Blog - A Year of Dracula, Part 3 - Dracula 1992 and 1931
December 29, 2023
Finishing up my Dracula retrospective, here's part 3, about the films Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Dracula (1931). Check out Part 1 - The Novel and the Ballet and Part 2 - The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
I read Dracula in 1991 and because I enjoyed the book, the next year when Bram Stoker's Dracula came to theaters my father took me to see it. It was probably not a great movie for a 12 year old. It's weird, violent, gross, *really* horny and it scared the shit out of me.
I really liked it.
Revisiting it as an adult, I don't think it's actually all that scary. The things that frightened me as a child were the surface aesthetics; I thought Dracula's bat form and wolf form were absolutely terrifying and his sort of hybrid demon form freaked me out too. And the grossness of all the gore the latter is often covered in magnified all of that.
Creature design aside, there's just not all that much tension or horror in the atmosphere probably because at heart this is a romance movie between tragic hero Dracula and Mina. (See the Princess Weekes video "How Mina Murray Became Dracula's Girlfriend" I referenced in part 1 for more on this.) Dracula is firmly in Seductive Dracula mode in this one. As I mentioned in part 1, I kind of hate this storytelling decision and it injects some really icky incongruities in Mina, but that decision being made I think it's done pretty well, here.
I think the movie holds up. I still really like it. It's definitely a singular vision of its auteur director, Francis Ford Coppola and the performances are pretty good, with Gary Oldman as Dracula and Anthony Hopkins as cackling maniac Van Helsing being standouts.
Well, there's one performance that is pretty not compelling, and if you've seen it you can probably guess I'm talking about Keanu Reeves as Harker, but it wasn't a deal breaker for me. I think it's more uneven than through-and-through terrible, though the accent work is pretty bad and I think it makes the performance seem worse than it is. There's some weird spots in Dracula's castle where Reeves just kind of isn't reacting appropriately to the situation he's in, which to me kind of feels like a direction problem? At the same time, I feel his reaction to Dracula feeding a baby to the brides (a scene right from the book) was pretty good. So...shrug? (Harker also becomes even more of a background character in this than his book counterpart, so whatever acting issues there are, they aren't pervasive problems.)
The score is amazing and the make-up and costumes are incredible in an unexpected way. In the making of documentary "The Costumes are the Sets" costume designer Eiko Ishioka says before being hired she had never seen a Dracula film and that some of her designs ideas are based on Gustav Klimt's painting "The Kiss." (If you've seen the painting it's influence is pretty obvious). There's lots of really cool choices.
Also, the special effects (except the blue fire at the beginning) were all done practically, with Coppola saying they were self-consciously done the same way they would have been done in the 30s. It's impressive.
Overall, I think you should watch it. It's a good movie.
But I don't think it's a "good" adaptation.
(I'm using "good" here as a statement about fidelity, not as a quality assessment. You can make a good movie that's not a faithful adaptation of the source material. You can make a bad movie that is.)
What I think is interesting though, is how adamant the filmmakers, particularly Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart were that they had made a faithful, perhaps the only faithful movie adaptation. In the making of documentary "The Blood is the Life," Coppola says this:
There was so many of them but no one ever did the book! And I knew what the book was because I read the book! And I could see that in most of the scenes Harker is called Renfield and Lucy is the one in love but she’s married to Harker and they just totally played havoc with Stoker’s novel just to suit whatever God knows the reason was.
He also makes this stunningly untrue statement:
All of the characters in our movie are like in their personalities and in their function like the characters in the book.
You know, except for the title character (Dracula) and protagonist (Mina) who are functionally completely different characters than they are in the novel because of the reincarnated lost love aspect injected in. (And also, arguably, Lucy. You have to do a lot of subtext mining and possibly projection to get from the book to the version we see in the film).
This idea that since you've adopted the surface elements, e.g. "We didn't condense any of the characters like other movies do!" or "We kept the epistolary aspect!" you've definitionally made a more faithful adaptation when you've completely changed the protagonist, themes, and even genre of the story is kind of wild. That somehow scene fidelity overrules story fidelity. In some ways Coppola and Hart were ahead of their time on this; they beat the"Spider Man movie isn't a good adaptation because his suit doesn't look homemade" type of internet discourse by at least 20 years.
And I don't meant to disparage them or imply that they are fools. They aren't and like I said, I think they made a good movie and it's pretty clear that Coppola, for his part, loves the novel. But for me, basically, any adaptation that makes Dracula the main character, let alone the Romantic hero, is departing pretty far from the source. It’s not a bad thing but it is a thing. Tell whatever story you want to tell, and a faithful adaptation is not, like, morally better than a more out there one. I just think the myth making around this is interesting.
I think in adapting something, you potentially leave a lot of yourself on the table. In The Blood is the Life, screenwriter James Hart says:
The idea was to portray Dracula, finally, as the charismatic tragic hero that he really was...in 1977 I read the novel. ... to me Dracula was an epic sweeping Gothic romance on a scale we had never seen before.
It seems to me that those statements reveal more about the ideas that resonate with Hart than it does about the ideas that are present in the text of the novel.
Admittedly, Hart's statement re: Dracula that "My heart breaks for him. He’s cursed." is an idea briefly hinted at in the novel, by Mina:
That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he, too, is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality. You must be pitiful to him, too, though it may not hold your hands from his destruction.”
Hart also says this, which I think is kind of funny:
Gary [Oldman] has brought a compassion to it and a tenderness to it, that people haven’t seen in Dracula’s character before. [emphasis mine]
Yeah, I think I know why we hadn't seen that before.
But seriously, no shade on you, Mr. Hart. The movie is good. Well done.
Also: the final chase sequence absolutely rules and Dracula's redemption through death at the end, though tied in with Mina as his reincarnated love, does have some precedent in the novel:
I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.
To round out my year of Dracula, I decided I wanted to watch the 1931 Bela Lugosi film. Fortunately, James owns a copy but hadn't seen it. So we did a creature double feature watching Dracula (1931) and then going to see Godzilla Minus One in theaters.
Dracula (1931) was... fascinating. I'm not sure I think it was good but I can see why it was important, and why it struck a chord with people. It was a really interesting watch as an adaptation of a novel not only to a new medium, but, like, to a *new* medium. The first movie with synchronized sound (i.e. "talkie") was in 1927, only 4 years before Dracula.
The Dawn of Cinema?
Being from the dawn of cinema, there's a lot of cinematic language and techniques we take for granted that seem like hadn't been worked out yet. For example, there's a dearth of establishing shots, making it sometimes a little hard to tell where the characters are or how much time has passed from the previous scene.
This stands out most at the end of the movie which is a little confusing. Seward and Harker are chasing Dracula and Mina and then both of the latter are kind of just gone and then Seward turns the corner and I guess it's daytime now so Dracula's in his coffin but Mina's coffin is empty and she screams offscreen when Seward stakes Dracula, allowing Harker to find her...?
It definitely feels like there is connective material missing. The movie's pretty short at about 75 minutes and I don't know if that was a technological limitation or just a "I don't know, man, we're making this movie thing up as we go" thing.
There's some other things that feel jarring, like when Dracula's ship crashes into Whitby and the two constables who board, despite having a conversation, are never shown onscreen. It was just... weird.
Overall, the acting is very "stagey" with exaggerated hand motions and expressions which makes sense in a theater when the people in the back have to see you, but is at times a little much for the modern viewer used to the understated closeups film allows.
There's also no score. I don't know if that was a deliberate choice, but the absolute silence makes some of the scenes kind of unsettling. I'd be curious to know if that "off-ness" is something only a modern viewer, primed to expect a score, would notice.
There's some nice cinematography going on. The sets for Castle Dracula, Carfax Abbey, and the sanitarium ground look great and there are some really strikingly composed shots in the film. There's a crane shot about halfway through at Seward's sanitarium where the camera starts on the ground floor exterior and then sweeps up to follow characters on the second floor through a window. It's a cool shot that must have been really hard to set up. (Also the characters in the second floor go out of focus when the blocking has them drift further back from the camera. Presumably this is a technical limitation.)
I was surprised to see in the title cards that the film was adapted from a play by Hamilton Dean and John Balderston. Per wikipedia, Dean, an Irish playwright, wrote the original in 1924 and Balderston, an American, revised it in 1927 for a Broadway production. (Bela Lugosi also starred in the Broadway version) Cruising through the synopsis or both versions, it looks like the movie changed quite a bit in the adaptation process becoming a lot closer to the novel in overall structure.
There are definitely some interesting and, in my opinion, good adaptational changes made here. The film starts the same way the novel does with a solicitor traveling to Castle Dracula via frightened Transylvanians and then a mysterious coachmen who is obviously Dracula. But in this, the solicitor isn't Harker, it's Renfield who we then see fall under Dracula's sway. Renfield travels to England with Dracula and is picked up as the sole survivor of the ship then sent to Seward's sanitarium nearby.
The characters have been shuffled a bit, with Seward aged up and made Mina's father. Harker, here "John" and not "Jonathan" is still here as Mina's fiancé, but Lucy's suitors Holmwood and Quincy are dropped entirely. Also, older Seward is not courting Lucy, either. She's just Mina's friend.
I think these are all good changes that simplify the exposition at the sanitarium and fix the plot contrivance in the novel that Dracula just happens to encounter Mina and Lucy, which draws in Seward which draws in Van Helsing and all of this has nothing to do with Harker. Here, Dracula seeks out Seward and encounters all the other characters because Seward has Renfield.
As for some not so great changes, Lucy is barely in this and Mina is, sadly though probably predictably, not at all the active agent she was in the novel. There's a flash of ascerbic wit to her after the gang meet Dracula at the theater and she, later to Lucy, gently mocks his vague self-importance and dramatic speech. But nothing comes of it and she's swiftly damseled.
Some of the best lines, in particular Mina's description of her attack and Renfield's description of Dracula's "thousand rats" promise, are just lightly paraphrased from the book. (The effect of Mina's speech is, however, blunted by the viewer having just seen the attack and it not being anywhere near as compelling as her description.)
The movie doesn't even bother with the mystery aspect of the novel. In the first few minutes one of the Transylvanians flat out tells Renfield that there are vampires in Castle Dracula:
We people of the mountains believe at the castle there are vampires. Dracula and his wives! They take the form of wolves and bats. They leave their coffins at night, and they feed on the blood of the living.
This makes the movie unable to achieve the "what is going on and what in God's name are we up against?" type of mounting dread the novel is going for.
There are also some weird cosmetic changes. Dracula's ship is no longer the Demeter but the Vesta, and they use wolfsbane to ward of Dracula, not garlic. It's not important at all, but I kind of wonder what led them to change minor stuff like that. And for all the ways this movie solidified the pop view of vampires, wow the wolfsbane thing didn't catch on, did it?
Probably the weirdest thing about this adaptation is the stuff they put in, but didn't do anything with. Like Lucy. Her attack and demise is extremely perfunctory, handled basically in a throwaway line. She shows up in passing a good bit later as the "'bloofer lady" from the novel that kidnaps children, but then completely vanishes and that thread is never resolved. It's weird, and the kind of thing that would be sort of incomprehensible if you didn't already know the story.
Or Harker. He does nothing in this except gaslight Mina and be generally kind of a jackass. He doesn't even help kill Dracula, the old man does that. Or Dracula's brides who are in Castle Dracula, but don't do anything.
It's like they felt like they needed to include these details for fidelity, even though they were irrelevant to the story they were telling.
In Dan Olsen's video essay "An Exhaustive History of Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings" he makes the following statement about the 1978 animated Lord of the Rings:
There's also a deeper issue, that kind of cuts two ways, and it's that the film relies a lot on understanding the source material. Now I don't think this is a conscious reliance. I do think that Bakshi, and Conkling, and Beagle tried to create a telling of the story that is self contained, but there's enough holes, enough things that are breezed passed that there's definitely the sense that things are missing. The keen awareness that this is an abridgment of a much longer book and so bits are included for the sake of being comprehensive rather than because they make the best version of the story for the medium. I said this cut two ways and that's because while this can make for an unsatisfying viewing on its own, it can also, potentially, make for a satisfying companion to the novel, where the viewer's own knowledge of the text is able to fill in the gaps and their imagination is able to do the heavy lifting of fleshing it all out, using the movie as an aide in their own internal visualization and realization of the story.
I encountered this quote by chance after I started collecting my thoughts on Dracula 1931 and it really encapsulates how I feel about the movie as an adaptation. Olsen said it better than I could.
The man, himself
Bela Lugosi himself as Dracula is pretty compelling. There's an intensity and underlying threat to him. His seemingly unblinking gaze is made more unsettling by the lighting effects on his face in close up, where just his eyes are in vague shadow but light still reflects off his pupils which seem to shine. It's kind of mesmerizing which fits as he hypnotizes a lot of people in this film. I'm not sure how they did it, but it was also a nice touch to have the same effect on Mina late in the film after she is starting to turn.
Dracula can be charming in the movie, and in fact Lucy upon meeting him is fascinated with him, but there's nothing sexual or particularly seductive about him, other than his hypnosis powers. I really liked how his powers were shown with Dracula completely still, hypnosis shadows on his eyes, while characters respond out loud to mental commands we can't hear.
Legosi's hand motions when he's guarding himself from crosses or wolfsbane are a little over the top, but overall he's fairly understated.
Also, side note: in the scenes in Transylvania the subtitles indicate the populace is speaking Hungarian, not Romanian. I'm not sure why. Bela Lugosi is Hungarian, though. Is that a coincidence? Shrug.
Some random stuff
- I really liked the scene at the beginning where Renfield's first stagecoach, the driver of which absolutely does NOT want to meet the Count's carriage at midnight, drops him off. It barely slows down, Renfield stumbles out and the driver just flings Renfield's suitcase after him out of the still moving carriage without a word. James and I both laughed out loud. It was funny on purpose. Right?
- The vermin shown infesting Castle Dracula are opossums and armadillos. Yeah, pretty sure they don't have those in Romania. (Or Hungary)
- Renfield is a good character in this. He's really unhinged and honestly kind of reminds of the Joker. He has some good lines too:
Van Helsing: You will die in torment if you die with innocent blood on your soul.
Renfield: Oh, no. God will not damn a lunatic's soul. He knows that the powers of evil are too great for those of us with weak minds.
After overhearing the characters talking about vampires he says "Isn't this a strange conversation for men who aren't crazy?" Which is a good line, and was well delivered.
- The accents are kind of fuzzy. Most of the cast is American, but I wasn't at all sure if the characters were supposed to be. Sometimes sounded like they were sometimes not.
- Van Helsing: "The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him." I really like this line and I don't think this is from the book. (Also screw you, Harker.)
- Dracula: "To die...to be really dead...that must be glorious."
- There's an extremely funny comic relief scene in the sanitarium grounds between Van Helsing, Martin the orderly, and the maid. Martin and maid, not privy to any of the lunacy the characters have been talking about, are shooting at the bat that's been flying around. To them, it's just a regular, if large, bat.
Van Helsing yells out "There's no use of wasting your bullets, Martin. They cannot harm that bat." Martin and the maid give each other a "... What the fuck?" look and, after a very long pause, Martin just humors Van Helsing with a "... No, sir." An early "Sure, Jan" moment.
Maid: He's crazy.
Martin: They're all crazy. They're all crazy except you and me. Sometimes I have me doubts about you.
It was amazing. The comedic timing was perfect. It was really well executed and didn't derail the film or feel out of place.
I'm glad I watched this.
I would really love a remake of this movie. Not of the novel, but of this specific movie with modern cinematography and acting, the narrative tightened up, and the "missing" material filled in.