Bram Stoker’s Dracula
The Black Cat
I Walked with a Zombie
Curse of the Demon
Horror of Dracula
The Haunted Palace
The Fearless Vampire Killers
The Conqueror Worm
Daughters of Darkness
Ganja and Hess
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Fear No Evil
Just keep saying to yourself: “It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie…”
—Advertising campaign for William Castle’s Straight-Jacket (1964)
Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula may be the first coffee-table horror movie, reenacting on an opulent budget the cheap thrills once associated with drive-in triple features. The film starts at full throttle, whirling through a fifteenth-century Romanian battlefield, Dr. Seward’s nineteenth-century London madhouse, and the shadowy mazes of Dracula’s castle. To live up to the breathless effects of its first fifteen minutes it must sustain a barrage of optical effects and erotically charged tableaux, leaping wolves and geysers of blood, storms and severed heads, and flurries of cinematic in-jokes.
The onslaught, like most prolonged fireworks exhibits, becomes numbing well before the movie has run its course, but Coppola’s flair for overload has here, after a run of commercial failures, worked in his favor. In an era when most Hollywood productions have the visual grandeur of a TV sitcom, Dracula—widely heralded in the industry as a big financial risk—has become an unexpected success. Its elements may be incongruous, but at least they do not sit still: before you have time to dwell on a particular loose end or fudged transition, you are hit with another superimposition, another visual quote from Gustav klimt or Jean Cocteau, another deluge of blood, another bare-breasted vampire swirling amid the Transylvanian wasteland.
With all that going on, the plot is sketched in fairly peremptorily, but the narrative possibilities of vampire lore are so intimately familiar that Coppola can get away with casting a commercial blockbuster as a self-consciously postmodernist palimpsest. He does not so much reinvent the horror movie as re-inventory it, directly incorporating images from F.W. Murnau and Tod Browning, compositions and textures from Gustave Moreau and Sergei Eisenstein and Akira Kurosawa. Dracula functions concurrently as a faithful adaptation and a caricatural pastiche, while lining its interstices with portentous contemporary tie-ins (AIDS, drug addiction) and sidebars on fin-de-siècle art, the evolution of the fantasy film, and the sexual subtexts of nineteenth-century fiction.
To provide the film with whatever thematic coherence it has, Coppola transmutes Dracula’s predatory relationship with Mina Harker into a chicly eroticized version of Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights. In Coppola’s version (despite its vaunted fidelity to Bram Stoker’s novel) Dracula has evolved from the noisome, leach-like creature described by Stoker into a dream date whirling his beloved away from a sheltered world populated by repressed Victorians into the cosmopolitan fairyland of the Undead. When Mina does finally drive the stake through Dracula’s heart, it’s defined as an act of love, intended to free him from a debilitating curse. Coppola reverses Stoker’s Manichaean values by recasting the vampire as liberator, the vampire-hunters as neurotic grotesques.
Yet the romantic make-over of Dracula registers as little more than a marketing device designed to exploit the attractiveness of the movie’s youthful cast. While Coppola …