This irony rings true for a number of reasons. First, my introduction to Gary Oldman’s fright wig, and the luminous crimson cloak that accompanied it, came not at the theater or even on VHS. It was in the middle of a Saturday afternoon on a fuzzy TNT cable broadcast where much of the gore, and pretty much all the eroticism, had been edited out in case a younger viewer was watching. And to the basic cable censors’ credit, I was exactly one such viewer: a lad of 12 or so who had devoured Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel and was eager to watch what was credited to be “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” It was right there, in the title!
What I failed to grasp at the time was that I would be enduring what many literary admirers of Stoker’s paterfamilias vampire novel experienced some years earlier when Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released into cinemas in 1992. For no matter what the title says, this was most decidedly Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.
While the legendary filmmaker has spent years recounting stories of his fondness for Stoker’s book, particularly how he would read from it at night as a camp counselor in the ‘50s, determined to terrify his wards, the truth is Coppola came into the film as a gun for hire. After a series of commercial and financial missteps in the 1980s, the panache associated with the director behind The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979) wasn’t what it once was. Before Dracula, Coppola had even made the far more artistically compromised The Godfather Part III (1990) for Paramount Pictures—and that was a movie he once swore never to film.
Ironically, it was also that creative deadend that led to his macabre rebirth in Dracula; after Winona Ryder dropped out of the third Godfather picture at the last minute, she brought the famous filmmaker a screenplay by James V. Hart as a kind of peace offering. She wanted to adapt the absolutely most Victorian of Victorian horror novels (and the most adapted of Victorian novels, period), and she wanted Coppola to direct.
It was his own childhood fascination with Dracula, and those nights at a camp lake, that drew Coppola into the project. It was also that affinity for the source material that makes Bram Stoker’s Dracula the arguably most accurate adaptation of Stoker’s book in terms of plot structure and characters: Here was the first theatrical version of Dracula to lean heavily into the source material’s epistolary framing, with various characters’ diaries and journal entries narrating and focusing the story. Coppola’s movie is also the first version to include all of Stoker’s fearless vampire hunters: Jonathan Harker (who unlike so many other Hollywood versions of this tale actually gets to be the one to journey to Transylvania and return again), Professor Van Helsing, Arthur Holmwood, Dr. John Seward (called Jack in the film), and even one of Stoker’s most amusing creations, Quincey P. Morris. The latter, a Texan adventurer with a big mustache and an even bigger Bowie knife, has rarely been seen on the screen. This is a shame since he’s such a delicious insight into a British imperialist’s perspective on the right kind of American at the turn of the 20th century.
These elements and many others, including large passages of dialogue and a climactic showdown on horseback with Romani servants of the undead beneath the setting sun of Castle Dracula, were all incorporated into Coppola’s movie—much of it at the director’s own insistence after he came aboard, according to Coppola. Still, the filmmaker was hired to realize the Dracula script and concept that caught the eye of Columbia Pictures and Ryder, the latter of whom was eager to transition to adult roles after coming to adolescent movie stardom by way of Tim Burton projects like Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1991). Which is to say they wanted to make a Gothic romance about a sympathetic Count Dracula and his lost but now reincarnated lady love, Mina Murray Harker.
At the tender age of 12 years old, I had none of this background information, just a sense of apprehension that one of the first “adult” books I ever read was being ignored when Bram Stoker’s Dracula begins not in 1897 but in 1462 where the (highly fictionalized) history of Prince Vlad III, aka Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), is grafted onto Stoker’s story. Despite popular misconceptions, many of which stem from this 1992 movie, Stoker did not model his literary vampire on the 15th century Voivode of Wallachia—Stoker just stole his cool nickname (Dracula means “Son of the Dragon” in medieval Romanian).
However, it made for a fantastic framing device. Vlad’s wife, the princess consort of Wallachia, really did commit suicide by throwing herself into a river (hence its current name Râul Doamnă, which means “The Princess’ River”). In reality, it was because she thought she was about to be captured by the Turks, and not because she yearned to be reunited with Dracula. But with a little movie magic, it’s suddenly reframed as an operatic backdrop in which Vlad is betrayed by the Church he defended. When his beloved Princess Elisabeta kills herself and is consigned to Hell, Dracula enters an inconsolable fury and sells his soul to Satan. He becomes Undead.
This has nothing to do with Stoker, but it sure made the Dracula portrayed by Oldman a much more dynamic and tragic figure—and easier to root for as he seduces and eventually wins over Mina (who like Elisabeta is played by Ryder), even as her fiancé Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is being slowly tortured and drained by Dracula’s succubi brides.
In the end, it’s the love story between Dracula and Mina that comes to dominate Coppola’s movie on its thematic and emotional level—and Coppola’s vampires are all about their emotions: love, lust, hate, despair, and wrath. The tagline even became “Love Never Dies,” which Bram Stoker’s Dracula made good on. By movie’s end, this isn’t the story about the lengths men will go to in order to protect their delicate women, but the tragedy of how one modern woman in the Victorian age must murder her passion, and her great love, because of the monster it’s become.
In the 30 years since Bram Stoker’s Dracula debuted in ’92, literary purists still bemoan this change. But in doing so they overlook the many decadent and opulent qualities of a film that still beckons with come hither eyes and a taste for damnation on its lips.
Is Bram Stoker’s Dracula a good adaptation of Bram Stoker’s actual Dracula? I’m not sure. As aforementioned, it captures the structural elements quite well. What’s also long overlooked by the novel’s traditionalists is how well Coppola seems to mine the subtexts of the book and heightens them to baroque excess. Dracula’s Brides on the page are not nude seductresses who physically ensnare Harker to a luxurious bed; nor is Lucy Westenra an openly promiscuous woman who is somewhat cruelly dismissed by Professor Van Helsing as “a wanton follower” of Dracula.
However, Sadie Frost’s absolutely fearless performance of a woman who’s lost the ability to differentiate ecstasy from agony gets to the more grotesque subtext in Stoker’s lascivious ideas. Modern readers may not pick it up, and I certainly did not as a child, but there is something repellent and primeval about the way the proper gentlemen of Stoker’s book are repulsed by the sight of Lucy as “a fallen woman,” and how easily they find solace in urging her intended bridegroom, Arthur Holmwood, to shove a wooden stake through her body. Only through the act of penetration (while she’s wearing a wedding dress, no less) can she be purified of her sins.
Victorian readers who would consider it obscene to see too much of a woman’s shoulder would’ve easily picked up on Stoker’s context clues, but modern readers can sometimes struggle because Lucy is otherwise so sympathetic on the page, and Van Helsing so righteous. Coppola makes subtext text when Frost’s Lucy yearns for Dracula’s touch, and then the filmmaker heightens her second death scene to something akin to The Exorcist (1973), complete with voluminous amounts of blood vomit dripping from her lips.
Both the allure and repulsion are heightened to such a degree that modern audiences understand the feelings that Lucy’s fate evoked in 19th century readers, and can perhaps better appreciate why Ryder’s Mina is not so eager to sign her flesh to the same ill treatment after she’s been baptized by a vampire’s blood.
Nevertheless, Stoker’s Dracula is as much an adventure about good and evil, and perhaps more importantly the then-modern camaraderie between good men of civilization and “the New Woman” versus ancient superstition, as it is our modern understanding of horror. It’s been fairly speculated on whether Stoker’s vampire hunters were even an influence on the Fellowship of the Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s own great magnum opus from the tailend the of British Empire.
Little of this is dwelled on by Coppola’s movie. To which one must ultimately say… so what?
Coppola highlighted often overlooked elements of the novel for the first time on a big screen, and most especially appreciated the fact that this was a story intoxicated by the dawning ascent of post-industrial technology in an imperialist setting. But more than just adapt a novel, Coppola made the most compelling and relevant cinematic Dracula since Bela Lugosi donned a cape on a Universal Pictures soundstage 60 years prior. While there were other great Dracula movies in the interim, including many’s favorite embodiment of Stoker’s villain, the great Sir Christopher Lee, they all stood in Lugosi’s shadow.
As recounted here, Lugosi’s movie and the Hamilton Deane play it was adapted from created the modern conception of Dracula far more than any novel or even the arguably greatest movie ever made about Stoker’s Transylvanian bloodsucker, Nosferatu (1922). Long after Lugosi, all actors who attempted to wear a pair of fangs were caught in the Hungarian actor’s shadow, and stuck mimicking his caped aesthetic and continental demeanor.
Thirty years on from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s become clear by dint of time that Coppola and Oldman’s interpretation was the most successful at breaking away from Lugosi’s. They cast their own long shadow. Before ’92, there was a popular Dracula movie in every decade, but in the three since Coppola bathed the count with long locks and crimson red armor, there has never been a Dracula movie to break that spell—though most of them copy this film’s affectations, be it couching the character in Vlad Tepes’ crown or obsessing over the vampire’s reincarnated loves whom he has “crossed oceans of time” to be with.
Most of all, however, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has remained eerily timeless due to the fact that, much like its title character, it was an anachronism upon release. The visual effects and in-camera trickery that Coppola’s son, Roman Coppola, helped mastermind for that movie called upon a century’s worth of magic tricks and illusions that were already half-forgotten in ’92. At the time, the unnatural way in which fog manifested out of thin air in Mina Harker’s bedroom, or that Lucy Westenra returned to her grave upon seeing a crucifix, was disquieting because modern audiences had forgotten how effective literal smoke and mirrors and reversing film stock in the camera can be. And in the three decades since the CGI revolution changed Hollywood movies forever, beginning when Jurassic Park (1993) opened a scant seven months after Dracula, Roman’s visual effects act as a last hurrah for old school movie magic—and an unsettling revenant of secrets long thought buried.
The craft and scope of the rest of the picture has similarly kept its enchantment. Coppola often liked to say “the costumes are the sets,” and Eiko Ishioka’s Oscar-winning fashion designs remain still the peak of Gothic Victorian chic onscreen. Meanwhile Wojciech Kilar’s score lives on as one of the most haunting and evocative musical fever dreams composed for a Hollywood movie—which is all the more impressive since the Polish classical composer actually only wrote about a half-dozen pieces for the concept of the film and left it to Coppola and his music department to figure out how to incorporate it in the actual picture.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula may be the closest cinematic definition of the triumph of style over substance. And as a Grand Guignol throwback to the perversities of Gothic horror—including some of Stoker’s own nastiest ideas, like feeding newborn babies to blood-lusting women—it still has substance to unpack. Could there be a more faithful distillation of Stoker’s book? Absolutely, and we came somewhat closer, at least thematically, during the first season of John Logan’s Penny Dreadful in 2014. But even that was marked by echoes of Coppola’s midnight mass imagery when hunters emerged from the fog with their lanterns and knives, and the damned delighted in their fanged depravities.
Thirty years later, our popular image of Dracula has not escaped this movie’s thrall. At a certain point, folks need to stop quibbling over the title and succumb.