Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Since Bram Stoker first brought the tale of Dracula to life in 1897, the story has been told and retold countless times on screen. Directors such as F.W. Murnau, Tod Browning, Terrence Fisher and John Badham have all offered up different versions of this story, while actors as diverse as Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Frank Langella have all portrayed the blood sucking count. By 1992, it seemed that this tale had been told so many times that there was nothing left to say. However, that is the year that the legendary director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola, presents us with a flamboyant new look at Dracula. Over one hundred years after Stoker first penned the novel, Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the most faithful film adaptation of the book. While not flawless, it is an engaging and visually exhilarating exercise in screen horror.
At the turn of the 20th century, London real estate agent Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent to Transylvania to close a deal with the mysterious Count Dracula (Gary Oldman), who believes Harker's fiancée, Mina (Wynona Ryder), to be his lost love. Dracula quickly makes his way to England and begins to seduce Mina, while at the same time killing her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and transforming her into a vampire. Harker returns to England, and, along with Lucy’s husband (Cary Elwes) and the mercurial Dr. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), tries to stop the Count before he turns Mina into a vampire and wreaks havoc upon an unsuspecting world.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula more closely follows the original story of Dracula than any previous film version. First and foremost, the film includes the journal entries and newspaper clippings that made up the novel's structure. This recaptures the tone of the book and allows us to see what many different characters are thinking and feeling. The film also offers a more complete story of Dracula, including details that are often omitted in the movies. Many films follow the story of Harker (or sometimes Renfield) meeting the Count in his Transylvanian castle and Dracula’s sea voyage to England. However, once in England, the great majority of screen adaptations leave Stoker’s novel behind and tell very different stories. This film, however, sticks closely to Stoker’s plot and characterizations, making sure to include small details from the novel that have never before been seen on film. For example, Lucy has three suitors, all of whom join Van Helsing in the hunt for Dracula after they have dispatched the vampiric Lucy. We also get our first look at the exciting chase across Europe to destroy the Count before he can get back to Transylvania. Finally, as in the novel, Dracula is not killed by Van Helsing or the rising sun, but has his throat cut by Quincy Morris’ (Bill Campbell) Bowie knife. Seeing these elements from the original novel that are rarely presented on screen lends an air of authenticity to this film that many other versions lack. They recreate the spirit of Bram Stoker's masterpiece, demonstrating that Stoker’s tale is potent enough as it is.
In addition to being incredibly faithful, Bram Stoker's Dracula is also a very cinematic version of the oft-told story. Francis Ford Coppola digs into a huge bag of tricks to present a visually dazzling version of this tale. Rather than relying on dialog to communicate Dracula’s power, Coppola demonstrates it visually. There is a scene midway through the film when Coppola superimposes Dracula’s eyes onto the sky, illustrating the power and influence he controls. Coppola also makes very effective use of German Expressionist shadows in the early scenes in Transylvania. Dracula casts bold, sharp shadows that act independently from Dracula himself, who almost seems to glide rather than walk. These effects, particularly the shadows with lives of their own, engender a certain unease in the audience, leaving us with the knowledge that Dracula is in complete control of his environment. In keeping with this homage to the silent movie era, Coppola even presents one scene over-cranked, simulating the effect of these old films. These techniques (and many others) age the film, accentuating the classical feel of the horrors offered by the original novel.
The production design and art direction are equally superior. Castle Dracula itself is presented as a nightmarish hellhole that, from the outside, resembles a king sitting on a throne. Stepping inside, we are greeted by a bizarre netherworld where rats crawl upside-down and water drops up. Wide open and roomy, the castle inspires abject hopelessness. Harker (and the audience) feels he has no control here; he is completely at the mercy of the count. Back in England, Carfax Abbey is equally bleak. Old and crumbling, the structure echoes Dracula himself, who is becoming nothing more than a relic of an age long past. Finally, the Seward Sanitarium also seems like a place devoid of hope. It is old and decrepit; its employees wear boxes on their heads and spray water on the inmates. Always dark and permanently wet, the sanitarium suggests that no one cares very much about the well-being of the patients, a sentiment than can be extrapolated to other parts of the film. In contrast to this dark world, Lucy’s home is presented as warm, colorful and inviting. It is usually brightly lit, and gives the appearance of a safe haven from Dracula. Once Dracula begins to invade Lucy’s home, however, the flowers turn black and die, and at one point vast geysers of blood shower Mina’s room. Dracula’s presence has turned a once beautiful home into a bloodbath, a place where the stench of death pervades everything.
Despite this obvious mastery of visual story-telling via setting, the most startling aspect of the production design is the appearance of Dracula himself. Harkening back to the novel, Dracula is constantly changing appearance. At the beginning of the film, Harker first meets a Count who looks like a shriveled old man with flowing white hair that seems as if it were never cut. Yet, when Dracula first arrives in England we see him as a monstrous werewolf ravishing Lucy, and later, when he is trying to seduce Mina, as an exotic young nobleman. The ever changing aspect of the vampire makes him all the more mysterious and frightening. The costumes, designed by Eiko Ishioka, are also stunning, adding to the overall effect. Dracula appears in rust colored armor, a blood red kimono, and in the dark clothes of a Victorian gentleman, each costume complementing his current form. The fact that Dracula is constantly changing reinforces his unearthliness and the unholy power that he commands.
However, even the best set design and effects are useless if the actor portraying Dracula is unconvincing. Thankfully, Gary Oldman gives the performance of a lifetime, commanding every scene. His performance is mesmerizing. Even when quoting lines that we have all known for years, Oldman makes them sound fresh. Using an accent strongly patterned after Bela Lugosi, he never lets this trope slip into parody, instead fostering a sense of nostalgia. Even though Lugosi still performs the famous line, “Listen to them, children of the night! What music they make,” better than Oldman, Oldman surpasses Lugosi in most other respects, matching Max Schreck and Christopher Lee in quality of performance. He invests all of his emotional energy into the character, and in some scenes, such as his confrontation with Van Helsing, he is absolutely terrifying. And yet, in other scenes, such as the pre-credit sequence and his later scenes with Mina, Oldman portrays a real sadness and pathos. It is an electrifying performance.
Sadly, the rest of the cast is not quite so electrifying. Tom Waites probably gives the best supporting performance as a tortured and pathetic Renfield, and Sadie Frost plays Lucy with energy and spirit. Wynona Ryder delivers a satisfactory performance as Mina, but she doesn’t really convince the audience that she is a repressed schoolteacher with lustful desires straining to break free. She does an adequate job of playing the “love interest,” but never really takes possession of the role, making the character seem flat and uninteresting. The worst performance, however, is Keanu Reeves portrayal of Jonathan Harker. Reeves delivers his lines as if he were reading cue cards or going through the script for the first time. When he first recognizes Dracula back in London, he should be terrified, outraged, and shocked, but his reaction is like someone who was served the wrong dish at dinner. He seems annoyed, but not terribly concerned. As the whole, the supporting cast is satisfactory, but not outstanding.
The most unpredictable performance of the film goes to Anthony Hopkins, whose rendition of Van Helsing is hard to analyze. It is in no way a bad performance; in fact it is rather entertaining and nuanced. One particularly good example of this complexity is the way that Van Helsing first surrenders to temptation with the nearly vampirized Mina. He of course snaps out of it, but this shows us Van Helsing is not the unblemished beacon of goodness that is usually presented on screen. Nevertheless, at times, Hopkins seems to be playing comic relief. He matter-of-factly suggests staking Lucy’s body and decapitating her right after her funeral, and he giggles with glee when he confirms his suspicions of the Count. His performance occasionally veers off into parody, as if Coppola had left the set and Mel Brooks had taken his place. It is a good performance, but it occasionally feels like it is for a different movie.
While Bram Stoker's Dracula is an impressive film, one of its greatest strengths is also its greatest flaw: screenwriter James V. Hart’s adaptation of the novel. While Hart stays closer to Stoker’s novel more than other versions, he feels it necessary to add a very unneeded motivation. He includes a pre-credits sequence where he tells us that Dracula is the historic Vlad the Impaler (making a factual mistake in saying that he ruled Transylvania. The real Vlad ruled Wallachia, a region of Romania.). In this sequence we see that Vlad became a vampire when his beloved wife (portrayed here again by Wynona Ryder) killed herself after reading a false report of her husband’s death. Later in the film, Dracula believes that Mina is his wife reborn, and he seeks to rekindle that love and make her his beloved again. This is incredibly unnecessary (borrowed heavily, it seems, from The Mummy), and completely clichéd. There is no valid artistic reason to add this subplot. Perhaps Hart felt that this addition might blunt the horrors of the film for a larger audience, but the effect is to complicate an already intricate story, weakening an otherwise superior film.
An interesting quality of Bram Stoker's Dracula that might not be readily apparent on first viewing is that it is a loving homage to many classic horror films. There are many echoes from scenes of other horror films spread all through this movie. Dracula’s voice recalls Bela Lugosi, and his shadows and the way he stiffly rises from his coffin echo Nosferatu. The appearance of Dracula in his wolf form calls to mind The Howling, while the arrival of Van Helsing and the way Lucy vomits blood stir up memories of The Exorcist. Even the eruption of blood from both sides of the screen hearkens back to the unforgettable elevator scene from The Shining. Four years before Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson honored the slasher movies of the past, Coppola affectionately paid tribute to earlier and different kinds of horror films, something likely to delight aficionados of the genre.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is undoubtedly one of the best versions of this story. Francis Ford Coppola offers up a version of Dracula that captures our senses and introduces to us this chilling tale, true to the way Bram Stoker has written it. It is accurate to the novel and resplendent to look at, and Gary Oldman certainly earns a place in the pantheon of great screen vampires. This film definitely should not be missed by any fans of the horrific Transylvanian count.
At one point in the film, a sign for the Lyceum Theatre can be seen. Bram Stoker was business manager at the Lyceum between 1878 and 1902.