By Kate Voss.
What’s the greatest vampire movie?
Surely, not everyone agrees. Ask friends for recommendations and you may find that they have hidden passions about the famous vampire, swearing that one or another adaptation is the best. Purists may point you to Bela Lugosi’s original depiction in Tod Browning’s Dracula; children of the ‘50s and ‘60s will rave about Christopher Lee and the Hammer classics; film buffs who frequent art houses single out Max Schreck in the original Nosferatu or even Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre.
However, they’re all wrong. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the best Dracula movie ever made.
Let’s first consider fidelity to the source. Stoker’s novel married eastern legends and history to “new” science, using psychoanalysis to explain his monster who in turn lectures Jonathan Harker on a broad tableau of European history. Similarly, Coppola digs deep into vampire lore, incorporating the story of Vlad “the Impaler” Tepes to add context to Dracula’s existence while planting him firmly on the cusp of a turning century. This mingling of past and present creates a Dracula who is neither lone devil nor baroque oddity, but a man distorted into monstrousness, becoming the embodiment of an evil that exists beyond the natural boundaries of space and time.
But for all the liberties it takes, Coppola’s version actually takes far fewer liberties with characters and locations than other Dracula movies. Many adaptations conflate Lucy and Mina, juggle Lucy’s suitors into other roles, and compress the far-flung locations into a few simple sets. All of these shortcuts are absent here. Instead we are given the full cast as Stoker intended, which is necessary for the steady escalation of violence that provides the novel’s powerful atmosphere — and that of the film as well. In fact, Coppola pushes the boundaries of the story further than the novel, adding backstory and expanding themes through a host of cinematic techniques and equipment including double exposures, forced perspective, and even a hand-cranked Pathé. These tools allow him to emphasize the motifs of violence and sexuality, and enhance the dreamlike menace that is a hallmark of the story.
But fidelity to the narrative is not the only way in which Coppola plays homage to the original novel. Despite being comprised of diary entries and letters, the original Dracula was in fact a page-turner, building towards its climax as the story moves from Transylvania to England and back again. Here both the Browning and Herzog versions fall short, unfolding so slowly they become, well, boring. While the Hammer movies are both brisk and thrilling, the pace comes at expense of characterization. Only Coppola’s version echoes the driving force of the novel without sacrificing character development, especially that of Dracula himself.
As for the tricky question of? Again, let’s look at the source. The Count of Stoker’s novel is a tall, courtly man with unusual strength, full of conversation and character. He is not the alien, creeping thing of Kinski’s portrayal, nor the caped, smug menace of Lee or Lugosi. Only Gary Oldman’s portrayal captures the mixture of well-bred nobility and brute violence that Stoker carefully described; only Oldman’s portrayal has the varying physicality of the original, going from stately old man to supernatural beast to young dandy, from Victorian manners to a monster’s rampage. Oldman, who was already known for his talented portrayals of such figures as Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald, inhabits his character thoroughly. His Dracula is both monster and lover, a personification of Eros as madness, and he perfectly encompasses that duality.
But if you’re still not convinced, why not watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula through Netflix, and then watch one of the classic Dracula movies when it shows on TV next (consult this for details) and see for yourself?
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