[BONUS] Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a Wonderful, Wild Ride
November 8, 2019 § 4 Comments
Spoilers for the plot of Dracula. Duh.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992 is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the original Dracula text, starring Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, Gary Oldman as Count Dracula, Winona Ryder as Mina, and Cary Elwes as Arthur Holmwood. While the star-studded cast certainly does not disappoint, I also wouldn’t call this anybody’s best performance. Partly due to the movie’s level of faith towards the text – some lines are quoted verbatim – it comes off as a bit campy or forced at times.
What truly makes this movie is the camerawork and effects. While the plot and dialogue remain true to the text, the effects really lean in to the dreamy, semi-delirious atmosphere in a way that text can simply not convey. Subtle transformations in characters’ appearances slowly creep their way into the viewer’s awareness, emphasizing the feeling of unease at work throughout the entire film. Action sequences frequently jump to different points-of-view, and sometimes even show two perspectives in superimposition. This effect is used quite often, but not so much as to make the scenes unintelligible. Admittedly, I committed the cardinal sin of film adaptations and watched the movie before I read the book. Nonetheless, I was able to follow each scene relatively clearly.
The characterization of Count Dracula is a focal point of this retelling, and with mixed results. From the outset, the amount of emphasis placed on some of Dracula’s character quirks, such as his strong accent and long cloak became comical, and in some ways took away from the otherwise serious nature of the story. I found myself broken away from the somber and brooding atmosphere that other parts of the movie try so hard to create. This is disconnect captured perfectly in the scene where Harker watches Dracula scuttle down the castle walls – I ended up laughing to the point where I had to pause the movie, rather than being at least unnerved by it. Now I understand that modern standards for horror and violence are far more extreme than they were even twenty years ago, let alone Stoker’s time. But I feel there must have been a better way to portray this, rather than having Dracula wobble around like a big red slug. (I’m giggling again as I find the picture to show you here.)
On the other hand, the movie does an excellent job of portraying Dracula as a well-rounded antagonist, especially in the latter parts. As Dracula regains his more naturally-human appearance, some of those tacky personality traits begin to fade. When he looks human, his accent is less extreme, his temper becomes less volatile (although he is still certainly deceptive), and his style of dress becomes more in line with the rest of the characters. This alone is not too remarkable, as he simply learns to blend in with the London setting, but becomes something special as his human facade begins to show cracks. Dracula’s inner conflict becomes very evident, as he struggles with his feelings for Mina, as Elisabeta reincarnate. Simultaneously he wants to preserve her purity, her humanity, while he also wants to take her as a vampire, and allow her to walk the earth indefinitely, as he does.
This human/un-human duality seeps into other aspects of the movie as well. Characters like Renfield, in the insane asylum, wrestle with their humanity and become caught up in the struggle between vampiric corruption and holy purity. Vampires and the church are clearly symbolic between darkness and light, though the line is more blurred here than you might expect. Even Count Dracula is not entirely removed from his humanity, while characters like Van Helsing are remarkably similar to the Count in their illicit sexual advances toward Mina and Lucy. Even as Dracula is inevitably defeated, we are left wondering if justice was entirely served to those who deserved it.
This movie clearly drives home the origins of the vampire stories we know as a common part of our culture today. From Dracula’s characteristic accent to scenes of vampires repelled by garlic and being run through with stakes, it’s all here. For anyone who enjoys modern takes on vampire or Gothic horror tropes, this origin story of sorts is a must-watch.