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