Everybody has their favorite vampire movie. They’re great on Halloween. They’re great on Valentine’s Day. Since before the first “Talkies” hit the Hollywood screen, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel has terrorized the minds of readers while defining the horror genre. It has inspired countless theater and film adaptations since its publication in 1897. In the past, film critics have pointed to the 1931 “Dracula”, based on the play by Hamilton Deane, as the best Dracula film ever made. The reality is that title has been held by Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Dracula since it hit theaters in 1992, as the 1931 version is too outdated for contemporary audiences. The 1931 version of Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, was one of the first “talkies” ever made. This fact shows how outdated a film from that era is to today’s viewers, no matter how great of a film it might have been in some ways – the shots are well composed, and the mise en scene is deliberate.
Furthermore, the 1931 version is based on a play and shot as such. It is more similar to going to a theater today and filming a play than it is to today’s movies. This movie crawls along at a turtle’s pace compared to the fast pace of Coppola’s version. On the other hand, Coppola is an elite director. In a recent interview that Coppola gave with Robbie Rodriguez (see here for details about where you can watch the interview), he talked about his profound love for cinema has an intellectual/artistic discipline, and his passion for learning about the development of the medium. His Dracula is a testament to this, in that it depicts primitive forms of cinema, and even employs antiquated, pre-cinematic illusions (particularly significant is use of shadow puppets). Coppola also adds flavor to the story by incorporating elements of history with vampire lore. In his film, Dracula is a fictionalized version of Vlad Tepes, better known as Vlad the Impaler. It is widely believed that Vlad was Bram Stoker’s initial inspiration for the character/story, but Coppola integrates elements of Tepe’s biography directly into Dracula’s character profile. In the opening scene, Vlad goes out to battle and impales countless enemies defending the name of Christianity. When he returns he finds Elisabetta, the love of his life, has committed suicide. Since suicide damns her soul he renounces Christ, stabs the cross, and drinks the blood that pours from the cross. This turns him into the monster Count Dracula. The fact that Dracula has to drink blood to stay young is historically influenced by Elizabeth Bathory, who slaughtered over 600 maidens because she felt bathing in their blood kept her looking young.
Ok, so maybe you’ve agreed with what I’ve said so far, but what about Bela Lugosi? Lugosi’s iconic portrayal of Dracula had little to do with acting skills. He was Hungarian-born, which means the iconic accent was simply his actual accent. In addition, Lugosi had a naturally creepy nature about him. He was not a charming or attractive man, so it was not a stretch to see him as Dracula. There was also more of a xenophobic attitude in the 1930’s, especially to Eastern Europeans, and in some ways, the film exploits this. While he is responsible for some of Dracula’s iconic lines and posturings, his performance wouldn’t be considered scary by today’s standards. Gary Oldman, on the other hand, displayed his entire range of acting skill in his portrayal of Dracula. Coppola demanded a Dracula who was handsome, seductive, and driven mad by a lost love, and Oldman delivers on all counts. Lugosi’s Dracula is entirely one-dimensional. Oldman’s Dracula invokes both sympathy and sexual desire, as he is a man driven to the depths of evil by the loss of his one true love. The bottom line is Francis Ford Coppola is the most talented director to direct a Dracula film, and Gary Oldman is the most talented actor that has played Dracula. And if you watch the It is no wonder that their 1992 version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula has turned out to be the best Dracula film ever made.
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