Loving Dracula

Michael Wood

  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola
  • Suckers: Bleeding London Dry by Anne Billson
    Pan, 315 pp, £4.99, January 1993, ISBN 0 330 32806 9

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (as distinct from Bram Stoker’s Dracula) begins with a canny bit of Orientalism. The English solicitor Jonathan Harker is travelling to the Carpathians to meet his client Count Dracula. ‘The impression I had,’ Harker says of crossing the Danube at Budapest, ‘was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most Western of splendid bridges ... took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.’ We know all about those traditions. This is the realm of the incalculable, bloodthirsty Other; the Other of our dreams, of course, the figure we compose out of everything we can’t or wont know about ourselves. But then Dracula is a dream, multiple, self-contradicting, hovering. He doesn’t show up in mirrors because he is himself a mirror, ready to reflect a whole hodgepodge of fears and desires. He drinks blood, preys on women; converts men to insect-eaters; he is the undead, a travesty of the resurrection; he is what waits at the end of Eastern journeys and he also comes West, buying up London, bringing boxes of earth from his native land; associated with bats and wolves and the night, he carries the imagery of rabies and syphilis into the age of Aids.

Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish, stylish, sometimes silly, always engaging movie also includes the lines quoted above, but we hardly notice them because we’ve just been treated to a much more spectacular encounter between worlds. The year is 1462. Constantinople has fallen, and Turkish Muslims are colonising the map. Our hero, a Christian Romanian count, takes up arms against a force which a voice-over describes as insurmountable – meaning tough but not so tough he won’t be back. After a brief and brilliant battle borrowed from Kurosawa, all skewerings and shudderings in dark silhouette against a blood-red sky, the Count returns to find that his much-loved wife, told by the treacherous Turks that he was dead, has committed suicide. Since she cannot be buried according to the rites of the Church he has just saved from thousands of its foes, he stabs the altar cross, spills the holy water and swears to live for ever as God’s enemy.

In interviews Coppola and the author of the screenplay, James V. Hart, have insisted on the gripping irony of this situation and on their sense of Dracula as a fallen angel. Great love in its bafflement turns to great hatred; even evil may have its origins in strangled or thwarted generosity. Taken out of context, the proposition is decent, slightly soggy, well-intentioned but short-winded – try applying it to Goebbels or to the next apprentice vampire who wants to test his fangs on you. In context, however, it works rather differently because it relocates the monster. This Dracula, the one on the screen, Gary Oldman in extravagant armour, is the beleaguered West rather than the unknown East; he stand, so to speak, at our end of Jonathan Harker’s bridge. His very sacrilege doesn’t make sense in any other world, and we can scarcely disavow him.

Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s version was human enough – there is an unforgettable close-up of his large, drawn face as it descends on a victim, a mask of pain and sorrow rather than vice or cruelty – but he was a stranger, and he could be cast out. The film has only the faintest of suggestions that we have created him or that he has answered our call. Christopher Lee, in a series of Hammer movies, was dignified and handsome, but far too natty to have come out of anyone’s unconscious. These Hammer films, incidentally, seem now to have acquired a patina of critical respectability, rather as if Sid James, with time, had turned into John Gielgud. It’s worth saying that whatever the excesses and incoherencies of Coppola’s Dracula, it is the work of an inventive and subtle movie imagination, which the Hammer films were not.

Of course, we could disavow Gary Oldman if he weren’t so good, and our more solemn critics have wanted to disavow him because the movie he is in isn’t serious enough; ‘all tricks but no meaning’ has been a frequent argument. This claim misses not only the point of the movie but, more interestingly, its tone. What would a serious Dracula movie look like? It’s as if we were to ask Bram Stoker to rewrite his book as Middlemarch. He himself made no such mistakes, knowing that a certain loopy innocence in the voice was necessary to the effect he was after, and that hokum was not opposed to horror but part of it. His story, he says, is ‘almost at variance with the possibilities of latterday belief’; and when Jonathan Harker realises that the creepy Count casts no reflection in his shaving mirror, he thinks, as one is supposed to think in such novels and movies: ‘This was startling, and, coming on top of so many strange things, was beginning to increase that vague feeling of uneasiness which I always have when the Count is near.’ Almost at variance; only beginning; only a vague feeling. Interesting meanings get into these works because the works don’t linger over them, almost seem to miss them; perhaps do sometimes miss them, as explicit meanings. We might compare the light, fast style of Dracula with the ponderous movements of Louis Malle’s Damage, a movie which lingers over everything, and can’t even be cryptic without signalling the importance of its silence. Dracula has ideas, although it doesn’t appear to; Damage has only ideas.

Oldman’s performance, once we meet him in the late 19th century, out of his armour and in his flowing, Klimt-inspired robe, hair done up in a sort of twin beehive, starts as a spoof Bela Lugosi’s. He rolls his mouth round a generic East European accent, and speaks the now famous camp lines: ‘Listen to them’ – the baying wolves – ‘the children of the night. What music they make.’ And: ‘I never drink ... wine.’ But then the personality gets more elusive. This figure is full of menace, constantly parting company with his shadow, but not so much scary as more diffusely eerie and ancient. Then when he catches sight of a drop of blood on Harker’s razor, he snatches it and turns away, sipping from the blade with a flourish, a kind of glee: a quick drink stolen from the store he was saving. There is now something boyish about the old fellow.

This Dracula, more than any other I can recall, is a creature of transformations. He is not only a wolf, a man-beast, a mist, a Renaissance warrior and an aged queen, he is a genuinely terrifying, giant-sized gargoyle and a column of rats. Travelling to London, he assumes the form of his younger self and becomes, more mildly and convincingly than Lugosi, a Victorian dandy who appears to have left Stoker’s world and got inside Wilde’s. It’s not that the character of Dracula is complex, as Coppola rather grandly suggests (‘Doing justice to the complex character of Dracula was one of our main goals’), it’s that our reactions to him keep shifting. We can’t feel the same way about the weird old man as we do about the shy young dandy, particularly when the dandy is so clearly the guy who lost his wife in the 15th century. And yet we do know it is the same person: given to endless, tender bereavement, fuelled by his finding in Jonathan Harker’s fiancée Mina a replica of his dead wife (an exact replica, since both parts are played by the same actress. Winona Ryder – movies tell this sort of metaphorical truth better than any other medium), and addicted to the violent possession and destruction of the innocent. Here and in Bram Stoker, but in not too many other Dracula movies, he brings his undead lady companions a live baby for supper.

What the movie suggests at its best is that we are in a world of the mind, and that a romantic reading of this ghastly myth is at least possible. What appear to be tricks are mostly contributions to this theme. We see pages of a diary in the same frame with the scene it describes; rooms and furnishings change round the characters in tune with their moods; eyes and faces appear in the sky, suggesting telepathy, and more simply, who is thinking of whom. Dracula’s castle is perched on a mountain which belongs more to Fantasia or Young Frankenstein than to anything Hammer did. When we first meet Mina and her friend Lucy they are talking about men, as they are in the novel; but they are also giggling over the more intriguing illustrations in Burton’s Arabian Nights. When Mina, alone with the dandy, realising who he is, in rapid succession accuses him (correctly) of murdering Lucy and declares her undying love for him, the film moves too fast, the paradox is too easy. And the episodes involving Lucy tell a dreary, traditional tale: that of the sexually inquisitive woman who can’t control her desires, and gets her come-uppance. That’s what vampires are for. But when Mina, married or about to be married to Jonathan, is haunted by the dandy prince, loving his sorrow and his strangeness, the screen fills with shadows and candles and half-lights, discreet cellos murmur in the score, and you are persuaded that a virtuous woman could care for a monster, that he could speak undeceitfully to everything in her that steadiness and respectability denied; that she could find the kindness in him, as he found the wildness in her. This would be the reverse of the story of Jekyll and Hyde; or a version where Hyde would be love rather than ferocity, a marked moral improvement on Jekyll. The film’s ending is the triumph of this reading. Mina, now a vampire, asks Jonathan if he will drive a stake through her heart and cut off her head when her time comes. He says no, and releases her to join the wounded Dracula. In a close-up which is both over the top and genuinely moving, a sort of switch into the tale of Beauty and the Beast, Mina kisses Dracula’s face, now a white, scaly, cracking affair, a sordid bathroom of a countenance; and then she kills him, and cuts off his head, giving him peace. The novelisation of the film reunites her with Jonathan, but the film wisely stays away from this, and closes on the painted ceiling of Dracula’s chapel, where the images of the warrior and his princess float in a Renaissance sky. It would have been bad enough going back to Jonathan at any time, but after this ...

All the acting in the film, intentionally or not, confirms the mental tilt, the sense of fantasy. Anthony Hopkins as the vampire-hunter Van Helsing is allowed to over-act to his heart’s content and looks like Hannibal Lecter in an earlier life – a quick cut (the word we need) from a sliced-off head to a plate of meat actually points us to The Silence of the Lambs. The American actors speak their Received Pronunciation English as if they were afraid the glaze might break at any minute. Winona Ryder’s accent (and her whole performance) is very good, and Keanu Reeves, as Harker, is terrible, but the result is much the same. This is not the phony England of English horror movies, it is the phony England of Masterpiece Theatre. It’s as if we were in a dramatisation of Jane Austen, and this, too, has its ghoulish effect. Tom Waits is the mad Renfield, Jonathan’s predecessor as the Count’s English representative. Devouring beetles and assaulting his keepers, he is photographed from the top through a lens which makes him look like a Diane Arbus freak, and is also allowed to overact copiously, imitating Brando imitating Olivier. This is great fun if your sense of irony is in good health; probably tiresome if you’re not in the mood for parody, or don’t believe that parody can deliver really interesting meanings.

Where the film is tiresome all round is in its attempts at be overtly relevant: as if death, sex, violence, love, courage and horror were not relevant enough. The screen fills with images of red corpuscles chasing each other around; then with yellow liquid, absinthe as it happens, poured into a glass. Harker is asked if he drank any blood during his goings-on with Dracula’s ghostly lady friends – if he didn’t he’s alright. He didn’t. I think this must mean that Dracula and his team represent unsafe sex. Do we assume that loving Dracula, as the film so persuasively shows us one might, means ignoring precautions? Loving the victims of Aids? Loving Aids itself? What’s happened here, I think, is that the myth has got out of hand, the mirror shows us too many things, and the movie can’t sort out the muddle.

‘I had not thought death had undone so many,’ Eliot said, via the undead Dante, of the crowds flocking across London Bridge to work, and Anne Billson’s very funny novel rests, if that’s the word, on the same joke. Vampires are infiltrating the yuppified London of pre-recession days, the London, essentially, of Martin Amis’s Money, all magazines and parties and property purchases. The snag is that once these people have been vampirised, you can hardly tell the difference. True, they drink plasma instead of Martini or tomato juice, you notice the odd fang or two, and they sup on unsuspecting humans when they can, but otherwise it’s work and pleasure as usual: black clothes, pale faces, no brains.

There are glimpses of a later London, where the escalators in the Underground never work and trains are late ‘due to delays’; a whole litter of movie references; and good gags about journalism and art colleges. But what holds the book together, gives it its pace and energy, is the bright, unremitting nastiness of our narrator, one Dora Vale. She is not a vampire herself; she is trying to protect the man she fancies from the attentions of Violet, a centuries-old femme fatale who resembles Walter Pater’s Mona Lisa. ‘She looked astonishingly beautiful in a predatory sort of way, but I thought she also looked weary. It was the weariness of someone who needed to catch up on a few hundred years’ worth of sleep.’ Dora is too late. The man wants to become a vampire, and a few disfigured and/or dismembered bodies later, the novel ends in a sort of vampire Kristallnacht, a final, turbulent takeover of London. Dora has escaped to Paris, though, and her analogy for what’s happening reverses the historical roles, in a spectacular bit of bad taste.

Look at it this way. All down the ages, vampires have been hunted down and persecuted, just because of what they are. Now they’ve had enough. They’ve decided to create a haven where they can live and hunt in safety. No more torch-wielding villagers, no more stake-happy vigilantes – just a smoothly run economy and specialised catering facilities. Business goes on as usual, the only difference being that it goes on at night. There wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for us. We’re in their way, you see. We’re the Palestinians.

Dora also wonders about the connection to Aids – ‘Maybe we can tie it in with Aids. Blood-sucking spreads diseases’ – but more as a publicity gimmick than anything else, just as her Israel analogy is more agitation than analysis. The vampires, in effect, are the enemies she needs, the answer to her brittle and suspicious dreams; their infiltration of the world corresponds exactly to the way she thinks the world is. The unmirrored undead are once again a mirror. In them we see, even if Dora doesn’t, the measure of her unhappiness and aimlessness, and perhaps – the violent levity of this novel makes its ambitions hard to read – the unhappiness and aimlessness of her culture.