Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love is a Many Gothic Things - Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

If love never dies, it's bound to get angsty at some points. In Francis For Coppola's version of Dracula, the titular Count is more love-lorn aristocrat than twisted creature of the night. I'm writing about this adaptation on the holiest of holy love days, Anna Howard Shaw Day because in Stoker's original novel, the love story is between Mina and Harker only. So what does the love that won't quit add to the myth of Dracula? Let's find out.

In the added prequel for the film, Dracula is made out to be Vlad the Impaler. Upon his return home from a battle with the Turks he discovers that his beloved wife Elisabetta has committed suicide after receiving a false report of his death. Vlad then denounces the church and stabs a cross which bleeds which is amazing. We skip forward in time to 1897 to meet a young solicitor Johnathon Harker (Keanu Reeves) leaving his beloved fiancee Mina (Winona Ryder) back in London to meet with Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) who has inquired about buying some property. Right now this movie sounds like a 20/20 segment BUT it looks like this:

And this!:

Sooner or later you'll dance with the Reaper.
 So, it's like the best 20/20 segment ever. We encounter Dracula who has an accent that drips like heavy candle wax and a speech pattern somewhere between Yoda and Mr. Miyagi. And I mean that as a compliment. Gary Oldman, along with the costume design, is the best damn thing in this movie. If Oldman is the best thing about this film, Reeves is the funniest. His expressions and line reading are somewhere between bemused and vaguely concerned. During all the craziness at the Dracula homestead, the Count catches a glimpse of a photograph of Mina that Harker has. The Count is certain that Mina is the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabetta. He packs up his coffins, boards a ship for London and makes himself look like a fancy Keith Richards to impress his would be lady-love.

The rest of the film devolves into Dracula following Mina around London and attempting to woo her, but at the same time he manages to turn her best friend the saucy Lucy (Sadie Frost) into a vampire, like a Victorian episode of Jerry Springer. Mina eventually realizes that she is in love with the Count and he begins her transformation into a vampire. Then they go back to his castle to make-out FOREVER. A bunch of men, including Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, follow them to stop Dracula and save Mina. After the initial tussle with the men Dracula is mortally wounded, Van Helsing and Harker allow Mina to take him away. Dracula asks Mina to put him out of his misery, she does so by stabbing him in the heart. As he dies, Mina returned to her human state and the fresco above them (what? you don't have one in your apartment?) changes to show Vlad and Elisabetta ascending to heaven. Awwwwwwwwwwwwww.

Coppola has taken Stoker's classic and changes the story from an adventure to romantic saga. Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct was release the same year also mimics the bizarrely asexual aftertaste of this movie. (Verhoeven's Showgirls perfects this) After all the sex, blood drinking and titillation is done with the movie has no heat left. It's a childish version of sex, all show and no results. Both Dracula and Basic Instinct have been read as warnings in the midst of the AIDS crisis. I don't disagree with this reading but I do think it's a little too on the nose. Dracula is about dangerous love, the kind that changes us and not always for the best.

Lucy, the most overtly sexual character, is practically a cartoon in a corset. The majority of her lines are delivered while flouncing on a bed with her, ahem, cups running over. I enjoy a good Victorian romance because of the restraint. With their permanently buttoned up collars and stiff upper lip, it makes the romance all the more intense. With the overt, almost childish sexuality on display in Dracula it becomes campy rather than romantic. The clearest instance of this, to me anyway, is when Mina finally gives into her desire and wants to drink Dracula's blood. Dracula cuts his chest and as she drinks he proclaims "I do not vant this!" while Mina forcibly continues drinking he lets her and contorts his face as though he's in the midst of sex positions we were never supposed to hear about.

Because of all the weight placed on the love story, the last act feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of the original novel and the ingenious set piece like the race to Castle Dracula are haphazard and confusing. Stoker created a brilliant narrative that included among other things, a love story between Harker and Mina. Apparently that's not enough. The entire storyline becomes centred on Mina and Dracula, to the detriment of all the other elements of the story. The love triangle is so ham-fisted and shoved down our throats that it makes the film into a goody thrill-ride rather than a depiction the full and engaging world that Stoker created.

Love may never die, as the film's tagline would have us believe, but it can make everyone queasy. All this to say, I like this film a lot. It's a failure, but it's a spectacular failure.


  1. Like many people, I watched this back in the day when I naively believed that a director of Coppola's stature could do no wrong. Now, of course, I know different.

    The best bit - and only bit with any passion to it - is when they are all running around the maze and Sadie kisses Winona in the rain. That's so hot!

    In the novel, they immediately went back to cleaning and making pies for their husbands. I wish they'd left that in.

    1. I'm generally a fan of ramping up any female character's presence, but not at the cost of the story.

    2. Mina did have a big part with the telepathy and all that, but the love story of Dracula and Mina was just stupid. The whole thing was about syphilis as far as I could tell (and with the aid of "The Essential Dracula" for reference) which doesn't make a good love story anyway. I haven't seen a Dracula movie yet which does things properly unfortunately.

  2. I just watched Terence Fisher's 'Dracula' trilogy last night. Starring Christopher Lee in the 1st and 3rd movies and Peter Cushing in all three, 'The Horror of Dracula' (1958), 'The Brides of Dracula' (1960), and 'Dracula Prince of Darkness' (1966) are all entertaining movies that I believe give some insight into FF Coppola's version. The scene with Dracula slitting open his chest to make a maiden drink from it even makes it's first appearance in 'Dracula Prince of Darkness'!

    As for my opinion on FF Coppola's version, I found it entertaining as well. The performance of the British actors were great, at least.

    1. I think FFC's vision of Dracula is too ambitious not to be considered. I love that it embraces the novel, or at least attempts to. I've only seen bits and pieces of the Dracula trilogy but I hope to rectify that soon.