Feature Widescreen

Bram Stoker Maximalism: Looking Back at a Horror Classic in the Age of Austerity

Dracula, the legendary horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker, has spawned multiple big screen adaptations since its 1897 release. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola released his own take on the classic vampire tale. Aptly titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is a sprawling, neo-gothic, ultraviolent Grand Guignol. It’s a strange movie, and one that seems unlikely to be made today. There are some clunky signifiers of the era in which it was produced. Keanu Reeves is a dubious casting choice to say the least and indicative of a time in which studios were desperate to get their hottest stars in big projects, ill-fitting or not. The same applies to Winona Ryder, though to a lesser extent. The film is anchored by two other noteworthy performances – Anthony Hopkins’ witty comic relief in the form of Dr. Van Helsing and Gary Oldman’s delirious, larger-than-life take on the titular character. 

There is an element to Bram Stoker’s Dracula that evokes the 21st Century’s oft-overused concept of camp. It’s pure distilled gothic melodrama from beginning to end. The sex and the violence are cranked up past their literary origins, and every frame is a visual feast. Prior to production, Coppola decided against using any modern special effects for Dracula. In-camera effects, forced perspective, multiple exposure, and rear projection were used in place of CGI in order to mimic effects that would have been available during the earliest days of film, which would coincide with the movie’s 1897 setting. The costumes are characters in themselves, designed wonderfully by Eiko Ishioka (who would later go on to design costumes for 2000’s The Cell). She adds an Eastern influence to the Victorian fashion design, with strong nods to the titular Count’s Transylvanian heritage. 

© 1992 American Zoetrope

The film debuted to box office success, and went on to win three Academy Awards, including one for Ishioka for Best Costume Design. Flash forward thirty years and movies of this ilk are seldom if ever financed. We have done away with mid-budget films for the most part, save the occasional romantic comedy that gets dumped at the cineplex between the months of January and April. Over the past decade, studios like A24 have been positioned as cultural arbiters of millennial taste. Part of the appeal is incidental; the A24 aesthetic has been branded to coincide with the era of austerity in film. No longer are filmmakers handed a $40 million check to execute their visions. Streaming and VOD have weakened the power of the box office, particularly post-Covid. Films like Robert Egger’s The Northman remain a $90 million anomaly. 

Restrained budgets, however, are only a partial reason. The modern arthouse aesthetic relies on a mixture of indie bona fides and retro nostalgia, particularly for the 1970s. Midsommar evokes the specter of films like The Wicker Man. X is grindhouse horror for the sex-positive age. Saint Maud recalls the dreary Euro horrors of yesteryear like Repulsion or The Tenant. The age of microgenres have given way to the era of monogenre, rosters of films aesthetically coded like an Instagram page, or a Spotify playlist. 

If nostalgia really is a cycle, will the era of high-budget maximalism ever come back in vogue? And if it was to occur, would such a revival be able to be pulled off in this day and age? When viewing Coppola’s Dracula – or rather Bram Stoker’s Dracula – it becomes apparent that the campy excess and bloody melodrama on display are only possible in the hands of a singular auteur without creative or practical limitations. There is a sort of hollowness or pretentiousness that runs through a lot of contemporary “elevated” horror. A desire to appear subversive or intellectual without really taking any risks. This ties into the aforementioned concept of “camp” that modern audiences are so endlessly enthralled with. True camp is only possible when something is made with complete, aching sincerity. Conversely, something truly great is only possible when risking embarrassment of missing one’s mark. Ironic detachment and keen self-awareness are nifty qualities for an artist to have, but they have a ceiling for greatness. 

Perhaps the nostalgia cycle will swing around in some fashion, against all odds. Or maybe the next boom in horror will be something totally new. Skinamarink wowed audiences last year with its gritty internet lo-fi aesthetic. Similar reception was awarded to indie debut We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, filmed mostly via webcam and chronicling a young girl’s psychological descent over the internet. In a way, this could be seen as an indirect nod to the late ’90s found footage frenzy, spawned by the unprecedented success of The Blair Witch Project. Digital horror for the post-digital age. 

Wherever the trends shift next, one can only hope it’s toward something technically innovative if not wholly original. I think the world has had enough retro throwback for now. 

By Jake Breidenbach

Jake Breidenbach is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has published work in several online magazines such as Cinema Scholars and The Zillennial Zine. He is interested in exploring non-traditional film criticism and eventually scoring a press pass somewhere.

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