Night Eternal: The Evolution of Dracula on Screen | Part 3
Dracula is a character that has achieved true immortality, not by sucking the blood of the living like in the original novel but through constant pop-culture rebirth. From his earliest cinematic adaptations until now, Dracula has shown a remarkable ability to change and adapt with the times by feeding on his audience’s deepest insecurities and repressed desires. He has been a symbol of everything from post-war Germany to the counterculture of the 1960s and evolved from a rat-like monster to a semi-sympathetic figure longing for companionship. It was in the 1990s however where one film sought to give audiences the definitive version of the Count.
Blockbuster filmmaking in the early 90s had become more experimental with big-budget studio films being aimed at adults becoming the norm. It was during this time that Francis Ford Coppola, legendary director of the Godfather films, tried his hand at Dracula. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is a lavish film that spared no expense on sets, costumes, and production design as well as boasting an all-star cast. Though the title suggests an adaptation closer to the source material, it does take some liberties but overall is respectful to Stoker’s novel. While in the past, Dracula was seen as B-movie fodder or kid’s stuff, now a Dracula film was being made for adults with A-list talent in front and behind the camera. It had learned from previous Dracula adaptations and built upon what those films had done before, creating a film that makes the character human, horrifying, and alluring. Much like the Universal Lugosi film or the Hammer Dracula films, it was an adaptation that would set the tempo for the next several decades.
Much like the Dan Curtis/Jack Palance adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula features a much more sympathetic version of Dracula, though in this film it is Mina, not Lucy, who is the reincarnation of his long-lost love and the object of Dracula’s affections. This Dracula, as played by Gary Oldman, is both charming and terrifying, and struggles to balance his vampiric impulses with his genuine feelings for Mina. Dracula starts off the film old and decrepit and, much like the in the novel, grows younger but takes on an ugly, animal form when he indulges in his most base instincts like wanton sex and violence. But it’s Mina that soothes the beast within, and Dracula always reverts to a more human appearance when around her, eventually finding redemption in her arms in his final moments. The film is as much about Dracula rediscovering his humanity as it is Mina’s sexual awakening. Mina goes from a prim, proper, and sexually repressed English woman who giggles at the Kama Sutra to a woman that the other male characters see as a sexual threat and corrupted after her encounters with Dracula. Van Helsing, Harker, and the other men in the film aren’t trying to rescue Mina’s soul from Dracula as much as they are just trying to control a woman’s sexuality and keep her subservient.
On the surface, the 1990s seemed to be an era of peace and prosperity, but racial tensions and the rise of school shootings showed that there was something waiting to boil over that most were overlooking. It was a time of ignoring what was brewing under the surface in favor of creature comforts. Much like the decade itself, the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s Dracula seems to be all charm and decadence on the surface, but underneath is a dark side that could appear at a moment’s notice. Dracula was a character that believed he had it all but was missing a vital human connection, the perfect metaphor for a time where everything seemed perfect while ignoring festering societal issues.
The good times can’t always last. September 11, 2001, was a cultural event that ushered in a new decade of paranoia, xenophobia, and racism. Almost immediately after 9/11 came the rise of superhero films, and it seemed that after such a large tragedy, audiences were craving films about brave men and women selflessly preventing mass casualties. Into this culture came Van Helsing in 2004, a film that turned Dracula’s long-time nemesis into a Bond-like figure hunting monsters for the Catholic Church. Dracula became a cackling supervillain trying to take over the world with an army of vampire offspring. The xenophobia from older Dracula adaptations took a post-9/11 turn in Van Helsing, where once again Dracula became a foreign invader. It was a time where the phrase “the ends justify the means” was often heard and is perfectly summarized at the end of this film where Van Helsing defeats Dracula by turning into a werewolf, becoming a monster to stop a monster.
As time wore on, superheroes became more of the norm in Hollywood, and eventually Universal decided to give their classic monsters the Marvel treatment. Dracula Untold (2014), meant to be the first of a Marvel Cinematic Universe-esque monsters series, turns Dracula into a full-on superhero. Fear of invasion became an ongoing motif in cinema after 9/11, and this time it was Dracula who was defending his home from foreign invaders. In this film, Dracula must make a devil’s bargain in order to protect his homeland and is granted supernatural powers as a result. After a decade of American torturing so-called “terrorists” and drone strikes on civilians, the line between hero and villain was blurred, and Dracula became a man who justified becoming a monster by saying he did it to protect his people and his homeland.
This “Night Eternal” series really only scratched the surface of Dracula in pop culture, and the vampire has an even more prolific life in literature, television, and beyond. Much like his cinematic counterpart, it seems that Dracula cannot ever truly die but only lies dormant for a time. Though he can’t cast his own reflection, Dracula in cinema has become a sort of mirror for society’s greatest fears and insecurities, but it’s hard to say what the future holds for Dracula. As of this writing, there are several Dracula-related productions in various stages of development.
As time moves on, there will always be new fears and turmoil to come to light, and it seems that it will be only a matter of time before the legendary vampire rises again to feed on a new generation of victims. 🩸
James Reinhardt is a screenwriter and podcaster with nine years of experience in the film industry and four years of experience scaring people professionally in the haunted house industry. Follow him on Twitter @JamesReinhardt.
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