Sex and sanguination: decoding Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The silhouette of a cross can just be made out against a scarlet coloured background.

Men are manly and women come pre-vamped in Coppola’s 90s update of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

If you know Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, you’ll recognise the bones of Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation. Hence its title: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Released almost 100 years after Stoker’s spin on European vampire legends, Coppola’s version stays fairly faithful to the source novel … with added bustles, boobs and bonking.

Keep in mind Stoker’s story is already highly sexualised; the film merely makes it explicit. (Pun intended … but also accurate.)

Anyhoo, in the film, an inserted prologue explains the Dracula origin story.

1462: the Ottoman Empire rages across Europe, dismantling Christianity as it goes. After slaughtering the invading soldiers, Romanian knight Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) returns to Transylvania to terrible news. Believing enemy lies that Dracula was killed in battle, his beloved Elizabeta (Winona Ryder) has drowned herself.

When his bishop (Anthony Hopkins) declares suicide has damned Elizabeta in the after life, an enraged Dracula renounces Christ. Drinking blood, he pledges allegiance to the powers of darkness and embraces ever-lasting life.

Cut to: 400 years later, and solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) arrives in Transylvania. He’s there to help a “Count Dracula” buy property in London. But then Dracula sees a portrait of Harker’s fiancée Mina (Winona, again) and realises she is his Elizabeta – reincarnated.

After locking Jonathan in the castle, Dracula heads for England. There, he bites Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost), and seduces her best friend – Mina. It’s down to a collective of gentlemen suitors, plus medical maestro Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins, again) to stop the blood-sucking count before he can kill again.

Is it really Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

Much of the movie closely mirrors Stoker’s story. The most obvious departure is the film’s added prologue and reconfigured ending. This top and tail elevates a well-known Gothic tale of the undead into a tragedy of forbidden love, foreshadowing the Twilight franchise by about a decade.

Stoker’s novel is about supernatural terror, which is frightening enough in it own right. But the book also plugs into social fears – and fascination – about depraved killers.

Dracula kills without reason. Moreover, without knowledge keepers like Van Helsing, he can’t be understood or overcome.

Stoker’s Dracula is undead, seemingly immortal and, like an animal, craves blood. He doesn’t just act in a beastly fashion, though. He becomes beastly when he transforms into a bat and a black dog, and when he communicates with wolves (themes you’ll find in The Fly, too).

While the film retains this animal undercurrent, its backstory gives Dracula a motivation that humanises him. As such, his grief is understandable – and almost required by the horror genre, in fact (see hotel horror 1408).

At the same time, though, his grief comes wrapped in a greater cultural cachet. As a defender of Christianity, warrior Vlad is a force of good; he literally fights the good fight.

Born to be Vlad

Vlad Dracula was a real historical figure; you may know him better as Vlad III or Vlad the Impaler. This is where things get interesting for us.

Stoker’s novel channels vampire myths of Eastern Europe, but there’s little evidence the writer knew anything of the real Vlad Dracula. His use of the family name is likely coincidental, or at least tangential. The only thing we can say for certain either way … is that scholars are divided.

Coppola’s film, however, grounds its fiction – and, indeed, Bram Stoker’s fiction – in that history. In doing so, it triggers a framework storytellers have long exploited for kicks and thrills. It all but screams: “this is a true story”, an irresistible lure for readers, listeners and viewers alike.

There are other, subtler, consequences of the prologue, however. It’s a mechanism that humanises Dracula, but specifically via the symbols and stature of Christianity.

In foregrounding the Ottoman Muslim-Christian conflict, the film hooks into contemporary political and social narratives about invasion, and fears of the supposed Islamification of Western culture. Note the film was released a year after the Gulf War, at a time of heightened Islamophobia.

The film does something else with its juxtaposition of Vlad Dracula and religion: it transforms him into a truly tragic figure of almost heavenly scale. Consider:

  • Vlad rages against being abandoned by God (compare descriptions of Jesus’ death)
  • Like an inverted Eucharist (when believers consume the body and blood of Christ), Vlad drinks blood
  • He gains ever-lasting life … just not in heaven.

As it happens, this is just one more parallel in a plot that repeatedly mirrors itself.

Narrative mirroring and repetition

Bram Stoker’s Dracula plays an intriguing game of doubling, which sees plot and people mirrored across the story.

Elizabeta dies, only to come back as Mina (Winona Ryder plays a dual role as both women). Anthony Hopkins also appears twice, albeit as two distinct characters: the bishop and Van Helsing. He also narrates the story (presumably as Van Helsing, i.e., the knowledge keeper).

This character doubling repositions the story as one of ageless love, or grand history spread across the centuries. It also makes explicit the novel’s implied horrors: immortal evil, and the travesty of resurrection that sees people die .. and rise again and again.

If the film’s use of doubling introduces an interesting duality to the story, it has visual fun with it, too.

Notably, Dracula’s shadow moves independently of his physical body, revealing his true intentions behind the mask of civility. That we can see what protagonists can’t is also a lively source of tension (with shades of pantomime – i.e., “it’s behind you!”).

The earliest vampire myths were just-so stories that explained tragedy, illness and contagion. The latter particularly drives the Dracula story in film and fiction. If victims don’t die, they’re damned. That is, transformed into vampires – i.e., a doubling of the original vampire.

In these terms, Dracula is a plague or virus; a blood-borne kind of invasion.

This applies to vampire Lucy, but also mental patient Renfield, who is a lesser Dracula in-waiting. He dreams of immortality, and practices being a vampire by ingesting flies and worms.

The film is more explicit in its talk of bad blood and infection, too. Given its preoccupation with the story’s sexual elements, it’s no surprise it dwells on the lure and consequence of rampant sexuality. As Van Helsing warns:

“Civilization, and syphilization, have advanced together.”

The fallen women of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Speaking of duality, Stoker’s novel has a particularly glaring example. His is a tale of courtly love, filled with knights who swear allegiance to the women they serve.

These characters are almost cloyingly pure … and yet, the story bubbles with scandalous sexuality.

Stoker’s women come in two flavours: virgin and whore. Naturally, this coincides with the story’s fixation on clean and dirty (blood, that is), and the implied sexual threat against women by foreign foes.

Lucy and Mina are potent symbols of chastity (even in marriage, it must be said). But as Lucy becomes infected, she becomes a sexualised creature, lusty and full of craving. Oh, the horror of it.

At the same time, life-saving blood transfusions – a textual substitute for sex – bind her to multiple men, one after the other.

Mina skirts the same fate. In the book, she sucks from Dracula’s chest while her husband sleeps in bed beside her, and the other men watch from the door. Victorians, eh?

The novel, then, has a second narrative of sexual desire and danger, albeit heavily disguised. Coppola’s film rips back the veil.

In fact, as a 90s artefact it races to the other extreme, with a full bingo card of bare breasts, bestiality and drug-taking.

Jack Seward as a morphine addict, along with Mina’s encounter with the ‘green fairy’ of absinthe legend, reflects a 90s literary fascination with addiction. See also the glamour and grime of Trainspotting, Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction, for example.

Anyway, in Dracula, men wage a universal battle of good and evil, while women merely fight for their chastity. Keep in mind that this gendered war has overtones of witch mania, in which women were said to seal the devil’s pledge with sex: see The Witch.

The girl can’t help it

Whether female characters in Coppola’s film benefit from 90s-style sexual liberation is kinda suspect.

After all, this freedom sounds a lot like the preferences of straight male pornography. Hence women’s clothes insist on falling off in the presence of men. And all (attractive, young) women are a little bit lesbian in the absence of their husbands.

The film makes Stoker’s virginal women vampish even before bitten. Thus Lucy has red hair, dresses immodestly, and jokes of having sex as described in tales of Arabic – i.e., foreign – erotica.

Mina excuses her friend’s impropriety as aristocracy – revealing her own conflict about money, status, class and worth. Vlad Dracula exploits this to seduce her when he casually announces he’s a prince.

So, these women have a life and secrets and sexuality of their own. But as transgressors of the sexual code (purity, chastity, monogamy), they’re still punished for their deviations. Consider that while Jonathan is similarly seduced and sexualised, he doesn’t come so close to death – and it doesn’t transform him, i.e., into vampire.

The double standard applies as much to Mina as Lucy, by the way. Lucy loses her head; Mina loses her soul mate. That’s Dracula, not Jonathan.

Dracula dies, but the story lives on

Naturally, where the film most deviates from Stoker’s novel, is in its redemption of Dracula, not only as a tragic figure, but as a man worth saving.

The prologue establishes this through a number of narrative cues, such as the injustice of Elizabeta’s death (and the foreign hand in it). And while Stoker’s novel pits a band of prayer warriors against the devil, here Vlad is the Christian soldier.

This 90s, reclaimed Dracula turns devilish out of despair, and remains ever so slightly human. He cries for Mina, and is conflicted about turning her into a vampire. And when he curses Lucy to this fate, he voices the injustice dealt to Elizabeta, i.e., being damned for eternity.

Dracula dies in both stories, but the film has Mina dispatch him in a mercy killing, in recognition of their endless love:

“There in the presence of God, I understood at last how my love could release us all from the powers of darkness.”

At the heart of the Dracula story is a battle of Good Vs Evil, of human frailty versus dark desire. Stoker resolves this tension as though God himself acts through Van Helsing’s prayer circle. The film is more nuanced, though perhaps it has to be when God is dead to modern morality.

What’s left is less Samson and Goliath and more Romeo and Juliet. The plot stops short of killing both lovers – or at least, not in the same era. Instead, it traps them centuries apart, victims of a love that can outlast death, yet never flourish in the light.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), directed by Francis Ford Coppola

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Picture credit: Kelly Sikkema (heavily edited)