Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula generated buzz when it originally premiered and won Oscars for its technical achievements, but as the years have gone by and the buzz has died down, it’s now regarded as simply inferior to the 1930s original.

In the case of Coppola’s film, that indifference is more than justified. The reason for this is because, for all the claims by both Coppola and screenwriter James Hart that this would be the definitive screen adaptation of Stoker’s 1897 novel, the end result is no more faithful to that great book than many of the other movie versions. Hence, this film has an even more misleading title than Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. (I think it says it all that this supposedly faithful adaptation deviated so far from the original book that it merited its own novelization.) But the crimes Coppola’s film commits don’t stop there.

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The movie begins in 1462 at the height of the Crusades. Vlad Tepes (Gary Oldman) AKA Vlad the Impaler, the real life figure who Count Dracula was partially based on, returns to his castle after fighting (and impaling) the Turks only to discover that his wife, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder), has killed herself because she was told that he died in battle.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

A priest (Anthony Hopkins) tells Vlad that because his wife has taken her own life, her soul is now damned (almost like watching this movie). Vlad then renounces God, and somehow, this causes the cross in the chapel to bleed, and him to become a vampire called Dracula as he shouts out in a hammy manner.

Jump forward to 1897, and we see British solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves; yes, Keanu Reeves) on a train bound for Transylvania to meet Dracula to arrange real estate that the Count has recently purchased in London. We also learn that Harker’s colleague, Renfield (Tom Waits) was committed after he had previously met with Dracula.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Harker meets Dracula, with Oldman now wearing old man makeup and a bizarre gray wig reminiscent of Mickey Mouse. Before long, Dracula sees a picture of Harker’s fiancée Mina (also played by Ryder) and believes that she’s the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabeta. Dracula remains outwardly calm about this revelation, but his apparently autonomous shadow lacks a similar amount of self-control. The Count then leaves Harker at the mercy of his three vampire brides while he sails off to England. Bogus, dude!

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

As Dracula arrives in England, Renfield goes ranting at the asylum, which is near Dracula’s new property at Carfax Abbey. His ravings attract the attention of the asylum’s Dr. Seward (Richard E. Grant).

Meanwhile, the Count transforms himself into a young man again, and tracks down Mina, and soon courts both her and her friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). One stormy night, the two ladies seductively dance with each other before Dracula transforms into a wolf and bites and rapes Lucy.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Her later, bizarre behavior leads Seward, Lucy’s former beau, to send for his mentor Professor Van Helsing (also played by Hopkins). The professor deduces that Lucy has been attacked by a vampire. At the same time, Mina receives word that Jonathan has escaped the castle and is at a convent. She goes to Romania where she marries him, while Dracula wallows in self-pity.

Shortly after Lucy dies, Van Helsing, Seward, her other former flame Quincey Morris (Billy Campbell), and her fiancée Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) head to her grave. Naturally, they find her glass coffin empty, and Lucy has now become one of the undead. All but Van Helsing are startled by her vampiric ways, but the quartet manages to drive a stake through her heart, and also decapitate her.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Mina and Jonathan return and are brought up to speed by Van Helsing. As the men hunt the Count, Dracula enters Seward’s asylum and kills Renfield. Not that it matters much, since we hardly knew this movie’s version of the guy.

Dracula next pops in on Mina and they annoyingly make goo-goo eyes at each other. She then pathetically goes apeshit on him for killing Lucy, before turning on a dime and telling him she loves him. Geez, if I wanted stupid romantic turnarounds, I’d watch Friends, thank you very much.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

This scene leads to the movie’s lowest point, where Mina lovingly implores Dracula to turn her into a vampire. As anyone who’s read the book can tell you, Mina becomes a vampire against her will. However, the filmmakers seem to think that having this be a consensual act in their movie is faithful to the book. Mina’s line “Take me away from all this death” is as painful as Anakin Skywalker saying that Padme is not rough like sand in Attack of the Clones.

Happily, this awful attempt at a moving love scene is interrupted by Van Helsing and his cavalry. In the movie’s only genuinely scary moment, Dracula startles both them and the audience by popping out in his giant bat form. Van Helsing shoves a cross in his face, but Dracula is able to somehow set it on fire. I guess we shouldn’t wonder how, since the movie doesn’t. He then says Mina is now his bride before bolting.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Mina begins her transformation into a vampire, and this prompts Van Helsing to hypnotize her to find out where Dracula is going. His fellow hunters head for the Bulgarian province of Varna, although the Count manages to outwit them thanks to his connection with Mina.

As Van Helsing and Mina continue to the Borgo Pass, the Count’s brides (remember them? Didn’t think so) arrive. Their influence overwhelms Mina to such an extent that she attempts to seduce and convert Van Helsing, but he manages to outsmart them by forming a ring of fire around the two of them, which keeps the brides at bay. The next morning, they arrive at the castle, where Van Helsing decapitates all three of the brides.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Dracula, with the other vampire hunters in hot pursuit, arrives at the castle as the sun begins to set. After a brief fight with the gypsies who were transporting the Count, Morris heroically sacrifices himself by getting stabbed in the back before he thrusts his bowie knife into Dracula’s heart.

This is how the Count meets his demise in the book, and after he turns to dust, Mina, Jonathan, Van Helsing, Seward, and Holmwood spend the last couple of pages mourning Morris. Mina even notes that she and Jonathan named their son after him.

However, this is further proof that screenwriter Hart read a different book than the rest of us, because this movie completely forgets about Morris after he heroically dies. Why? Because the pathetic Dracula/Mina love story is what the book is really about, at least, according to the filmmakers.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

The final scenes of this film have the dying Count crawling in the chapel where he somehow became a vampire at the beginning of the movie. Mina follows him inside and tearfully grieves, calling him “My love.” They kiss before she puts Dracula, the tragic romantic hero, out of our misery by shoving that knife through his heart and into the floor. Mina then yanks the sucker out and decapitates the count.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

The final shot of the film is Mina staring up at the ceiling at a painting of Vlad and Elisabeta, symbolizing that they’re now together. Personally, I’m wondering how she and Jonathan will be able to enjoy any future wedding anniversaries after all this.

Many say that Keanu Reeves’s attempts to sound English were the worst part of the film, but, trust me, he’s the least of this movie’s problems.

Someone once called The Godfather Part III Coppola’s Phantom Menace, meaning that both films were highly anticipated but rightfully ended up being disdained. With that comparison in mind, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is Coppola’s Attack of the Clones. Both films have a horribly acted love story, and even more damningly, basically say that everything we were told about their primary characters over the decades is now suddenly wrong.

Prior to Clones, we were led to believe that Anakin Skywalker was once a noble figure who tragically became the frightening Darth Vader. However, Clones makes Anakin an annoying prick and nothing more, which is why his transformation into Vader in Revenge of the Sith isn’t tragic at all. Likewise, Stoker’s book paints its title character as a monster that must be stopped. Both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee made their careers by playing the Count in this manner. But Hart and Coppola claim that Dracula is simply a misunderstood hero who’s the victim of a tragic love story and is simply seeking love and redemption (by the way, in real life, Vlad’s wife didn’t kill herself out of anguish, but because she didn’t want to be taken prisoner by Vlad’s enemies, who were closing in on them). Hell, the tagline of this movie was “Love Never Dies”, which doesn’t exactly make me expect a horror movie.

Defenders of this movie claim that humanizing Dracula in this manner makes the film unique. I might go along with that, were it not for the fact that Coppola and Hart stated numerous times prior to the movie’s release that this would be the most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s book ever, which creates certain expectations that we assume will be met.

In fairness, this film makes more use of Morris than any of the previous movies (I don’t even recall seeing Morris in any previous Dracula film, myself). Other pluses include Hopkins’s Van Helsing, which is every bit as terrific as Peter Cushing’s (although, was the priest at the beginning of the film supposed to be Van Helsing’s ancestor?). The movie also won Oscars for makeup, costume design, and sound effects editing, and they were all well-deserved.

But these pluses are ultimately overshadowed by the movie’s own hypocrisy. Having a different take on the Count is one thing, but explicitly stating that this Dracula will be the most faithful to its source and then having the finished product showcase something else makes a critical analysis imperative.

If you want a movie that does justice to Stoker’s book, watch the classic movie versions Nosferatu, the 1931 Dracula, or Horror of Dracula. They may take liberties with the book, but they’re all nicely atmospheric, and like the book, they don’t portray the Count as the precursor to Edward in Twilight.

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  • R.D.

    I wouldn’t say this is technically inferior to the Bela Lugosi version, which, while it may have created the pop culture image of Dracula that sticks with us…is honestly kind of boring, slow, and for the most part not very well acted. Keep in mind I enjoyed the 30s Frankenstein, so I’m not docking the old Universal classics by default.

    I don’t like the attempts to ‘humanize’ Dracula in this version, but I did like some of the design work and occasional atmosphere, and at the very least, it’s better than the more recent shitty Dracula Untold film or whatever.

    One favorite of mine, however, is Shadow of the Vampire, if only for Willem Dafoe.

    • Toby Clark

      Agreed on Dracula 1931, and I’d point to the review at 1000 Misspent Hours to explain why (though my own rating would be a little more generous).

  • Hal_10000

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. For all its flaws — and they are many — I really like this film. The visuals are sumptuous, the camera is relentless and the score is very strong. While it’s not as faithful to the book as they claimed, (1) it’s closer than many others (including narratives from letters and journals) and (2) It doesn’t really bother me. The love story is a bit weak but Oldman and Ryder pull it off reasonably.

  • Thomas Stockel

    Yeah, the movie hasn’t aged well for me, either, although I think Keanu’s performance annoys me more than the insipid love story. Seriously, every time he talks it’s just so grating.

    But yeah, you’re pretty spot on regarding how misplaced the love story is. I don’t mind Dracula being given a bit more depth than just a mindless monster, but that was just ridiculous. And you’re spot on about how un-scary this film is.

    • Cristiona

      Eh… Keanu was fine. Winona was far worse.

      Tom Waits, on the other hand…

  • Lazer-Lion

    I watched this movie on a movie channel a little while ago, and I was pretty underwhelmed with this. It’s unsettling how the movie made a monster essentially forcing himself on Lucy and Mina what could be described as rape and made Mina/Dracula lovers in this film.

  • KM

    The movie is not just unfaithful to the book, the whole “victim is reincarnation of vampire’s lost love” was shamelessly ripped off from the more effective Dan Curtis/Jack Palance version of the story from 1973 (which, itself, borrowed it from Curtis’ “Dark Shadows” TV series).
    The most faithful adaptation I can think of is the BBC version from 1977, featuring Louis Jourdan as Dracula. It’s very close to the original story, with a few changes here and there. And, while not as visually flashy, it’s much better than the Coppola version.

    • Toby Clark

      The reincarnation thing can actually be traced back to 1932’s The Mummy, a movie that was otherwise pretty heavily recycled from the previous year’s Dracula.

  • Muthsarah

    With style like this movie has, what else matters? No, it’s probably not THE Dracula for the ages, but it’s amazing spectacle filmmaking nonetheless. Had it not called itself “Bram Stoker’s”, I wonder how many people would take exception to its inaccuracies.

    Has anyone here seen both this and the Dracula film from last year? Even modern flash couldn’t match the style Coppola and company put up back then. There were parts you coulda almost called this “Terry Gilliam’s Dracula”.

    Also: Gary Oldman. God DAMN!

  • Mr. Happy Pants

    Time warp to 1991-
    “They’re making a new Dracula!”
    “Sweet, who’s in it?”
    “The guy who played Sid Vicious and Ted from Bill and Ted.”
    “Haha, really, who’s in it?”

    Actually if you watch it with the sound off and treat it like a silent film with some cool music on the stereo it’s pretty good.

    • Mr. Happy Pants

      Oh, of course- and the girl from Beetle Juice.

  • Cristiona

    Wut?

    I liked the ’31 Dracula as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t call it a highly faithful adaptation.

  • Greenhornet

    If you want a sympathetic Dracula, try Saberhagen’s “The Dracula Tapes”. It’s an interesting twist on the old story.
    I have written Universal Studios and pointed out that in the 1931 version, Lucy APPARENTLY didn’t die after she was turned and they should make a sequel about her!
    Remember? Van Helsing tells Mina that they would “end her suffering” (Or something) and go out to do the deed BUT… in the next scene, they have to chase Dracula instead. In the sequel, Van Helsing is arrested, so Lucy was not dealt with. It’s my idea that the bat Mina was talked to in another scene was LUCY, not Dracula and when Mina said “I will”, she was promising to hide her friend’s coffin. Mina had reveled that vampire Lucy tried to contact her another time, you know.
    No, I have not heard back from them after more than ten years.

    • Greenhornet

      “…was TALKING to…”