Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992; directed by Francis Ford Coppola; starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Tom Waits

The horror movie is often considered a lesser movie genre. Case in point of how the horror film is often unfairly relegated to an area of low culture or “lack of importance” is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Director Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970s created some of the most indelible and amazing films during what many people consider the greatest era for american films.  Titles like The Godfather Trilogy, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now are among the films first mentioned when discussing the second Golden Age of American Film.  But in 1992, after a few misfires, Coppola released this version of the seminal vampire tale.

“Beautiful to look at but shallow trifle”  is essentially what the critical – and largely public – reception was to the film.  We’re here to tell you oh no no no, this is actually a fantastic version of the tale that includes homages to everything from the original Bela Legois version to the Christopher Lee Hammer versions, to such things as Italian horror maestro Mario Bava to even Japanese expressionism (check out the painted in the sky eyes that peer down on Keanu Reeves’ Jonathan Harker as his carriage carts him towards to Count Dracula’s Castle).

By giving us a prologue showing us how Vlad Dracul fought for his people valiantly in the face of overwhelming odds yet, in his victory, lost his faith in God when he lost his love, we are given new reasons to understand, if not completely sympathize with this evil Count Dracula.   Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Vlad Dracul/Count Dracula clearly draws on Klaus Kinski’s strangely sad/sympatheic portrayal from Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu.

What emerges underlying the fantastical and horrific Dracula tale is a tragic story about lonliness, disconnection and lost love, in which the villains are almost more interesting and identifieable than our heros and our heros are either bland (as in Cary Elwes’s Lord Holmwood) and/or perhaps too arrogantly smug to be as relatedable to us (as in Anthony Hopkin’s Van Helsing, barely a year after he gave us Hannibal Lecter).  

Perhaps it was some combination of this focus on anti-heros, a good 20 years before such tropes became common place in American TV and film, along with a visual style that was clearly rendered less realistic and more surreal at a time when american film audiences really placed a premium on the realistism that conspired to have this film received as a bit meh.

Or maybe it was the focus on Reeves’s wooden portrayal of the doomed Jonathan Harker.  I would argue that Reeves’s woodeness is exactly what makes that role work, especially in contrast to the passion of the  Count – giving us more of a reason for Mina to fall for him.   And the rest of the cast is just as brilliantly cast.  Wynona Ryder is excellent as the prim victorian Mina who seems awakens to her buried passions when she meets the count and they find she is his lost love.  And Tom Waits is pretty much the perfect Renfield.  His dark carnival barker persona fits the role and the film perfectly.
Revisit this film with fresh eyes or see it for the first time.  While the 1990s were largely a rough patch for american horror, this film manages to do the unthinkable – make a beautiful film that is both homage to what came before it yet somehow also a synthesis of all that and the original story to something new and unique.

Dr. Vorhees