The opening shot of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula is of the dome of the Chapel of St. Sophia in Constantinople. It is shrouded in mist and a cross is perched atop the dome. It is the fifteenth century and Moslem Turks are invading the domain of Prince Vlad. We fade from a medium shot of the dome to a close-up of the cross. Then, as fog sweeps in and obscures the symbol, we fade to the same cross, falling to the ground and smashing. At the moment of impact, we fade back to the dome. There, the cross has been replaced by the Turkish crescent and the sun rises behind it. These four shots get across more than a simple statement could, and they are the first instance in which we see that Coppola intends to tell this story using images. Of course, visual story-telling is ingrained in the nature of film itself, and any narrative film will use it. In Dracula, however, Coppola chooses to concentrate on the image itself. Instead of literal visual representations of "reality,"
the film revels in its artifice.
The logical place to begin a look at the visual nature of Dracula is Dracula the character (Gary Oldman). Film's physical nature is, of course, light projected on a screen. It is this quality that first hints at the post-prologue nature of Dracula himself. Our first image of this Dracula (other than the ominous eyes in the sky in the earlier train sequence) is his shadow. It looms and twists in the light, and seems independent of any light source or physical body. As the camera pans, the physical Dracula is brought into the frame. He is standing still and holding a lantern. His shadow, however, is holding nothing, and its writhing cannot be attributed to the flickering flame. While the shadow is crouching and moving about in a sinister way, Dracula himself is merely greeting his guest, Harker (Keanu Reeves), and seems to be nothing more than a kindly (albeit grotesque) old man.
The literary figure of Dracula is well-known for being two-faced: a suave and endearing man who may rip away this disguise at any moment to reveal the savage being within. Any viewer would expect this to be true of Coppola's Dracula, and that viewer would not be disappointed. However, in this incarnation, the bestial Dracula is not only just lurking under the surface of the good host Dracula, and making the usual double entendres about Harker being "a man of good... taste," but is projecting this nature into the outside world. In this way, Dracula the physical becomes the film projector for Dracula the supernatural.
Much of the time these projections are made possible by the limitations of the frame. As Harker is signing the papers that will complete his (financial) transaction with the Count, Dracula's shadow can be seen on the wall, although, as the camera moves forward, Dracula himself is left outside of the frame. When Harker is done, he turns to where he thinks the Count is -- where the Count should be based on his shadow -- and he is not there. The shadow recoils and the physical Dracula enters from the other side of the frame. This effect is almost a parlor trick in its simplicity. A double casts the shadow, and, once he is out of view, Oldman walks behind the camera and around to enter the shot again. Dracula's powers are rooted in what we cannot see; in the qualities of film itself.
As the film moves forward, we become increasingly aware of the fact that Dracula and his world are dependent on images. He realizes that his lost love Elisabeta has been reincarnated as Harker's fiancee, Mina, when he sees Harker's framed picture of her. Dracula reaches out to the picture, and, as his shadow sweeps by, it tips over an inkwell. The ink is spilled on the picture, creating a large black mark, obscuring Mina partially. This image is mirrored soon afterwards. While Mina is being haunted by Dracula's shadow in London, the shadow's hand falls across her in the same way as the ink.
Later, we are given Dracula's journey to London through a montage. As the ship is tossed about by a storm, presumably brought on by Dracula himself, he transforms from his elderly incarnation to a wolf-like beast. Among the elements of the montage is a portrait of Prince Vlad as a young man, which foreshadows his later transformation into that form. Almost immediately preceding this, we see Mina (Winona Ryder) and Lucy (Sadie Frost) menaced from above by the visage of the elderly Dracula. In this montage, Dracula moves through every form that he takes in the entire film. As he literally travels from Transylvania to London, he also travels through time and image. There are no in-betweens with Dracula. He changes his appearance to suit his mood or situation. Blunt anger and hunger (sexual and otherwise) are seen as bestial, and, when he is seducing Mina, he is the romanticized Prince Vlad.
The sequence ends when the wolf-Dracula jumps off of the now-ghost ship. Here we have a very accelerated series of point-of-view shots, moving towards the Hillingham estate, where Mina is living. All of Dracula's POV shots have a strange primal feeling to them. For these shots, a process called "pixilation" was used, which is "a kind of stop-motion animation technique. Individual frames were clipped one at a time using an intervalometer -- a device that is mounted on a camera to control single frame exposure -- with occasional bursts of constant frame rate interspersed to impart a strange staccato quality." ," 38
So, at the technical level, Dracula's vision is punctuated with individual images. In subsequent POV shots, however, there are images in physical space that are singled out in a very artificial way. At one point, the wolf-Dracula kills a guard. Instead of staying with a realistic point-of-view, we move in on the guard's face as he goes down. Then the camera moves along his arm to his hand. Blood splatters on the hand from off screen. The effect is very artificial but not out of place. At another point, Dracula's POV comes across a flower which decays before his/our eyes, again in a very staccato way. The image is clearly time lapse, so once again we are made aware of the fact that this is a film that we are watching, and made up of individual frames.
This concept is brought to the forefront in the sequence leading up to the cinematograph scene. The beginning of the sequence was shot using a turn-of-the-century Pathe crank camera that Coppola owned. In the background is the sound of a projector, giving us the feel of silent cinema. The first images shot like this are the front pages of newspapers, showing headlines that relate to the narrative (the wolf escaping and the ghost ship, for example). Each paper flips downward to reveal the one behind it, in a visual allusion to the nickelodeon.
On the streets of London, Dracula encounters Mina, introduces himself as Prince Vlad, and eventually convinces her to take him to the cinematograph, which he has heard is "a wonder of the civilized world."
Soon after they arrive at the cinematograph, Mina becomes uncomfortable. "I shouldn't have come here," she says. "I must go." To this, Dracula responds, "Do not fear me." Meanwhile, on the screen behind them, the Lumiere film of an approaching train is being projected. Of course, this is the film that audiences ran from when it was first shown. With this image in the frame, Dracula's line takes on a different meaning. "Do not be afraid of me (Count Vlad) because I love you and because I, too, like the oncoming (Lumiere) train, am only an image on film." "Romancing Film," 100
Indeed, Dracula is not just a collection of images. He is a collection of images deeply rooted in cinema. Although this film is titled Bram Stoker's Dracula, and indeed in many ways it is one of the closer adaptations of Stoker's novel, it draws more from previous incarnations of Dracula in the cinema than anything else. Elements can be found in Coppola's film of any number of vampire films, from Nosferatu to Vampyr*.
Also at the cinematograph, we find a shadow play being put on that echoes directly the battle scene in the prologue. Why should we be pulled back to the prologue? For this scene is a convergence of many things. Dracula and Mina have finally met, and Mina is beginning to realize that she knows this strange man from somewhere. A "train" is arriving. The wolf that escaped from the London Zoo during Dracula's arrival is prowling around. So, finally we see this image that brings us back to the prologue. One image portrays the emotion that Dracula must be feeling after all of these centuries of separation. It erases all that has happened in the meantime. The past and the present meet in artifice. This happens yet again when Mina and Dracula meet at Rule's Cafe and the former goes into an absinthe trance in which she imagines her former life as Princess Elisabeta. Key images from this time undulate around her: the castle in its original pristine condition and her own death, for example.
In the final scene -- indeed the final shot -- of the film, artifice again ties things together. It becomes more than a simple matter of representation. The image itself is the heart of the film. After Dracula has died and Mina has mercifully decapitated him in the Chapel of St. Sophia, Mina looks up to see the painting on the inside of the dome. It is of Princess Elisabeta and Prince Vlad floating or gliding among the clouds. It is an idyllic image that eerily mirrors the positions of the now-tragic couple on the floor of the chapel. The pairing off of these two images -- the image of the dead Vlad and the crying Mina versus the image within an image of the painting -- sum up the film. It has been a journey through time, starting in this chapel and ending in this chapel. The idyllic is abandoned at the very beginning, then is represented again in the end, the circular outline of the dome mimicking the movement.
So we see that in this film, Coppola has abandoned the idea of narrative as recorded actions, in favor of images that exist on their own, outside of the context of mere performance. When juxtaposed with such images as the shadow of the Turkish crescent sweeping across Europe and the final shot of the chapel dome, even the more traditional aspects of the film become elevated. Imagery and cinema intertwine with the narrative and paint something completely different -- something artificial and meaningful.
*In the case of Vampyr, there is a direct reference: the image of an unconscious woman lying on a bench. In Vampyr it is Gisele, while in Dracula it is Lucy.
Bram Stoker's Dracula. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. 127 min. American Zoetrope/Osiris Films Production, 1992. Video
Coppola, Francis Ford and James V. Hart. Bram Stoker's Dracula: The Film and the Legend. New York: Newmarket Press, 1992. 172 p.
Pourroy, Janine. "Heart of Darkness." Cinefex. February 1993, p22
Whalen, Tom. "Romancing Film: Images of Dracula." Film Literature Quarterly