My essay about influences on the art direction for the 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is number eight in Cracked magazine’s listicle, “15 Times Movies and TV Took Inspiration from the Fine Arts.”
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the subject of a recent post. It is a gorgeous, opulent film. Obviously Coppola, together with art director Thomas Sanders and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, gave a lot of thought to what was happening in the arts both in England and Mitteleuropa at the fin-de-siècle when the film takes place. As a result the scenery, costumes, and mis-en-scène are full of interesting references.
In this post I want to examine the influence of certain nineteenth century and Pre-War artworks on the production design.
Particularly during the first half of the movie we see a visual “dialogue” between Transylvania, represented by the imagery of Symbolism and the Vienna Seccession, and England, represented by Pre-Raphaelite imagery.
An example of the former is Dracula’s castle, which is depicted rising out of an outcrop in the Carpathian mountains, modeled on František Kupka‘s 1903 painting The Black Idol (Resistance).
At various points Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) is depicted sleeping either in his sarcophagus or boxes of earth wearing a golden robe inspired by Gustav Klimt’s 1907 painting The Kiss, which includes a similar pattern of whorls and rectangles.
On Twitter, Richard Wells called attention to a scene when Dracula scatters his vampire brides, causing two of them to withdraw, twisted together in a spidery form. According to Wells the choreography by Michael Smuin was inspired by “Virgil And Dante Looking At The Spider Woman,” an illustration from Gustave Doré’s 1861 edition of Dante’s Inferno.
The scenes involving female characters Mina Murray (played by Winona Rider) and Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) take place in and around the garden of an English country house, evoking the lush floral backgrounds of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Two works by Arthur Hughes, painted concurrently in the 1850s, The Long Engagement and April Love, seem to be referenced. In his book The Victorians, A. N. Wilson reads into The Long Engagement,
an emotional predicament stemming directly from an economic situation. The prosperity which had created the vast bourgeoisie with its gradations from lower to upper middle class had also created a code. You could not marry, and maintain the position in society to which you aspired, until you had a certain amount of money in the bank.
Mina is temporarily separated from her fiancé Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) for precisely this reason. He is traveling to Transylvania to represent his firm in a real estate deal with Count Dracula in the hopes of advancing his career before they marry. The young lovers say goodbye in a shot composed similarly to The Long Engagement. Mina is later seen pining for Jonathan through a pergola like the female figure in April Love.
Another depiction of Mina during her separation from Jonathan places her at a table against the window of a solarium looking out into the garden. Although the angle is different the staging is reminiscent of John Everett Millais’s 1851 painting Mariana. The subject is a character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure whose engagement was broken after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. Millais portrays her looking out the window longing for the return of her fiancé.
But it is Lucy who is the most overt Pre-Raphaelite character in the film. Her pale skin and red hair are the defining features of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s models Elizabeth Siddal and Alexa Wilding. Her transformation into the monster, the femme fatale, the belle dame sans merci, is a standard Pre-Raphaelite narrative.
In the same scene, when Lucy joins Mina in the solarium, she is shown wearing an off-the-shoulder gown, seated amidst potted flora in a pose reminiscent of Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, which he painted in the 1860s and 70s. Notice roses of the same pink-white hue on the table in Rossetti’s painting and embroidered on the pillow behind Lucy.
This figure of Lilith, a demon from Hebrew mythology associated with seduction and the murder of children, foreshadows Lucy’s fate as the “bloofer lady.”
At The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, Stephanie Chatfield considers whether Bram Stoker based the character of Lucy on Rossetti’s tragic wife Elizabeth Siddal. As I wrote in my book Victoriana, when Siddal died in 1862: “Rossetti buried Lizzie with the manuscripts of his unpublished poetry sealed in her coffin. This romantic gesture came to a ghoulish end, however. He later ordered her body exhumed to retrieve the poems.” Did this story of an open grave inspire Stoker? Chatfield writes,
In his notes made while working on Dracula, Stoker never mentioned the Rossetti/Siddal incident, so we can not definitively confirm that Lucy Westenra was inspired by Siddal. However, Bram Stoker lived in the same neighborhood as Rossetti and he was a friend of Hall Caine, who at one time was Rossetti’s secretary. Stoker dedicated Dracula to Caine, with a nickname used by Caine’s grandmother (“to my dear friend Hommy-Beg”). Stoker may not have included the story of Siddal’s exhumation in his notes, but due to his closeness with Caine he had to have heard an account of it at some point and he had probably read Caine’s book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882).
The belief that Stoker used Siddal as inspiration is bolstered by his 1892 short story The Secret of the Growing Gold. The ‘growing gold’ is the hair of a dead woman, the very tresses that had been her most striking feature in life. Her hair grows persistently and with a purpose; her intent is to haunt her husband and avenge her own death. The similarity between Stoker’s story and the claim that Siddal’s hair continued to grow and fill her coffin after death is unlikely to be a coincidence.
The last artwork I will mention is not Victorian or Edwardian. In Dracula’s castle the ancient Count lives among the relics of his past. A portrait of Dracula as a young man is adapted from a self portrait by the early Lutheran painter Albrecht Dürer, circa 1500.
See also: An Edit in Dracula 92.
When I first saw the Coppola adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the cinema as a (precociously gothic?) twelve year old in 1992, it made a memorable impression. I remembered one scene in particular well enough to notice that it was abbreviated in subsequent home video releases. It is a crucial scene early in the film: London solicitor Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) has just arrived at the castle of Count Dracula (played by Gary Oldman). They sit together over Harker’s late dinner. The conversation takes a dangerous turn when Harker responds lightly to a story about the Count’s ancestors.
Dracula draws a sword and exclaims, “It is no laughing matter. We Draculas have a right to be proud. What devil or witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood flows in these veins?” Here he relents. “Blood is too precious a thing in these times. The warlike days are over. The victories of my great race are but a tale to be told. I am the last of my kind.”
Harker stands and apologizes: “I have offended you with my ignorance, Count. Forgive me.” If you watch the film on video the scene ends here, rather awkwardly. But in the original screenings it continued.
Dracula realizes that he has alarmed his visitor. He says, “Forgive me, my young friend, I am unaccustomed to guests and my heart grows weary with many years of mourning over the dead.” On video the scene transitions with a dissolve at the moment Dracula appears to speak (see the 3:35 minute mark here).
The missing dialogue I think obviously improves the scene: it gives us deeper insight into Dracula, it resolves a conflict that is otherwise left hanging, and it puts Harker somewhat at his ease before plunging him back into danger.
After years of seeing the complete scene truncated in both “Theatrical” and “Extended” cuts on DVD, and omitted from deleted footage reels, I finally found the missing thirty seconds (see the 12:54 minute mark here). Interestingly the scene runs longer than it did in the original theatrical cut. Dracula bids Harker “Drink….drink” and leaves the room. Both the theatrical and video edits seem to have been made to avoid Dracula’s departure since the next scene finds Harker and the Count sitting together again in another room.
All of this goes to show that the original instincts of Coppola and the film editors was correct and the scene played best in the 1992 cut.
See also: The Art of Dracula 92.