Bram Stoker’s Dracula at 30: A Wildly Operatic and Visually Unique Gothic Horror

Mention the name “Francis Ford Coppola”, (most) of us would associate with his seminal masterpieces including the first two Godfather films and Apocalypse Now.

But it’s easy to forget that before he became one of the key directors who pioneered New Hollywood during the ’70s era (even though the movement originated in the mid-60s onwards with notable movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Easy Rider), he got his start making a Roger Corman-produced low-budget movie. A black-and-white horror movie, to be exact called Dementia 13, which was released back in 1963.

After decades of exploring different genres from musical to crime, war and drama, it took him nearly 30 years before he tackled another horror genre. That movie in question is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

When it first came out on November 13, 1992, I was wondering why he chose to direct an oft-told horror story that has been adapted many times before, with the earliest one (at least in terms of wide availability, albeit a loose and unauthorised version) being Nosferatu in 1922.

Gary Oldman as Count Dracula in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992)

But after watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula and recently revisiting it again on Netflix, Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the age-old Dracula story is a technical marvel that still holds up even today. Eschewing the use of modern special effects (well, most of them anyway), he prefers to do things the old-fashioned way. And that means predominantly in-camera effects, matte painting and composite shots.

The movie was even filmed almost entirely on soundstages while the legendary Michael Ballhaus’ atmospheric cinematography as well as Thomas Sanders and Eiko Ishioka’s respective period-appropriate production and costume designs are all one for the ages. Not to forget, the prosthetic-heavy makeup effects on Gary Oldman’s character as Count Dracula — a result that earned the movie an Oscar for Best Makeup and also went home with two more wins including Best Costume Design and Best Sound Editing.

The distinctly antiquated look as well as its surrealistic visuals along with the clever use of shadows (a homage to Nosferatu) and primary colour palettes (notably red) made Bram Stoker’s Dracula such a memorable cinematic experience. Coppola doesn’t shy away from blood and gore too including graphically-violent scenes from stabbing to throat slicing and decapitations. The movie is also sexy as it should be with erotically-charged moments such as the scene involving Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) and Dracula’s three brides played by Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu and Florina Kendrick.

Winona Ryder in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992)

The performances, however, are a mixed bag. Gary Oldman steals the show here as Dracula, joining the likes of Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee as one of the best portrayals of the iconic characters ever seen. Kudos also go to Coppola for humanising Oldman’s Dracula as a sympathetic and tragic figure rather than depicting him as pure evil through and through.

The movie equally benefits from strong supporting turns including Winona Ryder — if you can excuse her wobbly English accent — as Harker’s fiancee, Mina and also a dead ringer for Dracula’s long-deceased wife, Elisabeta and Sadie Frost as Mina’s best friend, Lucy.

Then, there’s Anthony Hopkins, fresh off his memorable Oscar win for Best Actor for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, who hams it up in his role as Professor Abraham Van Helsing (he also provides one of the movie’s voiceover narrations). But he sure has a field day playing the character that his otherwise bad Dutch accent is surprisingly forgivable.

Gary Oldman and Keanu Reeves in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992)

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Keanu Reeves. He remains the movie’s worst casting decision even after I rewatched it, I just couldn’t stand the way he acts like he’s still channelling Ted “Theodore” Logan-like vibe from the Bill & Ted movies. It was as if he is cosplaying a role of a young Englishman, complete with a questionable accent and the kind of acting as wooden as a piece of plank. Coppola wanted Johnny Depp for the role and before him, Christian Slater. In a perfect world, it would be nice to see Depp land the Jonathan Harker role instead and also get to reunite with his Edward Scissorhands co-star, Winona Ryder.

The story — credited to James V. Hart, who co-wrote Steven Spielberg’s Hook the year before — is pretty straightforward. It isn’t narratively deep or anything since Coppola is more concerned about making Bram Stoker’s Dracula as aesthetically mesmerising as possible. In fact, he approaches James V. Hart’s adapted screenplay and turned it into a wildly operatic and campy tone of gothic horror, lust and romance. The result may have been polarising for some people. But I actually love the combination of offbeat and serious narrative beats throughout its confidently-paced 128-minute running time. I guess Coppola’s overall lurid filmmaking style makes the movie compulsively watchable.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a huge financial success at the time of its release, earning an impressive US$30.5 million during the first 3-day opening weekend. It ended with US$82.5 million domestically and a worldwide total of US$215.8 million. For a US$40 million-budgeted horror movie, it was undoubtedly a tremendous feat to make that much, considering how it initially earned the nickname “Bonfire of the Vampires” — a clear reference to Brian De Palma’s notorious 1990 flop The Bonfire of the Vanities.