At the time of its release, Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a risky venture. Coppola was coming off the disappointment of The Godfather Part III, which capped off his mafia trilogy on a somewhat sour note. And Dracula hadn’t been on the big screen since the moderately success 1979 adaptation starring Frank Langella. Notwithstanding the massive success of Silence of the Lambs, horror was also on a downswing at the time. Certainly, there didn’t seem to be much public appetite for lavish, big budget Gothic horror romance. Yet Dracula was a critical and commercial success – an eccentric mix of sensual horror, love story, and inventive effects and camera trickery. It remains a version of Dracula you likely would never see get made today.
Dracula Defied Expectations and Succeeded In Spite Of Itself
When Dracula was released in 1992, it marked a significant departure from Francis Ford Coppola’s previous work. It also came at a lull for more traditional horror fare. To add to its own obstacles, Coppola and writer James V. Hart (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) envisioned their adaptation as mix of Gothic horror and romance. Decades earlier Universal Studios had created a legacy of sympathetic monster movies and even flirted a bit with a tortured monster’s yearning for companionship in Bride of Frankenstein. Nonetheless, Coppola’s Dracula was following on the heels of a decade defined by teen slashers. Despite the success of early 90s horror movies like Silence of the Lambs and Misery, Coppola and Hart’s vision for a big budget Gothic horror adaptation of Stoker’s classic work represented a huge risk. To complicate things further, Coppola insisted on using practical effects and optical illusions to create his film’s effects.
Nonetheless, Coppola’s Dracula was following on the heels of a decade defined by teen slashers.
Each of these risks paid off in turn as Dracula proved to be a bombastic re-imagining of the classic tale in all the best ways imaginable. Similar to the epistolary style of Stoker’s novel, Hart’s screenplay weaved in narration from its central cast throughout the movie. One one hand, Coppola’s adaptation was one of the more faithful re-tellings of the Dracula story. Yet Hart’s decision to incorporate some historical elements of Vlad Dracula into its story and then twist this altogether into a tragic romance elevated the movie to something that matched Coppola’s bold visual style. After countless versions of the vampire, this version felt different and fresh. This more sympathetic take on the title monster also produced a much more powerful finale that resonated with audiences beyond the final credits.
Dracula a Visual Triumph of Sight, Sound, and Spectacle
As much as Hart’s adaptation of Stoker’s novel added a new layer to the familiar intellectual property, most filmgoers will likely cite Coppola and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ distinctive visual style. Almost immediately Dracula is an assault on the senses with each scene seemingly competing with the previous one to capture your attention. Both the costume and set design completely re-imagined what popular culture had taught us about Dracula from the cape to the arched Eastern European eyebrows. From its opening scene depicting Vlad Dracula’s war against the Ottoman Empire, Ballhaus plays with lighting, shadows, and perspective to put on screen things that were unlike anything you had previously seen.
Almost immediately Dracula is an assault on the senses with each scene seemingly competing with the previous one to capture your attention
Over its two hours of runtime, Coppola and Ballhaus don’t just re-invent the Dracula mythos, they challenge the parameters around which horror movies had been previously been defined. Some of the movie’s best moment emerge from Coppola’s use of camera trickery and lighting – whether it’s elongating a coachman’s arm or startling audiences with where Dracula is (or is not) standing in a room. Years later, computer-generated effects would dominate even smaller movies. Almost everything we see in Marvel movies is set against a green screen. All of this makes the visual achievements of Dracula all the more impressive. Alongside these visual triumphs, Wojciech Kilar’s score remains one of the more epic musical arrangements found in the horror genre.
Casting Proved to Be a Blessing and a Curse for Dracula
Much was made about the casting – and mis-casting – at the time of its release. Notably, audiences and critics alike eviscerated Keanu Reeves’ (Constantine, Knock Knock) casting as Jonathan Harker in Dracula. In 1992, we were still over a decade away from the Keanaissance in which we’re currently reveling. Most viewers still saw Reeves as something of a bonehead surfer dude not unlike his ‘Ted’ Theodore Logan character. Though Reeves was (and is) certainly a good actor, he was clearly out of his depth in Dracula. No amount of love for Keanu could obscure just how bad his British accent sounded. Maybe he would have been better off just dumping it altogether like Kevin Costner in . While co-star Winona Ryder (Stranger Things) fared better both actors found themselves outshined by their more senior cast.
Even under a lot of make-up Gary Oldman delivers a career-defining performance as Prince Vlad/Dracula. Consistent with Coppola’s visual style, Oldman invests Dracula with an explosive rage reminding audiences that the character is to be feared. In fact, Oldman’s performance recalls a sense of regality, pride, and trauma not previously seen in the character. To date, Oldman’s interpretation of Dracula remains the most layered and unique committed to the screen. As Dracula’s foil, Abraham Van Helsing, Anthony Hopkins gives an over-the-to-performance that almost constantly threatens to veer off course. But it’s exactly this scene chewing that fits so well with Coppola’s style. And while Hopkins constantly threatens to go too far over-the-top, he reigns it in enough to be memorable without hitting that campy quality.
Dracula Has Established Itself As a Genre Classic
Over 30 years since its release, horror fans – and cinephiles in general – regard Coppola’s Dracula as a horror classic. Yet at the time of its release, Coppola’s vision for Stoker’s classic literary vampire was a massive risk. Everything from the visuals to the story itself bucked genre trends at a time when horror was hitting a lull. Few horror movies in the years since it was released have possessed the same level of grandeur as Dracula. While we’ve seen horror deserving of awards consideration, few horror movies have blended Gothic traditions with contemporary sensibilities like Coppola. Few movies today would take the same risks, with the same results, as Dracula.