Thursday, October 22, 2015

The King is Dead: Dracula, dude!


Last year, I backed several RPG Kickstarters with the express purpose of metabolizing their contents to help fuel development of The King is Dead. One of these projects was The Dracula Dossier from Pelgrane Press, an attempt to meld Bram Stoker’s novel (in all of its variations) with spy fiction into a multi-genre, multi-generational campaign. What little I’ve been able to read so far has been great, but I think my favorite bit to come of this is Kenneth Hite’s essay series that runs this month – 31 Nights of Dractober – in which he examines many of the cinematic interpretations of Stoker’s story.

Of course, Hite pisses all over my favorite version: Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

This isn’t really surprising. Many Dracula aficionados dislike the film; for example, Leslie S. Klinger goes out of his way to spew venom at it in The New Annotated Dracula. Obviously, I don’t share this aversion, but Hite at least succeeds in making me understand why he dislikes Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Basically, it’s because Dracula isn’t really the bad guy.

He’s right, of course. The tagline for the ad campaign was “Love Never Dies,” so it’s self-evident that the vampire in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is positioned as the romantic lead. The 1992 film wasn’t the first time Drac was framed as a figure of romance – Frank Langella was smoldering and sexy in Dracula (1979) and George Hamilton played Dracula as the lead in a rom-com in (the shockingly racist) Love at First Bite (also 1979, weirdly enough) – but Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a supposedly serious attempt to bring the original novel to life which nevertheless inserts an original plot about Dracula and Mina’s time-lost romance. I can understand how this textual infidelity in a film claiming to be the most faithful adaptation yet might offend fans of the novel. In the end, Coppola turns Dracula into the hero of the story.

A creepy, creep hero, but the hero nonetheless...

I disagree that this is a problem, of course, just as I disagree about the complaints that the film’s Victorian England is corrupt and over-sexy, that the weird special effects are too campy, and that the performances are weak. (I mean, yes, Keanu is bad and Winona Ryder gets worse every time I watch the movie, but I think Coppola cast Keanu very deliberately and back in 1992 we all thought Ryder was a better actress than history has shown.) I can’t claim to have watched quite as many versions of Dracula as Kenneth Hite, but I have yet to see one that serves up Bram Stoker’s heady stew of psychosexual weirdness quite like Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

If you don't like weird werewolf sex, then you won't like this movie.

(And let me admit that this is certainly Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is not the novel – I consider this a point in its favor – and so I constantly jokingly refer to it – even when speaking – as “Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”)

I could make the excuse that Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was my first real Dracula movie. It’s generally accepted as a truism that your first version of a thing will always be your favorite (the actor you first see playing James Bond will always be your Bond, the actor you first watch playing the Doctor will always be your Doctor Who) but this doesn’t really hold true for me. Technically, George Hamilton was my first Dracula – which might explain why I’m sympathetic to romantic Dracula – but I also try very hard to be open to revising my opinions (my favorite Bond is Daniel Craig instead of the actor I was named after, my favorite Doctor is Matt Smith). The truth, though, is that I was already pretty familiar with Dracula (on screen and off) well before Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula… Not that there isn’t some nostalgia involved in my love of the film. 

These go for hundreds of dollars each now.

Thanks to the Crestwood House Monster series, I knew way more about classic horror movies – including Bela Lugosi’s turn as Dracula and its sequels – than most kids born in 1973. I’m also pretty sure that I’d read Stoker’s novel before seeing Coppola’s film; my oldest, most battered copy is not a movie tie-in, so I’m pretty sure I got it before the film came out. Admittedly, as a sex-obsessed 19-year old, I was perfectly willing to read as much kinky subtext into the book as I could, but even I couldn’t do so if the sub- wasn’t hiding in the text. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula came out in 1992, and deconstructing subtext the way that movie does – the way I did and still do – is the most ‘90s thing possible – and if there’s any nostalgia involved here, it’s my nostalgia for the ‘90s.

Exposing subtext and revealing hypocrisy were pretty much defining interests of both my sub-set of Generation X and the filmmakers of the early ‘90s. Deconstruction ruled the day. The grunge movement, after all, was about stripping rock and roll back to its basics again and sabotaging the mindless music industry machine; Kurt Cobain wrote a song that called out the thoughtless idiots who sang along but never understood his lyrics. In cinema, just a few months before Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Michael Mann had given the world a version of The Last of the Mohicans that Mark Twain would have enjoyed; the American Indian villain was a complex, intelligent character instead of an idiotic stereotype, the duplicity of both the British and the French was on display, and the white hero was deferential to his American Indian mentor. The exposure of Victorian hypocrisies and the inversion of their values present in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula simply puts the film in the same revisionist mode that dominated the early ‘90s.

Tear of blood... Can you be more '90s?

And why not invert the values of Bram Stoker’s novel? They’re hardly worth protecting. Mina Murray is a competent, intelligent young woman who is nevertheless written as shy of the “New Woman” label and happy to serve as Jonathan Harker’s secretary; excuse me if I prefer a Mina who yearns for something more. Excuse me for preferring a sexually-aggressive Lucy Westenra to a virginal doll fawned over by a trio of stalwarts. Excuse me for preferring a Dracula who transcends the Yellow Peril undertones of his conception, whose promise of sexual freedom and defiance of social mores is yearned for by the filmmaker and his heroines. I mean, am I the only person who reads some sort of symbolic gangbang, some patriarchal claiming ritual into Mina and Jonathan’s son being named after all the heroes in the novel?

(Yes, I probably am.) 

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the inevitable ‘90s version of Dracula, a “Do you have anything from the vampire’s point of view?” deconstructionist revision that sympathized with the monsters and showed the brutality of the heroes. I’m pretty sure Coppola cast Keanu Reeves because of his stiffness, because he wanted Harker to seem a poor second to Dracula. Hannibal Lecter plays the craziest (and best) Van Helsing for a reason. And the sexy yet grotesque Brides were perfect for the Lollapalooza crowd.

'Nuff said.

Not that ‘90s nostalgia translates into an objective defense of the movie, but there’s no such thing as objective correctness in matters of taste. Enjoying or disliking Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is certainly a matter of taste; to love it one must embrace the Gothic camp of the costume designs, the in-camera SFX, and the deliberately grotesque sexuality while to hate it one must ignore the fact that it’s still one of the most textual accurate adaptations of Dracula despite its interpolations. I’m certainly not claiming a superior opinion to Kenneth Hite’s, just a different one. 

It would be against my ‘90s values of multiculturalism and individualism to do otherwise.

That said, my favorite version of Dracula has a cowboy. Does yours?

It also has a Dread Pirate Roberts. Does yours?
(Oh, yeah, Shadow of the Vampire does.) 


1 comment:

  1. Considering that Coppola pissed all over the original novel, turnabout is fair play. :P

    Another aspect to consider which Hite brought up is the crucial Dracula/Mina motif. In the novel, he essentially rapes her. In the movie, it's presented as True Love realized throughout the ages. That is a complete 180 in tone. It was all another step towards the realization of the Twilight franchise.

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