When it comes to vampire movies, there can be no greater source material than the novel that started them all: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The point of comparison for virtually every vampire story that followed on page and screen, Dracula has been itself the subject of multiple film adaptations, each of which bring their own unique strengths to retelling an ageless tale about an ageless evil. Which one chooses as a favorite is, appropriately, a matter of personal taste. But one of them does a particularly fine and enduring job of capturing not only the gothic horror of its namesake source material, but infusing it with a modern sensibility of love and loss, and a certain sympathy for even the most charming of devils. And that film is Francis Ford Coppola’s study of horror and eros: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The story takes place in 1896, where freshly minted solicitor Johnathan Harker travels to the hinterlands of Transylvania to close a real estate transaction with the mysterious Count Dracula. Dracula notices that Harker’s fiancee, Mina, is a dead ringer for his own lost love, Elizabeta, who died tragically hundreds of years before, when Dracula was fighting the invading Turks. His anger at God was so great it condemned him to a life of undeath, and once he senses that Mina might be Elizabeta reincarnated, he imprisons Harker and sets off to England. Once there, he begins to seduce Mina and prey upon Mina’s vivacious friend, Lucy. Lucy’s various suitors realize that something awful is happening to their mutual adoration, and they bring the famous doctor Van Helsing, who susses out that there is a vampire afoot. As Harker returns and Mina finds herself deeper in Dracula’s thrall, an epic showdown takes shape with the fate of the world in the balance. Whether Dracula’s curse of undeath can be contained becomes second to a much more important question: can love redeem even the foulest of monsters…or corrupt the purest of hearts?
Coppola spared no effort to recreate the look and feel of Stoker’s novel in this adaptation, and the results pay off spectacularly. Visually, the movie is an extended master class of light and shadow, creating a sumptuous, overstuffed period piece that indulges in every modern romanticization of late Victorian England, from its fineries and civility, to the seething erotic energy and bloodlust that lies just below the surface. As we see Dracula prey in London—a perfect hunting ground for a vampire if ever there was one—we see that Dracula may be a savage and bloodthirsty monster, but for all of his charm, he doesn’t exactly hide what he is. There is a sinister honesty to him that we see nowhere else among our protagonists, who all abide by such a hidebound system of convention and manners that one could accuse them of hypocrisy for going to such lengths to avoid discussing directly what it is that they want: power, wealth, glory, sex, violence.
The faithfulness of this adaptation is a real service to the novel, which might just be the most influential piece of horror fiction that modern readers know about but probably haven’t actually read. Coppola seems to know that, and for the most part, his rendition of the tale is about as accurate as one could hope for without sacrificing one’s own artistry in service of homage to another. But there is one big deviation in this, which really helps to elevate it to a great work of its own, and that is introducing the romance between Dracula and Mina. Seeing Dracula as a creature whose monstrosity is a result of a broken heart, and knowing that nothing over the centuries has given him peace almost—almost—makes us feel sorry for him. When Mina falls under his spell, we can hardly blame her for being drawn in to the hypnotic power of his charisma. And before long, we are left to wonder, exactly how much is Mina being hypnotized by Dracula and how much is she truly answering a stirring in her own heart? And as for Dracula, we begin to wonder, how much of his humanity is left that his fascination with Mina might truly be the blossoming of the one emotion he has not felt for centuries?
These questions have no easy answers, and the more the battle between Harker and Dracula deepens, we want our heroes to prevail, sure, but we find ourselves thinking that maybe if Dracula got away clean, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. For that, we can thank Gary Oldman’s virtuoso performance, which does the impossible: bring an undead man to life. Sure, there is a certain sport in pillorying Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder for their work in this film, but with the benefit of perspective, it might be wise to give their performances fresh consideration. Accents aside, Reeves and Ryder are out of their depth against the likes of Oldman and Anthony Hopkins, but isn’t that the point? Aren’t these just two dumb kids who suddenly find themselves in way over their head in struggle between light and dark that they can scarcely understand? If there is one thing this movie doesn’t need, it’s a John Harker who can really hold his own against Dracula. The monster has always been more interesting than the human here.
But with this in mind, the moment of truth comes at the very end, when Mina and Dracula have a final moment that might yet bring redemption to characters who are both looking for different kinds of it. When Mina gives Dracula his deliverance, she does it with love, and that is all he ever wanted. As we watch his life finally escape his body and we wonder how easily he could have spared himself—and those around him—so much pain and suffering. But that’s love for you—a road to salvation and damnation both on a single path. Watch your step.