By River Lunsford
If you’re anything like me, Halloween is not just a day, it’s the whole month—maybe even a whole season. The Halloween season is a time when some feel the most motivation to check out new horror movies on their watchlist and revisit old favorites to get in the spirit. One of those films for me is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This adaptation follows Mina, Jonathan Harker, and Van Helsing as well as a small group of other vampire hunters in their pursuit of Count Dracula as he moves from Transylvania to London in an evil scheme to find a new city of people to prey upon. But this adaptation updates the myth, adding original story details while maintaining the narrative and themes of the original novel that make the story of Dracula so classic. The film is simultaneously a 1990s time-capsule, a lavish adaptation, and a much-needed gothic horror film (after a long string of slasher franchise films in the horror genre at this time) that has all the eroticism and violence worthy of a vampire tale. Coppola’s Dracula blends the mystery and horror of the original novel with a cinematic artistry that both pays homage to previous Dracula adaptations and creates a gothic horror masterpiece of its own.
One of the most compelling things about Coppola’s Dracula is the way it weaves its narrative in almost a dreamlike quality, eliminating issues of previous adaptations perhaps being too stagey or almost too procedural. The first half of the film glides through its introductions, from Jonathan traveling to Dracula to Lucy and Mina’s establishment of their friendship and differing ideals on marriage—a quiet glimpse into what seems to be a normal part of these characters’ lives. This smooth sailing is upended into nightmare, as Jonathan falls victim to Dracula, setting Dracula’s plan for England into motion. The film treats Dracula not as an individual monstrous threat, but a supernatural force of nature, seemingly untethered by the physics of the human world and coming to London as a violent storm to overthrow the lives and society of the characters. The film loses its dreamlike fluidity in favor of a violent revenge felt by the characters to defend their loved ones and restore order to their world. Though perhaps slow in the middle, the film builds to a fast-paced finale that gives each character a moment to shine in the destruction of Dracula, bringing the revenge and romance to a satisfying conclusion.
A major strength of the film is that the narrative maintains the character dynamics and community structure integral to the original story—this is not a story of a single hero, but a group of people all important in some way or another to the defeat of Dracula. Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves play Mina and Jonathan Harker, a devoted duo whose lives have been nearly destroyed by the threat of Dracula. Anthony Hopkins is Professor Van Helsing, the classic horror film voice of reason and source of information and wisdom, who becomes the de facto leader of the vampire hunters. In addition, there is a strong group of suitors, all of whom become devoted to the cause of killing Dracula after Lucy (Sadie Frost) falls victim to him. There is Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), the chivalrous husband, Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), the doctor, and Quincey Morris (Billy Campbell), the courageous Texan cowboy who is both a welcome break from the amount of British Victorian characters and an integral part to the group of hunters. The strong bonds and ability to work together both strengthen the appeal of these characters as well as reinforce the inherent isolation of Dracula, played by Gary Oldman, as outsider. He is treated first and foremost as a threat, and the audience is aware of the destruction in his wake. The relationships between the protagonists and their devotion to the cause are enough to keep the viewer invested, but Oldman’s portrayal of Dracula as a multi-faceted villain are compelling and maybe even the best part of the film.
Among one of the biggest criticisms of the film is the inclusion of a reincarnation plot, not present in the novel or any previous adaptation. The opening sequence shows us the origins of Dracula, known as Vlad Dracul, a notoriously violent Vlad the Impaler insert whose wife commits suicide. In his grief, Vlad renounces God, swearing vengeance for his wife, and becomes a vampire. When we fast forward to 1897, one of Dracula’s motives for moving to London is revealed to be because Mina is the reincarnation of his lost love. This adds another layer and motivation for Dracula’s pursuit of Mina as well as sets up a tragedy later in the film when Mina must reckon with killing someone she remembers from a past life but has also been the greatest threat to her livelihood. It is true this subplot is silly and perhaps unnecessary, but it adds depth to a story that at this point in film history, has been told dozens of times. Dracula is given some humanity instead of being a symbol of pure evil. This is a refreshing re-characterization in an almost 80-year history of stage and film adaptations of the novel and allows Gary Oldman to show off a range of acting that is much more interesting than just playing pure evil. Some of the acting has also been a main critique, particularly Keanu Reeves’ performances. Coppola has stated he regrets the decision to cast him, citing that he needed a popular, heartthrob actor for the audience. Trying to capitalize on Keanu Reeves’ success was a smart move from Coppola from a profit standpoint, though he was perhaps underprepared for the role and has been mocked for his inconsistent British accent ever since. Still, Keanu Reeves captures a certain naivety important to Jonathan Harker’s character and makes his domination by Dracula more believable. Winona Ryder delivers a solid performance (and a questionable accent), balancing Mina’s sensitivity and heroism without becoming a damsel-in-distress. Aside from Oldman, Anthony Hopkins may be the best casting in the film, convincingly portraying Van Helsing as a righteous and wise force of order against the threats of the world.
Aside from the narrative and characters, Coppola’s Dracula is honestly just a piece of art. Each set is designed with such detail, immersing the viewer in a gothic horror world that is grounded in the reality of Victorian England and Eastern Europe. So much of the film feels like a painting or an art piece as opposed to a simple adaptation. In addition, the film pays homage to and blends the cinematic styles of previous Dracula adaptations and other seminal vampire films—the aesthetic elements of Dracula (1931), the gore of Horror of Dracula (1958), and the eroticism of Dracula (1979), as well as the artistry of Vampyr (1932) to create something unique for the period but something so rooted in the films that came before it. The costumes created by Eiko Ishioka are a standout, blending historical imagery, religious symbolism, and fantasy to only elevate the level of artistry. Ishioka’s costumes are juxtaposed with the practical effects of Dracula’s monstrous forms, from his old, frail state, a vicious werewolf, to a bat-human hybrid. The inclusion of the actual physicality of Dracula as monster helps to deconstruct previous adaptations of him as suave, dressed in a well-tailored suit, in favor of restoring the vampire as a monstrous threat. Finally, the film is accompanied by Wojciech Kilar’s underrated score which captures all the foreboding energy of the film, as well as its dreamy and tragic moments. The film ends with an original song by Annie Lennox, Love Song for a Vampire, a poetic and haunting ballad to cap off a film whose themes ground themselves so strongly in lost love and destruction.
It’s all this and more that makes this one of my favorite horror watches, as well as one of my favorite films ever. It’s a piece of art, but it’s also just incredibly fun to watch. The narrative and craft make the film an even better experience upon subsequent rewatches, and even if some elements of the film don’t work, there’s something to admire in Coppola’s attempt to make a Dracula adaptation that pushes the boundaries of the myth and wants to be a lavish, outrageous entry into the gothic horror genre. It’s a production that, at once, makes so much sense for Coppola’s ambition, but also feels so unique in his repertoire. To me, it is a film that deserves to be in conversation as one of Coppola’s best works. But for now, I am content with it as a standout as a vampire film, and in the horror genre in general, and as an absolutely vital watch of the Halloween season.
About the writer
River Lunsford is a writer, aspiring film scholar, and undergraduate student in History and Film and Media Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Horror movie appreciator and Al Pacino-yelling-lover. He/him.