In 1992 Columbia Pictures released American Zoetrope/Osiris Films elaborate and ornate production of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Francis Coppola desired to create a Dracula picture that more closely resembled the late 1890’s novel by Bram Stoker from which other treatments of the story have derived. Though Coppola’s film is largely true to the novel, it bears a prologue and epilogue concerned with the historical figure of Prince Vlad the Impaler, his beloved wife Elizabeth, and the emergence of Christianity in Western Civilization. The story introduces metaphysical concepts of reincarnation, predestination, and the possibility of a “soul-mate” or a love affair that transcends time, geography and evil. A powerful theme of redemptive love underscores the romantic narrative of the film as conceived by Coppola.
The film opens with Prince Vlad (Gary Oldman) taking leave of his home and wife Elizabeth (Winona Ryder) to lead his order of Christian soldiers into the battles of the Great Crusades. Saturated crimsons, burnished oranges, and reddish grays fill the screen with images of Medeival warfare crafted stylistically in the manner of Balinese shadow-puppetry or “Wayang Kulit”. One of my favorite Francis Coppola tropes is his unembarassed theatricality, by which I feel he honors the traditions of his craft and the classicism from which film art emerges. The use of this formal device also suggests the migration of storytelling arts and history, while subduing the graphic imagery of war carnage (since there is plenty of blood and dismemberment to come).
Having gone to war to “defend the Church against the enemies of Christ”, Count Dracula (Prince Vlad of the order of the Dracula family or “Order of the Dragon”) returns home to find his beloved wife has thrown herself into the river beneath their royal castle upon false word of her husband’s death. The Count swears vengeance against the God whom he believes to have betrayed his loyalty. The enraged Count Dracula thrusts the crested sword of his family into the altar’s centerpiece stone Cross and causing it to bleed from his sworn sacrilege to rise from death (like Christ) to avenge the death of his bride “with all the powers of darkness”. Here I believe that Coppola’s Catholicism enters the text to give layers of metaphor and meaning to the mysteries of love, sacrament, ritual…and how they enter and effect history.
The film cuts from the histrionics of Dracula railing against the injustice and seeming indifference of God to the mad character of Renfield (Tom Waits) uttering his devotion to Dracula from the cell of a “lunatic asylum” many centuries later. The emotional match between scenes illustrates a similar indifference on the part of Dracula to his devotees/victims, a suggestion that the powerful to whom we give service remain aloof and silent. Renfield, of course, embodies the state of limerance between the states of infected/infested corporeality of the vampire’s bite and the promise of eternal life through the drinking of the vampire’s blood (…the blood is the life). For now, the sacrament of unholy communion is withheld from Renfield while Dracula plots his way to England from his homeland of Transylvania.