Over the course of Hooptober, I’ve watched several Dracula and Dracula adjacent films. I can’t explain why I find myself drawn to interpretations of Bram Stoker’s novel. I say interpretation because very few films have attempted to adapt the novel. F.W. Murnau needed to change things for Nosferatu so it didn’t incur the Stoker estate’s wrath. Universal’s 1931 Dracula adapts a stage play. Hammer Films’ Horror of Dracula and Jess Franco’s Count Dracula get closer but take their own liberties. The same with Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu. It uses the names from the book but ultimately in service to Murnau’s original.
I mention all of these because I’m about to get into my favorite adaptation of the novel Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s not my favorite vampire film. That’s Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr, a film that’s a nightmare from the old world. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a thoroughly modern film in love with the idea of Dracula, historical, literary, and cinematic. It is not faithful to the novel in letter but it is faithful in spirit. The liberties director Francis Ford Coppola and writer James V. Hart take transform the novel into a romantic film in all meanings of that word. This film dares to ask, “Can this monster be saved?”
The film opens with the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. A Christian man, he goes off to defend his faith from the Ottoman Empire. He leaves the love of his life Elizabeta but returns to find her dead. Told he was dead, she committed suicide, an act the Church says condemns her soul to hell. Convinced the God he just defended betrayed him, Vlad renounces God. He bellows that he now pledges his services to the forces of darkness. Plunging his sword into a cross, blood erupts from it and baptizes him. This Dracula is a man of immense passions, albeit ones that condemn him.
The next time we see him, he’s become the more familiar cinematic and literary Count Dracula. He is now an old man that skulks about his castle in the shadows. His once great castle is now a decrepit nightmare. He lives only because his hate sustains him. When Jonathan Harker comes to his doorstep, the Count greets him like he is the first person to visit in years. Upon seeing Harker’s fiancée Mina, he knows England offers him new life.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, like other adaptations, takes liberties with the source material. What liberties director Francis Ford Coppola and writer James V. Hart take with the novel though! Here is a Dracula story romantic in every meaning of that word. This is a film about intense emotions and the people who want to express them. When the Count says “I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you” to Mina, you feel that as much as his declaration of hatred towards God. Winona Ryder’s Mina Murray falls for a Dracula not constrained by society’s dictates on passion. Her Mina is woman curious of both the world and the worldly. Why marry dull Jonathan Harker when you can have a man who promises both life and love eternal?
This may be the most complex and compelling portrayal of the Count on screen. Where other Dracula portrayals fell into a Gary Oldman’s performance is as tender as is it feral. His Dracula is a creature driven by his desires. He’s both tortured and animalistic, a man of immense love and a beast of pure hatred. The audience believes this man could love eternally while being a brutal killer.
Hart’s script asks if there is salvation and redemption for Dracula in the eyes of God. This is a fundamental question in religion, especially Catholicism; does God forgive all? Dracula rejected God and knows his fate. The audience knows that this man capable of such great love for a woman also committed horrific acts as a ruler. What is his life if he asks forgiveness and let’s go of his hate? He doesn’t wish to condemn Mina to a life spent to eternal darkness. Is her total love of him capable of redeeming his black soul?
Meanwhile Coppola as a director goes full tilt here. He seems hellbent on making the ultimate vampire film or at least the ultimate tribute to vampire films. He takes lines from Nosferatu here or Universal’s Dracula there. The monstrous forms evoke both Universal and Hammer Films while also making a new nightmares of the count. Coppola also makes this a film that lives in its time period. Using Eiko Ishioka’s costumes and Thomas Sanders’ set design, he evokes the art of the time such as Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha. The film creates a truly stylized past. The opening sequence is as much shadow puppets as it is Gary Oldmam hacking away at people. Even 30 years and many, many imitators later, this is still so visually stunning.
This is a film I love dearly and revisit frequently. It’s a film that makes Dracula as much a romantic hero as a nightmarish beast. I wrote about “prestige horror” when writing about The Bride. This film falls into that category. Like Dracula in this film, this is something with vision and passion behind it.
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