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30 years on, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is still the most beautiful film committed to celluloid

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is a riot of blood-soaked rich colours. It’s coming back to cinemas from next week to mark its 30th birthday.

“I don’t drink… wine.” “Listen to the children of the night… what sweet music they make.” “They say you are a man of good… taste.” Delivered with wry danger by Gary Oldman as the Count, so many lines from the 1992 movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula were instantly iconic. They’re still delicious to mimic 30 years on, but it is the sheer beauty of the film that secures its place at the pinnacle of gothic filmmaking.

Dismissed before its release by Hollywood critics, who deemed the production too strange, bloody and violent, Coppola’s take on the classic vampire tale leaves nothing on the table. Informed by Italian giallo horror, it turns everything up to 11. No colour is left unsaturated, no dark shadow undermilked for its portents of woe. In fact, shadows move of their own accord, freed from the laws of physics to menace the unwary. It’s a wild ride. Unimpressed, critics dubbed the movie “Bonfire of the Vampires” after the notorious 1990 flop The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker's Dracula
Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Audiences felt differently. Earning $215 million worldwide, the movie went on to be one of the most successful projects of Coppola’s career. It took three Oscars, for best costume design, make-up and sound editing. Three decades on, the movie still has a passionate fanbase – precisely because it is so singular. For its anniversary, it’s getting an ultra-HD deluxe rerelease on Blu-ray and will be back in cinemas across the country. It’s a prime opportunity to bathe once more in its over-the-top glory.

The oddness of the film was always deliberate. Briefing set designers, Coppola told them simply to bring him something “weird”. The result is a breathtakingly sumptuous decadence, an utter dedication to the ‘more is more’ aesthetic. Mysterious eyes glow from glowering skies as Keanu Reeves’s hapless lawyer, Jonathan Harker, takes the train across Europe to meet his fate in the castle of Count Dracula; a young, still-living Vlad Dracul plunges an ornate sword into a stone cross, which gushes forth with the blood of Christ.

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Even back in 1992, Coppola was under pressure to create these effects with computer assistance. Coming out just a year before Jurassic Park digitally brought dinosaurs back to life, Bram Stoker’s Dracula defiantly looked back on the history of cinema rather than forward to the incoming era of CGI and VFX wizardry.

Recalling his thought process to Entertainment Weekly around the time of the 25th anniversary, Coppola said his reasoning had been: “Dracula was written at the same time as cinema was invented. What if I made Dracula much in the way that the earliest cinema practitioners would have? You know, making a thing that is in fact what it is also about.”

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Finding effects professionals too keen to follow the contemporary dogma, Coppola fired the lot, instead hiring his magic-obsessed son Roman to help him push the film in a more adventurous direction. Using rear projection, reverse motion, matte paintings, miniature effects, front projection, forced perspective and multiple exposures, and shooting mainly on soundstages, they propel us into a heightened unreality.

Jonathan Harker is ravaged by a trio of female vampires
Jonathan Harker is ravaged by a trio of female vampires

At the time of its original release, Coppola told the New York Times he wanted the film to evoke an “erotic dream”. In many ways he created the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s epistolatory novel committed to celluloid; but where Victorian repressed sexuality simmers in the book, here sensuality is fully unleashed. All the women are ravaging or being ravaged. Harker is taken by a hareem of gorgeous bare-breasted female vampires, led by Italian actress and model Monica Bellucci. The sexually-free Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) is seduced by the Count in the form of a beast, in the middle of a thunderstorm. Pulses race, and blood flows.

At the heart of it all is Gary Oldman’s outré take on Dracula. Transforming from paper-skinned old man to glossy-haired gent, and bat to wolfman (and in the meantime earning that make-up Oscar), the film recasts him as a tragic hero who has cursed God Himself over the loss of his one true love. A love who has been reincarnated in Jonathan Harker’s fiancée, the innocent Mina, played by Winona Ryder.

Count Dracula as he first meets Mina in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Count Dracula as he first meets Mina

Oldman’s costumes and make-up are unforgettable. When he first spots Mina on the streets of London, he’s in a powder-blue suit, with matching top hat and strange oval sunglasses. Shocked by his appearance, she immediately thinks him a foreigner. Little does she know how far he’s travelled, “across oceans of time” to find her.

But if there’s one look that defines the film – even finding its way into The Simpsons as a costume for millionaire villain Monty Burns – it’s from the first moment Harker steps into the Count’s castle. In a trailing red coat and embroidered floor-length white gown, holding up a lantern that emphasises the deep lines on his face, and with an outrageous concoction of white hair topping his head, Oldman takes a solid swing at replacing the classic Bela Lugosi, dinner-suit Dracula with something altogether more baroque. Rounding on Jonathan – but surely with half an eyebrow cocked at us – he bellows, “What devil or witch was ever so great as the killer whose blood flows in these veins?”

Gary Oldman in his most iconic look from Bram Stoker’s Dracula
A new look for a classic monster

Weird at the time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has dimmed little in the intervening decades, and remains a lonely experiment in maximalism. Among the few to take Coppola’s vision and run with has been Mexican horror impresario Guillermo del Toro, whose 2015 confection Crimson Peak has the same outsized, blood-soaked visual ambition. Indeed, del Toro is a fan of Coppola’s work, calling Dracula, “A most beautiful, sensuous horror film. Imbued with fairy tale atmosphere and images.”

Just as the film’s tagline told us that “true love never dies”, the splendour of Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula continues to reach its shadow hand out across the years.

To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film is coming back to selected cinemas from 7 October. Full list of dates here.

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