Bram Stoker’s Dracula: a lavish and surreal film skirting over social issues in Western society now and in the 1890s

Francis Ford Coppola, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)

A visually lavish and often surreal presentation, Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the famous vampire novel still holds up well despite its 30-year age. An excellent performance from Gary Oldman as the titular villain, aided by a supporting cast whose acting admittedly ranges from the flat or campy to adequate or even fairly well done, still does this film and its visual glories justice. Coppola’s decision to give Dracula a motivation for becoming a vampire in the first place – defying God because the Church will not give his bride a proper Christian burial after she commits suicide, having been deceived by false reports of her groom’s death – gives the film a theme and sub-plot of transformation and forgiveness through love, that the original novel does not have. Apart from this, the film hews as closely to the novel as most other past film adaptations (that is to say, not as much as its title would suggest) and the film’s main claim to being faithful to the novel is that it partly relies on several characters’ viewpoints through the letters they write to one another. 

Law clerk Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to Transylvania and visits Dracula in his castle to complete various property purchase deals that Dracula has made in London, after Harker’s predecessor Renfield tried to do the same and went mad. Renfield (Tom Waits) is now an inmate in an asylum run by Dr Jack Seward (Richard E Grant). While meeting with Dracula, Harker absent-mindedly leaves out a locket which Dracula discovers: this locket contains a photo of Harker’s fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder) who greatly resembles Dracula’s lost bride Elisabetta. Dracula then imprisons Harker with his three “brides” (one of whom is played by Monica Bellucci) in the castle and himself travels to London by ship, taking with him Transylvanian soil to be deposited at the properties he has bought. 

Once he is in London, Dracula seduces Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost), a friend of Mina’s and the daughter of a wealthy family. Lucy’s rapidly deteriorating health and odd behaviour come to the attention of her fiance Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) and former suitors Quincey Morris (Billy Campbell) and Dr Seward. Dr Seward summons his former teacher and mentor Dr Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) who in no time at all deduces that Lucy has been bitten by a vampire and is in the process of transforming into a vampire herself. Meanwhile Dracula, appearing as a young dandy, meets and charms Mina, and they meet several times together. At long last, Mina receives a letter from Harker, informing her that he has managed to escape Dracula’s castle and is recovering in a convent, and she travels by ship and train to meet Harker in Transylvania where they marry in an Orthodox church.

While Mina is gone, Lucy dies and becomes a vampire but her new un-life is promptly stopped dead by Van Helsing, Holmwood and his friends who stake her and decapitate her. Returning to London, Mina and Harker contact Van Helsing about Dracula’s presence in London. Harker and Van Helsing lead Holmwood and the former suitors around London finding Dracula’s properties and destroying the boxes of Transylvanian soil. Mina is visited again by Dracula who confesses that he killed Lucy; Mina is angry and upset but still loves Dracula and remembers her former life as Elisabetta. She insists that he transform her into a vampire and Dracula does so rather reluctantly.

From there, the film picks up speed as Van Helsing, Harker, Holmwood and the former suitors pursue Dracula as the vampire retreats from London and returns to his castle in Transylvania. The vampire hunters split up into two groups to find Dracula, with Van Helsing taking Mina with him and facing down Dracula’s three brides. At last the vampire hunters find Dracula but the vampire is well defended by his gypsy servants and the vampire hunters suffer a fatality as they try to destroy Dracula and remove his curse from Mina. 

The film’s major assets, besides Oldman, include dream-like cinematography (some of which rely on old film-making techniques and special effects from the early days of cinema) and setting the action in the late 1890s, a period of significant scientific, medical and technological advances and innovations. Characters are shown using gramophones and typewriters, and they send telegrams as well as letters to communicate with each other. Significantly, when Dracula and Mina first meet, they go to a cinema to see an early moving picture. This attention to a changing society contrast with the world that Dracula has come from, a world where time seems to have stood still since he became undead, and superstition and ignorance still reign there. Only Van Helsing seems to able live with this contrast betwen the modern and the mediaeval, and his ability to accept the non-scientific and irrational together with his background as a doctor and scientist saves the Harkers and indeed all of London from falling victim to the vampire plague. 

The film makes rather superficial references and connections to the AIDS / HIV epidemic but includes no themes from the novel itself. The class differences between Lucy Westenra and Mina are glossed over very quickly, and not much is made of Mina’s dilemma in choosing between a perhaps lowly paid law clerk and a foreign prince from a fantasy land. One may find something of the extent of women’s oppression in Western societies of the time: Lucy being little more than a plaything to be married off by her wealthy family, and she having to pay the ultimate price for being little more than a toy; and Mina being torn between duty and marrying the colourless but reliable Harker on the one hand, and on the other hand making her own romantic and sexual choices in running off with a suave but dangerous stranger. Rather hastily perhaps, Mina ultimately makes her mind up, and in so doing releases Dracula from his own demons through the love she has for him. At this point the film ends: we hear no more of the Harkers, whether their marriage has lasted or if Mina regrets preferring Harker over Dracula. Nor do we learn, even in closing title credits, of the later adventures of Van Helsing, Holmwood and Seward.

While much criticism has been made of the casting of actors, Reeves does not do badly in playing Harker who is supposed to be as dull as dishwater and is meant to be a minor character. If any criticism is to be made of the cast, it is that Hopkins perhaps overplays the hammy aspects of Van Helsing and turns the character into a comedy caricature.