Love Song For A Vampire: Looking Back on BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA
If we, as film lovers, have one obligation to champion one movie we believe is unfairly overlooked, one film to hold aloft proudly so that all can see, mine would have to be 1992’s Dracula (aka Bram Stoker’s Dracula/aka Francis Ford Coppola Presents Bram Stoker’s Dracula). It’s a tale about resurrection and reincarnation, of obsession and above all things love, a perfect candidate for a Valentine’s Day revisit. For a film with such exuberant energy, lavish production, and incredible star-power, it’s curious why Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic classic is rarely talked about and even more rarely remembered with fondness. It’s a movie I look back on very fondly, in fact. Let’s remove our sexy blue sunglasses for something a little more rose-tinted, shall we?
There was the ‘Me’ before the day I watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the ‘Me’ after... I often wonder what ever happened to that young boy and where he would be now? Deep down I know Gary Oldman killed him, probably in the guise of some horrifying bat or wolf-ape creature, and buried him deep in Transylvanian earth. I was beguiled by every image I saw watching this and it was unlike anything I had seen before (or since, frankly), opening my eyes to a world of film/horror/sexuality and has shaped me in more ways than I am aware of even today. A strange thing happened in the years that followed: I Was a Teenage Idiot. I started to care what people thought about my own opinions and grew to look down on the things I loved. You like that movie? It’s so cheesy! That’s embarrassing. Keanu Reeves sucks! After a long time of this, I actually believed them as the hive-mind took over. I didn’t like Bram Stoker’s Dracula any more. I liked American Psycho because it wasn’t “cheesy” like those other horror movies—It was a “psychological thriller.” I liked Fight Club because all my friends liked Fight Club. I liked Pulp Fiction because every Best Movies Ever list I could find on that brand-new-thing called the internet told me that Pulp Fiction was the Best Movie Ever. And then a wonderful thing happened. I asked, Who cares? Who cares if a movie is “cheesy?” That word has been used so much in film discussion I don’t even think it means anything anymore. And Keanu Reeves has never “sucked,” it just took the world decades to wake up. I don’t just like Bram Stoker’s Dracula; I love it to death. It’s made a profound impression on me that few movies have. And if you like those movies I mentioned before, more power to you but I really don’t and never did. I was lying to myself. I’ve never even finished Pulp Fiction to this day, so I don’t even think I should have an opinion on it.
James V. Hart, the screenwriter, was an obsessive weirdo I think we all could have gotten along with, and he worked tirelessly with Dracula historian Leonard Wolf to bring his vision of a highly sexualized gothic opera version of Dracula to the screen since 1977. He had ambitions of David Lean helming the project and almost settled to take it direct to television before Winona Ryder fell in love with his script and showed it to Francis Ford Coppola. The director hadn’t dabbled in the horror genre since his debut (1963’s Dementia 13) but he had been wanting to work with Ryder since she dropped out of The Godfather Part III and he had an affection for Stoker’s novel, having read it many times to a group of boys when he was a camp counselor as a teenager.
Everything came together at the perfect time, the year before CGI proved filmmakers could do anything their hearts desired when Steven Spielberg reanimated the Lizard Kings that hadn’t walked the earth for 65 million years (yes, I know they’re birds, not lizards but Bird Kings just doesn’t have the same umff to it). Instead, Coppola relied on his son Roman (in his twenties at the time) to figure out how to do every effect within the camera, using only tricks of the trade, lending the film a very tactile and magical quality that makes it feel timeless. There is so much shadow and mirror play, so many optical effects on display from the very beginning that the movie is a veritable feast for the eyes. Dracula acts as Coppola’s love letter to horror, as the film bears visual homage to Cocteau, Bava, Friedkin, Kubrick, and Raimi, there is always something to discover within the frame.
With Coppola onboard, Columbia Pictures were afraid they might find themselves in an Apocalypse Now scenario when the filmmaker teased that he might shoot the picture on location in Romania. He used that fear to his advantage, granting a compromise and shooting entirely on their sound stages like the films of old, and using much of the budget to enhance the sets as atmospheric space and, more extravagantly, visualizing the “costumes as the sets.” These qualities, as well as the pitched performances, give the film the air of theater as film.
Prior to shooting the film, Coppola granted his actors several weeks of rehearsal time, adding to the mood of the production as theater. During these weeks the performers bonded while on adventures on horseback and hot-air ballooning. These stories that abound about this period of time gives me an intense feeling of longing to be there. Keanu Reeves even recalls a time when he saw Tom Waits (who has been my favorite musician after seeing him in this film at a young age) serenading Winona Ryder with “Waltzing Matilda.” Their performances are better for it, as the trio of Lucy’s suitors feels like comrades and Ryder and Sadie Frost have a charismatic, flirty chemistry. As much as I love the portrayals of Lugosi and Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman plays the Count in as a romantic and Luciferian tragic figure, once a warrior prince for Christ that becomes a creature of evil, and also as the Man of 1,000 Faces (many of the designs were Oldman’s own idea). Similarly, as much as I love Peter Cushing’s debonair take on Van Helsing, Anthony Hopkins’ Professor is a wild man, completely berserk and commands the screen. I’ll even defend Keanu Reeves. Johnny Depp was to play Jonathan Harker right up until production began, but was dropped because he wasn’t the big name the studio was looking for—imagine that. So Winona brought her friend Reeves to the picture and everyone loved him because he was such a nice person. In the years since, his performance seems to be the main point of contention for everyone who watches the movie. But I have come to see that his role, while stilted, adds an air of surrealism to the otherworldly first act that would be absent had Johnny Depp been Depping.
No films look like this today. The late-great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus shot this thing like a black-and-white opera, only in gorgeous colors that I dare you to try and find in the cinema this weekend. So much of the movie feel like a passion project from everyone involved. From Hart and Coppola, from the cast, Ballhaus, the effects artists, composer Wojciech Kilar, and the costume designer Eiko Ishioka. What could have been just another horror picture became a grand work of art. In another life, Coppola could have been the most successful director of sensuous erotic thrillers ever, which is funny because he says he avoids sexuality in his films because the act of filming them is so uncomfortable. Sensuality and romanticism are as important to this film as the horror, and the film ends with the obligatory 90’s movie credits song, although Dracula doesn’t see us out with Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”, but instead Annie Lennox’s absolutely rapturous “Love Song for a Vampire”, a song I feel could act as a litmus test for the movie as a whole. When you listen to it, you either find it “cheesy” or romantic as hell.
All these years later it comes as no surprise that this is my favorite film—Two of my earliest movie-watching memories are watching the Universal Monster movies with my dad and my mom sitting me down on Thanksgiving—telling me The Godfather is the greatest film ever made while we watched the Corleone family deal out murder and make spaghetti sauce. I vividly remember trips with my father to the local video store and him letting us choose whatever we wanted, even the violent stuff, the only condition being “Don’t tell your mom.” I was about nine, and I decided to experiment with monsters outside of the black-and-white world of Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi. I saw the grey VHS cover, rather minimal in retrospect, and was transfixed by the gnarly visage of the gargoyle face with the scrawled blood red lettering beneath. At this age, I was afraid of everything but I figured it couldn’t be too different than what I had seen before. It said Dracula on the cover. How different could it be?
The marriage of Coppola’s sensibilities and the titans of horror are a match made in my particular heaven. We should never be ashamed of anything we love. How foolish of me to waste so much of my time and energy turning my back on love. But don’t worry; unlike some things in life, the films will be there when you return. The movies don’t change, we do