Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula isn’t…

Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992)

I found it somewhat perplexing that Dracula’s character was fleshed out (ha!) at the expense of every other character. It made the movie completely unrelatable.

Worth your time, that is, though it definitely would have been cinematically mindblowing when released in 1992 (or so the Ministry assures me).

It shamelessly invents an entirely new storyline of how Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) is actually somehow a new incarnation, or doppelganger, of Dracula’s (Gary Oldman’s) long-lost wife from five centuries beforehand. Upon seeing each other again in eighteenth-century London they are transfixed by one another again, with Mina living a double life – one as the prim wife of solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) while secretly totally in love with Dracula and having sexy little meetings with him in which his teeth hover tantalisingly close to her creamy throat.

In the book, Mina is bitten against her will and horrified by the marks left upon her, and bound by a new ferocity to help her husband and his friends destroy the vampire and restore her to her original health and purity.

It’s not that Ryder isn’t good at acting sex-crazed and heaving her bosom and quivering with mouth agape. She is admirable at all these things.

But in order to tell this extra storyline, transforming Mina as it admittedly creates new depth in Dracula, the movie ignores precisely the things I believed made the novel compelling.

Like the excellently drawn characters, including a Renley drawn with detail and pathos, who work together to assemble clues, solve the mystery of Dracula’s evil intents and hatch a desperate plan to thwart him and free Mina.

Including a Dr Van Helsing, sweet and funny, willing to sacrifice all for the friends he is devoted to and views as his children. Despite being played by Anthony Hopkins, a skilled actor, he becomes in this version a leering old nutjob.

Francis Ford Coppola, Dracula, 1992

Suggested drinking game is to drink whenever you see gratuitous boob.

Or Lucy and Mina, originally female characters that managed to be well-rounded and strong and exhibit meaningful friendship and relationships despite the sexism inherent within their context. While they did act as ‘bait’ as a plot device, they also influenced events around them in other, more meaningful ways, and Mina’s personal attributes and skills drove the narrative. Lucy had fine emotional sensitivity, loss of which made her ridiculous character in this film even harder to stomach.

All this nuance was swept away as they ran about with breasts flopping (or alternately lay about with breasts thrust upward through filmy nightdresses). They seduced all without any sign of personal preference, lost in helpless lechery, completely without personal agency. Look, I’m all for a bit of sex appeal, but not at the expense of intelligence.

Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992)

Poor old Keanu never gets a chance. To act, that is.

The plot mostly survives, skeletally, though I believe much of the tension of the final chase is removed as characterisation of Mina and Van Helsing now cannot do its work properly in ratcheting up suspense in the closing passages (replaced by a weird add-on in which Mina tries to seduce this fatherly old gent, which just would never happen in the original story). The love story between Mina and Jonathan, originally a fine and noble thing, is rendered wooden and completely unconvincing and for once it’s not Keanu’s fault.

Watch this movie for its 1990s visual tricks and special effects, so over-the-top in today’s context that they become a bit hilarious. Watch particularly for the obsession with florid cutaways and fade-outs that make much of eye imagery and other round things… I’m surprised there weren’t more nipples appearing in eyeballs, given the boob obsession. As a vampire movie and a popcorn flick and a product of its time and a portrait of Dracula, all excellent. But if you care about your education in the true classics of horror you owe it to yourself to read the book.

I vote someone should do a remake – twenty years on we’re just about due for something edgy, dark and restrained.

 

 

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula – yes, the book – is worth your time

I actually wasn’t expecting to like this all that much. I just thought well, I like horror, and if it’s hung around this long surely it’s good.

I felt like I should have read it already and I also felt a vague curiosity to see what bits I know of the tale are the ‘original bits’ by Bram Stoker and what has been bolted on in various incarnations.

I can’t even remember seeing a proper retelling of anything purporting to be based upon the book. My strongest memory of any Dracula incarnation is the Leslie Nielsen

Bram Stoker's Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

spoof, with a shudderingly gross Renley eating his flies and Dracula bumbling about a young lady’s bedroom, intoning “nowwwww I am innnnnn de closet”. The Ministry and I also recently watched John Malkovich’s Shadow of the Vampire about the making of Nosferatu, which I had high hopes for but regret to say we both found a crashing bore, uncultured swine that we are.

This book too I found deathly boring for about the first five pages (being of my generation I never have much patience for even the most rudimentary opening descriptive passages) then quite unsuspectingly I fell into it as if into a dark well. I was hopelessly captivated. I finished it in less than a week, quick by the standards of these days when, alas, more things than reading make demands upon me. I recognised more parts than I thought I would – not just the aforementioned Renley with his flies, but also a ship crash, and the poor woman whose bedroom Leslie Nielsen bumbles about in and the bad end she meets – but at the same time there was a huge amount that was completely new to me – all the coolest stuff basically. Even the story of Renley is a rich and mysterious story on its own, and full of pathos.

I’ll tell you why this book was so cool, though – it’s mostly in epistolary (letters) format, alternating letters and journal entries between and of main characters Jonathan Harker and fiancé Mina, her best friend Lucy and her betrothed Arthur Holmwood, Holmwood’s friends Selway and Morris, and finally the doctor and vampire expert Van Helsing, a character so truly lovely he makes the book’s most horrid scenes less grim and more beautiful. There are also newspaper articles on the various creepy events around town as Dracula infiltrates London.

Suffice to say that to represent the tale as just heaving bosoms and fly-eating is reductionist. And it’s this first-person changing perspective, as this edition’s foreword writer Elizabeth Kostova (author of Dracula-inspired The Historian) that really makes it so shivery. You have to watch the writers all put the frightening facts together at their own pace, and there’s plenty of head-clutching while you wait for them to all get together and figure things out before it is too late. By the end, the suspense is positively unbearable. It actually kept me up until past 9pm two nights in a row (I know!) It’s gothic, sexy, scary and graphic. Female readers must grit teeth through the horrifying sexism reflecting the time most accurately, but despite this all the characters are well-drawn. Their tale, and their worry over a friend whose soul hangs in the balance, brought me to the verge of tears several times.

I know when I have had a great read when I immediately seek out all associated movies. I haven’t the heart to go back to Leslie Nielsen now the full blood-and-guts version is ringing in my ears, so to speak, but I have had the Ministry dig out the Winona Ryder/Keanu Reeves version, and though I can barely even say those names in concert without smirking, IMDB has given it a good rating – so we’ll see. Gin martinis and Dracula for dinner tonight then, though perhaps red wine would be more appropriate.