Octoberween: ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’

During this site’s very first Octoberween, approximately 10,000 years ago, I reviewed a little movie called Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Thanks to the magic of Search Engine Optimization, that ended up being one of my most popular reviews.

As we say in the blogging business: “Dracula Sex Wolf Lucy” sells. As true now as it was then. But what of my thoughts and observations? Could ten years and several different haircuts have softened my abject hate for this movie into something like abject grudging acceptance?

Reader, I’ve crossed oceans of time to answer that question for you.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992):

The Plot: Feeling abandoned by the Church after his wife’s suicide, the notoriously devout Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman) renounces God and becomes an immortal, blood-drinking fiend. Centuries later, he realizes that his new lawyer’s (Keanu Reeves) alive fiancée (Winona Ryder) looks exactly like his dead wife. Not one to pass up a chance to trot out the ultimate pickup line, Vlad imprisons the young law clerk and heads to London to roll the dice on love. Can this Cryptkeeper Casanova catch a break or is he doomed to come up snake eyes? Will most of the characters from the novel be sidelined to rework everything into a tragic romance between Dracula and Mina? All signs point to yes!

Six drafts, and that was the least flippant plot synopsis.

I re-read Dracula a few months before re-watching this movie, which wasn’t really to the film’s benefit or mine*. My main issue is with the central approach of the film, which takes a fairly straightforward tale of ordinary people battling a supernatural evil and revamps (heh) it into a doomed romance/sexual awakening narrative.

In order to sell the love story it changes Dracula from a gross yet cunning predator into a sometimes gross sometimes hot, always tragic romantic figure. It’s a big departure from the book, and it would feel more like a cynical Hollywood cashout–there’s not enough Dracula in yer Dracula picture, make him sexy!–if the movie didn’t go about everything in the most ostentatiously salacious way possible. I won’t credit the filmmakers with inventing the whole “vampirism as a metaphor for Victorian-era sexual repression” thing, but boy do they commit.

Sometimes a cigar is just a– hey, cut that out!

Mina Harker, in the novel a clever and resourceful young woman–who, yes, admittedly, is kind of a dweeb, much like her husband–undergoes some changes as well. It’s not that the script removes these qualities from the character, but that as it shifts her priorities to suit the pairing with Dracula. “Marriage” and “friendship” get bumped down the list to make way for “sexual awakening.” As with the characterization of Dracula, it’s a big departure from the novel, but fair enough. I may not like the changes as a book purist, but they work for the movie that Coppola et al. are trying to make.

The film is much less successful in its treatment of the secondary characters, especially Lucy. Her role is functionally the same as it is in the the book–have three suitors, get tormented by Dracula, die, and then die again–but the movie’s positioning of her as a more liberated contrast to Mina’s early propriety ends up just feeling reductive.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy is almost exclusively defined by the fact that she’s sexually active. In the novel, her death and undeath are what initially unite the characters in their crusade against Dracula. We spend time learning how her friends feel about her and how she feels about them. The film uses her deaths for some of its Erotic and Operatic set pieces, but doesn’t manage to generate much feeling from the audience or even the people who supposedly love her. Then again, she isn’t really a character so much as a doll writhing around a stage in various outfits.

That’s not totally fair to the outfits.

The film doesn’t really seem any more interested in the interior lives of the Other Men: Jonathan Harker; Lucy’s suitors Dr. Seward and cowboy Quinn, and her fiancé Arthur; and Van Helsing. To an extent, that makes sense. If the focus of the story is on Mina and Dracula, then everyone else exists in service of that story.

However, the film barely shows any interest in how that focus alters the roles of these characters. If Dracula is a tragic romantic figure freeing women from the shackles of sexual repression, then what does that make the vampire hunters? Is Van Helsing still a brilliant if somewhat quirky mentor, or is he a sinister representation of a patriarchal society reasserting itself? Is Jonathan Harker a decent, logical man trying to do his best in an illogical situation, or is he a hopeless wet blanket whose only good deed is realizing that he can’t satisfy his wife? I don’t know, and neither does the movie.

It knows how to create a vibe, though.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a frustrating watch, and I might be kinder to it if it had a different title**. The inclusion of Bram Stoker’s name is misleading, although rumor has it that a different studio had the rights to plain ole Dracula. I guess I can cut Francis Ford Coppola some slack, but only this one time. You’re on thin ice, Coppola.

Title aside, Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t meant to be the definitive Dracula adaptation, as in a literal translation from page to screen. I think of the film as more in line with one of those “re-imaginings” of Shakespeare plays that last time I checked were among the staples of modern theater. Instead of a version of Hamlet that repurposes sets and costumes from last season’s production of The Wiz to puzzling effect, we get Dracula turning into a sex wolf.

No, it wasn’t in the book, but I just can’t stay mad at that face.

While I’m not particularly fond of the changes Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I also think that the foremost responsibility of any cinematic adaptation is to be a functioning movie. Let the book be the book. Do the movie’s pieces form a cohesive whole? Does it succeed in telling the story it wants to tell the way it wants to tell it? In this case the answer is “yes, but…”

I’ve dedicated quite a few words at this point to enumerating the ways in which deviating from the book is a mistake, but the movie would only have benefitted from going further. It has a palpable disinterest in its own plot that prevents it from building any real momentum. As a string of loosely connected Erotic and Operatic set pieces, it may not be to my taste, but damn is it firing on all cylinders.

I opened this review by asking if time (and several different haircuts) had softened my opinion at all. They did, although it was probably more time’s doing than the haircuts. While I still find much of Bram Stoker’s Dracula irritating, I have grown to respect it as the product of a singular vision. The costuming, set design, and score work in concert to remarkable effect. The performances–yes, even Keanu’s accent–are perfectly calibrated to the material. It’s a movie that knows what it wants to be and does it as hard as possible. How could I not offer at least a grudging admiration? Maybe in another few centuries I’ll even come around to enjoying it***.

And with that, we close out another Octoberween. As always, thanks to our twelve dedicated readers for stopping by. Later days.

*The inner book fan does not always make the most insightful film critic.
**I recognize this isn’t fair.
***If I somehow end up living for another 300 years please don’t hold me to this.

2 thoughts on “Octoberween: ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s