By the 1990’s, bad was cool. (See e.g. nWo, ECW, Austin 3:16) Anything that wasn’t extreme was dull. (See e.g. any Mountain Dew commercial) The Macarena ruled and stoners determined culture. How did this affect vampires? Well, just when it seemed as though filmmakers had finally realized that Dracula is meant to be scary, they go pants-crapping crazy and make the story utterly unrecognizable. Blood-drinking became cool. Any connection between Christian faith warding off vampires was deemed unhip. And unless you were an uber-sexy teenager/twentysomething, it was wrong to fight vampires because you were ruining all the fun. I blame this all on Jess Whedon.
But before that annoying hipster got his turn, it was a member of the Movie Brats who turned vampire lore on its head. To get to the root of this, we’re going to have to go back a few decades.
Probably the most famous play version of Dracula is the 1924 Hamilton Deane-John L. Balderson adaptation. Tod Browning relied heavily on it when filing his classic version starring Bela Lugosi for Universal in 1931. Over forty-five years later, the play reopened on Broadway with Frank Langella in the lead. This, of course led to the 1979 film starring Langella. However, the producers weren’t the only ones inspired by the play to make a bizarre new film version.
During the show’s run, screenwriter James V. Hart decided to take in the performance. Hart later recalled that on the night he was in the audience, (and apparently during the scene where the Count bites Lucy), he heard a woman in front of him mutter that, “she’d rather spend one night with Dracula dead than the rest of her life with her husband alive.” Hart went back and read the book. Interpreting virtually everything in the novel as a sexual metaphor for something, he eventually wrote a rough screenplay for his own adaptation. Years later, in 1989, budding Hollywood starlet Winona Ryder got a copy of the script and took it to Francis Ford Coppola -- the story goes that she was shocked that he listened to her since she had pulled out of the The Godfather Part III. Coppola liked what he read and decided to make his take on Dracula with one particular word in mind: weird.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula starts off with something that never happens in the book: Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) claiming that he is Vlad the Impaler. He is shown fighting the Turks in…muscle armor? Then, after impaling his foes (recalling the Impaler’s real-life ‘forest of the impaled’), he learns the terrible news that his wife committed suicide when she was tricked into thinking he died in battle. In a chapel, he is told that her soul is damned for committing suicide and in a rage renounces God and declares himself blood thirsty, setting him on the path to becoming a vampire.
The film then follows a similar plot to the Universal version, with Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reaves) traveling to Transylvania... and the weird is on. Everything is done to excess (cough, cough Peter Jackson). The ‘peasants’ in the coach seem dressed for Mardi Gras; the armor-clad coach driver looks like an enemy out of the Castlevania franchise; and when Harker encounters the Brides - one of whom has Medusa’s head snakes - it quickly becomes a scene out of Caligula.
Elizabeta reincarnated and begins courting while feeding on her friend, Lucy. A near-insane Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and the uptight vampire hunters begin to investigate.
I have a lot of issues with this version of the Count, though they really can’t be blamed on the actor. Coppola wanted everything to be as over-the-top as possible. This included giving Dracula a red evening gown complete with twenty-foot train and a Krusty the Klown style hairdo. The appearance is more laughable than frightening.
Oh, Let’s Just Say It: Twilight for Adults
Why does Mina love Dracula? Because he took her out? Because he’s a gentleman and won’t bite her? Does he sparkle in sunlight? Will he introduce her to the family? Will he take her to the prom? (Well they do dance.) Oh, let’s just say it: this is Twilight for Adults!
How precious. Maybe he’ll also compose a lullaby on the piano for her.
Even more amazing, Mina is actually more obnoxious than Bella. As I mentioned above, she turns on the group in the end. She warns the Count of their plans, tries to bite Van Helsing, uses vampire powers to help Dracula get to the safety of the castle, and then pulls a gun on her husband to keep him from killing the Count. Turncoat, I say! Traitor! Witch! Benedict Arnold!
Once again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual liberator from traditional mores. I could rehash all of that, but I covered what I have to say on that subject in my article on the Palance and Langella versions. So let me detail other things I couldn’t stand:
- Even Coppola has admitted he doesn’t like the decision to cast Keanu Reeves. He claims the studio forced it on him. (He wanted Johnny Depp.) Reeves is wooden, uninteresting, and turns in one of the worst English accents of all time. Only three years removed from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you can’t help but wonder when he’ll say ‘whoa.’ BTW, Ryder is almost as bad with her accent.
All right, except for Gary Oldman, I’ve been really hard on this film. (And honestly, I think he saves it from being a total wash.) However, this film has many defenders and I can see why. The sets are highly detailed, crafted, and well-lit. But art alone can’t make a movie. You still need story and character. Christopher Lee pointed out the scene where Oldman licks the blood off Harker’s razor and has a moment of ecstasy as he swallows it. He called that a nice addition and I agree. To that end, here are some good things I found in the script.
- The hunters are all here. This is the first movie to show all of the vampire hunters- Dr. Seward (Richard E. Grant), who proposed to Lucy, but was turned down, Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), Lucy’s fiancé, and Arthur’s Texan adventurer friend, Qunicey P. Morris (Billy Campbell). Most movies reduce the group to one or two. It’s nice to see them all together, even if they are portrayed as inferior males. On that note, Anthony Hopkins is no Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. He was deliberately channeling his Hannibal Lector character for the role.
- There’s homage to the author. While walking through London, Mina passes an ad on a placard for the Lyceum Theater, where Bram Stoker worked as business manager. The placard further advertises Sir Henry Irving in Hamlet can also be seen. Irving made his reputation playing the Prince of Denmark.
- There’s plenty of actual dialogue in the film. Dracula, Harker, and Van Helsing use many lines from the novel in the film, particularly in the scenes leading up to, and taking place in, Castle Dracula. Harker quotes from the journal entries in the novel several times. It’s only when the plot changes into Twilight and Lucy’s nymphomania appears that Stoker’s words become lost.
- And, yeah, I’ll admit: I like “Love Song for a Vampire.”
In 1914, two years after Bram’s death, Florence Stoker published something odd: a book of short stories called Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories. It’s widely believed that the title story is an excised chapter of Dracula. It goes like this:
No one really knows why the story was removed from the novel. Theories range from the style (it’s not certain who the narrator is), to the length of the novel, to the scene just not fitting into the narrative. The evidence that it may be a removed first chapter comes from the original manuscript now held at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia. Lines scratched out in the manuscript seem to refer to events in Dracula’s Guest. Also, nearly all the chapters numbers are scratched out and subtracted by one. The lack of information about this piece only adds to its mystery.
I think it was a good choice to remove it. First, it allows Harker’s experiences to build as we follow his journey across Eastern Europe. And second, it can be inferred that the experience should better prepare Harker for his experiences in Transylvania. If he went through that and behaves the way he does in the novel, he’d actually look rather stupid dismissing every superstition instead of carefully investigating them.
I won’t bother with a full synopsis. Suffice to say, the original group of vampire hunters has drifted apart by 1912. They’re all recluses or addicts of some kind. Anyway, the vampire Elizabeth Bathory (a real-life Hungarian countess who had village girls killed so she could bathe in their blood, which she believed would cause her to retain her youth), has arrived in London and is causing trouble. Quincey Harker (Jonathan and Mina’s son), gets help from a famous actor named Basarab (Dracula in disguise), and they attempt to find Bathory and destroy her.
This isn’t written as a novel; it’s written as an attempted screenplay pitch. The book’s last chapters move and climax like a Die Hard film. Dracula takes over the role of superhero as he and Bathory fight X-Men-style. It’s also revealed that the Count and Mina were great lovers and that the group misidentified the Count as the bad guy the first time around. And, oh, yeah: everyone gets killed along the way.
Dacre Stoker has claimed the book was an attempt for the Stoker estate to reclaim the property. I, for one, hope they’re kept as far away from it as possible.
How time flies. Well, everyone, it’s been a nice few weeks this October. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discussing the many faces of the vampire king with you. And like Gene Wilder told Mel Brooks on the set of Young Frankenstein just after the last day of filming wrapped, “I’m so happy. I don’t want to leave Transylvania.” Unfortunately, the time has come. When this is posted, Halloween will be over. Remember how the ghosts and ghouls in the Night on Bald Mountain piece from Fantasia return to their graves as sunlight shines through the clouds to the ringing of the angelus bell? Well, now, the vampires, too, must return to their tombs.
This year’s series of Monsterpiece Theater is complete. But it’s just a chapter. There’s always room for more.
“I trust your journey has been a happy one…and that you [enjoyed] your stay in my beautiful land. Your Friend, D.”
Sir Christopher Frayling’s “Nightmare! The Birth of Victorian Horror: Dracula”