Today I'll be discussing two of my favorite film versions of Bram Stoker's timeless novel Dracula. It's been a long time since Hollywood gave us a serious adaptation of this story - everything since 1992 has been either satirical or a pointless reinvention of the wheel - and it's the two most recent high-quality versions I'm here to talk about.
1979 saw the release of three Dracula films - a Werner Herzog-helmed Nosferatu remake/homage (an excellent film in its own right), a modern-day spoof called Love at First Bite (starring a hilarious George Hamilton), and on the heels of a massively successful revival of the Broadway play on which it was based, a remake of Universal Studios' 1931 production of Dracula. As they'd done in the 30s (after the sudden death of their first choice Lon Chaney), Universal cast the star of the Broadway production - in 1931 it was Bela Lugosi, in 1979 it was Frank Langella. Reimagined as an extravagant, atmospheric horror-romance, this new version of Dracula was critically well-received but underwhelmed at the box office (no doubt hampered by the George Hamilton comedy released only a few months earlier). It was perhaps even further removed from the novel than its 1930s counterpart, removing most of the first act and changing some characters around. Still the Langella Dracula is a pretty excellent update of the Lugosi classic, with a more explicit emphasis on the sensuality of vampirism, and a romantic, minimalist portrayal of the immortal Count. My wife affectionately refers to this version as Disco Dracula due to Frank's very 70s hairstyle. This moniker is actually very fitting since John Badham had previously directed Saturday Night Fever....
Thirteen years later Francis Ford Coppola decided to take the story back to its turn-of-the-century literary roots, presenting Bram Stoker's Dracula as an honest-to-goodness faithful adaptation. All the major characters were restored, the film followed the book's narrative structure (including diary entries in voiceover), and Dracula's extensive supernatural powers were better explored. Sure, they crammed in a romance where the novel did not, but overall the 1992 version is one of the closest to the novel to date. What sets this film apart from other interpretations though is its surrealist, operatic style. The visuals were unlike anything since the 1920s Expressionist period, while many of the performances could easily be classified as "scenery chewing." Carried largely by Gary Oldman's star making lead performance, Bram Stoker's Dracula was a strong worldwide hit, grossing over $215 million on a $40 million budget (or $473 million in today's dollars).
But which version is superior? I enjoy both films immensely, for different reasons. Let's take a closer look and break these films down, shall we?
Dracula: Frank Langella vs. Gary Oldman
A Dracula movie of course will largely stand or fall based on the quality of the titular performance, and both films are on very solid ground in this category. Langella and Oldman each delivered one of the greatest and most memorable portrayals of the immortal Count, in very different ways.
Langella's turn is understated, relying on smoldering sex appeal and a soft-spoken menace. He also skipped the Romanian accent (an odd choice given Drac's nationality, but somehow it works) and refused any sort of vampiric makeup or fangs, telling the filmmakers, "There are fifty other movies where Dracula looks like that, we're doing something different." Instead of a typically monstrous vampire, Langella embodies the Count as a stoic, romantic lead who exhibits no wasted motion, luring his victims to their demise with an almost feline charm. And of course those hypnotic, ever-dancing eyes....
Gary Oldman's performance couldn't be more different from its 1979 counterpart. Oldman, like everything else in the Coppola film, is operatic in his portrayal. This Count is bombastic, charismatic, fully "old world," and depending on the scene either violently carnal or grotesquely terrifying. He shapeshifts no fewer than half a dozen times throughout the film (as in the novel where he appears as an old man, a less old man, a bat, a wolf, an army of rats, and mist), and Oldman's fearsome theatrics shine through the layers of prosthetic makeup. This is the film that made me fall in love with Gary Oldman's acting.
But who's better? It's really up to your personal tastes and what you expect out of the character. Langella goes for romance and a minimalistic sense of evil. Oldman swings for the fences to make the Count an otherworldly demon. Personally I like my Dracula to be a true, unearthly monster, and I think Oldman's larger-than-life version is much closer to what Bram Stoker probably envisioned. Plus it's still one of my all-time favorite film performances.
Lucy/Mina: Kate Nelligan vs. Winona Ryder
Note: For some reason in the 1979 version the filmmakers swapped the names of the Mina and Lucy characters. So Mina Murray was now Lucy Seward, and Lucy Westenra was Mina Van Helsing. No idea why they did this.
Kate Nelligan, a Canadian working primarily in England, passes perfectly for an Englishwoman. I had no idea until I saw her in Prince of Tides that she wasn't actually British. Nelligan's Lucy is for this period an uncharacteristically strong-willed firebrand who carries a magnetic physical presence and speaks with a silky, captivating alto intonation. From her portrayal it's easy to see why Dracula would choose her to be his immortal partner - "I despise women with no life in them...no blood." Her innate strength makes her that much more frightening when she falls under his spell and begins to sprout fangs. Nelligan is a wonderful female lead you can't take your eyes off of when she's onscreen.
Winona Ryder's version of the Mina character is more traditional, a meek, proper school mistress whose naivete is shattered by her romantic encounters with Dracula. In the 1992 version (and in the novel to a certain extent) it's Lucy who's the unconventional one, entertaining multiple suitors and being much more open about her sexuality. Ryder's Mina exhibits the typical Victorian repression, only exploring her erotic urges after the Count begins to bring that out of her. Thus the heroic strength she finds late in the film is more strenuously earned than that of Nelligan's character. Ryder's overall performance is pretty captivating.
Like our two Draculas, the two female leads are very divergent from each other. Nelligan plays Lucy with a sense of defiance and danger-seeking, Ryder goes the more established route, playing Mina as a humble woman who experiences an awakening. I like both of these takes, but Nelligan is so mesmerizing I have to give her the nod.
Jonathan Harker: Trevor Eve vs. Keanu Reeves
Trevor Eve's Jonathan Harker is the likable, pragmatic, de facto protagonist of the 1979 film, a hard-working real estate clerk with a no-nonsense blue collar sensibility. Eve has a quiet charisma and easy chemistry with his betrothed Lucy Seward, and even though part of us can't help root for her to run off with Drac, we're still ultimately cheering for Jonathan (and Van Helsing) to save the day.
Keanu Reeves as Harker is one of the great miscastings in film history. His English accent is amateurishly terrible and he doesn't at all pass for a Victorian Era British gentleman. From his first scene it's obvious he's all wrong for this role. I get why he was cast - Reeves was a hot young star with wide box office appeal - but he doesn't work as this character. Cary Elwes (cast as Lord Holmwood) would've been infinitely better as Harker.
This one is no contest. Eve is miles ahead of Reeves, and then some.
Mina/Lucy: Jan Francis vs. Sadie Frost
Now for the other half of the respective best friend pairings, Jan Francis plays Mina as the frail, sickly and eager-to-please daughter of Professor Van Helsing (another strange choice for the 1979 film), who discovers (is lured by) a shipwrecked Dracula on the Whitby shore. Her weakness makes her easy prey for the vampire, and he kills her early in the film. Later we see her in undead form and between her abhorrent performance and horrific makeup, Vampire Mina is fantastically chilling. Francis is quite good in this dual role, forgettably affable in life, and grossly demonic in (un)death.
Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra is another example of the 1992 film's balletic tone. Lucy is overtly flirtatious and lustful as a human, and later as a vampire is beautifully creepy as she tries to seduce her fiance Arthur literally to death. In this incarnation Frost makes sense as Dracula's first London victim, a borderline eager target of Dracula's hypnosis, whom he uses only for feeding, while Mina is a tougher nut for him to crack and thus the one he falls in love with. The sexual metaphors are laid on thick in this version. Her vampiric scene in the tomb is positively offputting, aided by some backward camera cranking.
This one is close, despite the two takes of this character also being very different. Francis starts off mousy and becomes satanic. Frost starts off sultry and becomes satanically sultry. Overall I found Frost more memorable.
Dr. Seward: Donald Pleasence vs. Richard E. Grant
Since the 1979 version is essentially a remake of the 1931 classic, they kept the Dr. Seward character as a middle aged man and Mina's (in this case Lucy's) father. In this regard the character as played by Donald Pleasence is nothing like his counterpart in the novel. But Pleasence is convincing as always here, portraying Seward as an overwhelmed, sometimes bumbling but highly intelligent sanitarium head. As a way to try and steal every scene he was in, Pleasence insisted that the doctor always be eating food or sucking on candies. An odd choice but it worked; you always notice Seward whenever he's onscreen, and his line delivery is great.
Richard E. Grant's incarnation in the 1992 film is true to the novel; despite heading a sanitarium Seward is a young doctor and one of Lucy Westenra's three suitors. His friendships with Lucy, Holmwood and Quincey Morris help drive the middle act of the film and this group of friends along with the Harkers and Van Helsing band together to stop the evil Count. Grant's Seward is a far more troubled soul than Pleasence's, battling both unrequited romantic feelings for Lucy and a morphine addiction. This Seward is a rather pitiable sort.
Once again this is a tough call despite how divergent the two portrayals are. One is very true to the novel, the other is its own thing. But for me Pleasence's gravitas is the tiebreaker.
Professor Van Helsing: Laurence Olivier vs. Anthony Hopkins
It's the battle of knights! Sir Laurence Olivier added a huge dose of credibility to Badham's Dracula, playing the noted vampire expert Abraham Van Helsing. Despite battling health issues, Olivier turned in a memorable, melancholy performance as the Dutch scientist whose daughter Mina has been killed by Dracula. While that familial element is not in the novel, it does give Van Helsing a more personal motivation to go after the Count. Olivier's Van Helsing is timeworn and haggard, and in an unusual turn of events for this story, he doesn't survive his final showdown with Drac.
Sir Anthony Hopkins, fresh off dazzling audiences as Hannibal Lecter, plays a very different kind of doctor in the 1992 film. His Van Helsing is pompous, demonstrative, and exceedingly enthusiastic about the subject of vampires. Often a source of uncomfortable comedic moments, Hopkins' Van Helsing is simply tickled to discover that Count Dracula is the cause of Lucy Westenra's failing health; studying vampirism has been his life's work and he can't wait to rid the world of this demonic bastard. Like most of his castmates, Hopkins is way over-the-top in this performance and looks like he's having the time of his life.
Olivier's Van Helsing is obviously a much more realistic take on the character, while Hopkins' is exaggerated and stylized. As with our two Draculas, this contest depends on what you're looking for in a Van Helsing. Personally I liked the larger-than-life Hopkins take; he feels like a suitable archenemy for Dracula, though I do love the one big scene Langella and Olivier have together. But overall I'm gonna go with Hopkins.
Renfield: Tony Haygarth vs. Tom Waits
The 1979 Renfield character is a blue collar workman whom Dracula takes under his wing (no pun intended) while Renfield is loading Drac's coffins into his new home. When we meet him he's already something of an unwashed toad with brown teeth and a disgusting habit of eating insects (His breath must've been just appalling). Haygarth's performance is pretty note-perfect for what this adaptation of the character is supposed to be, but it's not at all the Renfield of the novel or really any other film version. Regardless though, Haygarth makes a wonderfully slimy degenerate.
The 1992 film went with a very unexpected casting choice for Renfield, appointing singer-songwriter Tom Waits as the Count's faithful servant. In the 26 years since the film's release I've become a huge fan of Waits' music, and while I've always enjoyed his performance here, it's improved for me with time. Waits plays Renfield as a crazed, full-on Dracula disciple, confined to a straitjacket and obsessed with eating insects and spiders to "absorb" their life-force. Waits' Renfield is articulate and poetic despite being a total whackjob, and he makes his bizarre motivations clear from the get-go. Also at the time this film came out I found Waits' English accent so convincing I thought he might actually be from Britain.
Once again we have two very different interpretations of a character. Haygarth is an unkempt slob who eats bugs and just kinda goes along with Dracula, Waits is an otherwise intelligent solicitor who falls under the Count's spell and goes insane. They're both very strong performances but I'll give the nod to Waits (though Haygarth gets a WAAAY better death scene).
John Badham's film has gorgeously authentic production values, with strikingly gothic sets and costumes that fit the period to a tee, and beautiful English coastal landscapes to boot. Visually this is a lush, atmospheric production. Badham and the studio disagreed about the film's color timing however; Badham wanted to shoot the film in black & white as an homage to the Lugosi version and the Edward Gorey-designed sets of the stage revival, but the studio insisted on vibrant, opulent color. The theatrical release featured the latter, but until 2019 every home video version since 1991 boasted desaturated hues, bordering on black & white. As a kid I'd only seen the theatrical color timing and since it was shot that way it sorta works better for me; Badham's muted version feels engineered. The special effects are simple and sparse but very effective. As mentioned earlier, Langella refused any makeup effects or fangs for his Dracula, opting to keep everything understated and implied.
Francis Ford Coppola's version is deliberately surrealistic and Expressionist, with exaggerated sets, impossibly lavish costumes drawing inspiration from multiple cultures and pieces of artwork, and special effects that emulated those of the 1920s. To save money and to set his film apart from other 90s horror, Coppola and his son Roman devised rudimentary in-camera effects with the philosophy that anything filmmakers couldn't do in the early days of filmmaking would be inappropriate here. They made use of miniatures, mirrors, forced perspective, reverse camera cranking, rear projection, and multiple exposure, and the result is a visually stunning film that looks nothing like its contemporaries. The color palette is also stunningly bold, with deep blues, reds, oranges, and whites. I haven't even gotten into the makeup; Oldman's Dracula takes many forms and the grotesque makeup effects convey all of them brilliantly. This is an audaciously engaging film from a visual standpoint, winning Oscars for both costume design and makeup.
Make no mistake, both of these films are beautiful to look at. The 1979 version captures the period with completely realistic sets and costumes, and its special effects are subtle but mostly hold up. The 1992 version is intentionally bizarre and dreamlike, taking a page from films of the early 20th century and recreating outlandish Expressionist techniques for its visual effects. Since Coppola's film is so visually daring I'm giving it the nod here.
The 1979 film was scored by the legendary John Williams (for my money the greatest in the business), whose main theme for this movie is stirring and mysterious. Williams draws on this main cue for much of the film's score pieces, while supplementing it with other typically excellent material. I'd be lying if I said this was one of Williams' greatest works, but it's powerful and atmospheric, and you really can't go wrong with a master like Williams.
The 1992 film was scored by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, whose background gave the soundtrack an unusual Eastern European flavor. Use of low strings and piano lend the Dracula-related scenes an offputting, uneasy feel, while melodic percussive instruments add to the dreamlike sequences. Kilar's unusual approach fits the film's avant-garde tenor like a glove.
The 1979 soundtrack is compelling and capable, from one of the all-time film scoring gurus. Its 1992 counterpart though is a truly remarkable achievement.
This is a two-part category so I'll award a point for each. These two versions of the Dracula story are radically different. One is based more on the Balderston-Deane stage play, the other is based pretty closely on Stoker.
The 1979 film, adapted by W.D. Richter, structures the film similarly to the parlor drama of the play, but varies the locations and creates a much more expansive narrative. As I stated earlier, the first act of the Lugosi film is excised here; gone is the Renfield (replacing Harker) trip to Transylvania, his introduction to the Count at Castle Dracula, and the attack from Dracula's wives. This film begins just as Dracula's ship arrives in England, and from there he begins preying on the Mina and Lucy characters. The climax however is much more elaborate than in 1931. The filmmakers pay homage by recreating Harker and Van Helsing's attempt to kill Dracula at Carfax, but this time Dracula fends them off and tries to retreat homeward on another ship. Our heroes intercept the ship just as it's departing, and Dracula ends up being exposed to the sun, killing him. Additionally this film plays up the romance between Dracula and Lucy, making us sort of want to root for them to get away.
The Richter script is very naturalistic, with loosely delivered, conversational dialogue and pretty effortless performances from the principles. Despite the extraordinary story details everything is handled with a down-to-earth sensibility that makes the story relatable.
The 1992 version follows the structure of the novel, from Harker's journey to Dracula's homeland to Drac's voyage and infiltration of England, to his eventual flight home as Harker, Van Helsing and company attempt to destroy him before he reaches his castle. Every major story beat and character is in the film, plus (just like in 1979) a romance between the villain and the female lead. While I'd still like to see a completely faithful retelling of the novel at some point, the 1992 version captured the overall spirit quite nicely and added turn-of-the-century concerns such as advances in medicine and technology.
The script by James V. Hart is very theatrical and over-the-top, matching the film's overall tone. The dialogue is lofty and poetic (with sometimes mixed results depending on who's delivering it), lending itself to the balletic nature of the movie.
On balance I prefer the faithfulness of Hart's story but appreciate the more realistic flow of Richter's dialogue.
Story point: 1992
Screenplay point: 1979
The running theme through much of this comparison is, What Approach Do You Prefer?
The 1979 Dracula is a fully believable gothic production featuring a suave, sexy Dracula with natural performances and pretty minimalist vampire movie trappings. Even when Dracula does something crazy like turn into a wolf it's handled with a quick split screen effect as opposed to an elaborate makeup. By today's standards this film is positively restrained in its tastefulness.
The 1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula is a gleeful exercise in nightmarish excess, with exaggerated visuals, wildly decadent costuming, and grandiose performances, aided by resplendently old-school visual effects. Coppola and his crew pulled out all the stops to make this a memorable, blood-and-thunder retelling of the classic novel.
I love both of these films, but for me Coppola's dauntless enthusiasm, the film's close adherence to the novel, the stunning visuals, and Gary Oldman's Oscar-worthy portrayal win the contest.
Overall Winner: Bram Stoker's Dracula
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