styles of the original Gothic era, the High Middle Ages. It was a statement of Imperial command combined with opulence and a dash of chivalry. It just so happened that between the eerie glow of gaslight, the Jack the Ripper murders, and the plentitude of great monster literature that popped up in that era as a social commentary on all of it, it all got tied together to create a perfect storm. This is the flavor that Coppola intended to capture on film.
For my money, he succeeded. Dracula is the single most adapted character of all time across multimedia, and in film alone he still holds the record as the most portrayed, with Sherlock Holmes (also of that era) coming in at a reasonably close second. And of all the versions out there that I love, this is my favorite (if you don’t count the wonderful full-cast audio version of the original novel from Audible). It’s one of those things I have trouble explaining. When there’s a monster romance like this, I tend to be the first to scream about how wrong it is. The thing is, this actually works for me in this version, and I’ll tell you why.
Bram Stoker originally based his character somewhat on Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler. If you read the history of this guy, he’s a Holy Crusader, the last of his kind, right at the end of the medieval era, when most of Europe is beginning to see the rays of the Renaissance. He’s a folk hero in that part of the world. If you look at his war crimes, it’s easy to see the vampire. If you look at how local folklore paints him, there are contradictions in play, most notably a loyalty to the Church that cannot be reconciled with what we know of Count Dracula the vampire.
The connection to Vlad is often pointed out in many takes on Dracula, but it’s glossed over in passing. Coppola is the first to draw that direct connection, and he masterfully explains what led Vlad to renounce God, transitioning from historical monster…
… to lord of the vampires, all because holy scripture says that his love is damned because she took her own life believing he had been killed in battle.
I don’t care who you are, that’s powerful stuff. It’s Romeo and Juliet, taken to the next level. If it had been executed by lesser hands, this would come off as cheap and cheesy, as it has in a thousand novels and film since that point. But here, it’s flawless in my humble opinion. Sometimes a deviation from tradition works if you can use it to higher purpose. There are themes at play here that draw straight from Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, and let’s be honest here, it just doesn’t get much more medieval than that.
People, this is only the first ten minutes of the movie!
From here we get the title card, and with the notable exception of the love story that’s weaved in, as well as the ending that it gave us as a result of that romance, the film itself is possibly the most loyal to Stoker’s original work, both in tone and in literal adaptation. I think what sells it, aside from keeping largely to Stoker’s tale, is also weaving in the epistolary format of the original novel, where it’s told through letters and journals.
The cast is top notch. Gary Oldman has proven himself to be a veritable chameleon, and his work here is no exception. Winona Ryder is at the top of her game as Mina, which is a role that landed her all manner of period work and a bit of typecasting. Fresh off his Oscar winning turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Sir Anthony Hopkins features as the most credible version of Van Helsing ever put on film. Likewise of all those portraying Renfield, Lucy, and her suitors.
Honestly, I can praise each and every performance in this movie, including that of the much-reviled Keanu Reeves. His only real crime is that he stepped up his performance alongside those of Oldman and Hopkins, as a professional should do. Say what you will, his accent is a far better cry than what I hear at most Renaissance festivals, and unlike Kevin Costner as Robin Hood the year before, at least you can say he made the attempt. His body language is what sells his performance for me because you can see Harker completely snap, and he spends the rest of the film holding himself together to hunt Dracula and protect Mina. Well done, Keanu. Screw the haters.
The Victorian sensibility and culture really comes through in this film. I applaud Coppola for this one. We’re treated to lush Victorian gardens, the then-controversial Cinematiscope at the beginnings of film technology, the good old English pub, and the darker elements of the run down Carfax Abbey and the adjacent insane asylum. And that’s just Victorian London.
Equal care is given for the Transylvanian castle and the Romanian church, and the doomed voyage of the Demeter.
This leaves us free and clear to discuss the costuming and makeup effects. No monster movie is complete without a believable monster, and Coppola pushed the boundaries here. We see Dracula first as a crusader in the Vlad Tepes mode, then as an old man, and while he doesn’t match the book’s description, he’s far and away different from the Lugosi stereotype. From here, we see him as a vile beast of the damned as Dracula should properly be portrayed, transforming with wolf and bat-like aspects and as green mist. I love love LOVE the monster effects in this.
I feel confident in saying that the monster effects might not have been pushed to this level had there been no romance to the story. This sort of excess serves as a counter force to remind us at every turn that Dracula is the monster of legend. It lends a strange dichotomy to the tale as well, giving us the stark contrasts between heaven and hell as only medieval Christianity can offer. Totally appropriate to Stoker’s original, wouldn’t you agree?
The only real downside to this film I have is that in making Mina the lovestruck tool of the Count (the primary reason I generally dislike unnecessary romances in a monster tale), she looses something of the spiritual strength that Stoker gave her character. She’s anything but weak in this film, and indeed this marks a stronger portrayal of her from here on in most adaptations that come later, but still… I have a more difficult time believing she could fall for Dracula than I do that he could fall for her. The reincarnation aspect of the story helps to smooth that over, which is why it works for me, but it’s still a point against Mina’s spiritual nature. Even so, as I said earlier, Ryder is at the top of her game here, and while she’s not fighting so much to keep her soul intact, she’s still unleashing her inner fire. It’s just misdirected, giving more weight to Dracula’s power than to her own until the last scene of the film. It’s surprising how a single act can make everything else fall into place so well.
As with Lugosi and Lee, this is a version of Dracula that I return to time and again. As an aside, the score by Wojciech Kilar is rarely off my playlist. I’m listening to it right now as I type this, in fact. As with Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings or any number of the scores by the great John Williams, Kilar’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my all-time favorite musical compositions. It’s pitch perfect in terms of story, character, and tone. Back on point, the notable difference for me between this and the bygone eras of Lugosi and Lee is the legacy this film left behind. Lugosi left a legacy that was so powerful it needed to be challenged rather than mimicked. This is the movie that challenged it, and in my opinion, did so in the right ways. But the legacy of this is such that we’ve gotten some really watered down vampire schtick in the wake of it. Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000 gave us Dracula’s identity as Judas Iscariot, which I think pretty much fell on its face. The more recent Dracula Untold stuck to the Vlad the Impaler idea, but turned our vampire into a kind of Superman knock-off in the process, ironically being far less deadlier than the most recent incarnation of the Man of Steel. But that’s another story. The point here is that in our modern era, Dracula has become his own worst enemy now. People tend to see him as overdone and cliché rather than understand why and how he’s maintained his status as the true King of the Monsters. (Sorry, Godzilla. The lizard has never earned that title.) The harder people try to overcome Lugosi, the more Lugosi holds his reign on account. A film like this one is now a rare exception that somehow proves the rules. The reason is because there’s something dark and primal that feeds directly into our cultural awareness. The more enlightened we become, the more the shadows beckon, and the more power a properly-executed Dracula has. Mileage will always vary on what that means for you, but it cannot be denied that Coppola worked some serious magic on this movie. The older it gets, the better it gets, just as a true monster classic should, warts and all. And when it comes to my enjoyment of a classic Dracula film, love never dies.