[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.

~Eric Ho


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§ 4 Responses to [BONUS] Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a Wonderful, Wild Ride

  • louthaink says:

    Although I’ve never seen this rendition of Dracula, it sounds like it does a great job of attempting to be relatively faithful to the format of the book (different letters, articles, journals, etc. from the various points of view you said were presented in the action scenes) without forgetting that it’s a movie not a book. I think when film adaptations of books are made, they have a tendency to try too hard to match the narrative voice of the movie to the book instead of finding alternative solutions. For instance, The Book Thief has a very strong and engaging narrator, Death, which I felt came across rather poorly in the movie. In the beginning of the film and at other points, there was just a voice (Death’s) narrating it in a similar way that was done in the book. I was disappointed by this adaptation because it didn’t feel authentic. If The Book Thief were initially a movie rather than a book, I don’t think that it would have been set up in that way. Great movies, whether they are adaptations of books or not, should be able to stand on their own, which it sounds like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, unlike The Book Thief, does.


    • cnykim says:

      You comment on the difficulty a movie adaption could face when attempting to match the narrative voices in the original book is interesting. I haven’t watched the movie (but now I’m curious about it). But in the book , Dracula and other characters are presented from different characters’ perspectives (i.e. their journals and letters). I assume the movie would have had tried to present a more in-depth Dracula in addition to what he’s like in the eyes of Johnathan, Mina, and other characters. This sounds a task that’s challenging and fascinating at the same time, which also suggests one major attraction of film adaption. The interpretations of the characters made by the producers and actors are incorporated and at the same time, I believe, inevitably compromised too.


  • audreymolina says:

    I am impressed by the fact that the movie had enough nuance and tact to give Dracula some reasonable level of humanity. So many horror movies portray the villain as some sort of pure embodiment of evil (supernatural horror especially), but Dracula’s relative well-roundedness as a character is probably the most interesting aspect of the story. I definitely want to watch this adaptation after finishing the book, especially with such a star-studded cast. It can be difficult to overlook cheesy visual effects or campy choices, but if the story maintains some complexity I think I can forgive the flaws.
    I find it really interesting that you specifically say that Dracula’s accent gets thicker when he is more “evil” or “scary” and less apparent when he’s following the rules of society. This is so interesting considering our discussions in class about monsters in fiction sometimes being metaphors for foreigners or the general “other”, indicating the xenophobic attitudes of the time. I wonder why the movie specifically chose to bring out that problematic aspect.


  • heaven says:

    I have not seen this film adaptation, but this blog makes me want to watch it! While I think the mediocre acting would be quite entertaining, I am really intrigued to see how the camera work and effects work with the close following of the text in the dialogue. I think it would be interesting to see the characterization of Dracula that you describe especially in how he evolves and changes depending on when he was in Transylvania or London. I also think it would just be cool to see an early adaptation of Dracula since I usually watch the later adaptations and likenesses.


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