Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Stoker’s vampire fantasy is a phantasmagoric, fever dream of a movie

Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1992), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starring Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves and Anthony Hopkins, with Gary Oldman reprising the iconic vampire, is a visually stunning exercise in old-fashioned movie magic that takes the viewer into an enchanting and terrifying dream world.

Orson Welles, who directed an adaptation of “Dracula” for his radio Mercury Theater in 1938, once remarked that anyone who makes a movie from it should use Bram Stoker’s original novel rather than the Hamilton Deane-John Balderstone stage adaptation, which is the source of the seminal 1931 film with with Bela Lugosi (and also the 1979 film with Frank Langella). Though we never got to see a ‘Dracula’ film made by Welles, if he had indeed made one, it wouldn’t have been much different from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version. In its dense visual aesthetic as well as being a near-faithful cinematic adaptation of the source novel, Coppola’s film could very well be misunderstood for something directed by Welles. Also, there has never been a better marriage between an artist and a subject (and at the right time in history) than between Coppola and Dracula (Damn!, even their names rhyme). Ever since he released “The Godfather Part II” and “The Conversation” back to back in 1974, Coppola had become a stylist in search of a worthy subject. Starting with “Apocalypse Now”, Coppola has been on a trip of innovation vis-à-vis  the visual and narrative style of his films are concerned, more often at the expense of substance. His first full-blown stylistic experiment, the 1982 “One from the Heart”, was a simple love story that got bogged by style and ended in critical and financial disaster for the director. His subsequent films too- like “The Cotton Club”, “Tucker” etc. – were fun to watch , but in those films, style so overwhelmed the substance that, in totality, they just didn’t work as memorable piece of cinema. Ever since he made his debut in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Count Dracula has been an expressionistic character in search of a cinematic auteur. He had a fitting, but an unofficial one in the form of F.W. Murnau, who channeled Stoker’s vampire for his silent classic “Nosefaratu”. Since then, the Count has been the subject of a lot of films, but the characters and the stories kept departing drastically from the source novel at every turn. Finally, both Coppola and Dracula met in 1992, resulting in an astonishing and incredibly strange motion picture, aptly titled “Bram stoker’s Dracula”- keeping with Coppola’s yen for giving the author of the book the first credit; remember “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather”. Most Dracula movies are a patchwork of novel and above mentioned play; mainly because there’s really not much of “Dracula” in Stoker’s book. After the first long Transylvanian episode- the meeting of Dracula and Harker- he becomes a largely unseen presence: the offstage super-villain, always one step ahead. So a lot of the character of Dracula had to be made up. To circumvent this problem, Screenwriter James V. Hart, even as he returned to Stoker’s original novel for inspiration, also borrowed ideas from Dan Curtis’ 1973 TV movie and the vampire novels of Anne Rice. But where the film really triumphs is in the visual treatment that Coppola has accorded this film. Coppola takes an artistic approach to the material, and he manages to find a style that perfectly duplicates the mood and subtext of the novel , even if it does take some liberties with the novel’s narrative and characterization. On account of this, the film becomes as mesmerizing and thoroughly engrossing as reading the novel. Coppola has delivered a visual and emotional feast that is satisfying in every respect- a world filled with rich colors and deep shadows that forms a perfect backdrop against which the characters so vividly emerge to play out this fantastical drama.

Coppola begins the film with a prologue set in Fifteenth-century Romania: it features the story of the notorious, Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was, as the film tells us, a warlord, who fought the Turks. According to the myth, he drank the blood of his victims and impaled them. This myth was a direct inspiration for Bram Stoker, who, combined it with myths of vampires into this tale of the well known blood -sucking Vampire. In the film, Coppola emphasizes the romantic story inherent in this myth where Vlad is a man who loses his wife and cannot rejoin her in another life. Vlad wins a great victory for his god against the Turks, but a treacherous move by the vengeful Turks results in his wife Elisabeta committing suicide. Seeing that, rather than being rewarded, he’s being punished by the gods for his actions, Dracula turns against god and church, and is in turn punished by god to wander the earth as the undead. He is cursed to be feared and hunted, for he needs to drink the blood of humans to keep himself alive. The film then cuts to 1897, London, where a newly-qualified solicitor Jonathan Harker takes the Transylvanian Count Dracula as a client from his colleague R. M. Renfield, who has gone insane. Jonathan travels to Transylvania to arrange Dracula’s real estate acquisition in London, which includes Carfax Abbey. Jonathan meets Dracula, who discovers a picture of Harker’s fiancée, Mina, and believes that she is the reincarnation of Elisabeta, his long lost wife. Dracula leaves Jonathan to be seduced by his brides and sails to England with boxes of his native soil. In London, Dracula takes up residence at Carfax Abbey, and then, appearing young and handsome during daylight, meets and charms Mina. When Mina receives word from Harker, who has escaped the castle and has recovered at a convent, she travels to Romania to marry him. In his fury, Dracula transforms Lucy, Mina’s best friend, into a vampire.  Lucy’s deteriorating health and behavioral changes prompt former suitors Quincey Morris and Dr. Seward, along with her fiancé Arthur Holmwood to summon Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, Seward’s teacher, who recognizes Lucy as the victim of a vampire. The four of them manages to ‘kill’ the undead Lucy by driving a stake through her heart and cutting off her head. After Harker and Mina return to London, Van Helsing leads Harker and Lucy’s three suitors to Carfax Abbey, where they destroy the Count’s boxes of soil. Dracula confesses to Mina that he murdered Lucy, but a confused and angry Mina admits that she still loves him and remembers her previous life as Elisabeta. At her insistence, Dracula begins transforming her into a vampire. But before he could finish, Van Helsing and the men burst in foiling Dracula’s plans. Dracula makes a quick trip back home in the last remaining box of soil. From hereon, the film becomes a chase movie, with Dracula racing against time to get back to his castle, with Van Helsing and the four men in hot pursuit of the count. Helsing, who brings Mina along with him, is determined to destroy the count before he sets foot on his native soil. In the end, evil is destroyed and love triumphs, as Mina redeems Dracula, and provides him a way out of his undead state to reunite with his Elisabeta in heaven.

Except for the reincarnation love story that bookends the film, Coppola’s adaptation stays faithful to the original text. He even manages to duplicate the epistolary nature of the book’s narrative, where the story is told through the journal’s of different characters. But Coppola changes the mood of the story from that of gothic horror to a lush romantic epic, with Dracula himself turned into more of a tragi-romantic hero, who crosses ‘oceans of time’ to reunite with his beloved – as opposed to the epitome of sadistic evil in the book. One also finds elements of “Michael Corleone” in Dracula (might be Coppola’s personal touch)- the heroic warrior and idealist who feels betrayed by god, and hence turns to the path of evil. In the prologue, we see the Count being forced into sin by a monk’s refusal to grant absolution to his bride, Elisabeta, because she committed suicide. Interestingly, Anthony Hopkins plays the monk who condemns Dracula, and later in the film, Hopkins reappears as Abraham Van Helsing, the vampire hunter, who does his best to save Mina from Dracula. Thus Hopkins, along with Winona Ryder, are the only two actors who appear in both the historical story and the contemporary story playing two different characters, which are spiritually linked, while Gary Oldman as Dracula is supposed to be the physical link that connects these two different stories and two time periods. This makes Van Helsing the most interesting and recalibrated character for the movie, even more than Dracula. Helsing and Dracula are portrayed as two sides of the same coin, except Dracula represents the darkness while Helsing is the light. This is reflected in Hopkins’ wild, eccentric, operatic performance, in which he alternates wildly between being totally controlled and wildly unhinged. Hopkins also generates a certain amount of sexual tension in his relationship with Mina; she’s attracted to both Dracula and Helsing throughout the movie, and the final battle is between Dracula and Helsing for Mina’s soul. Gary Oldman wonderfully combines Dracula’s charm, grace, sinister aspects, desire for revenge against God and lust for women to create a character who’s at once creepy and disturbing as well as romantic and charming. Apart from looking almost exactly like the vampire as described in the novel, his vocal and bodily performance is so unbelievably good that it leaves every previous interpretation of Dracula in the dust. It’s a thin line he walks here: his performance is scary and funny, without being campy, and he really works hard to create a believable character, especially since he’s buried underneath mountains of makeup most of the time. With her dark, winsome looks and natural intensity, Winona Ryder is perfectly cast as Mina, but the role itself is rather bland, and not very well developed. One never gets the moral conflict going on inside Mina as she wavers between her husband and Dracula. Though Winona’s casting allows Coppola to creates a nice contrast between the five main female characters in the film: Winona’s strong, but non-sexualized femininity stands in contrast to Dracula’s overtly sexual brides led by Monica Belucci; while Sadie Frost’s Lucy is situated somewhere between these two. She starts out like Mina, though we realize that, underneath, she’s far wilder than she appears, and it feels natural that she ends up as one of Dracula’s brides. Tom Waits gives a memorable performance as the mad, insect-eater, Renfield, who ends up becoming Dracula’s slave. The single member of the cast who seems to struggle with his performance is Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker. He is very earnest indeed, and tries too hard, and that seems to be the problem. Also, he is far too modern to fit convincingly into that period setting.

But more than the writing, characterization and the acting, it’s the film’s wildly innovative audio-visual aesthetic that’s its standout: Coppola lets his imagination run riot here, referencing everything from iconic images from classic silent films like “Nosefaratu”, “Ivan the Terrible” and “The Thief of Bagdad”; as well as designs out of Art Nouveau and paintings of Gustave Klimt or Caspar Friedrich. What determined Coppola’s razzle-dazzle visual style for the film was the fact that Dracula was written at the same time as cinema was invented. So, he decided to make the film much in the way that the earliest cinema practitioners would have: all the visual effects will be done ‘in camera’ without using any CGI or modern technology. To this end, he fired the special effects department, who were resisting his ideas, and hired his young son, Roman, who was a magic enthusiast. Roman used old-fashioned magic tricks for scenes where Dracula’s brides appears out of bedsheets to devour Harker; or where Dracula transforms into green smoke or a bunch of rats. The film was also the grand culmination of Coppola’s ultimate dream to make his films completely on studio soundstages; an ambition that was triggered during the hellish on-location shoot of “Apocalypse Now”. He had launched his own, Zoetrope studios, for this purpose, and had made “One From the Heart” entirely there- with an assortment of magical and theatrical effects, and without any location shooting. But the film’s commercial failure lead to him filing for bankruptcy, and he ended up losing his studio. He had later tried this mix of stage bound theatricality, music and drama in films like “The Cotton Club” and “Tucker”, but they were not successful; the subjects didn’t naturally lend themselves to this kind of treatment, and i have always felt that those films would have been much better if they had been given the classical film treatment. “Dracula” was the perfect film to unleash the mixture of ‘smokes & mirrors’ magic tricks, staged theater and tableau vivant- the film was 99 and a half percent done through stagecraft, even the climatic chase at the Borgo Pass. Thus, Coppola finally succeeded in realizing his decade long dream.

Like all Coppola films, the music score is very exotic and different. Wojciech Kilar’s composed a perfect and versatile score that goes from pulse-pounding martial music to lush romanticism, befitting the changing tones of the film. But the real star of the film is Costume designer Eiko Ishioka and her wonderful costumes. Coppola had decided from the outset that he wasn’t going to have any big sets; costumes were going to take their place, and he had allocated a large budget for them. Ishioka, who won an Oscar for her work in the movie, had previously designed the production for Paul Schrader’s ¨Mishima¨, which Coppola had produced. She had also done some spectacular Japanese posters for “Apocalypse Now“, but she had never designed costumes for a film before, neither had she seen a Dracula movie prior to being hired for this film; she was initially hired as the art director, but when Coppola saw some of her costume sketches, he immediately asked her to work as the costume designer. Her designs created a new image for the Count and, for the first time, freed him from the black cape and evening wear the character had become associated with since Bela Lugosi’s portrayal in the 1931 Dracula. Instead, she created a red cloak for him, trailing behind him like a sea of blood, and the gold dragon on his chest- suggesting he is the dragon to Van Helsing’s St. George. Another standout was Lucy’s white laced ruffled burial gown. Much of the costume designs were based on the shapes of animals like Wolf, lizard, snake etc. Dracula sports a blood-red sort of muscle armor that resembles anatomy-book drawings, and the promiscuous Lucy wears a party dress embroidered with peppermint green snakes to underscore her eroticism and attraction to evil. Obviously, in a vampire film, makeup always plays a big part. Here, Dracula takes several forms. The make-up of the elderly Dracula is sufficiently corpse-like yet alive enough to suggest quite rightly that Dracula is caught between life and death by his vampire’s existence. The half-man, half-wolf and the half-man, half-bat versions of Dracula are wonderfully created with make-up and special effects. The only one that doesn’t really work is the young version of Dracula, with his long hair and dark glasses, which Coppola hated, but was done at Oldman’s insistence. There was lot of tension between Coppola and Oldman during the production; Oldman was an intense actor, who stayed in character throughout the course of the shoot, and he frequently clashed with his director and his costars.

In the development of the film’s visual narrative, Coppola also nods to the evolution of the art of filmmaking, as well as the various genres that populate cinema. In that regard, the film becomes almost episodic, where each of the episodes seem to harken back to a particular genre or an era of filmmaking. The battle scene in the prologue is accomplished using puppets standing in for silhouetted soldiers, moving stiffly in a deliberately stylized way, and spearing one another in the foreground of a hellish red sunset. This sequence is later referenced in a sequence set in the first of those ‘Cinematograph’ houses- where Dracula and Mina are present- in which the images flickering on the screen has the same artifice as those opening images. Then we get a whole lot of images that references horror movies of 20s and 30s, like Dracula’s fiery eyes appearing in the sky when Harker is in the train, or a stairwell in the Count’s castle that seems to go beyond the infinite underneath. The romantic scenes between Dracula and Mina seems to be inspired from Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast”. A scene where Lucy drives her three suitors crazy is straight out of a Chaplin or Keaton slapstick comedy routine. The climax – with its extended chase sequence involving a stagecoach and riders on horseback thundering across rocky terrain- brings in elements of a primitive ‘Western’. Coppola references his own “Godfather” films and “Apocalypse Now” in scenes where Mina and Harker’s marriage is intercut with Dracula’s furious destruction of Lucy. The editing of the film is very much in the style of “Apocalypse”, even far out than that i guess- there are very few direct cuts; scenes simply flows into the next- using dissolves and double exposures, Coppola creates an elasticity to the visuals and the time & space in which the story is told. Scenes begin before the previous one has ended, and sometimes two scenes play at the same time on the screen. This visual choice was driven by the supernatural element inherent in the story and the lead character. Dracula himself is shown unaffected by natural laws of physics or geography. His shadow acts independent of his body, and he seems to defy the laws of gravity in his physical movements. These are all the directorial touches that makes this film a true auteur’s work, and distinguishes it from any of the Dracula or Horror films that had come before or after.

Upon its release, the film proved to be big hit at the worldwide box office, collecting about $215 million on an approx. $40 million budget. This was Coppola’s first genuine hit after 1979’s “Apocalypse Now”. But unlike that film, which went way over budget and overschedule, this one was accomplished very efficiently. Coppola was hell-bent on changing his reputation as a spendthrift, financially irresponsible filmmaker. The success of the film also saved Coppola from bankruptcy- he had accumulated liabilities to the tune of $27 million over the past decade. His earnings from the film allowed him to payback all his debts, and also expand his wine business, which would soon overtake filmmaking as his primary vocation. “Dracula” deservedly won Academy Awards for editing , sound effects , costume design and makeup. Of course, “Dracula” is not Coppola’s greatest film, but i think it’s his last great film. He’s still alive and kicking, and may make another masterpiece or two in the future, but until then this is his final masterpiece for me. Coppola could have very easily made a conventional movie out of Stoker’s novel, and still went home a happy man, but it’s to his credit that he made a truly path breaking, out-of-the-box movie. With this film, Coppola once again achieved what he had triumphantly achieved with the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now- which is to take a very commercial, and even low-brow genre piece, and convert it into a very personal art film; that eventually became very popular with a mass audience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s