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Bram Stoker’s Dracula Is More Than Gothic Horror. It’s a Love Letter to Moviemaking.
In the series Hallowed Grounds, we revisit some of the greatest auteur-driven classics of American horror history that have influenced the current crop of horror movies terrorizing audiences today.
When I was a kid, my father used to tell us a story of a boy from his hometown who stole the holy eucharist from a nearby church and cooked it in frying pan to see what would happen. According to the local lore, the frying pan filled with blood. Throughout my life, I have been haunted by this kind of satanic mysticism that froths inside the centuries-old underbelly of Catholicism.
This thick red brood, full of the darkest and most wrathful Christian hellfire, completely drenches the lens of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a phantasmagoric work of gothic horror that is no less terrifying to me today than the other-worldly fantasies of biblical devils and demons that I experienced in my nightmares when I was a child.
A icon-making vehicle for Gary Oldman, the marvelously repulsive, godless film—no doubt the last masterstroke of a director who’s ambitions for lavishness and excess had all but completely maligned him from the studio system—faced both scorn and praise for its bold attempts at grand, operatic expression. (One critic called it a “calamity,” a “festival of rats,” and a film of “all style, no content.”)
But fast-forward 26 years, and the very sort of richly textured, auteur-driven, style-for-style’s-sake horror that Coppola was wreaking upon Dracula is now devastating box offices, earning critical acclaim, and inspiring some of our generation’s greatest living film artists to descend into the genre that was once (unfairly) recognized as a pulpy joke.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not unlike Apocalypse Now, an awesome work of terror that is so filled with ideas and ambition that it always seems on the verge of complete self-immolation.
A deafening thunderclap in an endlessly long line of otherwise mostly forgettable Dracula films dating all the way back to cinema’s earliest days, Coppola’s vision for the legendary vampire involved—like many of the filmmakers of his generation—an obsessive tribute to the movies that inspired his career and founded modern cinema. To Coppola, it made sense that a Dracula movie would be infested with references to cinema, since the book’s time period actually intersects with birth of the medium itself. There are, of course, the long-draping shadows of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the baroque exuberance of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and the shadowy expressionism of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, making the film feel as painstakingly crafted as it is mischievously obnoxious.
The visceral, non-digital effects on which Coppola clearly prides himself are no-doubt inspired by the early DIY cinema magic of silent-era heroes like Georges Melies. It may seem incongruous to mix vampires with old-timey film tricks, but if there’s any case for suspending computer-generated technology, it’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. When the VFX department resisted the idea of relying completely on in-camera effects, Coppola infamously replaced them with his then-24-year-old son, Roman. What resulted, regardless of your opinion of the aesthetics of dated practical-effect technology, is a transporting experience that feels like an exceptional work of passion, fury, and vision—one similar in scope to the celebrated craftsmanship of today’s arthouse hits such as the relentless commitment to the period setting in The Witch, the meticulously choreographed terrors of Hereditary, or the staggering costume work in the classic-horror-inspired The Shape of Water from Guillermo Del Toro.
For a film so immersed in the dreadful, centuries-spanning burden of human love and desire, perhaps it’s only natural that the movie itself be so lovingly crafted. The film is not unlike Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, an awesome work of terror that is so filled with ideas and ambition that it always seems on the verge of complete self-immolation.
From the baffling double-exposure sequence of green mist creeping into a bedroom, to the grotesque practical effects of Dracula’s many forms, to throat-snapping sound design that punctuates every act of violence, there seems to be a Coppola-sized fingerprint on just about every single frame, every shade of the light, every centimeter of this film. Even Keanu Reeves’s performance, which at the time was seen as an embarrassment, just seems completely tender and true here; even though his accent doesn’t sound quite right, his clear efforts to try his best give the movie a texture and nuance that’s all its own.
Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, perhaps one of the first major league films of the “post-horror” movement, debuted in 2015 to a similarly divisive response. The gothic film, which Del Toro famously declared was “not a horror film,” resembles something of a “fairytale” with “gothic-romance trappings.” Such is the case with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though Coppola would say himself that he was aiming to bring the fairy-tale to a sexual level of “erotic dream[s].” Sex is a persistent theme throughout all eras of horror, and both Crimon Peak and Dracula are consumed with the voraciousness of sex and the all-consuming bloodlust that seems to propel humanity’s never-ending need for copulation.
But unlike Crimson Peak, which clearly sought to imitate past-time gothic traditions like Jane Eyre or Great Expectations and boasts a detachment to the horror genre (as if it was, in some way, above such childish moviemaking), Bram Stoker’s Dracula feels proudly seeped in an ancient evil that simply cannot be replicated. Whereas Del Toro is paying tribute to older types of filmmaking while employing modern-age technology to achieve the dated “look,” Coppola was going straight to the source, flipping the camera on its head, exposing reel after reel to get true apparitions on the screen, and obsessing over every corporeal object in the frame to the extent that the viewing experience feels like downright madness.
Like Dracula himself, a passion like this can withstand centuries—and inspire trauma in any God-fearing man or woman that may come its way.