Monday 14 November 2022

Bram Stoker’s Dracula at 30

30 years ago, I was fixated on Bram Stoker's Dracula during the holiday season of 1992.

Wojciech Kilar's soundtrack CD played on repeat as I wrote and illustrated in earnest, trying to numb the knowledge of finishing college and succumbing to imposter syndrome as the prospect of university weighed heavily on my mind.

Winona Ryder (Stranger Things) was my latest silver screen crush and I couldn't wait to immerse myself in director Francis Ford Coppola's (The Godfather) tragic tale of doomed love.

Those gothic sensibilities would form the foundation of my friendship with Nick Smith when we first met the following year at Bournemouth University. So, it only seems appropriate that Nick, our US-based stellar scribe, examines the vampiric heart of darkness in Bram Stoker's Dracula...

Guest post by Nick Smith

Never underestimate the influence of Tim Burton.

After his dark magical realism filled Warner Bros’ coffers with Batman in 1989, tenebrous fairy tales and film noir were in: Darkman, The Addams Family and Dick Tracy all sought the same audience as Burton’s stylized comic book hit. The formula worked; in a new decade, moviegoers were ready for Gothic frills and thrills after the brash 1980s.

Literal – if not literate – as ever, Hollywood was willing to bankroll a Gothic classic, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. 30 years after its release, the movie holds up both as a frightfully big adventure and an elegiac romance.

Fresh off another girl-meets-monster smash, Edward Scissorhands, Winona Ryder brought the Dracula script to the attention of director Francis Ford Coppola. He adapted it with grand Guignol glee, glorying in multiple homages to iconic film sequences. Like a vampire who did like wine (his own house label), he syphoned imagery from other films and hypnotized us with the spell of cinema.

Look closely and you’ll see bits from Todd Browning’s Dracula (‘the children of the night’ speech, for example); FW Murnau’s expressionistic Nosferatu (especially the outré use of shadows cast by Dracula); The Exorcist (Van Helsing standing in front of a fog-bound house; a vampire projectile-vomiting onto the hunter); Coppola’s own Godfather (religious ritual intercut with murder); and Hammer films (cue dramatic music!).

Imitations notwithstanding, the lush visuals are delightfully sanguine, the costumes are lavish and the sets positively operatic. The impressive cast includes Gary Oldman as Dracula, Ryder as the love of his unlife, Mina, and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, supported by Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits, Monica Bellucci and, er, Keanu Reeves.

Befitting the owner of American Zoetrope, Coppola riffs on motion picture technology and techniques circa 1897, when the bulk of this story is set: light shows, shadow play, phonograph recordings, iris transitions, peep shows and a nod to the Lumiere Brothers’ Train Pulling into a Station.

Legend has it that when the Lumieres’ early silent film was shown, the audience fled the theatre thinking a real train was heading toward them. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a wolf escapes from the zoo and sends people packing. Coppola compares a filmic rumour with a literary myth; by taming the wolf, Dracula indicates that he commands the mystery of film – just like the director.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula cost $40 million to make - a whopping sum back in 1992 - and grossed almost $216 million at the box office. It helped drag the Count out of his Sesame Street doldrums into the late 20th Century, setting the stage for more classic monster revivals, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Wolfman.

Playing like a dark dream, the film works best today as a celebration of the epistolary source novel, classic Hollywood and practical makeup effects. The romance between Dracula and his reincarnated partner is splendidly intense; Mina must choose between the exotic bad boy Count and the waiflike Jonathan Harker. The choice is not easy for her, especially after Dracula points out that he has ‘crossed oceans of time’ for her.

No pressure.

This was the last big movie for Francis Ford Coppola, the godfather of modern populist cinema. Pulling out all the stops, he ends with a bloody bang. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a landmark love song for a vampire and a long, extravagant love note to the intense emotions movies can evoke.

Have you seen Bram Stoker's Dracula? What did you think? How does it compare with other adaptations? Let me know in the comments below.

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