Since it was published in 1897, Bram Stoker's seminal vampire novel Dracula has been the basis for many adaptations, re-imaginations and spin-offs. From Max Shreck's Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922), Bela Lugosi's career-defining performance in 1931's Dracula, Christopher Lee's seemingly endless Hammer Horror appearances, to more family friendly interpretations in Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf (1988) and the Hotel Transylvania series (2012-2022), the character has been represented on screen 272 times, making him the most played fictional character in history.
Over the years, Dracula's status as a horror character has been heavily diluted. The essence of Stoker's book is often leeched away, with studios and filmmakers using the vampire to tell increasingly outlandish, and sometimes downright absurd stories that are as far removed from his origins as possible. It takes a brave filmmaker to adapt the book the way it was originally written. Enter Francis Ford Coppola, who, in 1992, brought his unique, unsettling vision to the tale, hoping to restore both Dracula's on-screen credibility and the reputation of the horror genre.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA
Coppola's prestigious career helped lend Bram Stoker's Dracula (as he insisted the film be called) a respectability not often given to Gothic horror. Having directed two Best Picture winners, and with a Best Director Oscar of his own, he was no ‘director for hire', employed by the studio to make a Dracula film as quickly and cheaply as possible. With a budget of $40 million, Coppola's intention was to make a Dracula film that could stand out amid the countless others.
Released over the late-1992 to early-1993 period, Bram Stoker's Dracula was initially dubbed ‘Bonfire of the Vampires', a reference to Brian DePalma's notorious flop Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), as many thought it was too strange and violent to make any money at the box-office. In the end the film was a big success and seemingly restored Coppola's reputation after The Godfather Part III (1990). As the film turns 30, it stands as a fascinating example of a film that is both sublime and ridiculous; beautiful imagery, bizarre set-pieces, powerful storytelling, confusing plotlines, solid performances and hammy histrionics.
Coppola is largely faithful to the book (which was written predominantly as diary entries from the perspectives of Mina, Jonathan and Van Helsing), but re-positions the story slightly. Now, Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) isn't just a blood-sucking vampire, he has a backstory and a history, a motive for his actions. The arrival of Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) to his Transylvanian castle gives him the ideal opportunity to head to London, not just for strategic purposes, as in the novel, but to seek out Jonathan's fiancé, Mina (Winona Ryder), who he believes has a connection to someone from his past. Van Helsing's (Anthony Hopkins) purpose in the story is largely unchanged, although his personality is significantly altered, presumably to make sure Hopkins isn't upstaged, having just won the Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
THE LOOK OF THE FILM
What is immediately striking about Bram Stoker's Dracula is its look. This is a very rich, striking looking motion picture. To avoid problems with inclement weather conditions, Coppola chose to shoot the movie mainly on soundstages (he also wanted to bring the film in under budget). By doing this, the importance of the sets and cinematography is increased. Production designers Dante Ferretti and Thomas Sanders create a world teeming with atmosphere and intensity. Dracula's vast castle feels less like a welcome retreat to escape the world and more like a prison with secrets round every corner. The scenes set in Dracula's castle crackle with a caged energy, an intoxicating yet suffocating place. Bram Stoker's Dracula feels alive, a place not of imagination, but of a heightened reality, where the lines between life and death, love and hate become increasingly blurred.
Cinematographer Michael Ballhus makes frequent use of low-key naturalistic lighting, dark shadows, and rich coloring. Atmospherics, such as wind, fog, and lightning add flourish to the background of scenes. There are images in the film that wouldn't look out of a place in a painting- for example, Dracula's eyes emblazoned in the sunset as Jonathan's carriage approaches his castle. Coppola also takes inspiration from German Expressionism, both in the way he structures the plot and in the set design, staging and dialogue. Coppola's use of handheld cameras put the audience firmly into Dracula's viewpoint. As the Count shapeshifts into a werewolf and goes on the hunt for Lucy, Coppola presents his journey through his own eyes, travelling through the streets and into the grounds of Lucy's house.
The combination of sped up footage, Dracula's growling and the eerie, orchestral music makes the subsequent seduction of Lucy not romantic or campy, but frightening and traumatic. The monstrous creature that entices Lucy to her doom is the stuff of nightmares.
To bring the film's vast visual effects to life, Coppola did not want to use ‘modern day' technology such as computer-generated imagery, instead preferring to use techniques from the time period the film is set in. After clashing with the original visual effects team, Coppola hired his son Roman to work on the film instead.
The film features rear-screen projection, forced perspective (later used in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), multiple exposures, reverse motion, miniatures and matte paintings. These effects may seem crude, but they fit in within the movie's tone, setting and genre. They also provide a sense of verisimilitude- it feels more naturalistic for the actors if there is something for them to react to, rather than standing in front of a green screen and pretending. Coppola's reasoning was ‘Dracula was written at the time cinema was invented. What if I made Dracula much in the way that the earliest cinema practitioners would have?'
A COMPLEX LOVE STORY
Bram Stoker's Dracula is, at its heart, a love story. It's among the most faithful of the adaptations of Stoker's book, but whereas the sexuality bubbles under the surface on the page, on screen it is fully unleashed. The female characters are either seductresses (such as Monica Belluci's bare-breasted bride of Dracula) or sexually liberated (Lucy).
Dracula himself is re-imagined as the undead Vlad the Impaler, haunted by the loss of his beloved and doomed to roam as a monster until his soul is set free. In the most direct contrast to the novel, Mina is a descendant, or reincarnation, of Dracula's lover Elisabeta and he makes it his mission to claim her as his own.
Blood, to Dracula, has an eroticism and sensuality, as well as being the means to sustain his strength (there is the infamous moment where Dracula helps Jonathan shave, and licks his blood off the blade). The image of the vampire as a tragic romantic figure gained greater traction when this film was released. Nowadays, it's less a monstrous fate and more a twisted devotion to unrequited love. Most modern horror figures seem to have a traumatic history in their past which ends up shaping the person (or monster) they later turn into.
Coppola wanted the film to represent an ‘erotic dream', a goal he certainly achieves. Jonathan has an intense sexual encounter with the brides of Dracula, Mina and Dracula drink each other's blood and express their love for each other, and Lucy's deterioration after she is bitten feels voyeuristically perverse. It could be argued that Coppola's excess robs the film of the book's subtlety, but given how badly Dracula has been mangled by other filmmakers over the years his enthusiastic embracing of overt sexuality deserves merit.
Coppola was keen for his cast to be the key draw to the film, so to that end he brought in several significant names. As the title character, Gary Oldman provides the perfect blend of romanticism, intelligence, charm and physicality. His interpretation of Dracula is more three-dimensional and nuanced than many of his predecessors. Most crucially, he simultaneously makes Dracula irresistible and repulsive, romantic and monstrous. This is a Count Dracula who is capable of feeling love, who can have his heart broken, yet remains a seemingly unstoppable force of nature with a thirst for blood and a need for carnage. Some of the lines Oldman is required to deliver are a little on the nose (‘I have crossed oceans of time to find you') but his professionalism ensure they work.
Oldman's casting as Dracula is reflective of Coppola's desire to make a film that would be respected, rather than ridiculed. The actor's ability to transform himself into his roles had served him well in films like Sid and Nancy (1986) and JFK (1991), and his lack of ‘baggage' within the horror genre allows him to approach Dracula not as an icon, but as a character. Since Bram Stoker's Dracula was released, it has become more commonplace for horror movies to cast actors not known for their work in the genre, for example Jennifer Lawrence in House at the End of the Street (2012)
The sheer number of imitators following in Oldman's footsteps are endless. Robert Pattinson's Edward Cullen in the Twilight series is Dracula for teenagers, while Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) provides a hint of what may have been for Dracula and Mina. If Lugosi's Dracula is slightly antiquated, Oldman's is vulnerable and prone to the same frailties of the heart as humans.
Oldman's costumes and make-up create a brand-new look for the venerable vampire. The image of the Count in a long black cape is banished as soon as Oldman steps out of the shadows. Dressed in a long white gown, flowing red coat and with a hairstyle that looks like a collapsed beehive, he at once looks both inviting and foreboding, providing a friendly welcome while at the same time resisting the urge to sink his fangs into Jonathan's throat. Upon arrival in London, he is transformed into a sleek, urban gentleman (Oldman looks eerily like how he would later as Sirius Black) who hides in plain sight.
Oldman's domination of the film essentially leaves his co-stars in the dust. Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves are the ‘hot young couple' Jonathan and Mina. Reeves' appalling accent has been widely ridiculed, but that's not the only issue – he has the same bemused expression on his face throughout the entire film, looking less like he's battling a vampire and more that he's forgotten something from the shop and can't remember what. Reeves can deliver great performances when the film suits him, but he's out of his depth here.
Ryder fares better, successfully capturing Mina's vulnerability and occasional impatience, though her chemistry with Oldman is rather limp (there are rumours the two didn't get on during filming) and there are times when Mina is far too passive. Ryder agreed to make the film with Coppola after dropping out of The Godfather Part III and the film came during a time when Ryder, then in her early 20s, was expanding her range as a performer.
Anthony Hopkins was fresh from an Academy Award when he played Van Helsing and it is obvious he's trying not to be forgotten in Oldman's shadow. In much the same way as Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980), Hopkins' performance is a reminder that horror films are just as ripe for overacting as comedies. There's nothing subtle about Hopkins' work in this film. He cuts fast and loose with the role, raving and shrieking like a man possessed, seemingly more unstable than the vicious monster he's trying to capture. Hopkins unbalances the film's narrative trajectory, as it often feels like he's fighting against the film, not supporting it.
Of the rest of the cast, Sadie Frost spends most of her time writhing seductively, while the trio of Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes and Billy Campbell hover on the sidelines, occasionally given the chance to emote. Tom Waits' Renfield, despite being a key character in the book, is largely unnecessary to this version of the story- he doesn't fit with the way Coppola has restructured the narrative.
Bram Stoker's Dracula sought to legitimize the horror genre. With an auteur at the helm, a cast of acclaimed actors, Oscar-winning costumes and sound, unsettling music and a tone that veers from Gothic melodrama to out and out terror, it remains one of the oddest, maddening and captivating modern horror films. At times brilliant, at other times utterly infuriating, its power to hypnotize and captivate remains gloriously intact. It's completely unhinged, and all the better for it.