When I was a kid, every time someone uttered the word ‘Dracula’, Gary Oldman‘s face came to my mind. I stumbled upon the poster of ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (below) for the first time when I was around 5 and I vividly remember chills engulfing my heart while I looked at it. This is how I got introduced to Francis Ford Coppola’s three times Academy Award winning Gothic horror film. While the poster was spine chilling, I also developed a huge curiosity to check out what exactly this film was all about. I had a vague idea of vampires and myths but I never really went deep until I learnt, later on, that it is based on a fictional novel written by Irish author Bram Stoker. In epistolary format, it continues to enthrall the literature world till date. After waiting for some years, I finally managed to watch the film when it was aired on an English language channel named AXN.
The film is set in 1462 in Transylvanian region of Romania. Prince Dracula (Gary Oldman), returns from a victorious battle, to find out his beloved wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has committed suicide after receiving a fake report of his death. Enraged by this betrayal by his God when the priest says she is no longer worthy to enter heaven for taking her own life, Dracula vows to rise from the dark powers to avenge her death, and proceeds to stab the altar cross with his sword and finally, drinks the blood that pours out of it, symbolizing the renunciation of his faith.
Four Centuries later in 1897, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is assigned with a task to meet Count Dracula in Transylvania and arrange his real estate acquisition in London, leaving behind his fiancé Wilhemina Murray a.k.a Mina (also Winona Ryder). Upon meeting Jonathan in his unusually creepy castle, Dracula discovers a picture of Mina and believes she is the reincarnation of his wife Elisabeta. Dracula leaves Jonathan, who finally discovers the sinister nature of the castle, to be attacked and fed upon by his three brides while he sails to London with boxes of native soil from Transylvania which gets stationed at Carfax Abbey, to pursue Mina, which in turn, leads to far more dangerous consequences involving Mina’s dear friend Lucy Westerna’s (Sadie Frost) horrific death.
Although some grotesque scenes were scissored for suitable television viewing, the film managed to create an eerie atmosphere and I found myself freaking out all along. I literally feared the darkness and night-time from henceforth albeit temporarily. It took a lot of distractions to eventually get out of it; such was the impact it had on me. With his absolutely wicked eyes that spew terror, demonic manifestations and relentless pursuing energy, Gary Oldman‘s Dracula was terrifying to say the least. He sent chills down my spine every time I watched, yet he was also poetic, surreal and melancholic as a lover. I couldn’t help but empathize considering the pain he went through. Also equally fantastic was Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Van Helsing, in fact he injected some genuine humor in grim moments with his clever lines and natural performance that felt organic.
If Bram Stoker’s Dracula had the right sense of urgency and spookiness, Polish music composer Wojciech Kilar, must be credited for creating an unforgettable score that alleviates the mood of the characters and their thoughts to maximum effect. From the opening credits, Dracula discovering Mina, Lucy getting attacked and subsequently brutally transformed into vampire to Mina reuniting with Dracula towards the end in the very chapel, every moment has its own tunes. The music is embedded into my soul to such a degree that I can hear the music of ‘Love remembered’ in my head and it keeps switching from one tune to another while I am writing this blog.
Although the film largely remained faithful to the novel, creative liberties were taken in order to make the story visually appealing on celluloid and they succeeded. Stoker presented Lucy Westerna as a woman with high virtue who was sweet, demure and someone who stood loyal to her fiancée Arthur Holmwood. However, in the movie, she was portrayed as someone who was feisty and bold with a hypersexual appetite that could have possibly drawn Dracula to prey on her. In the book, no parallel is drawn between Dracula and the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler; in the film, however, Van Helsing conflated them as one individual who lived longer after he became a vampire.
If his love metamorphosed him into a brooding monster, it was also his love that ultimately set him free from the clutches of intense resentment. Love was his remedy and not hatred and it took centuries to be cured.
All that said, what I actually admire about Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart’s version is they uniquely incorporated a tragic love story with sexual undertones between Dracula and Mina Murray with religious fanaticism as a backdrop, creating a compelling story from the beginning – why he became the dark force – unlike in the book where nothing specific is mentioned about how he turned into a vampire. They humanized Dracula as a despicable monster with a heart yearning for the tenderness that he longed for. His love towards Elisabeta had no bounds and when she committed suicide, he not only renounced his faith, but also got more destructive. When he finally meets and relentlessly pursues her as Mina, Dracula, in his death agony, insists that she kill him by driving the wooden stake into his heart as well as decapitate him. He can no longer carry the baggage of revenge and wanted peace unlike in the novel where mortally injured Quincy Morris stabs him with a Bowie knife and he crumbles to dust. If his love metamorphosed him into a brooding monster, it was also his love that ultimately set him free from the clutches of intense resentment. Love was his remedy and not hatred and it took centuries to be cured.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula completes 26 years and while it may not be a perfect film, it is a scintillating homage to the book. I am unsure anyone especially youngsters born post 2000 would enjoy or even find it remotely scary given how badly crafted horror films with old school scare, with the exception of The Conjuring, hits the screen these days, lacking the grip to catch audience’s attention. I am hopeful that those who’ve watched this film and adore it, will give it a chance and experience the nostalgia associated with it all over again. If anything else, watch it for Gary Oldman who, in my honest opinion, is a powerful vampire onscreen.
Links for e-book and screenplay:
- Novel: http://www.fulltextarchive.com/page/Dracula/
- James V.Hart’s screenplay for the novel: http://www.horrorlair.com/scripts/dracula_bram_stoker.html