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The Dark Power of Faith: 25 Years of ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’

The Dark Power of Faith: 25 Years of ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’

There are so many things to talk about when the subject of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is brought up. The lavish, supremely Gothic production design. The wild art-inspired costumes. The roaring, bombastic score. The insanely theatrical and operatic performances of the cast. The obsessive adherence to classic in-camera and practical effects techniques*. The elements of author Bram Stoker’s tale that other films have skipped, but this one didn’t. The changes to Stoker’s tale that director Francis Ford Coppola and writer James V. Hart made. The subtextual elements of sexually transmitted diseases in vampire fiction and how the film directly addresses them at times.

All of these things and more could be written about at length. Hell, they already have been discussed across the world wide web, both in the past and this very month for the film’s 25 anniversary. When I decided to sit down to write about this film that I love unconditionally, I realized that short of writing a book on the subject, I would need to zero in on one particular element that intrigues me. Boil it down to the bare essentials, if you’ll allow a Thanksgiving-esque example this week.

What is that core, singular element that excites my horror-loving brain most when I sit down with this movie at least once a year? The answer, my fellow fiends, is faith. Don’t worry. You’re not about to sit through a lecture on religion and spirituality. Both things are important to some of the protagonists, but their names are not in the title. It’s Dracula’s faith that interests me most.

Here we have a man. A warlord prince protecting his lands in the most vicious and cruel ways imaginable. Someone viewed as a hero by his people and an insane tyrant by others. Someone who committed a great many of his horrific acts in the name of the Church and even God himself. Vlad (Gary Oldman) is a passionate man and that passion extends to his duties as a leader, a warrior, his religion, and his wife. When the latter is ripped away from him due to the trickery of his enemies, all else in his life thrown into turmoil.

We are shown a man grieving for the loss of his wife, who committed suicide upon hearing false news of his death. In the midst of that grief, he is told by his priest (Anthony Hopkins) that her self-extinguishing act has rendered her unworthy of entering Heaven. True or not in the context of the film, that’s a terrible thing to say to someone who only just began to mourn his lost love. A religion supposed to be comforting and welcoming to all instead becomes cruel when a believer most needs its compassion. Cruelty often begets cruelty and Vlad returns in kind. The dialogue sequence then plays out as follows…

Priest: “She has taken her own life, my son. Her soul cannot be saved. She is damned. It is God’s law.”
*Vlad screams and knocks over the pillar of holy water*
Priest: “Sacrilege!”
Vlad: “Is this my reward for defending God’s church?!”
Priest: “Sacrilege! Do not turn your back against Christ! He has chosen you to protect…”
Vlad: “I renounce Him! I renounce God and all you hypocrites who feed off Him! If my beloved burns in Hell, then so shall I! I, Dracula, Voivode of Transylvania, shall rise from my own death to avenge hers with all the powers of Darkness!”
*Vlad roars and stabs the giant cross in the temple. It, along with many other holy relics, begins to bleed.*
Vlad: “The blood is the life! And the blood…it shall be mine!”

The subtitles on the English language version of the film distill down the words that Oldman and Hopkins actually speak (perhaps because they’re firing it off so fast), but the emotionally-charged sequence loses none of its effect. What we are witnessing is a man so wrought with grief and anger that the violent vow he speaks aloud actually comes to pass. All of us often say things we don’t truly mean when we are in emotional pain. Not so here. Dracula means what he says right to the core, enough that he actually brings a nigh-unstoppable curse into existence through sheer willpower.

This fascinates me. Fanaticism is something that is a problem for the world at large on a daily basis across the globe. People believing in things so blindly that they are sometimes driven to unspeakable acts of cruelty. This iconic moment from Coppola’s film is no different. Prince Vlad Dracul, now simply Dracula, is presented here as a man who believed in his cause so much that when it ruled against him, he became its archnemesis. A walking perversion of the holy covenant, spreading his desecration of it across nearly all who come into contact with him over the next 400 years.

The horror genre is littered with Satanic-tinged horror films. Stories where an antagonist sold their soul to Satan for power, either through blood sacrifices, unholy rituals, or sometimes even directly speaking to the Dark One himself. Not Dracula. He rips the Heavens asunder by creating his own personal curse. You have to imagine that if Lucifer were watching this occur from a distance, he flinched a bit in shock. Perhaps then followed by a nodding approval. After all, who else had the balls to attack God with such vitriol, other than he?

This sequence alone would be enough to firmly embed the film in my memory banks, but the rest of the story goes on to further enhance it in a variety of intriguing ways. Sure, there are plenty of examples of Dracula gleefully rubbing his perversion of the holy covenant in the faces of his enemies. Just as interesting are the moments when he shows regret, however.

After all, so far as we know, Dracula didn’t go to Hell and then claw his way back out of the pit to assault the Earth. He never left our world. As a result, a bit of the man he once was still lies within. That man rears his head at times in the film twofold. One is as a lover, with Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) rekindling the romantic side of Vlad that he had long thought dead for hundreds of years. The other is Vlad the religious warrior. This is his sadder side, appearing a few times to both Mina and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) throughout the running time.

Also intriguing is the man-bat sequence, where a literal monster version of the titular fiend faces off against Van Helsing (Hopkins again) and his vampire hunters. Dracula is given a small speech here, boasting about his accomplishments, while also blaming God for his vampiric condition. We the audience know better. Dracula has no one to blame for his curse but himself and I imagine Van Helsing suspects this. Like anyone who feels so horribly wronged, however, I have little doubt that Dracula tells himself that it is all God’s fault. Fanatics are often likely to blame their troubles on others and that holds true here.

In the end, it is Dracula’s human side that saves his eternal soul from his centuries-twisted faith, even in spite of all the countless lives he has damned throughout the centuries. This too is fascinating. After all, how can a man who has murdered nations receive forgiveness simply by asking for it, when a woman who killed herself in a moment of intense sorrow is damned for all time? Are they not both guilty of “turning their back on” their God? Why is one worthy of forgiveness and the other not? The finale hints that both have been forgiven, which flies in the face of the fanaticism of the priest at the start of the movie. I wonder how the priest himself would feel about this or where exactly he himself ended up in the afterlife. After all, the saying is “Judge not lest ye be judged yourself,” right?

Faith is a powerful thing. It is something that can transcend emotion and inspire one’s will, although not always for the better. Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes for a wild and imaginative parable on that front. It’s often said that you can accomplish anything if you truly put your mind to it. This movie is a perfect example of that. It’s just that Vlad Dracul put his mind to becoming a bloodsucking monster whose sheer existence warped the reality around him and begat the murder of hundreds, if not thousands. I guess the moral here is both be careful what you wish for AND be careful what you faith for. You never know how it might change you.

Lastly, Happy 25th, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You are one bombastic and weird masterpiece of a movie. I love you for that.

Your friend,
D

* – Save for the blue rings of fire outside of Dracula’s castle, which are reportedly the only element of CGI in the film.



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COMMENTS

64 Comments
  • One of the better Dracula films. This is probably his best origin story to date.

  • Aslinn McIntyre

    Great article. Vampirism and faith is an interesting sort of study because you get not only the curse from God, you get the shadow mirroring of Holy Communion. Just as God blesses the believer with the Body and Blood, so the vampire “blesses” the victim with the blood. In the book Dracula Secrets, the author also explores the idea of STDs and the theme of vampirism. And True Blood explores this in seasons 6 and 7. Wonderful article.

    • I love the idea of a villain that believes in a God, but despises him and tries to spite that God. That’s a fascinating concept, especially for a character like Dracula.

      • John Connor

        Like the “atheist” in ‘God’s Not Dead’.

  • One of my all time faves! And one of the best vampire movies!!!

  • Daucus Karota

    There is more fascination and purity in the stylized opening segment of Coppola’s Dracula than in the entirety of Dracula Untold.

    • Haha! So true.

    • chien_clean

      Sad thing is, Dracula Untold was created because of the Copolla Dracula opening! Dark city’s Alex Proyas was fascinated by it and created a whole mythology around it, possibly making a movie crossing the voivoid Dracula and the vampire myth. He spend years developping it and then at some point he and the studio reached an impass cause they wanted something “lighter and more romantic” those fools. It was supposed to be called Dracula: Year Zero.

      • Daucus Karota

        That is interesting. Too bad he didn’t get to do a proper homage.

      • Naiad Lyne

        Well, jokes on studio then.

  • biff

    I agree that this is probably my favorite version of Dracula as well — barring Keanu Reeves’ attempts at a English accent. Anthony Hopkins takes on the role of Van Helsing as if he was a Victorian-era Hunter S. Thompson, and I loved every second of it. He’s the perfect counterpart of Oldman’s dour and dramatic Dracula, presented as a tortured lovesick soul — albeit one that can decapitate or disembowel a man with a flick of his wrist. Coppola’s vision gives us a film that feels like the ultimate pop-up book, or shoebox diorama, allowing one to peek inside and spy on its many layers of beauty. Add to that Wojciech Kilar’s magnificent score, and the whole thing is just irresistible.

    • Although it’s not my top favourite (I’m partial to Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Klaus Kinski), this was definitely in my Top 10 favourite Dracula films. Coppola did a great job.

      • biff

        That’s true — Christopher Lee in particular, who was always the Prince of Darkness when I was a kid sitting up late on Friday nights. His Dracula, while not necessarily being the product of the novel, was nonetheless an cinematic force of evil, merely having a facade of humanity before exposing his demonic aspect. I used to chuckle when me and my nephews would go see the Star Wars prequels, and they’d call Count Dooku “a real asshole” (not in front of their mother, of course), and I would say “You have no idea.”

    • John Connor

      The English accent was intentionally performed that way.
      It’s not wrong.

      • Saturn

        What’s your source for that?

        • John Connor

          Source: the movie

          • Saturn

            That makes no sense whatsoever.
            It’s like saying that every mistake in a movie ever was deliberate, and was designed for the movie to flow in it’s own perfect way.

          • John Connor

            It’s not a mistake.
            That’s the character Keanu was playing.

          • Saturn

            So Keanu was playing an Englishman putting on a really bad fake English accent? Got it!

  • Bloodspatta

    Love this movie. Remember when it first came out. The hype for it was through the roof and I couldn’t wait to rush to the cinema to see it.

  • Angela M Campany

    I found it a bore.

    • Nahuel Benvenuto

      lol

      • Angela M Campany

        I fell asleep watching it in the theatre.

        • John Connor

          If anyone falls asleep when watching a movie, it’s not the movie’s fault .

          • Angela M Campany

            It does when it sucks !! Go troll Arnie Schwarz. !!

            You hate/dislike a movie here ,someone’s panties always get in a bind . I don’t have to like a movie just because you obviously do ! You will go on block now, have a good day !!

            They’re to many people like you on the internet that always think that they know everything about everything ,you’re not worth my time , later !!

            Oh yeah …….i must not be the only one who thought it was a bore, see upvotes !!

            ASTA LA VISTA !!!
            John

  • Bart Crowe

    Keanu Reeves and Wynona Ryder seemed so out of place in that movie. I get why they were cast as they were quite popular actors at the time. Just one listen at them attempting a British accent should have been enough for Coppola or the studio execs to realize they were a bad fit. That said Tom Waits was one helluva a Renfield.

    • Gabe

      If you look into the history of the film, you’ll see it was Winona that brought the project to Coppola as them working together on the last Godfather movie didn’t work out.

    • John Connor

      Not a bad fit.

      This so-called ‘bad accent’ is purposefully the style.
      The style is not realism.

  • WOLF

    I think the reason I didn’t love the movie is this Dracula didn’t fit the Dracula in my head….and I realize that’s my own problem. I love the black cape, badass, evil Dracula. I know that’s a one dimensional version that is boring to others. But I didn’t want a sympathetic love story with a long haired hippie Dracula. I couldnt feel anything with his scenes with Mina because he will ruin anybody else’s life in a blink of an eye.

    • I still thought this version was very evil, even with a backstory involving his wife’s suicide. Though, I still see what you mean. You want him to be like he was in the novel: the embodiment of evil and purely unsympathetic. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a modern take on that version, or even a modern take on the Bela Lugosi version for that matter.

      • Naiad Lyne

        I actually think this particular movie works so well because despite him having emotions and such, he is still very monstrous and malevolent, and it was juicy. Kudos also to Oldman for his multi-layered performance.

  • Biscoito18

    Same, I’ve always loved this Dracula. This film and Interview with the vampire still are my favorites even after watching a lot of classics. Their atmospheres are just impeccable!

  • Jack Derwent

    Sympathetic Dracula has always annoyed me. In the book he basically forces himself on Mina, so turning it into anything resembling a romantic relationship skeeves me out.

    • Naiad Lyne

      Well, it’s been a thing in some movies since 70s. Romantic stuff I mean.

    • chien_clean

      that’s because the guy that wrote BSD already wrote a series of novels where he wrote a sympathetic Dracula and they hired him. Before I saw the movie I was disappointed to know that. But then again it’s Gary Oldman, he cannot be a 100% sympathetic. And it worked for parts of this movie. Best Dracula was Jack Palance, pure animal.

      • Naiad Lyne

        The guy who wrote script for movie was James Hart, the guy who wrote books was Fred Saberhagen. Hart was partly influenced by Saberhagen’s books, but they are different people and their body of work is different, though having some similarities here and there.

  • Flu-Like Symptoms

    I like the song at the end. There, I said it.

  • Nahuel Benvenuto

    the only flaw of this movie is casting Reeves in the protagonist role

    • Ryder wasn’t much better. You’d have thought they could have just made it an all British cast.

    • Capt Sensible

      I dare to say that Reeve’s casting is the worst casting choice in all of cinema

  • Werewolf

    See the amazing cinematograph…y!

  • Saturn

    Absolutely love the source material, but LOATHE this movie.

  • Anthony Krutis

    I loved this version…..so much to see and hear…

  • Pickle Dust

    “Judge not lest ye be judged yourself”

    I just wanted to point out that this is one of the most misquoted Bible verses to be found. It’s a passage about the hypocrisy of judging another but not yourself first. Not a condemnation of judgment itself. In fact, the Bible calls for Christians to question and to judge other Christians when the need arrives.

    “Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.” (7:3, 5)

    The above is a quote attributed to Jesus from Mathew. As you can see, Jesus doesn’t condemn judgement. He instead points to removing your own before you try to remove that of others. The difference is between righteous judgement and unrighteous judgement.

    “Don’t give what is holy to the dogs, nor throw your pearls before swine.”

    Another quote attributed to Jesus. This is another example showing that even Jesus himself judged, though did not condemn. How else would a man be able to tell who the dog or swine were if not by judgement? It is the condemnation of sin without the allowance for redemption which is the problem.

    I liked the article (though not the movie itself) but just wanted to point this out.

  • guest

    one of if not the greatest soundtracks ever. it is just sheer perfection. i love it.
    so awesome.

  • Darkness69

    My favorite movie ever – soundtrack too. Watching it religiously ever since it came out… Interesting scene breakdown when Dracula denounces God. I’ve always seen it as, yes, denouncement that felt true and not something he just said in anger, BUT, we must take into account that what we were seeing is a profoundly changed man, driven to (almost) madness by his emotional pain. In that sense, he wasn’t exactly his old self, and perhaps we can say that, by denouncing the church he fought for, he also denounced the blindness and fanaticism that marked his previous existence. In any case, always glad to see some love for Coppola’s masterpiece!

  • Necro

    Maybe Universal should go and watch this film and take some notes, then attempt to do their Dark Universe.

    • chien_clean

      Universal wants to make popcorn flicks, not great movies, that is the problem

  • I freaking love this movie. Oldman should have won an Oscar for this role.

  • Alanmac

    Highly underrated movie. Granted, Keanu’s acting was awful, (tho he is excellent in most of his films), but that didn’t ruin this movie in any way at all. One of my favorites.

    • John Connor

      How was it awful?
      It’s not a character based on anyone in real life.
      It’s not a biography of a real person.
      So how is his character performance “awful” or “wrong” ?

      • Alanmac

        His accent seemed forced and his mannerisms made him seem stiff as a board. It’s like there’s someone off camera pointing a gun at him the whole time. That’s how it comes off to me, not necessarily everyone. If you enjoyed his part then good for you. Didn’t ruin the movie for me.

        • John Connor

          But you just described his character: frightened, awkward, an alien to the place he’s in.
          Someone pointing a gun at him is a nice description of that character.

      • Colin Christian

        Being English myself,I can honestly say I have never,ever heard Keanu’s accent or any version of it in Britain,however Dick Van Dyke must know where it comes from as he uses that accent himself in Mary Poppins.

        • John Connor

          What are the vampires like there?

    • Naiad Lyne

      Underrated? It’s one of the most famous Dracula movies, it stood the test of time and is often referenced in vampire-related media.

  • LivingDeadMan

    An excellent film, marred only by some seriously misguided casting. Keanu and Winona’s attempts at the British accent are utterly hilarious.

    • John Connor

      You ever hear of dialects?
      Have you ever studied styles of filmmaking/acting?

      “Gary Oldman’s attempts at being a vampire are hilarious! A vampire would never talk or act as he does. My vampire friends laughed when watching this movie. This fictional unrealistic movie.”

  • Lord Trigon

    This is the first horror movie I ever saw so I feel indebted to it, I was being raised Christian at the time and questioning my own faith and the rules I was told to live by (which included not being allowed to watch a movie like this so it was also an early taste of rebellion) so perhaps that is why this movie had such a profound effect on me. Beautiful article.

  • MrX13

    Such a great movie and the cast was on point! Oldman was perfect as Dracula (in all forms) and the story was a lovely one. One of the best Dracula movies of all time

  • HalesTales

    Interesting article. This is my favorite Dracula we’ve been graced with yet.

  • Naiad Lyne

    I like aesthetics and soundtrack of that movie.

  • chien_clean

    I tried to do what Dracula did here including renouncing God and driving a sword to a cross and I never became a vampire. What a copout.

  • Saltoner

    visual poetry

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