For the first post in our October celebrations, I will be revisiting a movie I’ve seen several times, explaining why it kind of sucks and why I love it anyway.
When Bram Stoker penned his most famous Gothic novel in 1897, he had no way of knowing that its eponymous character would soon become a pop culture icon and forever change the way we write and think about vampires. Dracula wasn’t the first novel to depict an aristocratic bloodsucker who preys on proper Victorian ladies and gents. The concept first appeared in the 1820s with Polidori’s The Vampyr and again in 1871 with LeFanu’s Carmilla. Stoker’s creation, however, has attained the most lasting popularity and influence. I’ve read Dracula quite a few times now, and I count it as a favorite book of mine. It’s not perfect — the third act drags like hell, there’s some blatant racism and the conclusion isn’t what it could be — but I enjoy it for its well-written passages and likable characters.
Dracula has spawned countless adaptations over the years. Bela Lugosi’s portrayal from 1931 looms above them all, of course, but he isn’t the only Dracula worth discussing. From Christopher Lee and Frank Langella to Luke Evans and Adam Sandler, a score of actors have taken on this role with varying levels of success. Here’s the thing about all Dracula adaptations: some are better than others, and most are decent pieces of media in their own right, but nearly all of them miss the mark at being a good retelling of Stoker’s book. And perhaps none miss the mark so blatantly and with such entertaining results as the one I’ll be talking about today.
In the early 1990s, a lavish new film version of Dracula was set to hit the big screen. Who better to direct it than one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, the one and only Francis Ford Coppola? He’s fresh off The Godfather Part III, so you know he’s in top form. Now let’s assemble our star-studded cast. We’ve got Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Cary Elwes, Richard E. Grant, that floppy-haired dude from Bill & Ted…wait, what? You’re serious? Put him in there, I guess. Add a script from the guy who wrote Hook, and there’s no way it could possibly fail! Right?
Well, it didn’t exactly fail. Released in November 1992, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as it’s officially known, was met with hesitant but mostly positive reviews. It was a box office success, and it went on to win three Oscars for costuming, sound editing and makeup. Modern attitudes toward the film remain positive, with many fans regarding it as one of Coppola’s better films and Oldman as one of the better Draculas. It is, according to them, a movie that rose above the dreck of campy adaptations from decades past and made Dracula cool again. But I’ve got something a little bit different to say.
I’m just going to state my opinion as bluntly as possible: this movie is bad, and I love it. Its many, many flaws are why I love it. It is a hot mess of 90s cheese and poor decisions. I have genuine issues with it, as I’ll explain, but the majority of its pitfalls only make it more charming and watchable. It’s my ultimate guilty pleasure, and let me count the ways.
The Plot: In the fifteenth century, Transylvanian knight Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) renounces God following the suicide of his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder). Four centuries later, Victorian solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) finds himself a “guest” in the castle of the mysterious and menacing Count Dracula. It’s a weird place, what with the laws of physics not working and a trio of vampire brides wanting to make a meal of him. What’s more, Dracula is headed to London with his sights set on Harker’s fiancee Mina (also Winona Ryder). He believes her to be the reincarnation of his lost wife, and he wants her back. Mina is too worried about the strange illness of her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and the advances of her charming new foreigner friend to realize that she’s in terrible danger. Meanwhile, doctor/occultist Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) is on a mission to save the women and destroy Dracula for good. But does Mina even want her soul to be saved? Will she choose Jonathan or Dracula? Can the powers of darkness be defeated not by violence and fear, but by true love?
The Good Stuff
Before I start unpacking everything wrong with the above paragraph, I’ll talk about the four things that make this movie as entertaining as it is. The first is how it looks. This film’s existence is easily justified by its visuals alone. Coppola and his creative team drew inspiration from a variety of sources to give the film a surreal, dreamlike visual style. The result is some truly impressive set design, shots, and uses of color. Take the look of Dracula’s castle, for example. It’s based on Frantisek Kupka’s Expressionist painting “The Black Idol,” looking like a hunched figure sitting on a throne. Compare that striking image with the hazy, diaphanous quality of the scenes at Lucy’s home in England. Then there’s the opening battle scene of Dracula skewering enemy soldiers, done with shadow puppets against a lurid orange background. Add in the iconic silhouette of Dracula’s wolf-head helmet and Wojchech Kilar’s magnificent score, and you’ve got a scene that thrills and chills.
Of equal importance here are Eiko Ishioka’s costumes, especially for the characters of Dracula and Lucy. Oldman’s looks easily distinguish themselves from the suit-and-cape Bela Lugosi apparel and are memorable in their own right. The two outfits he wears in the first act of the film — the dark red suit of armor and the blood red robe he wears when lurking around his castle — are the ones that really stand out. Lucy’s whole motif, meanwhile, is reptiles. She has a “snake dress” (it’s literally called that), and her striped nightgown is meant to resemble a snake’s belly. But the most infamous of her costumes is definitely her wedding/funeral dress, with its giant collar meant to emulate a frilled lizard. Does it resemble anything that an actual, sane human would wear? Of course not. But it fits within the inherent unreality of the setting, and it makes her sole scene in full vampire mode that much more eerie.
Positive Point #2, as I just mentioned, is the movie’s soundtrack. The musical score is moody and hypnotic, with a strong main theme that relies on loud, droning strings building up to a frightening cacophony. Yet it can turn soft and wistful just as easily, as it does in the film’s quieter moments. And because it’s the 90s, guess what? You also get a melodramatic love ballad in the end credits! There’s something for everyone!
Point #3 is the film’s use of practical effects to pull off its scares. Not many people know this, but Bram Stoker’s Dracula was one of the last big releases to do this. CGI was on its way in and taking over; Jurassic Park had come out earlier in the year, and Terminator 2 had come out the year prior. Coppola wanted the effects for this film to resemble the tricks used in early filmmaking, as a reflection of the technology available in the film’s setting. Nearly all of the effects are achieved by camera tricks or on-set work. The unnatural movements of Lucy and the three Brides? Running the film backward. Dracula’s grotesque hybrid forms? Suits and makeup. A shot where the walls of Dracula’s castle seem to be closing in on Jonathan? Those walls are actually moving in order to create that sensation. You’ve got to respect that level of creativity and dedication to one’s craft. And it paid off, too, because even after 25+ years, the effects still look great.
And now we get to Point #4, the most important point. The acting. Or as I like to call it, The Great Three-Way Hamminess Derby. This movie belongs to three people, and those are Oldman, Hopkins, and Reeves. The first two spend the whole film in a desperate, clawing battle of who can overact the most. Hopkins gets something of an advantage since his character is written to be over the top. Oldman, however, gives him a run for his money with a constant outpouring of emotion as Dracula. When he’s not screaming to the heavens in despair, he’s flashing his fangs and cackling with relish at every horrible thing happening to his enemies. Van Helsing, meanwhile, is a fast-talking man of dubious sanity who may or may not be supernatural himself. Case in point, the brief scene where he appears to hump one character’s leg before bellowing “FEED ME!” at another. The rest of the cast members try their damndest to keep up. Richard E. Grant comes close with his unhinged take on the character of Dr. Seward, and so does the brief appearance by musician Tom Waits as the fanatical Renfield. But none of them can match the raw hamminess of Oldman and Hopkins.
And then there’s Keanu. Poor, poor little Keanu. He doesn’t know how he got here. He’s just as confused as the audience. He’s got no idea how he should react when Gary Oldman points a giant sword in his face while monologuing. He knows he probably shouldn’t be in this movie. But he commits to the role of Jonathan Harker as best as he can. He commits to that British accent, which is easily one of the most heinous fake accents ever put on film. His best effort is in fact so bad that it wraps back around into being great. It’s like that episode of SpongeBob where Patrick somehow wins the snail race with his pet rock. Congratulations, you win in defiance of all logic and also God. Through the sheer ineptitude of this casting and its execution, Reeves becomes one of the most entertaining and memorable parts of the film. I really do love him in this movie. There was a way this decision could have worked and actually been good. I think Reeves would make an excellent Quincey Morris, especially since we know how good he is as an action star. Hell, he could have been good as Harker if you used a different interpretation of the character. But ultimately, I appreciate what we did get for how wonderfully odd it is.
The Bad Stuff
Yes, we’ve finally gotten to this part. As I said at the beginning of this review, I think this film is bad even though I enjoy it. Because as much as I love and appreciate the technical aspects of the film and most of the acting, I simply can’t excuse its writing.
This film may be called Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s not Bram Stoker’s Dracula, if you know what I mean. What is Dracula actually about? What’s it trying to say? Depending on who you ask, it’s about the Victorian fear of foreign hordes coming from across the seas to corrupt their good WASPy society. Or it’s about the Victorian fear of unbridled female sexuality corrupting the good wives and mothers of Britain, turning them into eeeevil loose women who have to be destroyed with obvious phallic symbols (hello, stake!). Lots of stuff going on there. The point is, what this story isn’t about is romance. Too bad Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart didn’t get that memo.
At the core of the film is a love triangle between Mina, Dracula and Jonathan, which exists alongside the stuff that’s actually in the book. The whole idea is that Mina and Dracula were meant to be together the whole time because she’s actually his dead wife, and Jonathan is the wimpy, uptight prick who just won’t get with the program, dammit. Here’s the thing, though: you cannot do this storyline in an otherwise accurate adaptation of the book. This isn’t me saying “You can’t do this because I don’t like it.” This is me arguing that Dracula as a villain and Dracula as a sympathetic romantic lead are fundamentally incompatible with one another. You can’t have them simultaneously, because if you do, you’re asking the audience to be on the side of a rapist and murderer. Because that’s what Dracula is, in both the book and this movie. We see and hear about him killing a number of people, including a mother and her baby. What he does to Lucy and especially Mina isn’t explicitly sexual, but it’s still a horrific violation of bodily autonomy, and the book treats it that way. Hell, in this film, it’s not even symbolic: we see Dracula raping a comatose Lucy before he first bites her. And we’re still supposed to feel kind of sorry for him after that.
I want to take a detour for a paragraph and talk about the film’s approach to sex. Film adaptations of Dracula tend to play up the sexual elements, because sex sells. Coppola turns that knob up to 11 and then rips it off for good measure. What we seem to have going on is a conflict between sex and love, with vampirism standing in for the former and humanity for the latter. Mina is demure and proper, while Lucy and the three Brides openly want/talk about sex and wear revealing outfits (if what the Brides wear can even be considered outfits and not just strategically placed strips of gauze). Dracula’s courtship of Mina, while hinting at deeper desires, is fairly chaste. The scenes where he and his fellow vampires drink blood, on the other hand? Those are sex scenes without the sex, complete with weird writhing and orgasms. I can’t tell if they’re supposed to be titillating or horrifying or both, but they end up being unintentionally silly. We see the two sides more clearly once Lucy and Mina start turning into vampires. Lucy, who is introduced as just being flirtatious and coy, gets way more aggressive and seductive as Dracula’s power over her increases. Later on, when Mina is close to fully turning, she starts to strip in front of Van Helsing and tries making out with him. And yes, the image of young Winona Ryder kissing Anthony Hopkins is just as weird and gross as you’re imagining. Which is the idea. I’m not sure. Part of the problem with making Dracula sympathetic is that the film can’t decide whether the sexual elements are meant to be disturbing or liberating. Mina undergoes a sort of sexual awakening through her relationship with Dracula, but Lucy is punished for having the same desires. It’s pretty sloppy writing.
And speaking of sloppy writing, let’s get to the main issue with the romance plot and with this movie overall. See, in order for the Dracula/Mina/Jonathan love triangle to be somewhat credible, you have to change a lot about the characters involved and discard the things that made them interesting in the first place. And nowhere is this more apparent than what the movie does to Jonathan and Mina. If you knew these characters only through this film, you’d think they were bland at best and wishy-washy assholes at worst. But in the book? They’re actually pretty damn cool, as individuals and as a couple. Jonathan isn’t the sniveling, naive wimp we see in the film: he figures out what’s up with Dracula early on and makes a number of attempts to escape the castle. Even when he knows what Dracula is capable of, he’s still quick to join the vampire hunt. For example, Dracula’s crypt in his castle is at the bottom of a tower, and he scales it using supernatural means (crawling up at down the walls like Spider-Man, basically). Jonathan, a human, imitates this method and successfully goes up and down the tower twice to try killing Dracula. Even Van Helsing thinks this is badass.
And Mina? Mina’s storyline is even cooler. She’s one of the last major characters to get involved in the vampire hunt, yet she becomes its most essential and powerful member. First, she and Jonathan work together to turn everyone’s notes and correspondence into a coherent timeline of events and compile the solid facts/evidence of Dracula’s activity. When she gets attacked and infected by Dracula, who wants to use her to psychically spy on the heroes, she figures out that she can also spy on him. She takes what he did to her and uses it to turn the tables on him, contributing to his downfall in a big way. Compare that with the film’s version of Mina, a helpless damsel who by the third act is completely under Dracula’s control. Take, for example, the scene where she learns who and what Dracula is. The man she’s been falling for and essentially cheating on her husband with is also the man who raped and murdered her best friend. What’s more, he’s sitting right in front of her. Does she react as most people in that situation would, with rage and grief and revulsion?
Nope. She fake cries and punches him for about five seconds, then promptly forgets about the whole thing and goes back to declaring her love for him. How delightful.
This movie isn’t the only Dracula adaptation to have done stuff like this. It wasn’t the first, it wasn’t the last, and it definitely wasn’t the worst offender. But it is one of the more blatant offenders. It throws away many of the interesting character dynamics we got in the book and turns the story into the kind of paranormal romance we’d be getting in droves 10-15 years down the road. It’s a Twilight prototype: brooding boy meets bland girl, cue the creepy staring.
And yet, I cannot bring myself to hate Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I know that it’s schlock dressed up as a serious horror drama. But its classy veneer is still a visually dazzling one. You can’t help but respect all the care and effort that went into the production design, costumes and effects. Even once you get to the muddled core of the film, it’s so earnest and overdramatic in its intentions that getting mad at it is difficult. It’s frustrating, but it’s also entertaining in the way that only guilty pleasures can be.
The Final Verdict
I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a movie worth watching at least once. Not everyone will have a high tolerance for the weaker bits of acting and writing, and the film is often a little too artsy for its own good. But if you have an interest in visual storytelling and a good sense of humor, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. Watch it with a group at your next Halloween party, so you can all laugh at it together.
Up next in the October series: a look back more recent in the horror timeline with 2016’s The Witch. Or is it The VVitch?