Both Tod Browning and Francis Ford Coppola’s interpretations of Dracula hone in on the heart of the vampiric myth – the commingled fear and allure of eroticism – while reflecting the norms of their time.
Browning’s film is mostly remembered for Bela Lugosi’s undeniably iconic (yet profoundly overrated) performance, but there’s surprising little substance to the film. It opens strong, with an impressive gothic set for Dracula’s castle and a magnificently unhinged performance from Dwight Frye as Renfield, but wastes the majority of its 85 minutes on plodding storytelling and plastic bats. The film’s influence on pop culture is immense, but it’s pretty underwhelming outside of that historical context.
Dracula’s presentation in Browning’s film is interesting, however. Rather than the figure of unbridled, bloodthirsty sexuality we might expect, he’s a surprisingly reserved monster. His efforts to woo Mina (Helen Chandler) are the vampire equivalent of a young hooligan tossing stones at a teenage girls’ window. He’s more fearsome for his persistence than any evil aura. With all this puritanical repression on display, it’s no surprise that the Hays Code would kick in properly only a couple years afterwards.
Browning’s film is adapted from a stage play, but Coppola’s film, arriving some six decades later, feels the most theatrical. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was about as successful engaging me in its narrative as Dracula, but it’s hard not to be won over by its wonderfully retro, in-camera special effects. It doesn’t try to disguise that it’s all smoke-and-mirrors, miniatures-and-sound-stages, rather revelling in its fakery, producing some spectacular imagery along the way. I won’t soon forget the shadow cast by a distant train on journal pages, or the time-lapse filming portraying Dracula’s point of view.
That theatricality demands outsized performances, and thankfully Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins alike are more than happy to deliver. RottenTomatoes states that Coppola’s version “rescues the character from decades of campy interpretations”, seemingly forgetting Oldman’s dry delivery of “I never drink … wine.” (coined in Browning’s film) or this wonderfully campy exchange:
Lucy’s widower: “An autopsy on Lucy?”
Helsing (Hopkins): “No, no, not exactly. I just want to cut off her head and take out her heart.”
Unfortunately Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are less capable performers, squandering the majority of the film’s attempts at eroticism, no matter how many bare breasts and satin sheets are on display. Isn’t poor acting and gaudy nudity ‘90s “sexiness” in a nutshell, though?