For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Released on November 13, 1992, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a gothic horror film based on the 1897 novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. On paper, the film has the ingredients for movie success. It was helmed by renowned director Francis Ford Coppola, and it was based on one of the most popular and famous horror novels ever written. The screenplay for the film was written by James V. Hart.
Quick Note: I’m not really a fan of screenwriter Hart’s adaptations of other (far better) writers’ works ~ or, at least, I’m not a fan of the movies made from his adaptations. In particular, I pretty much despise almost every aspect of Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), especially Robert De Niro as The Monster. The rest of the all-star cast, which included Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm (who I adore), John Cleese, and Aidan Quinn (who I enjoy), could not make bearable Hart’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. (Hey, simply adding the original author’s name to your adaptation’s title does not make your work anywhere near as good as the originals.) Hart also wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook (written as a sequel to J. M. Barrie’s original story); it’s not one of my favorite movies, but at least it’s Hart’s own work.
Back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula on paper: it starred popular and respected actors, Gary Oldman (Count Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina Murray Harker), Anthony Hopkins (Professor Van Helsing), and Keanu Reeves (Jonathan Harker). The supporting cast was rounded out by the likes of Richard E. Grant (Dr. Jack Seward), Cary Elwes (Lord Arthur Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Quincey P. Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy Westenra), Tom Waits (R. M. Renfield), and Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, and Florina Kendrick (as Dracula’s three “brides”). The movie has a wonderfully melodramatic and moody score, composed by Wojciech Kilar, which won several major awards, and the closing credits theme Love Song for a Vampyre was written and performed by the spook-tastically voiced Annie Lennox. The cinematography (Michael Ballhaus) also won several awards. The film received Academy Awards for Best Costume Design (Eiko Ishioka), Best Sound Effects Editing (Tom McCarthy, David Stone), Best Makeup (Greg Cannom, Michèle Burke, Matthew W. Mungle) and a nomination for Best Art Direction (Thomas E. Sanders, Garrett Lewis).
Yep, on paper, this film is great. In reality, it is beautifully filmed and beautifully costumed drivel.
While the film meets my “horror story” criteria of making me lose sleep, unfortunately my loss of sleep wasn’t because I was frightened. I lost sleep because I was . . . really upset by it. I don’t like Hart’s unnecessary additions and changes to Bram Stoker’s amazing, ingenious, and captivating novel. It is one of my most-favorite books of all time, and I’m fairly protective of it. I’m old school regarding adaptations to film and TV: Bela Lugosi is, and stars in, my favorite Dracula (1931). Don’t get me started on the recent BBC One and Netflix adaptation: developed by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, it stars woefully miscast Danish actor Claes Bang as the Count and has a storyline that is just yuck, yuck, and more yuck.
Now, similar to my reaction to Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I really like some of the actors in Bram Stoker’s Dracula ~ Gary Oldman has long been one of my favorite actors, and I enjoy elements of his insane portrayal of Count Dracula, but still I can’t quite forgive him for this film (although he redeemed himself quite a bit in 1994’s Léon: The Professional). I usually thoroughly enjoy Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Cary Elwes, and Billy Campbell in almost anything they do, but . . . they’re all not very good in this film. The movie has great costumes, moody settings, romance, vampyres, insanity, sex (sometimes metaphorical blood-sucking sex, but still), heroes and villains, and a lot of other “good storytelling” ingredients. In other words, Bram Stoker’s Dracula should be an awesome film and Dracula-obsessed me should really like it. But, I don’t.
My main issue with the film is Hart’s screenplay, which adds a lot of pseudo-historical background to Count Dracula’s story. The film starts in 1462, with Vlad Dracula, a member of the Order of the Dragon, returning from a victorious battle against the Turks. Now, the Order of the Dragon was a real thing: it was a monarchical chivalric order founded in 1408 by Sigismund of Luxembourg. Sigismund was King of Hungary (1387–1437) and later became Holy Roman Emperor (1433–1437). Similar to the Crusades, the Order of the Dragon defended the cross and fought the enemies of Christianity (mainly the Ottoman Empire). After Sigismund’s death in 1437, the Order lost popularity in Western Europe, but after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, it remained significant in countries that the Ottoman Empire kept invading: namely, countries like Hungary, Croatia, Albania, Serbia, and Romania. Romania’s Prince of Wallachia, Vlad II Dracul, took his name (Dracul) from the Order of the Dragon. Vlad II was real: he was the ruler of Wallachia from 1436 to 1442 (when he was captured by the Turks), and again from 1443 (released from captivity) to 1447. Vlad II was the father of Vlad the Impaler (born between 1429 and 1431), whose patronymic and reputation for cruelty inspired the name of Bram Stoker’s fictional vampyre, Count Dracula.
Back to the film. When (fictional) Vlad comes home from defeating the Turks, he finds that his (fictional) beloved wife Elisabeta has committed suicide because his enemies lied to her, telling her he was dead. His priest informs Vlad that Elisabeta’s soul is now damned to Hell because she killed herself. Vlad loses it: he desecrates the chapel and renounces God. He vows to rise from the grave and avenge Elisabeta with all the powers of darkness. Vlad melodramatically stabs the chapel’s stone cross with his sword, thus breaking it ~ and then he drinks the blood that flows out of it. Is it Christ’s blood? Satan’s? Who knows? But, in this crazy film, I guess that’s what makes him a vampyre.
Jumping 435 years, it is now 1897, and novice solicitor Jonathan Harker takes on Count Dracula as a client. Dracula had been a client of Harker’s colleague Renfield, who has gone mad and is a patient Dr. Jack Seward’s insane asylum (Dr. Seward is Jonathan Harker’s friend). Jonathan travels to Transylvania, where Dracula lives, to finalize the paperwork for Dracula’s recent London real estate purchases. Jonathan meets Dracula at his castle, and finds the Count a strange yet intriguing host. Dracula sees a picture of Harker’s fiancée, Mina Murray, and believes that she is the reincarnation of his own beloved Elisabeta.
The rest of the film cuts back and forth between various happenings in the lives of all involved, often causing what Roger Ebert called “narrative confusions and dead ends.”
Dracula leaves his castle, where Jonathan is now basically a prisoner, and sails to England with boxes of his native Transylvanian soil (which we the audience know he needs, both to travel in and to rest in during the day). His arrival is foretold by Renfield in some insane ravings (to which no one pays much attention). In London, Dracula resides in one of his recent property purchases, Carfax Abbey. Meanwhile, back at the castle in Transylvania, Jonathan is fed upon (seduced) by Dracula’s “brides” (three women Dracula turned into vampyres).
In London, during a fierce thunderstorm, Dracula takes on the appearance of a wolf-like creature and hypnotically seduces, rapes, and bites Lucy Westenra, Mina’s sweet-natured best friend. Mina has been staying with Lucy whilst Jonathan is in Transylvania. At this point in the film, only we the audience know that Dracula is causing Lucy’s health to deteriorate and her behavioral changes (she becomes wanton). Enter Lucy’s former suitors Quincey Morris and Dr. Seward, and her fiancé Arthur Holmwood, all of whom cannot fathom what is wrong with her. They seek advice from Seward’s mentor, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. Van Helsing recognizes that Lucy is a vampyre’s victim, and he discovers that the offending creature is Count Dracula.
Meanwhile, the insatiable Dracula, who appears young and handsome in the daytime, has had only one real goal: Mina. He “accidentally on purpose” meets her, and charms her ~ and she is attracted to him. Being a good little Victorian fiancé, she resists him as best she can, but it is clear that Mina feels and shares some strange bond ~ dare we say love? ~ with him. Just in the nick of time, as she’s wrestling with her feelings for Dracula, Mina gets a letter from Jonathan. He finally escaped from the castle, has suffered a breakdown (mental and physically), and is recovering at a Romanian convent. Duty-bound Mina rushes off to be by his side ~ they marry during his convalescence. It is because of their marriage that a furious Dracula transforms the weakening Lucy from living blood-source to full-on undead vampyre. With much melodrama and some poignancy, Van Helsing, Holmwood, Seward, and Morris kill the undead Lucy.
After Jonathan and Mina return to London, Jonathan, Van Helsing, Holmwood, Seward, and Morris go to Carfax Abbey and destroy the Count’s boxes of Transylvanian soil. Having entered Seward’s asylum, Dracula kills Renfield (for warning of his presence). Mina has been relegated to Seward’s asylum quarters (bedroom) by the heroic vampyre-hunting men ~ ostensibly to keep her safe while they are tracking down Dracula. Undeterred, Dracula finds Mina and tells her that he murdered Lucy because of his great and eternal love for Mina. Mina is, understandably, both confused and angry ~ I mean, who wouldn’t be, right? I killed your best friend because I love you is really an odd and murderous declaration of love, right?
However, it works wonders on Mina, who admits to Dracula that she loves him and that she remembers Elisabeta’s previous life! At this point in the film, Mina chooses immortality with Dracula over human life with Jonathan. I mean, who can blame her? As Alan Jones in Radio Times said, “ . . . Gary Oldman’s towering performance holds centre stage and burns itself into the memory” ~ whilst Keanu Reeves’ Jonathon is just . . . so weak. Critic Josh Winning said that Reeves spoiled the film and also wrote (in a 2011 list of the “50 Performances That Ruined Movies”) that “You can visibly see Keanu attempting not to end every one of his lines with ‘dude’. The result? A performance that looks like the young actor’s perpetually constipated. Painful for all parties.” So yeah, who can blame Mina for choosing Dracula!
Mina then insists that Dracula transform her into a vampyre so that they can be together forever. I’m not sure that “insists” is the right word because turning Mina into a vampyre has been Dracula’s goal since he saw her picture, right? But, the film needs us to understand that this vampyre-romance is not only consensual but desired by Mina. Just at that moment, our vampyre-hunting heroes burst into the bedroom ~ Dracula escapes, but not before he “claims” Mina as his own. As Mina changes into a vampyre, Van Helsing hypnotizes her, thus learning ~ via her “connection” with Dracula ~ that he’s sailing back to Transylvania in his last remaining box of soil. Oh yeah, I guess they missed one when they destroyed the ones at Carfax Abby or they were too dumb to think he might’ve stashed one at another of his London properties ~ remember those purchases that Jonathan arranged . . . I mean, why didn’t they think of that?? Oh well.
Our vampyre-hunting heroes, oddly with Mina now in tow, take off with a plan to intercept Dracula along his route home, but Dracula reads Mina’s mind and foils their plan. Then our fearless heroes split up. Van Helsing and Mina travel the Borgo Pass heading for the castle, and the others (Jonathan, Morris, Seward, and Holmwood) go off to try to stop the gypsies who are transporting the Count’s body (in the last box of soil). Nothing goes as planned for either group of vampyre hunters. Remember Dracula’s three vampyre “brides? They find Van Helsing’s and Mina’s camp one night. Mina is at first frightened (and probably a little bit pissed off that her eternal love has other “brides,” right?), but she succumbs to them ~ well, to their seductive chanting. Mina then tries to “seduce” Van Helsing, but before she can feed on his blood, he holds a communion wafer to her forehead. It burns and leaves a mark, proving she is under Dracula’s cursed control. Van Helsing then surrounds himself and Mina with a ring of fire to protect them from the vampyre brides ~ why and how a ring of fire protects one from vampyres, I dunno, but they survive the night without any further vampyric molestation. In the morning, Van Helsing infiltrates Dracula’s castle and cuts off the heads of the “sleeping” vampyre brides.
Sunset approaches, and Dracula’s gypsy transport arrives at the castle ~ a fight for control of the box of soil breaks out between the gypsies and Jonathan, Morris, Seward, and Holmwood. Morris is wounded, stabbed in the back. Then exactly at sunset, Dracula bursts out of his box of soil. Jonathan slits his throat with a Khukri knife and the wounded Morris stabs Dracula in the heart with a Bowie knife (remember, Morris is an American). Dracula staggers, Mina rushes to him. Dead Lucy’s fiancé Holmwood moves to attack Dracula, but (bizarrely) Van Helsing and Jonathan stop him, and they (bizarrely) allow Mina and Dracula to escape into his castle’s chapel. (Poor Morris dies.)
In the chapel, where 435 years ago he renounced God, Dracula is now dying. He’s in an ancient demonic form, but his horrific visage doesn’t put off Mina one bit. They share a passionate kiss, just as the chapel’s candles all light up and the broken cross repairs itself. Dracula turns into his handsome younger self and asks Mina to give him peace. Mina stabs him in the heart and, as he dies, the mark on her forehead disappears. The curse of Dracula is lifted. Mina then cuts off Dracula’s head and gazes up at a fresco of Vlad and Elisabeta ascending to Heaven together: she knows their spirits are reunited at long last. The End.
There’s so much that’s bad in this movie’s storytelling, but, as time has passed, it is now kind of fun to watch, especially around Halloween, because it’s so campy and overly melodramatic. And, Oldman, Ryder, Reeves, and even Hopkins are so young in it! They’re all just absolutely cinematically beautiful.
One of my favorite things about this movie isn’t even in the movie ~ it’s how the film came to be made. Winona Ryder brought Hart’s script to Coppola when they met to clear the air after her withdrawal from filming The Godfather Part III ~ her departure caused costly production delays and she believed Coppola disliked her. Ryder’s on record as saying: “I never really thought he would read it. He was so consumed with Godfather III. As I was leaving, I said, If you have a chance, read this script. He glanced down at it politely, but when he saw the word Dracula, his eyes lit up. It was one of his favorite stories from camp.” Coppola was also attracted to what he saw as sensual elements in the screenplay, and he wanted parts of the film to be like an erotic dream. Yikes! Epic fail! Those scenes are just either embarrassingly campy or hilariously campy. There are bizarre behind-the-scenes stories about Coppola telling Oldman (Dracula) to speak seductively and/or frighteningly off camera to Frost (Lucy) and to Ryder (Mina) during the filming of various scenes. Both actresses didn’t appreciate Oldman’s whispered “things” very much, and Frost has said his whisperings can’t be repeated.
I enjoy Oldman in this film far more than I should. Despite those tinted round-lensed steampunk glasses Oldman wears in London, he exudes . . . something. I think it is interesting that he wasn’t really interested in playing Dracula; the main reason he said yes to the role was, “It was an opportunity to work with Coppola, who I consider one of the great American directors. That was enough, really. It was my first big American movie, made on a big set with lots of costumes. For a young actor, that was a tremendous experience.” My personal favorite reason why Oldman wanted to play Dracula is that he wanted to say the line: I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you ~ Oldman has said it was worth playing the role just to say that line. I bet it was!
Much has always been made of casting Keanu Reeves in the role of Jonathan Harker (especially since his attempt at a British accent was so awful, despite the voice coach Coppola hired). Coppola has defended his choice of casting Reeves: “We tried to get some kind of matinée idol for the part of Jonathan, because it isn’t such a great part. If we all were to go to the airport… Keanu is the one that the girls would just besiege.” Here’s my take on Reeves as Jonathan Harker: in the book, Jonathan is not much of a “man’s man” ~ he’s just not the stereotypical masculine hero of the Victorian (or any) era; he’s too sensitive, too weak. I think Keanu manages to personify those unmanly qualities pretty well, dude. I also think his cardboard-stiff portrayal of Jonathan Harker is now one of the “kind of fun to watch” elements of the movie. His acting is just so bad, you can’t help but enjoy it.
A lot of people genuinely applaud this movie as groundbreaking because it got Dracula out of his formal attire and that wonderful cape, and because it added to vampyre lore in ways that has influenced many vampyre stories and their adaptations ever since. I still don’t care for this movie very much, although I’ll watch it for laughs every once in a while. I’m still upset about the ways in which the script messes with the perfection of Bram Stoker’s novel, and, as much as I enjoy Gary Oldman’s overwrought romantically obsessed performance as Count Dracula, I still prefer Bela Lugosi (and that wonderful cape).