For Das Reboot day, reviewer Katie Young rises from the grave to take a look at Francis Ford Coppola’s 90s take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula…
When I was a little girl, I used to spend Friday nights at my grandparents’ house. My Granddad would go to the pub, and Grandma and I would get into our dressing gowns, pour ourselves a drink (Bacardi for her, Diet Coke for me) and settle down for a long evening of TV. As the witching hour approached, sitcoms gave way to B-Movies and Hammer Horrors, and we’d watch Godzilla rampage through toy cities, and Vincent Price examining the squished remains of his fly-headed brother with a mixture of wry amusement and grossed-out glee.
This was my first introduction to the legend of Dracula. Aside from the sugar-coated versions of the vampiric aristocrat depicted in Sesame Street and Count Duckula (any 80s kids worth their salt will remember all the words to the theme tune), my experience of Vlad was informed by Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jnr. While these portrayals are unarguably iconic and hugely enjoyable, they have very little bearing on Bram Stoker’s epistolary, and there wasn’t much in them to chill my young blood.
Imagine the impact it had on my twelve-year-old soul when after decades of hammy bloodsuckers, Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel, was released in 1992. I still remember the coffin shaped VHS box set (including a copy of the novel and a dashing lapel pin) as being the most exciting Christmas gift I ever received.
From the opening imagery it’s clear this version of the tale is unlike any that had gone before. A Byzantine cross atop a domed roof, wreathed in smoke, topped and replaced with the Turkish crescent. A map of the old Ottoman Empire. Vlad Dracula himself clad in armour which resembles skinned, human musculature. A battle scene played as a macabre shadow puppet show, with impaled Turks silhouetted against a fiery sky like a vision from the depths of Hell. Winona Ryder’s Elisabeta flinging herself from the castle. The cross which gushes blood when stabbed with Vlad’s sword. The prologue is an embellishment to Stoker’s tale, giving the viewer some vaguely historical context for the origins of the Dracula story, and serves as an amuse-bouche for the sumptuous visual feast that is to follow. It also introduces the beating heart of the movie, one which is a departure from the source material: The love story between Dracula and his bride reincarnate.
Critics were (and still are) divided on Coppola’s epic. While some considered it an overblown, unholy mess, others adored the lavish spectacle and theatricality of it, made all the more incredible by Coppola’s insistence that all of the effects be achieved using antiquated methods from a bygone age of filmmaking. While films such as The Hunger and The Lost Boys may have made vampires sexy and fun, never before had Dracula been so multi-faceted, so fascinating, so alluring, and so hideous. Coppola finds horror in beauty and beauty in horror. Every single shot in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is stunning to look at. Practically every scene contains some off-kilter detail – a shadow moving independently of its maker, an eye in a cloud, an unstoppered perfume bottle dripping upwards, unfathomable whispers under the dialogue – so that the overall effect is that of having a sensual, two hour fever dream. The opulent costumes and glorious sets eschew historical accuracy in favour of atmosphere and fantastical world-building. And the film is so overtly sexual that one could be forgiven for needing a good hosing down with holy water after viewing. Scenes such as the amazingly-coiffed Count shaving houseguest/prisoner, Jonathan Harker with a cut-throat razor, the then unknown Monica Bellucci as a bride of Dracula, rising from the silken folds of Jonathan’s bed to give him the world’s tensest blow job, Lucy Westenra writhing in pleasure and pain as a grotesque beast hunches over her in the garden, and Mina and Dracula sharing bloody kisses as the vampire reveals his true identity to his long lost love, all serve to titillate and repulse simultaneously, and they linger in the mind’s eye long after the credits have rolled.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not just a visual treat but an aural one as well. Wojciech Kilar’s score is soaring, unsettling, and gorgeous. And Annie Lennox’s inspired and haunting Love Song for a Vampire deservedly reached number three in the UK Singles Chart.
There are some beautiful performances too. Gary Oldman is compelling and just unhinged enough to be scary, even when he’s camping it up a bit. Anthony Hopkins brings a touch of arch humour to proceedings as Van Helsing. Both Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost are believable and sympathetic leading ladies (Ryder’s “I love you. Oh, God forgive me, I do,” kills me every time). Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, and Bill Campbell are all delightful as the three suitors vying for Lucy’s hand in marriage, and battling to save her immortal soul. Okay, I know Keanu Reeves’ accent is more Bill and Ted than London gent (his pronunciation of the word ‘inferno’ is particularly and hilariously bogus, dude), but he was so beautiful at this point, and had just made My Own Private Idaho, so he can be forgiven anything. And lest we forget Tom Waits’ sublime turn as the insect-scoffing servant of evil, Renfield. The interaction between him and Grant’s Dr. Seward are some of the finest and strangely touching of the whole film.
I believe that while it exercises some creative licence, Coppola’s vision of Dracula perfectly captures the vastness, the complexity, and the wonder of the book. You really feel as if you have “crossed oceans of time” by the film’s climax on the snow-capped Carpathian peaks. It is a highly romanticised and glamourised version of Stoker’s story. While there is horror in spades, and tragedy, it is lacking that malice, and that Victorian sense of panic. Coppola’s story revels in debauchery. But ultimately it’s about the redemptive nature of a love.
As well as breathing new life (or undeath) into the Dracula myth, it also paved the way for a new breed of vampire movie, with Interview with the Vampire following two years later, Neil Jordan’s eponymous adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel. Our fascination with vampires as romantic leads continues with the popularity of the Twilight and True Blood franchises, and I would argue there is a little of Coppola’s aesthetic influence to be found in the stark beauty of Let the Right One In.
So there you have it. A gloriously over the top kick in the pants for Vlad. Delicious. Glass of claret, anyone?