31 Days of Horror
Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel Dracula is one of the defining pieces of horror literature in the canon. Creating iconic characters like Mina Murray, Abraham Van Helsing, and of course the great count himself, Bram Stoker gave us a story for the ages. He also gave us a terror for the ages, and it is this terror that Francis Ford Coppola sought to remind viewers of with his cinematic adaptation of the novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While a classic in its own right, the novel does lacks the theatricality and bombast of the horror we’ve come to revel in over the course of the 20th century. In his adaptation, Coppola returns us to the quaint time during which the book was written, but adds enough of his own flair to make the movie truly feel like its own creature of darkness.
One of the great masterstrokes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the addition to the script (by James V. Hart) of Dracula‘s backstory. Many horror scholars and history buffs will be well aware of Vlad Tepes and his inspiration for the mythical count who cannot die — it’s a detail that the Castlevania series has also doubled down upon — but as part of the official mythology, credit goes to this film for the acceptance of this fact in popular culture.
The striking scene which opens the film sees a young Vlad returning home to the church he protected, only to find that God has not protected his bride. As he flies into a rage, adorned in crimson battle armor, he calls down sacrilege and blasphemy in equal measure before stabbing the holy cross. As blood pours from the cross, he appears to gain a dark version of Christ’s eternal life, while the angels of the church weep blood at his fate. Finally, he lets out an earth-shattering cry of rage and sorrow as the music rises, and the title card for the film is unveiled.
None of this is in the novel, which is actually written entirely in epistolary format — via letters, telegraphs, and phonographs — and told chronologically by characters who have obviously survived the events they are currently describing to the reader. While Hart’s Dracula script pays tribute to the original novel via a series of narrated letters throughout the film, for the most part the story is allowed to unfold before us in all of its visceral gothic glory. Further, Bram Stoker’s Dracula takes its greatest strengths from the various liberties that Hart takes with the story, and Coppola’s imaginative zest in bringing them to the screen.
Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s genre-defining novel just might be the definitive version of the character and the mythology.
Another of these wonderful additions, and perhaps the greatest strength of the film, is the re-framing of the relationship between Dracula and Mina Murray. In the novel, Dracula only seeks Mina after seeing her beauty in Jonathan Harker’s locket. There is otherwise no connection between the two whatsoever. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, however, Mina isn’t just a pretty girl in London — she’s also the reincarnation of the long-dead love that cursed Dracula in the first place. Regaining her is the only hope he has for salvation.
This element allows us to see Dracula as not just some slinking creature of the night, but as a sympathetic figure. A villain he remains, but the audience is slowly intoxicated by a love like this — a love that seems to be reciprocated by Mina many times throughout the film. By the end, viewers could be forgiven for seeing Jonathan Harker (played by a wooden Keanu Reeves) as the interloper on a romance that has survived for centuries, crossing the very boundary of life and death itself.
There is, of course, an irony in this regard to the titling of the film. Like with Coppola’s other famous adaptation, The Godfather, which has Mario Puzo’s name listed above it at all times, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is purported to be entirely faithful to the source material. It is a strange choice, as Hart’s script and Coppola’s vision take so many liberties with the original tale that it would be impossible to list them all here without just turning this into a listicle.
Still, there are many more worth mentioning. For example, Dracula giving Mina a choice as to whether she should join him in dark communion gives the character an even more sympathetic bent. Her plea to him in that moment — “Take me away from all of this death!” (wonderfully delivered by Winona Ryder) — is the kind of line that gothic horror novelists, with their love for challenging taboos and redefining social rules, would dream of.
Other truly grim elements, like the count feeding his dark brides a baby, the brides’ prolonged sensual feast on Harker, Lucy puking up blood all over Van Helsing, and a host of other examples, are likewise inventions or elaborations of Hart and Coppola. However, we ought to explore some of the other contributing factors that make Bram Stoker’s Dracula the iconic take on some of literature’s most enduring characters that it is.
For one, Wojciech Kilar’s chilling, bombastic soundtrack is felt in the film from the very opening frames. With its heavy use of opulent string sections and operatic arias, Kilar’s vibrant soundscape offers the film much of its incredible and indelible pomp. Just a few notes of the many classic compositions on the score are enough to reanimate memories, and all of this is further credit to Kilar’s fantastic grasp for the medium of gothic horror, as well as his ability to evoke it through sound.
Likewise, the fabulous costume design by Eiko Ishioka is a feast for the eyes. Ishioka rightfully won an Oscar for his gorgeously elaborate costumes, dozens of which were created for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Take Dracula’s truly memorable evening wear when Harker first meets him in his castle — an outfit that suggests a man from a time long past, but also one of great pride and regal disposition. There are also the many beautiful gowns worn by both Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra.
Of particular note is Lucy’s wedding dress, which later becomes her burial gown after she succumbs to Dracula’s power. The design of the gown — a look that reflects both purity and sensual malevolence — is the perfect look to accompany her as she transcends the boundaries of death. How perfectly monstrous she looks returning to her tomb with a young child she hopes to feast upon in her coffin. And the crimson of the blood shed in this scene is given further gravitas when contrasted against the false innocence of Lucy’s strikingly demure dress.
Another shining star on the lapel of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the gloriously gruesome makeup work by Greg Cannom, Michele Burke, and Matthew W. Mungle, for which the film took home the second of its three Oscars. Changing Dracula into a character with a dozen signature looks over the course of the story allows him to transcend the boundaries of Bela Lugosi’s Romanian cape or Max Schreck’s shambling rat man. Here, Dracula appears as a wolfman, a massive beast creature, a decrepit old count, and a ravishing young nobleman.
What’s most striking is how these illusions begin to fall away when the count loses control of himself. Any time he succumbs to sorrow and weeps, Dracula appears to lose the ability to manifest these glamours and form-changes, and instead melts like a wax candle of a man. Small additions like these add so much flavor to this depiction of the character that they cannot go unnoticed or unmentioned.
Of course, there’s so much more to enjoy about Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The aforementioned theatricality of Coppola’s direction makes flares and flashes of his imagination take assured control of Stoker’s source material. Take the waves of blood that crash through the frame when a vengeful Dracula takes Lucy’s life after being spurned by Mina, or the vibrant ways with which the vampires dispel the crosses of the vampire hunters, either turning them to liquid or making them burst into flames. New elements like these give Coppola’s vision of Dracula a look, feel, and taste all its own.
There are also the erotic elements to consider. After reading Hart’s script for the first time, Coppola was adamant about making Bram Stoker’s Dracula feel like an erotic fever dream at times, a motif he absolutely succeeds in conveying to the audience throughout, particularly as Mina and Lucy explore the hedge maze at night, where the beastly count stalks them from the shadows.
Another inspired choice by Coppola is to honor the legacy of the original film by using only practical effects and traditional cinematic sleight of hand to create all the glorious, creepy illusions and Victorian eloquence of the time and place in question. Take a simple scene where Harker travels by train, while the sky lights up with Dracula’s eyes in the background: the shot cuts to his journal, overlayed with the sky and the train traveling in unison. Rather than simply accomplish this with the digital tricks that were coming into vogue at the time, Coppola opted to create this scene using a miniature set of the train, a giant journal, and a few camera tricks.
Reverse stop motion is used to account for the creepy movements of Lucy in the tomb and the vampire brides in the castle, while elaborate puppetry and shadowy silhouettes are responsible for the battle and impalement sequences at the outset. Like with John Carpenter’s The Thing, the use of practical effects here gives Bram Stoker’s Dracula a weight of terror and horror that it would not otherwise have, as well as an elementary feeling of tangibility that adds to this heightened reality Coppola is constructing.
Finally, we’d be absolutely remiss if we failed to look back at the many glorious performances peppered throughout. Anthony Hopkins positively revels in one of his best roles as Abraham Van Helsing, who is as much a metaphysical magician and conjurer of tricks as he is an accomplished medical doctor. The hilarious zest he brings to the role, as well as the blunt way he describes the horrific and gruesome to the more prim and proper characters, make his performance wholly memorable. Tom Waits is likewise inspired as the mad, bug-eating Renfield, small part though it is.
Of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula lives and dies, literally and metaphorically, on Gary Oldman’s legendary performance as the various iterations of the count. It takes an actor of Oldman’s caliber to sell the more brutal elements of the beast versions of Dracula, while still uniting them with the high-born charm of his London variation, and the old-hat geriatrics of his Transylvanian counterpart. It may yet be his greatest role, in a career defined by iconic performances.
All in all, Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s genre-defining novel just might be the definitive version of the character and the mythology. From its indelible mark on popular culture to its systematic redefinition of a legend, this masterpiece of the macabre is a staple of horror, and truly a one of a kind film.