Other than 1922’s Nosferatu it could be argued that the other greatest Dracula film made is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version. Arguments can also be made for the 1931 Lugosi version and the 1958 Hammer version with Christopher Lee, but let’s make a few points first before we address that. It is always an honor and a privilege for horror fans when a generationally great director embarks on doing a horror film. I don’t know what constitutes a great director in comparison to an average director but through a body of work we just know it when we see it. As a mere fan of film let me take a layman’s stab at it: Great directors tell a story, but they also have some sort of gifted, artistic and expressive ability to visually frame a story and to let it unfold in a way that stokes and manipulates a viewer’s emotions and imagination; they do this consistently film to film, and the art and craft of their delivery becomes a recognizable style that we may celebrate as a trademark. In 1980 we saw what Stanley Kubrick did with Stephen King’s The Shining. The significance of a director like Kubrick is he is not known as a Horror film director per se, so his effort in 1980 was a situation of a gifted artist coming into this horror genre and making his mark. There are directors specifically recognized as being exclusive in the Horror-suspense genre- John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock, George Romero- so when a heavy-weight hall-of-famer like Francis Ford Coppola comes into this genre it is a refreshing and exciting thing to have happen. In situations like this expectations are high, and in this particular case Coppola did not disappoint.

 

Coppola’s Dracula Was First Time This Monster Got Major Studio Backing

It is also important to note that this was not Coppola’s first fling with horror. He was birthed from this genre, working alongside horror film directing legend Roger Corman in the making of The Terror starring Boris Karloff in 1963. That same year Coppola wrote and directed his first feature film, Dementia 13, which was an independent, low budget slasher. What is fascinating about Coppola returning to his roots in 1992 for Dracula was that in 1963, he was operating as an unknown up-and-coming independent film-maker with a shoestring budget ala John Carpenter’s Halloween. But by 1992, Coppola- with The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and Academy awards under his belt- was the preeminent director in Hollywood. For Dracula he had everything that was absent when he made Dementia 13major studio backing, financing and access to an A-list cast of stars. Coppola’s Dracula is epic, sweeping and visually stunning. In film, but particularly in the horror genre, special effects should be used as seasoning to bring out the flavor of a stew- add too much and you’ll ruin it. Coppola did not ruin Dracula with all that he had at his disposal, but offered one of the best film presentations of Bram Stoker’s novel in a way that any of the others that came before could not.

Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula

What I mean by this is that this is really the first and only time that major studio cachet of money, a star director, and an A-list cast of actors was brought to bear on one of these classic monsters. We all know that 1922’s Nosferatu still holds up as greatest Dracula film ever, though it was silent, German and made in 1922. The 1931 Dracula is an iconic standard-bearer because it was the first talking film version and Lugosi’s thick-accented presence cemented his image in our minds as that character. Yet in the ’31 version it is also common knowledge that director Tod Browning’s presentation brought nothing to the table and had nothing imaginative. Browning’s direction feels phoned-in and according to DVD commentary none of the B-level actors cast, except Lugosi, took the film seriously- and the film reflects this. Plus it should be noted that Universal Studios never gave priority to their horror productions. Hammer studios clearly has the guiltiest pleasure for watching horror, with its comic book sensibility in storytelling and possesses overall the greatest Frankenstein and Dracula franchise series ever put to film. The Hammer Films  Dracula franchise also cast the greatest actor ever to play this vampire, Christopher Lee. Yet Hammer was a small and independent operation. All of  their horror films were written and shot within short 2-3 week bursts and on shoe-string budgets. So, in a way, the Coppola version stands alone as the only film on one of these classic monsters to get the full-fledged big budget studio treatment.

 

What If The Independent Film-Making Spirit Brought to The Godfather in 1972 was Applied to 1992’s Dracula?

To that point, it is interesting to speculate what Coppola would have done if instead of The Godfather in 1972, he was filming Dracula. When Coppola started directing The Godfather his status was far from cemented as an established heavyweight director. One of the fascinating backstories of The Godfather production was that Coppola, still early in his career, had yet to earn the full trust of the studio executives backing the film; e.g. pressure to replace Pacino for more established well-known actors was exerted. With the exception of Brando who was completely unrecognizable under the persona he created, there were no known actors, and Coppola was able make the film he wanted. Making this film into a Gone With the Wind for gangsters- a big Hollywood production of famous actors and cliched gangster tropes would have ruined it. Coppola instead achieved the opposite which resulted in an independent gritty feel with no-name authentic New York actors, no bravado and no special effects or over-produced gangster cliches. It was simply a brilliant story of riveting dialogue and strategy sessions between family members that compelled viewers to lean forward while watching to hear every word spoken. Coppola made us feel as if we were peeking into the personal affairs and dirty laundry of a star-crossed troubled family and watching the fallout. For that reason The Godfather is riveting.

 

Perhaps the subject matter determines which tack a director will take. So maybe a 400 year old gothic Monster living in a Castle that travels to nineteenth century London to seduce a woman deserves the grand, over-the-top star studded presentation that Hollywood originally wanted with The Godfather but fortunately for that film did not get. For whatever reason, Coppola gave it to them this time in 1992 as Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder were faking British accents alongside Sir Anthony Hopkins. Despite that commercial pop-culture casting, Coppola stewarded this gothic tale into a solid horror presentation in the Dracula filmography. Or perhaps it is merely age. In the early 1970’s there were some young, hungry, up-and-coming directors that were given early opportunities with major studios to prove their worth. Coppola gave us The Godfather, and in 1974 assisted George Lucas in American Graffiti. And we know what Lucas gave us 2 years after that. Spielberg gave us a satanic truck in 1971’s Duel. Back then those talented directors were undiscovered, hungry and ready to take chances. But in the end we need to appreciate when one of these heavy weight and established directors takes a shot at one of the original gothic monsters. Yet it does make us wonder what each one of them would have done with this monster in the 1970’s when they were still undiscovered risk-taking independent filmmakers.

 

 

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