Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a modern horror masterpiece, and one that too often goes overlooked. A film that is horrifying, intriguing, and astoundingly beautiful, Francis Ford Coppola took Stoker’s masterwork and breathed new, undead life into it in 1992. It recently hit its 25th anniversary, and the film remains a classic piece of horror cinema.
The film opens in 1462, with Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) returning from war against the Turks to find that his beloved wife, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has killed herself upon receiving false news of his defeat and death. When the priest tells him that her soul cannot be saved and will be forever damned by her suicide, Vlad renounces God in a fit of rage. He desecrates his small chapel, stabbing a stone cross and drinking the blood that begins to ebb from it, embracing eternal life and damnation at the hands of a merciless god.
From here, we jump forward to the late 19th century. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent to Romania on behalf of his firm to finalize the purchase of several London properties for the mysterious Count Dracula. Upon seeing a picture of Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Ryder, again), Dracula becomes obsessed with her, believing her to be a reincarnation of his lost love. Dracula travels to London and seduces Mina, and Jonathan must band together with a group of friends and Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to bring Dracula to his end.
This telling may hit the familiar beats of Stoker’s novel, including the vampire hunter, the undead brides, the loss of a friend to Dracula and to darkness, but Coppola adds to those beats such a flair for the cinematic and the visual that it’s almost as though seeing them again here is seeing them for the first time. So much of this telling is wrapped up in the stunning visuals and in the love story presented that this adaptation lives in a world all its own.
The film is a phenomenal blend of horror and gothic romance.Though it never skimps on the violence, the gore, or the unsettling imagery, at its heart, this story is a tragedy and the horror is rooted in Dracula’s past and in the choices that he makes. In his moment of despair, he curses God and turns away from his faith and everything he has ever known. Through his own actions, broken-hearted though they are, he becomes a monster. A monster forever cursed to live eternally and mourn his lost love.
Everything in the film springs from this tragic moment in time. A moment that the audience sees firsthand and connects with. Though Dracula is a frightening being and his dealings with Harker early on scream “don’t trust me” to the audience, we can’t help but be drawn to him—not just because of his mystery and allure, but because we have seen his past and the moment of despair that created the monster we follow through the remainder of the film. We understand the pain underlying the evil of Dracula and his actions. As much we fear for Mina, Lucy, and Jonathan, we know Dracula’s desire. We understand that the idea of being reunited with his former love is overpowering.
Another aspect that makes this story so unique and fascinating (not to mention terrifying) is the untethered nature of the vampire himself. We have become used to monsters in fiction abiding by a very specific playbook that lays out rules for their behavior and for their eventual destruction. Demons can possess, werewolves transform under a full moon, zombies must be killed by destroying the brain. And while this iteration of Dracula does have to rest in the earth of his homeland and feed on the blood of the living, that’s about where it ends.
Dracula’s powers, in particular, are governed by no rules. He can hypnotize, appear young or old, and turn into all manner of creatures. Over the course of the film, we see him as an old nobleman, a young prince, a wolf-like man-beast, a bat creature, and a swarm of rats. What makes this particular vampire so threatening is that his power is seemingly limitless. He can do or be whatever he wants at any given time. This creates a monster that our small band of heroes can only hope to defeat. Though led by the wisdom of Van Helsing, we get the sense (as do they) that they are seriously outmatched and that they will be lucky to make it out alive. It’s a detail that makes Dracula all the more terrifying, and creates a mythology that is not easy to pin down.
We can’t talk about this movie without worshiping the astounding effects and the vividly beautiful imagery. Coppola, along with his son Roman and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, create a hypnotically beautiful piece of art. Eschewing the use of modern effects, most of what we see in the film are in-camera effects and other things that could easily be achieved on set. Coppola embraces the fact that the story of Dracula coincides with the birth of film, and uses techniques that were achievable in the early days of filmmaking.
He also builds a world rich in visual aesthetic. The costuming is lavishly beautiful, the colors vibrant, and the overall feel of the film traverses the space between dream and nightmare. Shadows play across the screen, filling the audience with a sense of dread, but also a hypnotic desire to see more of the world of this monster. The creature and makeup effects are great—not only in their detail, but also in the fact that they are so varied due to Dracula’s many guises and forms.
Coppola gave us a very different version of Dracula 25 years ago, and personally, it remains my favorite. This film finds a new way to tell a very established story, and doesn’t hesitate to make it grand or flamboyant. Nor does it shy away from allowing the audience to understand or even empathize with Dracula himself. This vampire is one that is all at once horrifying, seductive, and tremendously sad, and that complexity makes the story all the more rich and inviting. At the heart of the story is a monster created through unfathomable despair and loss, and seeing that monster find a path to redemption is beautiful, even if that path is filled with terror.