Synyster Graves

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

by on Oct.11, 2010, under Bear Goes Back In Time

So Close…And Yet So Far

Over the years there have been many attempts at doing justice to Bram Stoker’s magnificent book as a motion picture and despite some gems here and there, none have even come close to faithfully depicting the story. The other problem is that while so many of them had their moments they also had their weaknesses.

So it was that Francis Ford Coppola was given all he should need to create the ultimate Dracula movie – sophisticated filming techniques, a large crew and the budget to deploy them properly. He was also given an all star cast and a remit to make Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Curiously, this is what makes this film perhaps the most disappointing of all of the noteworthy Dracula films.

Looking back over the years you have to look at Nosferatu which caught many of the themes of the book. But that was from the silent era when most films were barely an hour long and as such the film remains a gem from the past with the budget and technological restraints of the day holding it back. Tod Browning’s 1931 classic with Bela Lugosi contained a brilliant lead performance but as an early talkie it lacked finesse and was also held back by a low budget and a more restrained form of story telling. Other versions with Christopher Lee followed which either had too much studio pressure or too little money with the best intentions and so missed the target. Despite all of this, those films all had an excuse for their failings that this version does not.

Having recently re-read the full, original book for the second time, I am reminded just how far off the mark Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula was. The book is terrifying with passages that have you hooked and spellbound. It’s only failings are that it simply goes on too long in passages with rather too much detail. Naturally a film will always take some dramatic license and outright alterations for cinematic effect. But this film makes far too many in the wrong places. It would be pointless to just list all the places where the film differs from the book but it is sensible to examine the ones which have let this film down.

First of all, let us give credit where credit is due: Coppola’s directing is faultless and captures so much of the atmosphere of Transylvania and many other locations and his cutting between the shot of Jonathan and Mina’s wedding with Lucy’s demise brings back memories of a similar trick used in the Godfather (high praise indeed).

The beginning scene is not taken from the book, where Dracula’s origins are never properly explained. The idea of Dracula being a noble warrior of Christianity and renouncing God in blood for punishing him when he has served the cross is actually brilliant. At this point, the film is outpointing the book. The story continues with Harker’s journey into Transylvania with dialogue lifted straight from the book in places. Although the book draws out the unnerving and impending terror better, the film is holding its own here with some spectacular visuals.

As Harker arrives at Castle Dracula we finally meet the Count and again, the film is shaping up very well indeed. Gary Oldman’s portrayal is at this point actually more faithful to the book than Bela Lugosi’s legendary performance and every bit as good. It is at this point that the book takes the lead as the film spends far too little time dwelling on just how dastardly, cunning and calculating the Count really is. An extra half hour exploring this point would have been necessary but given the restraints of film, this can be forgiven as can the overtly sexual nature of the film which panders to a modern audience in a way the book did to its Victorian readership. That is until the classic scene from the book where Harker finds Dracula asleep in his coffin and attacks him with a shovel which gets a mere few seconds and is so brief as to be irrelevant and not at all scary.

Nonetheless, the film seems to be going strong, even sticking largely to the narrative being told through journals and letters. However, as the Count makes his way to England, the film seems to leave all its hopes of going down as the definitive Dracula in Transylvania as the film disappears into mush.

The film’s producers decided to add some convoluted love story to the film, where not only is Dracula stricken by grief but somehow, Mina Murray/Harker is the reincarnation of his wife from 500 years ago and Dracula wishes to love her again. This is of course NOT in the book and for good reason – it’s a very stupid idea! Dracula is and should be, a repulsive individual. He is a 500 year old demon from Hell, walking on Earth as the King of the Un-dead. He is meticulous and selfish, concerned only for himself and the survival of his diabolical kind. He is NOT a lover or sentimental in any way whatsoever. Not only is the idea stupid, it is a break from the narrative in the film. We are, as viewers, supposed to believe that Dracula can go from this Hellish fiend who serves babies au bag for dinner to his vampiresses and yet is led by a broken heart? Sorry, I’m not buying that one for a second.

After this, the film carries on rather aimlessly for a while, despite a wonderful performance from Van Helsing by Anthony Hopkins and (at last) a Dracula film that does not perpetuate the myth that vampires are killed by the sunlight.

Many scenes which follow are indeed fine when not interrupted by the idiotic love story, especially the ‘killing’ of Lucy which is much shorter than in the book (where various visits are made over the course of four days) which works to its advantage. The final race to the end is also filled with brilliant moments, including the truly horrifying scene where the three vampire brides kill Van Helsing and Mina’s horse in shadow a la Max Schreck walking up the stairs in Nosferatu (passed over too quickly in the book). The actual climax is also superb and very much in keeping with the book until….the love bug strikes again. One can forgive the way in which Mina is ‘vamped up’ so to speak as it makes for just as good a story as in the book (if quite different), but when Dracula has been stabbed through the heart and had his throat cut, rather than his body crumbling into dust after a sudden look of peace coming over his face in the breathtaking scene from the book we are subjected to a trite scene where Mina kisses this vile beast who she now loves. We are left choking on syrup rather than blood.

It is quite sad that this dreadful love story was added to the film as in so many other ways, it came very close. It is true that characters such as Arthur’s father and Lucy’s mother are omitted altogether, but while those characters enhance the book, it can be said that they would not have enhanced the film. The film was also very sexual, too much so in my book, especially with Lucy who comes across more as a bit of a slapper than a pure and innocent girl. Renfield is also once again told to have been under Dracula’s spell all along rather than a madman manipulated by the count, and for this and many other reasons, Dwight Frye’s legacy remains untouched. But these are minor points, relatively speaking which could be forgotten where the film perfect in other ways which sadly, thanks to the love-story, it is not.

If I had a time machine, one of the first things I would want to do is go back to the early 1990s and shake Coppola up and down and hold him at gunpoint until he agreed to remove the indescribably awful love story from this film which ruined what could have been the greatest of all Dracula films which I still believe to be Nosferatu. Of the many attempts at putting on screen what Stoker put so well into more than 400 pages, all have fallen short. Unlike all of the others though, this film, had no excuse.


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