Last night, as I watched this film for the first time in HD (but not for the first time!), I pondered what to say about it. I have interesting reminiscences about my discovery of it, funny anecdotes about introducing others to it, and an obscene amount of knowledge about the filming process, stage production that preceded it, and the novel on which it is “loosely” based (more so on the theatrical play Bela Lugosi performed on stage). I could poke fun at its dated qualities or humorously exploit its rational flaws, but in the end I decided to do what I do best: unravel the tapestry in an attempt to conceptualize what I love most about it, beyond the superficiality of an attractive man in the lead.
It’s not a film easily classified, because it has elements of many different genres in it; it is a romance, a tragedy, a drama, and a horror story, with moments of subtle humor offset by an eerie setting. It is both clichéd and ahead of its time, for its approach in using Dracula as a romantic figure predated most of the “tragic vampires” we’re now familiar with; yet underneath the elegance, Langella maintains a cold ruthlessness that is as exquisite as it is horrific.
Lucy is metaphorically caught between two very different worlds; the men in her life represent progress (in her stiff, unromantic but “modern” relationship with Jonathan, who both sees her as an equal and supports her ambitions toward a profession, but also shows a strongly possessive, insecure, and jealous temperament), and the “old world order” (in her romantic, deeply passionate, sensual, and ultimately, submissive relationship with Dracula). She is, from the first, a feminist (“Oh, Lucy,” cries the more frail, traditionalist Mina; “you are so brave, taking on all those men like that!”) whose feminism is cut short when Dracula intrudes on her life. He promises not liberation on equal terms but a superior state of being over common men (“we shall feed on them”) that is still subject to his control (“She will be my queen, above all others”). Instead of pursuing her vision of equality, he seduces her into giving up her ambitions to embrace wifedom and motherhood (“We will make more of our kind, Lucy!”).
Dracula is no different from any “controlling” traditionalist villain, except his methods are so subtle that we neglect to notice them at first. The great irony of the story is that they play right out in front of us, as blatantly as Dracula acts for his own self-interests right in front of his potential victims. He is so self-assured in his superior intellect that he doesn’t even try to hide his true nature from them, yet they refuse to see it; and in adopting a romantic mentality toward him, the audience refuses to see it also. We are happy to see him as an idealistic romantic in search of an eternal mate, who bears the unfortunate need for blood, because it justifies in our own minds, both our attraction to him and our total acceptance of his self-serving behavior.
Only Van Helsing sees him for what he is right from the start, and upon the moment of his arrival, it becomes a battle of old world religious beliefs contrasted with the atheistic modern views of his peers (“Abraham, there’s no such thing as vampires!” Dr. Seward protests in a cemetery in the dead of night; “You can’t expect me to believe that Count Dracula is some hideous monster!” Jonathan argues; even though he hates Dracula, and is jealous of him, he cannot see him for what he truly is… like all others, save Van Helsing, he is blinded by external appearances). Irrefutable proof sways them to his side, and it then turns into a battle of supernatural power, between a man of God and “the king” of the vampires. Only Van Helsing can successfully ward off Dracula; when Jonathan brandishes a cross at him, the vampire seizes it and it bursts into flames.
The implication is not that Dracula is stronger than the church, but that Jonathan cannot use faith as a shield when he has no faith of his own. He cannot become sanctified overnight. To him, the cross is a talisman and nothing more, whereas to Van Helsing, it merely reflects his own profound faith. He truly believes good will triumph over evil (“If we do not succeed,” he says at a pivotal moment, “then there is no God!”) and he is right, at great personal cost. The message is that where faith is not genuine, it cannot ward off the forces of darkness (much like the Bible passage where men who do not know Christ attempt to cast out demons in His name, and are humiliated and beaten for it).
Even though the screenplay is dramatically different from the novel, these elements parallel the novel’s subtle symbolic distinction between a godless modern society and old world beliefs in faith and superstition; Bram Stoker, however unconsciously, came down on the side of faith trumping modern values when he had a man of the “old” ways, both moral and religious (Van Helsing), defeat a symbol of the “new” amoral awakening (Dracula). Here, the concept is inverted in the sense that it is a battle between two figures of “the old” world. One can see saving the heroine as a sexist statement (that even a feminist needs a man to save her from the villain) or not, but it remains interesting. Even more so is this film’s decision of how to end the story; the old-world Van Helsing liberates Lucy from Dracula, so that she can go on to pursue her feminist dreams, yet as we look into her eyes, we sense that she is still in love with Dracula. The bloodlust has faded, but not her attraction to him.
Making Dracula a romantic character doesn’t destroy him as a villain; it makes him appeal to our baser human instincts. Typically, we are not drawn to hideousness, but to its opposite. If Dracula were a visually hideous monster on screen as in the book, we wouldn’t be so tempted by him and thus, would not have to look at our own attraction to him, and see it for what it is: superficial. We can deny it and justify his actions all we like, but they speak for themselves. There is the dashing count who is saddened by the loneliness of the wolves’ howling, and who snaps Renfield’s neck. Is this Dracula a true villain or a tragic anti-hero.
He is both, and neither.