Party On, Vlad: The Immortal Transience of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Gary Oldman as Dracula | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

The original 1992 theatrical trailer for Bram Stoker’s Dracula appears to advertise a work of 19th century supernatural erotica. Here occurred the frightening and shocking history of Prince Dracula and the woman he loved, narrates Anthony Hopkins in a gruff Dutch accent, before the viewer is plunged into an increasingly histrionic collage of Gary Oldman (said dark prince) and Winona Ryder (his love) seducing each other against a swirling backdrop of Victorian ephemera. Vampires do exist, Hopkins goes on, over the lasciviousness. This one we fight, this one we face. The elusive Dracula intermittently appears, flaunting his many corporeal forms: old man, viscous man-bat, neon vapor, wolf, werewolf-esque beast, pair of glowing eyes floating against a red sky—the most striking of which is young, Chris-Cornell-haired Dracula, who is introduced with a line of dialogue that made Mel Gibson look like Joey Lawrence: I have crossed oceans of time to find you.

I’m certain it was this mood that sold me on the movie, which I skipped school to see—with my mom—upon its release in November of 1992. I was 12 years old that fall, fumbling into adolescence as though it were the stifling back end of a unicorn costume. With middle school came the scramble to identify one’s self with some broad social echelon: sporty, brainy, slutty, artsy. There was a sense of urgency to this categorization process—a kind clamber to label or be labeled. Though I privately (and desperately) wanted to envelop myself in the safety of a group, I publicly disparaged the whole charade as too bourgeois (though it would be years before I knew that word’s meaning). I longed to be above the unwritten laws of middle school, to both stand out and disappear. 

It was this version of me who walked into that suburban movie theater and fell under the spell of Francis Ford Coppola’s lush Dracula adaptation, which was, though perhaps unintentionally, perfect fodder for preteen girls, hungry to withdraw from the formalities of their existence. Besides tapping into my predilection for pop culture’s dark underbelly (at 8, Beetlejuice opened my mind), the film managed to package and deliver a provocative dose of literature and cinematic history directly to my little premenstrual heart. It did not accomplish this by way of knocking my socks off with its fidelity, but by allowing me to see myself—a bonafide 90210-watching, Ace-of-Base-listening, caboodles-toting 12-year-old—inside of it. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula sits among a long lineage of cinematic adaptations of Stoker’s 1897 novel—from Murnau’s silent Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror to Bela Lugosi’s infamous portrayal in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula to Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It. “Dracula” himself is an iconic piece of intellectual property who has appeared in a multitude of other films that position themselves at varying distances from Stoker’s original text, most holding onto the character’s well-known je ne sais quoi and discarding the boundaries of the original plot (e.g. The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Monster Squad, Blacula, Love at First Bite, and Van Helsing, to name a few of what feels like hundreds). Derivative interpretations trickled down to kid-friendly media, as well, like Sesame Street’s Count von Count or the Grandpa from The Munsters, which likely exemplified the extent of my experience with the Dracula franchise up to that point. I knew of Dracula—who didn’t—but he was little more than an uninspired Halloween costume.

Vampires, however, I knew well, through a series of contemporary comedies that portrayed them as the sexy, middle-aged undead, disproportionately interested in seducing teenagers (à la My Best Friend is a Vampire, Once Bitten, the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer). These movies were more about the horror of adolescence, the threat of vampires standing in for just one of the many struggles the modern teenager faced—virginity, sexual orientation, popularity, balancing school with extracurricular activities. In 1987, The Lost Boys offered a more sinister interpretation on this theme, suggesting that teenage vampirism was a metaphor for a generation that emerged from broken families, victims of the cultural outsiderism their boomer parents feared and misunderstood.    

Five years later, Bram Stoker’s Dracula positioned itself squarely between the sex, the horror, and the history. “When I was approached to [make the film], I think what fascinated me was the idea that I could make the classic Dracula based on the book, much more scrupulously,” Coppola said. He’d grown up watching Murnau’s and Browning’s adaptations and initially became interested in the book while working as a summer camp counselor, where he’d read it aloud to his bunk of 8- and 9-year-old boys before bed (an anecdote that itself evokes a kind of horror). Drawn to the book’s historical leanings—namely that Stoker had combined the real history of Vlad Țepeș (a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, son of Romanian ruler Vlad Dracul) with vampire mythology—Coppola set out to come up with his own take on the story, which entwines that history with a sultry romance, grandiose special effects, and hot young actors. 

The result falls somewhere in between Masterpiece Theater and the sexily brutal quality of a Guns N’ Roses video. The film begins in 1462, long before the novel, when Count Dracul (Oldman) bids farewell to his bride Elisabeta (Ryder) with a sticky, passionate kiss, before going off to battle with the Turks—a.k.a. the infamous impaling spree for which he was later nicknamed (captured in a gruesome panorama of bodies suspended on stakes against a crimson sky). In a Romeo and Juliet-esque move, Elisabeta is falsely informed of Dracul’s death, after which she jumps to her own in the river below. Upon finding her impeccable corpse, Dracul reacts with an appropriate degree of emotion, renouncing God and impaling a 10-foot cross (everyone had one of those back then, right?), which begins spontaneously spurting blood. He fills a nearby chalice and drinks; the rest, we are left to presume, is history.

Back in the prim blues and grays of 1897 London, emerging solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is asked to travel to Transylvania to deal with a Count Dracula’s real estate interests, after his colleague Renfield (Tom Waits) not only failed to complete the task, but returned to London with a compulsion for consuming insects in place of his sanity. Harker bids farewell to his fiancé Mina (also Ryder) with a far less passionate kiss—a clear indicator that England’s 19th century moralism will no doubt lose out to timeless Transylvanian lust. Dracula learns early on that Harker’s Mina is the spitting image of his Elisabeta, a realization that diverts his business in London from (presumably) expanding his vampire empire to earning Mina’s love. While Harker is busy in Transylvania remaining oblivious to the vampiric goings-on (Keanu’s trademark Ted-Theodore-Logan-esque obliviousness is *chef’s kiss*), Dracula takes the form of a young prince and travels to London to woo Mina; in the process, he sires her libidinous friend Lucy, marvels at the cinematograph, and draws the attention of a team of vampire hunters led by Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), who ultimately chase him back to Transylvania and kill him.

Though many of the film’s moments play like a straight period piece, its embellishments render it far campier than its contemporaries. Jerky, interspersed footage of antique maps, blood cells, and decaying flowers create surrealist undertones; grandiose in-camera visual effects like reverse motion and multiple exposure and blood eruptions reminiscent of The Shining’s infamous elevator scene conjure a century of horror filmmaking; and the pervasive and graphic outbursts of repressed sexual desire kinkify the experience of vampirism to a degree that mainstream adaptations hadn’t before attempted. This is especially true of Lucy, who is lured outside late one night by Dracula’s devilry. When Mina finds her, she appears to be getting fucked by the dark prince (in werewolf form) on a stone bench in the garden. As he lifts her hips and tears into her neck, an orgasmic yelp rises from her lungs. Mina stands frozen at the garden’s edge, staring in horror; the camera quickly zooms in on her as a red glow envelops her body, eerily redolent of Creepshow.  

As a result, Roger Ebert called the film “an exercise in feverish excess,” and The New York Times described it as “one long, uninterrupted special effect.” Consequently, these same qualities spoke to me on a visceral level, pandering to my preteen appetite for operatic overabundance and romance that defied the pesky boundaries of time and mortality. I left the theater electrified to enmesh my life in Dracula’s dark history and surround myself with the movie’s ephemera. I promptly bought a paperback copy of Bram Stoker’s novel and voraciously read it, quoting passages like “Denn die Todten reiten Schnell. [For the dead travel fast.]” to my friends, who kindly rolled their eyes. I hung a rather horrifying movie poster on my wall, featuring an image of a vampiric Lucy, her lips parted by fangs and stained with blood. For Christmas, I asked for a black L.L. Bean backpack and a copy of the BSD score on cassette, with which I scared the living daylights out of myself by listening to it at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning before my family awoke. (Wojciech Kilar’s haunting score still leaves me feeling marginally unsafe.)

The obsession did not stop there. Later that year, the entire seventh grade participated in something called “The Heritage Project,” in which we were instructed to reconstruct our family trees by researching our countries of origin and interviewing our remaining living relatives. As the child of an absent father and an adopted mother who knew nothing of her biological family, I dreaded the task of scrounging around my broken family for some semblance of a history that I could package and present to several dozen classmates. So, naturally, I fabricated an entire Transylvanian heritage—still the most complicated lie I have ever told. If my history teacher was onto me, he never let on. I turned in the report as expected of me, complete with a history of my homeland (which I learned then was not a country but a region of Romania) and falsified interviews with fictitious Transylvanian relatives. As the project unfolded, I got into the role, dressing in various shades of faded black (long before goth had reached Connecticut’s suburbs), applying the thinnest layer of white makeup to my skin to hint at the undead, and occasionally using red nail polish to paint two bite wounds on my neck, which I’d inadequately conceal with a fashionable velveteen choker. Not unlike Mina, I let myself fall under the spell of an age-old Transylvanian myth that provided a luxuriant alternative to the ennui of my bourgeois existence.        

What was it about this movie that bewitched me so deeply, that inspired me to channel its 1897 ambiance into my 1992 reality? One answer, of course, is that I entered into it restless with adolescence and eager to find my place inside something bigger. My faux Transylvanian heritage did not provide the buffer of being in a social clique, but it did earn me a kind of street cred that provided some protection. I was still an awkward 12-year-old but was possibly also a bloodsucking creature of the night—a temporary advantage in the day-in-day-out social combat that defines middle school. I felt like I had lied my way into a new stratum: people whose weirdness makes them sort of cool and dangerous.

The other answer is that this film is itself so unabashedly ‘90s—from the flashy lip color to Lucy’s voluminous perm to, most obviously, the choice of casting Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, two iconic Gen-X actors wholly inseparable from that era. Watching Winona and Keanu navigate British accents on the streets of 1897 London was—and still is—much like watching your friends’ older siblings act in a high school play. Winona was nothing short of a proxy for my entire coming-of-age; having been by her side from Mermaids to Beetlejuice to Heathers, I naturally followed her to Transylvania. And I had no trouble seeing a reflection of my own plight inside hers (or, rather, Mina’s): coming of age into a class of people whose rules and conventions paled in the face of something darker, richer, unabashedly entwined with the past.

It’s easy to write off a movie like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so married as it is to the neon tackiness of the early 1990s; it’s much harder to recognize that placing itself squarely into that context is an extraordinary device. This adaptation is hardly timeless, but maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the act of entangling a classic story within the pop culture of its reincarnation is a cunning way to bequeath it to a generation hungry to see themselves in history, to habituate Dracula in the ‘90s the way Dracula himself seamlessly transforms to his surroundings.

Or perhaps this reasoning is more akin to the logic of a 12-year-old girl, beguiled by a film that sold itself with the tagline Love Never Dies, which she subsequently painted onto her textured 1970s wallpaper, inside a heart that dripped like blood toward the carpet. Re-watching the film nearly 30 years later, I am both surprised by and in awe of its extraordinary garishness, its ability to strike humor by way of its self-seriousness, its unapologetic transience: no doubt a most bodacious contribution to Stoker’s immortal franchise.