Dracula begins with an overload of cheap special effects, where images are superimposed, one fades into the other, and a battle is represented through Chinese shadows. One can’t help wonder whether the director is some overenthusiastic film school’s graduate who’s been given a big budget, rather than the same Coppola of The Conversation or Apocalypse Now. It doesn’t get much better. The crowd of movie stars stumbles along, often falling flat partly due to the clumsy writing and perhaps an absentee director. It feels like a cheap novel of romance, sex, and action. Coppola though gets right the sensuality of vampires. The ambiguity of fin de siècle sexuality embodied by vampires is well captured. Vampires represent the threat of an uncontrolled sexuality, but also its allure. Pity that Coppola, by adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula, wants to emphasise a very romantic notion of love. The result is a lot of panting, bourgeois morality, and a very Christian idea of love that redeems.
Dracula tries to handle the ambiguity of the ‘new sexuality’ of the turn of the century, albeit not always successfully. The female vampires in Dracula’s castle are sexy and provocative embodying the allure of sexuality. However, they are far from ambiguous. They are ‘bad’ and a threat to order. This construction of female sexuality as threatening and therefore requiring male authority over it is very traditional and misogynistic. It was at the core of the historical accusations of witchcraft against women who did not adhere to gender norms and it is often present in films about witches. These seductive female vampires are ‘bad women’, for they do not adhere to bourgeois morality and gender roles.
The opposite of good women, who are pure, modest wives and mothers, these vampires are lustful, a threat to male authority, and a danger to innocent children. In his castle, Dracula (Gary Oldman) feeds his female vampires a baby to shoe them off from Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), who had capitulated to their seduction. Vampires are women who are in control of their sexuality and use it to gain ascendancy over men. In this construction there is a lot of misogyny, as Bram Dijkstra shows in his books Idols of Perversity and Evil Sisters, but it also alludes to the potentiality of a woman no longer under the authority and control of men, as Nina Auerbach argues in Our Vampires, Ourselves. (For more on vampires and gender, see Milly Williamson’s The Lure of the Vampire) Of course, these turn of the century’s ‘new women’ are still defined by their sexuality rather than their accomplishments or intellect.
Dracula juxtaposes sensible and pure Mina (Winona Ryder), a school mistress and the embodiment of bourgeois virtue, with flirtatious and playful Lucy (Sadie Frost), who is a decadent aristocrat. Lucy’s voluptuous sensuality condemns her to become a vampire. Lucy is seduced by Dracula and has sex with him, who has taken the form of a wolf. This emphasises Lucy’s weak morals. Lucy engages in obscene and animalistic sex in contrast with Mina, who falls in love with Dracula and whose true and pure love redeems him.
The social turmoil of the turn of the century was reflected in the development of vampires as a symbol of sexuality. However, to move away from gender theory and borrow a little from anthropologist Mary Douglas, the threat carried by vampires’ blood, likened to syphilis by Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), as well as that of an uncontrolled female sexuality can be seen as a threat to the order of society. These bodily concerns are concerns for the social order. As Douglas (1966: 125) pointed out: “the sociological counterpart of this anxiety [anxiety about the body’s orifices] is a care to protect the political and cultural unity of a minority group.” In Douglas’ theory, order is restriction, while disorder is unlimited and destructive to existing social structures.
Purity is thus nothing but a symbol of (social) order, whilst impurity is ‘matter out of place’, disorder. An uncontained female sexuality threatens the social order. Women have precise social roles, therefore maintaining female purity, by regulating female sexuality, is vital in keeping in place internal social structures and outside boundaries. Women are deemed responsible for the biological and social reproduction of the group. Still now, the regulation and policing of women’s sexuality (how they dress as well as reproductive polices) are a sign of social structures that accord to men more power than to women and, often, power over women. For Douglas, purity is unsustainable so ‘anomalies’ and ‘abominations’ need to be integrated somehow with customs and rules changed, for instance. Not so in Coppola’s Dracula, which espouses a rather reactionary and misogynistic sexual morality. Instead of representing the power and danger of sexuality, Dracula is just someone who is in search of his true love.
Christian Love and Redemption
At the beginning of the film, Prince Vlad, later to become Dracula, has lost his (true) love and blames God for it. He stabs a cross with his sword and drinks the blood gushing out of it. The cursed blood of the cross turns him into the undead Dracula. Dracula is in desperate need of salvation. He is not ‘whole’, as his shadow mismatching the movements of his body testifies. Dracula’s state of being undead puts him physically outside the boundaries of (Christian) society. His blood and the soil of his land are polluted. Such pollution, to borrow from Douglas again, is a sign of immorality, but also of being outside the boundaries of the legitimate group. The soil is exorcised and Mina too, bewitched by Dracula, is freed from the curse when a communion wafer, representing the body of Christ, is placed on her forehead. The sacred body purifies the undead and polluting one. It is, however, ‘true love’ that saves Dracula. Love is stronger than death and releases from the powers of darkness. Love in Dracula is infused with nineteenth century’s romanticism. It is perhaps, as Simon May argued, the religion of love that has displaced Christianity. It is a pure ideal rather than an everyday effort. It is an abstract concept emptied of concrete reality. Ironically, it is a love that has nothing of the humble compassion and physicality of Jesus.