Dracula and Frankenstein

In 1992, when Francis Ford Coppola released Bram Stoker’s Dracula, his tragically romantic take on the gothic horror story was well-liked enough. Audiences responded to what Roger Ebert called the “feverish excess” of the film. It’s a film that takes the classic vampire tropes that we expect and examines them through two lenses: one of gothic romance and another that hews closer to the original source material than we’d ever really seen before.

After Dracula, Coppola was interested in directing what became Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but settled on producing it, bringing in Kenneth Branagh to direct the material in a way that only he could. Audiences and critics at the time rebelled against this vision of the classic tale of the modern Prometheus, but taken together as a double feature, I think these movies elevate each other into something that was impossible to see upon their release almost 30 years ago. 

Start With Dracula

Starting with Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the key for this double feature and allows the viewer to see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the film it really is, rather than for what its reputation has become.

Coppola’s take on the legend of Dracula is as much a love story dripping in blood and tragedy as it is an adventure film. When he first read the script (brought to him by Winona Ryder) he described wanting portions of the film to resemble an erotic dream, and that bears out in the telling of the story.

It begins with a sympathetic view of Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman), a holy warrior on God’s crusade. When he returns home, he finds that God has played a cruel prank on him: his beloved has killed herself, hearing that Vlad was dead. Angry at the god he fought so hard for, he turns to Satan and vampirism to help him live long enough for his love to come back to him through the oceans of time. Naturally, this is when he finds Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), who is betrothed to Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), a stodgy young lawyer representing the ancient count in a land deal. 

If the push-pull of this romance through time is the spine of the story, the beating heart is two-fold. First is Gary Oldman’s iconic performance as Dracula himself, the second is the pacing and action. That action comes in the form of Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and his work to rid the world of the Nosferatu. Lucy (Sadie Frost) is Mina’s best friend and has been turned into a vampire. Van Helsing and Lucy’s trio of suitors (Cary Elwes, Richard E. Grant, Billy Campbell) work to cure her vampirism and, when that fails, work to kill her. Then, they set their sights on bigger game: Dracula himself.

The pacing of this film is unrelenting and the energy brought by the cast only heightens the tension. Though he acts like a villain and outside the norms of this Victorian society, Dracula here is a tragic figure and his final death is almost sad.

But that’s really because the film plays more as a romance masquerading as a horror than a horror film itself.

Roses at Branagh’s Feet

The style of story in which American Zoetrope’s Frankenstein is told aligns with Dracula as a natural follow up, playing up the gothic elements of the romance and the morality of the science fiction rather than the horror elements. 

Frank Darabont wrote the original adaptation and is still credited as the screenwriter, but has since disavowed Branagh’s version. Hearing interviews with Darabont, it’s understandable. “There’s a weird doppelgänger effect when I watch the movie. It’s kind of like the movie I wrote, but not at all like the movie I wrote,” Darabont said in an interview with Creative Screenwriting. “I don’t know why it had to be this operatic attempt at filmmaking. Shelley’s book is not operatic, it whispers at you a lot… That movie was his vision entirely. If you love that movie you can throw all your roses at Ken Branagh’s feet. If you hated it, throw your spears there too, because that was his movie.”

The operatic filmmaking that Darabont found to be anathema to his script and a bug of the final film, I find to be a feature. The film hearkens back to an earlier period of film, just as Coppola’s Dracula does. Where Dracula used filmmaking techniques from a previous era, Branagh brought the opera of the old epics to this small and personal tale of love and loss and playing God. 

Branagh himself takes on the role of Victor Frankenstein, a young man whose mother dies and he becomes obsessed with solving the riddle of immortality. In many ways it sounds and feels a lot like Anakin Skywalker’s descent to Darth Vader and I definitely think George Lucas found inspiration in the Frankenstein story, but no version of it ever felt so in-your-face about it as Branagh’s.

While at medical school, Frankenstein meets a similarly obsessed professor (played in an unusually dramatic turn by John Cleese.) When this professor is killed, Frankenstein takes his brain and crafts a new body for him. The aesthetic Branagh aims for in Frankenstein’s laboratory feels like proto-steampunk and brings the energy of creation to a town wracked by a cholera epidemic. The creature, played beautifully by Robert De Niro, is thought dead by Frankenstein and goes on his own sojourn until his rejection from society forces him to seek out the doctor for either revenge or help. The finale plays out in the same breathless pace that Dracula does, truly making these sister films. 

The best way I can describe this movie is as though Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon were a bombastic opera with science fiction elements. There’s a similar moment in particular—young William’s death—that hit just as hard as Barry Lyndon because the over-the-top emotion in Frankenstein had become so effective to me. But this film is not played for horror and jump scares. The horror comes with the terrifying decisions Frankenstein makes as he’s playing god, leading up to a moment of pure terror when Helena Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth makes her final choice. It comes in the ironies of decision-making. The audience squirms not from the imagery, but from the intellectual, as they’re asked what decisions they would make were they in Frankenstein’s shoes.

The ending is one of pathos, though, and speaks to the complicated nature of fathers and abused sons in a way that is almost unexpected but somehow pitch-perfect for the breathless nature of the rest of the film. 

Modern Relevance

There’s a certain relevance watching Frankenstein today as well, in an age where we struggle with toxic masculinity. De Niro’s creature is a barely formed man with no social understanding. At one point in the film, the creature tells his master, “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

And if that doesn’t sound like the philosophy of sects of men moved to violence over their “involuntary celibacy” I don’t know what is. But the good Doctor Frankenstein himself reveals much about another sort of man, those who don’t care who they hurt as they explore their whims. “You gave me these emotions, but you didn’t tell me how to use them,” the creature says to Frankenstein, “Now two people are dead because of us. Why?”

But Frankenstein’s response is practically a shrug, refusing to take responsibility, “There was something at work in my soul which I do not understand.”

“And what of my soul?” the creature replies. “Do I have one? Or was that a part you left out?”

For contemporary viewers, the ending will feel particularly modern. By the end of the film, the creature kills the bride of Frankenstein on their wedding night, leaving the doctor to perform his hideous experiments one last time to bring her back to life. But this was the creature’s plan all along. He wanted a woman just like him, who would love him and not be reviled by humanity. As Frankenstein and his creation fight over the hand of the undead Elizabeth, neither once asking how she felt, she decides, in a final act of agency, that she would rather burn to death than allow these two men to decide her fate.

It’s a tragedy of the highest order and hits harder than audiences of 1994 might have recognized.

Reevaluating Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Taken together, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein offer a master class in genre blending, taking what has traditionally been played for jump scares and terror as a gothic romance, bringing stories of empathy and humanity out from the subtext. Though the horror still comes in strong doses, there is no shortage of emotion and empathy in each film. And because they’re both so breathlessly paced, each one an opera of ideas and action, it’s difficult to pretend you aren’t entertained. Both of these films are hailed as the most faithful on-screen adaptations of the books, too, and I think they’re two of the best. Though some might look at these films, turn their noses up, and call them tragedies of cinema, I think they’re worth looking at again to see them instead for the tragedies they document.

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