Warning! It is highly recommended that potential viewers of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula are fully equipped with a few necessary items. These include: (1) the ability to follow an incredibly confusing plotline; (2) a sketchy knowledge of Bram Stoker’s novel; and (3) a plentiful supply of cold water (buckets or cold showers both acceptable). Also, this review contains spoilers.
The fact that Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is littered with eroticism and religious imagery is nothing new. It’s informed the way we write and perform the vampire myth over the course of an entire century. But in Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of the book (‘adaptation’ is here used in the loosest possible sense) this is taken to a whole new level.
This seems an obvious place to start, but the way that Coppola chooses to present his film to audiences is interesting. The film’s full title is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but readers of the book may find themselves a touch perplexed; apart from the characters the film seems to have little in common with Stoker’s story. A case of postmodern irony, or just a marketing strategy? I leave it for you to decide. The opening shots present viewers with Dracula’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, something which Stoker only hints at in the novel.
Coppola takes for granted that Dracula was based on the historical figure of Vlad Țepeș (or Vlad the Impaler, to those who knew him well, if a little too briefly), and the costuming of Dracula’s character is thus based on the portraits that survive of this Wallachian warlord, a definite deviation from the original, as well as the mid-twentieth century view of the villain as a sleek, gentlemanly figure.
Furthermore, the opening shots invent a history for Dracula: returning home after fighting the Turks, Dracula learns that his wife has committed suicide, having been wrongfully informed that her husband died in battle. Angry at the church for excommunicating her, his enemies for being so darn perseverant, and probably just the world in general for existing, Dracula renounces his faith, stabbing a giant crucifix with his sword and drinking the blood that pours out of the stone (plenty of layers there, for those who love that sort of thing). Drums roll, flames flicker, and then the title is displayed on the screen.
Wynona Rider (x2)
It isn’t long before we arrive in England, 1897, where we meet Mina (played by Wynona Rider), only to discover that she bears a striking resemblance to Dracula’s dead wife. Coincidence? You decide.
The doubling-up of these two characters gives modern viewers a compelling explanation for Dracula’s desire to take over England. Instead of it being simply an ominous, unexplained desire to penetrate England and ‘the West’, Dracula’s desire is focused on the figure of Mina. To some extent it does humanise this particular villain, but throughout the film Dracula remains something of an enigma for viewers. It’s consistent with his frequent and drastic changes in appearance: from the long-haired warlord of the opening scenes (who would probably not look out of place in a Pantene commercial), to the creepy figure that greets Jonathan Harker at the castle (wearing a costume which is a blend of several Far Eastern styles), to well-dressed Gary Oldman on the streets of London, to the weird vampire/werewolf hybrid that menaces Lucy Westenra in her garden.
The Thing About the Buckets
Dracula’s bizarre costuming is just the beginning of the inconsistencies. The film is characterised by excess, by confusion, and by a kind of frantic blending of symbols.
The strange costuming of Dracula is one example. Another interesting choice is the depiction of Dracula’s castle; in the book Transylvania, Dracula’s domain, is presented as backward, simple, tied to the past. In contrast, London is modern, advanced, boasting technological improvements and new devices such as typewriters, telegraphs, and phonographs. In this film, however, this distinction is somewhat blurred. Dracula’s castle, for instance, has a weird mechanistic vibe to it that definitely doesn’t bring to mind the castle of the book.
But the defining feature of the film (and indeed most Dracula adaptations) is the pervasive eroticism. The film is a riot of bright colours, silks, and flesh. On the one hand, this could be seen as an attempt to bring the Gothic genre into the twentieth century; understandably, what shocked our Victorian forebears it considered positively tame by modern standards. As in many adaptations (Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 version of Frankenstein, in which Coppola also had a hand, comes to mind), the creators tend to go overboard; Dracula is probably one of the most excessive adaptations I’ve seen so far.
Personally, I found the eroticism so pervasive that it had a strange effect; it seemed to cancel itself out by dint of sheer excess. There was too much blood/silk/flesh, too much red and gold interspersed with white. I’m not sure if the creators wanted us to feel a little hot under the collar, but it certainly wasn’t the effect I experienced.
In the End
I came away from this film with mixed feelings. The sheer excess of some of the scenes left me feeling a little stumped, and I couldn’t decide whether the filmmakers had succeeded in making a shrewd comment about the story and the characters, or whether they had just made a really bad movie.
Giving Dracula a backstory was certainly sentimental, but the strange relationship between Mina and the villain can potentially be seen as allowing Mina’s character more of a chance to act as a desiring subject, rather than a virginal victim and Victorian angel/mascot to the Anti-Dracula League. Her scenes with Dracula express an awareness of her sexual desire, exemplified in her costuming: baby-greens and blues are suddenly swapped for deep red in her principal scenes with Dracula.
The film ends with what can be seen as a scene of ‘redemption’: the vanquished Dracula, steeped in blood, collapses at the foot of an altar. As he dies a ‘heavenly light’ shines on his face, changing him from the decrepit ‘creature of the night’ back into a human being. Though Mina apparently sides with the Anti-Dracula League, the film closes on a ceiling fresco in the chapel, where Dracula and his long-lost wife are entwined in what can be seen as either a loving, or a menacing, embrace. In the end, I’m not sure that this backstory gives Mina much more freedom to act as a free agent; she is still unable to act outside the two personas that men have created for her (devoted, kind Victorian wife versus passionate lover of Dracula), and ultimately she does not break out of them.
There’s lots to be said about this film, and I’m afraid I’ve already rambled on long enough. For sheer entertainment value this movie probably deserves about three stars. As an adaptation it is much poorer. But there are a lot of interesting conclusions to be drawn from the myriad of jumbled images presented to us on-screen. I left this film with no strong feelings for it; it was only upon reflection that I began to figure out exactly what it might be trying to say.
Rating: 3 Stars