“There Is Much to Be Learned from Beasts”: Science and Magic in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

When I was about 7 or 8, I snuck downstairs one October night to uncover where some ominous music was coming from. It had trailed up the stairs and into my room, this loud “BAda BA dada dada BAda” tune. It was late, long past my bedtime, and so I crouched behind the sofa and peaked out at the TV. I didn’t know it at the time, but this moment would forever change my understanding of film. I watched as an armored man impaled shadowy soldiers, how they slid down pikes towards the ground crying out. His armor looked like muscle tissue, red and lined. I watched as the man entered a church, and seeing his dead wife, cursed God and stabbed the cross. It started to bleed, and that blood drowned the room, inching closer and closer to the man’s corpse wife. The statues were crying blood, and the man began to drink directly from the cross. The music itself was screaming, blaring loudly, and with every chord I felt something moving in my head. It was like I was closing in on myself, like each chord was a shot moving towards an extreme close up on me, not the film. Just as the man looked around this absolute carnage and screamed, my Mom turned around and saw me.   

She ushered me back to bed before I could ask what she was watching, but little did she know that the damage was already done. The scene haunted me for years, and I could clearly see it playing again in my head, like it does now.

I wasn’t afraid of what I had seen, just interested in what it was and what would happen to this horrific figure. I couldn’t have guessed that the film was about Dracula, as the only thing I knew about Dracula was that he had a black cape, pointy fangs, and slicked hair, none of which appear in Coppola’s movie.

It wasn’t until I was around 14 that I came across Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and finally discovered what I had seen. Watching the film didn’t make this opening sequence less powerful, rather, it gave me the opportunity to explore different elements about it. Because I had spent years imagining where this scene could lead, the events in the film were just one outcome, one version of how the scene could playout. This made it seem like my interpretations were on the same level as the film’s, and that they were equally important.

“The Blood is the Life”

Coppola’s film is a favourite of mine because he treats film as a body and as a science. That is to say, the techniques used in Dracula are extensions of the characters, particularly of Dracula, but they are also precise and choreographed, or conscious of what it means to be a film. I’ll explore each of these in detail, but I’ll say now that Coppola’s two approaches connect with his subject matter. He is interested in expanding Bram Stoker’s original journal form using the camera, essentially recreating each character’s inner monologue. But he is also interested in the novel’s obsession with new technology, as he returns to old filmmaking techniques and updates them. In doing so, the film seems both personal and inhuman, as we get these close character studies within a heavily stylized world which moves in unrealistic ways.

“An Autopsy? On Lucy?”
“No, No, No. Not Exactly. I just want to cut off her head and take out her heart”

I have a confession: I am not a huge fan of Bram Stoker’s novel. It took me years to get through Dracula because I couldn’t latch onto his writing style. For instance, there is a sequence right at the beginning of the text where Jonathan Harker talks about bringing home a chicken paprika recipe for his fiancé and goes into great detail about the dish. I wanted vampires, not paprika, and so I got very annoyed with the novel. I later realized that Stoker was showing off his research of the Carpathian region, which he had never visited, nor had any of his English readers. He wanted to create a convincing world for his antagonist, one which was foreign and strange enough to warrant Harker’s uneasiness. Rather than starting the novel with Harker’s arrival at the castle, he begins on route, which suggests that Harker is a vehicle for the English perspective, a sort of documentary eye reporting back to England. Styling the novel as a journal means that we only know what Harker knows, and so the text, particularly its early chapters, seems quite empathetic and human. Rather than featuring an omniscient narrator, Stoker uses a series of flawed humans who sometimes make bad decisions. This limited scope additionally means that the text focuses on humans, and the way these characters talk, think, and present themselves.

“I Have Crossed Oceans of Time To Find You”

Because we bounce between different characters and newspaper clippings, we sometimes get the same event told in different ways. It is a bit like Mina being Dracula’s reincarnated wife in the film, the same person in a different body and time. In the text, this means that we see how characters think of themselves and how other characters see them. Likewise, the novel’s journal entry form means that the reader becomes from different people and such, the reader becomes some omnipresent figure, the person to whom the characters are speaking to. We get included in the events of the text, as the characters are talking to us, not one another. We are an informal member of the vampire hunters, which explains why we never hear from Dracula. He doesn’t have a journal entry in the book, although that would be very interesting.

I wonder how much we can trust these figures seeing as we only hear about Dracula from their descriptions. Just because they write something down doesn’t mean that we can trust everything they say. The novel’s journal form means that we can’t read the character’s minds, and so we don’t know if they are portraying themselves in a specific light. For example, when Mina is attacked by Dracula, we don’t get her perspective on the events until later, and even then, she doesn’t go into detail. Instead, we get Seward’s version of Mina’s attack, and its hard to tell what he might have added to this attack to portray Mina or Dracula in a specific way.

Coppola picks up on this unreliable narrator by suggesting that Mina and Dracula had a whole relationship which none of the other characters knew about, and that the reader knew nothing of because Mina destroyed her journal entries. I find this fascinating, as it implies that the events in Stoker’s novel were heavily curated by Mina, who oversaw and organized all the entries and newspaper clips. She typed everyone’s journal entries, particularly Seward who uses a phonograph to record his thoughts. Who knows what she might have added or left out, or even what these other characters might have done to their accounts? Coppola film examines the very politics of why the characters might do such a thing.

“Do Not Let Your Eyes See or Your Ears Hear that Which You Cannot Account For”

Coppola’s film fills in many of the gaps left by the novel, like what Dracula was doing while our trusty group organized.  One way it does so is by using the camera as an extension of Dracula, so we see as he does. This approach is quite sinister in a few scenes, as we get a POV shot of Dracula’s violence. These moments are heavily stylized to emphasize that we are seeing from Dracula’s inhuman perspective, so often the camera’s movement and cuts are sped up, and the colours are slightly off. For instance, when Dracula attacks the crew of the Demeter, the camera swings up as a burst of blood splashes onto the sails. It is as though Dracula has thrown the camera, as though we are glancing up just as Dracula does. Another example is when Dracula stalks the Westenra house, as the camera slowly turns a corner and lunges at Quincey. The camera is Dracula in these instances, which places the viewer in a compromised position.

My favourite example of this technique occurs as Dracula gazes at Mina during a party, as the shadows around her slowly cover her face just like the blood in the opening sequence. Although Dracula is not physically present in the scene, he still caresses Mina through the lighting and camera work. This suggests that the camera itself is vampiric, similar to the way Dracula transforms his victims so they do his bidding. Just as figures like Lucy become an extension of Dracula, and his violence, the camera is another corrupted body.

“Bring Me, Before Nightfall, a Set of Postmortem Knives”

What makes Coppola’s vampires different than earlier iterations is that they alter reality simply by walking into a room. Vampires are so otherworldly that their presence challenges what is real and what is not. Things move in the wrong direction when Dracula or the other vampires are around. For instance, when Harker is wandering through Dracula’s castle, he opens a chest and finds a few expensive and old looking bottles. Curious, he unstops one of the bottles and it begins to drip upward, to the ceiling. Harker hasn’t turned the bottle upside down, and so this eerie moment suggests that Harker is upside down, and that what seems like the floor is in fact the ceiling. Later in the scene, Harker is accosted by Dracula’s wives, and when Dracula chases them away, two of the wives conjoin slightly at the waist and walk backwards. The shot has been reversed, making their movement very off-putting and unnatural. This means that both the vampire’s bodies and the environment around them stands in opposition of reality, and our laws of nature.

Because the vampires in Coppola’s film challenge our expectations of reality, they seem to oppose rational thought. If nothing makes sense when they are around, what does it mean for a vampire to exist in a proper English society? It means chaos, everything disrupted, not just the laws of nature but of society. That said, the film also complicates this initial reading, as we discover that the world is already in flux because of technological advancement. Much like Stoker’s text, Dracula includes several devices which were truly innovative for the era, like the phonograph and blood transfusions. The camerawork itself is another demonstration of this innovative technology, which means that both the film’s subject and form embody technology and science.

Coppola was determined to use technical tricks rather than CGI in the film so it would resemble early cinema and would continue to emphasize the narrative’s focus on old devices, techniques, and worlds, albeit from a modern/removed perspective. During a train ride, for instance, a map of Transylvania is projected onto Harker’s face, so we can see what he is reading, what is on his mind, and whereabouts he is traveling. Like most of the shots in the film, this was done using in-camera trickery, as a map was actually projected on actor Keanu Reeves. Shortly after, there is a shot where Dracula’s glaring eyes appear in the skyline above Harker and the train, and according to the film’s special edition documentary, this was done by shooting only Dracula’s eyes, projecting that onto a landscape backdrop, and finally projecting those two frames onto the shot of Harker in the train. It took layers of film to create the unified shot we see in the film, and this dedication and technical skill appears throughout Coppola’s work.

His insistence on old-school technique is even referred to during the film. When Dracula and Mina visit a cinematograph theater, Dracula marvels at the short film, calling it a science. This reflects the very way Coppola thinks about movie making: an entertaining form of science. It is noteworthy that to Dracula, film is additionally a kind of supernatural marvel, something completely different than the technology of his era. As such, film is a science, but it is also something wonderful and otherworldly, a bit like Dracula. This explains why the camera becomes an extension of Dracula’s eyes in several moments, as both it and Dracula are scientific and otherworldly. Dracula is scientific in that Dr. Van Helsing tries to uncover the scientific method which will destroy Dracula, and he tries to cure Lucy from vampirism using medical devices. The film thus paints Dracula as a scientific oddity, a virus or parasite which needs to be contained.

“at first sight the art of cinema seems simple, even stupid’ (Virginia Woolf)

In the early days of cinema, there was some resistance to calling film an art. Many wanted to reserve the term ‘art’ to things like painting and sculpture, activities which require great skill and training. They suggested that film should be reserved as a science, a way to record the world and study it, not to enjoy but to learn. While I disagree with that opinion, I find it interesting that Coppola’s film uses cinema as both a science and an art (or an otherworldly spectacle to get lost in). I’ve already detailed some of Coppola’s artistic shots, but what about the camera’s scientific gaze?

 There is a shot where Dracula looks up from biting Lucy and realizes that Mina is watching him. It is the first time he and Mina have seen each other, but we don’t get the stereotypical love at first sight moment. Instead, Dracula sees Mina’s heartbeat and her frantic pulse as the camera outlines her moving veins. This strange shot, of Mina glowing red, shows us the way Dracula sees the world and humans, as he is so fixated on blood. But it also highlights the camera’s scientific gaze, as it shows Mina’s internal makeup. It is like a diagram in a medical textbook, one you use to study the human body. The shot demonstrates Dracula’s thirst and the camera’s role as a scientific instrument. It therefore illustrates that film (as a medium) is a science and an emotional art, as both are true in this single shot.

“What Sweet Music They Make”

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is by far my favourite Dracula project because it isn’t afraid to challenge Stoker. It is certainly the most ‘accurate’ adaptation of Stoker’s work, if we can even use that word, but it makes a few notable changes, particularly Mina and Dracula’s affair. However, these changes enhance the reading experience, as they offer different ways to read figures like Mina, and the very politics which govern the book. I am grateful that I came across the film when I did, as although I had no idea what I had stumbled across, it left an undeniable imprint in my mind. It has some incredible performances, particularly Winona Ryder, Tom Waits, and Gary Oldman. I even enjoy Keanu Reeves’ performance, accent and all.

When I think about book to film adaptations, it is often the first thing I think of. When I think about film technique and Gothic cinema, it springs to mind. Coppola’s work is truly astonishing, horrifying, and legendary, and I am truly thankful for it.

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