Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Seduction of Old School Movie Magic

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When Bram Stoker’s Dracula opened in November 1992, it astonished the industry and silenced many of Francis Ford Coppola’s sharpest critics. Snarked about in the press beforehand as “Bonfire of the Vampires”—a reference to Brian De Palma’s misbegotten Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)—the whispers were that director Coppola had created a lurid and weird vampire movie based on one of the most oversaturated characters in fiction. Well, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was certainly lurid and weird, but in the best possible way.

Originally conceived as a Victorian man’s repressed anxieties about lust and passion being given demonic shape, Coppola’s vision for Dracula was entirely divorced from the pop culture image of Bela Lugosi in a cape. While the movie was marketed as the director of The Godfather going back to the 1897 source novel that no one had ever faithfully adapted (which turned out to be only partially true), the movie’s true appeal lies in its decadent imagery. It’s a marriage of lavish costumes, freaky makeup, and half-forgotten magician’s effects. And the last bit was given new life by Francis’ son, Roman, who became the film’s visual effects director.

Somehow it all came together, with performers such as Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Waits, and Ryder going so big that their cries threatened to burst through the soundstage walls. The hypnotic union thrilled audiences, who made Bram Stoker’s Dracula a surprise holiday blockbuster, and was ultimately celebrated by the industry, which awarded the movie three Oscars, including one for Eiko Ishioka’s dazzling costumes and Greg Cannon’s makeup. The irony is that, in its way, it was the industry’s skepticism toward Francis Ford Coppola that made the movie’s unusual vision possible.

 “For some reason I always thought it was unfair I had the reputation of being a director who spent a lot of money, which is not really the case,” Francis said in an interview with film critic F.X. Feeney. “The only movie that I really spent a lot of money on, and went way over budget, was Apocalypse Now.” 

Be that as it may, when Ryder first piqued Coppola’s interest in making a Dracula movie, which as it turned out was a favorite novel from his youth, he knew the studio would never agree to his first inclination: As with going to the jungles of the Philippines on Apocalypse Now or Sicily in The Godfather, Coppola initially imagined shooting Dracula in Transylvania and inside actual crumbling castles.

“I knew the studio would be a little leery of getting this director with three names to do this Dracula picture, and possibly go off to Romania, and it’d be a Heaven’s Gate scenario, or Apocalypse Now scenario, so I played into that. I said, ‘You know, we could go and make the film in Romania, we could go to the real Castle Dracula… or I could make it all in the studio… In fact, I’ll make the entire picture right in a soundstage, a group of soundstages right under your noses. They just loved it, they ate it up.”

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