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Film Memories

“There is much to be learned from beasts” – Revisiting Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

“Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways. And to you there shall be many strange things” – Dracula to Harker

As Halloween is almost upon us, it seems only fitting that I look at two of my favourite re-imagined pieces of gothic literature before All Hallows Eve. For this blog I’ll be looking at Francis Ford Coppola’s sensual and erotic take on Dracula (aka Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The second blog will look at Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (the Kenneth Branagh version).

dracula bram stokers

Of all the Dracula adaptations, the one I have the fondest memory and admiration for is Francis Ford Coppla’s take on the source material. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was one of the first films I can remember studying, looking at the connotations and denotations of each shot. It’s a truly beautiful film with some impressive flaws – flaws that work for it and not against it. Let me explain.

While the film may have a few odd actor choices (still not sure why Keanu Reeves was picked), but the two actors the leave the most lasting impression would have to be Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins (as Dracula and Van Helsing respectfully. Oldman’s performance ranges from heart-breaking emotion and loss, through to moments of gleefully melodramatic expression.

Hopkins on the other hand has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. You can see a playful glint in his eye when he delivers deadpan lines relating vampire killing and curses. He’s clearly relishing every moment by making Van Helsing as eccentric as possible. Next to Cushing, this is possibly my favourite interpretation of the character.

Then there is the delightfully bonkers portrayal of Renfield by Tom Waits. Any time Waits appears in a film I’m beyond happy, but his Renfield takes crazed to a whole new level – mainly with his strange accent, small spectacles and equally bizarre costume design (by Eiko Ishioka).

Every image in this film is clearly an aesthetic love letter to early cinema – from Dracula’s imposing shadow (a reference to Nosferatu), through to the shadow puppet inspired opening battle – it’s just a genuinely exquisite film to look at. I still feel that very few Gothic horrors have looked as good as this.

There’s also a possible reference to Roy Ward Baker’s Scars of Dracula as we see Oldman’s Dracula scale the side of the castle (SoD was apparently the first film to show this).

But it’s also clear from the tone of the film that it has elements of camp. For instance the aforementioned performance of Hopkins or lavish moments of gore. Arterial sprays and be-headings are only ever done in an artistic way (can violence be artistic?). While the use of in-camera techniques help to give it an eerie quality – such as the moment when a vampiric Lucy is forced back into her coffin (through the use of reverse footage).

Would you care for a hors d’oeuvre, Dr. Seward or a canape?” – Renfield

Speaking of the various techniques used, it’s even more refreshing to see them now in a CGI heavy industry than ever before. The use of reverse footage is one technique which I’m still enamoured with, while the inclusion of back projection and changes in frame-rates allows it to have a unique quality from other interpretations.

Even the make-up effects continue to impress as Dracula takes on his various shapes and creatures. The Man-Bat and Werewolf looks still continue to give me chills each time I see them and (if I’m honest)  I’m still taken aback by the Werewolf love scene between Dracula and Lucy.

I somehow feel that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a film that’s beyond conventional criticism. Yes it’s full of camp moments (a vampire take on The Exorcist vomit scene anyone?) but it never bores, nor does fail in telling a compelling love story. As a character Dracula is both terrifying and erotically charged – its an impressive feat for a characterisation to come off as both these things, without lapsing into farce.

While Tod Browning’s Dracula is considered a classic and Terrance Fisher’s Horror of Dracula is dripping in Kensington Gore, Coppola’s visually beautiful take on the story is possibly one of the best. Even after subsequent re-watches it continues to be as rewarding and fresh as it was during a first viewing.

Next week: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1994)

What are your views on this version of Dracula and do you have preferred version over all the others? Let me know in the comments below.

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