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.

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