Synthesising the Special Effects of Classical Cinema in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula

by Philippe Girard Volume 23, Issue 4-5 / April 2019 10 minutes (2433 words)

While the medium of cinema was still in its embryonic stage, Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel, Dracula, was published (1897). This was well before the development of distinct genres in cinema, as the overwhelming majority of films were less than a minute long. Thus, the general enthrallment for the horror genre a few decades later should come as no surprise, especially with one of the most intriguing figures in horror-fiction now at filmmakers’ disposal. One of the earliest adaptations of the novel was Tod Browning’s film, released in 1931 when Hollywood studios were beginning to regularly incorporate sound and special effects. Decades later Dracula returned to theatres with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 rendition. The latter brought new perspectives on the life of Dracula, effectively changing viewers’ perception of him, while exploring ideas of spirituality, religion, love and sexual repression. Using rich visuals and a variety of practical special effects — among them, miniatures, matte paintings, reverse photography, front projection — the film offers an aesthetic reminiscent of the days of early cinema. Moreover, by avoiding the use of computer generated imagery, the film allowed modern audiences to experience the special effects first hand which made Dracula (Browning, 1931) so successful. In both cases, the films pushed the boundaries of the horror genre and of the horror effect. This text will compare and contrast the special effects used in both the 1931 and 1992 adaptations of Dracula, and look into the ways they piqued audiences’ fear and fascination during their respective epochs.

The seamless wedding of the supernatural and the macabre in Browning’s Dracula earned it critical acclaim and led it to become an instant success. As observed by critics at the time, its triumph was due in large part to the clever direction of Browning, as well as the busy mise-en-scene. The special effects — fog, strategic lighting, flying bat puppets, and insects — created a strange and mesmerizing environment, only complimented by Bela Lugosi’s notable performance of Dracula. Mordant Hall, a critic from The New York Times in 1931 wrote “the superior technique and sound help [amplify] the terror, and the fog achievements add to the mystery and dank effect. The spine chilling treatment made on Dracula’s eyes with special lighting and the supernatural ambiance was well captured” (Hall, The New York Times). Variety magazine also supported these technical claims, and added “the eerie atmosphere, creepy sounds and pictorial plausibility made everything possible and put the audience in a state of expectancy of the next stimulating shiver’‘ (Rush, Variety). The film also succeeded at attracting different types of audiences: “the film conjures interest from both average and intellect[ual] audiences, with thrills, shivers and graphic records of vampirism traits and antidotes. Dracula makes the implausible, plausible’‘ adds Variety (Rush, Variety). Lugosi’s character was seen as a threat because he was not completely human; a mysterious foreign figure that killed and controlled his victims for his pleasure and drank blood for survival. His intentions and backstory were left unexplored. Audiences were mainly concerned with anticipating Dracula’s next attack. In Norbert Lusk’s article, “The Screen Review” from Picture Play Magazine, he argues audiences had no sympathies for, nor any interest in, Dracula’s victims. People are morbid-minded by nature. Thus, it was the fear of the unknown which terrorized audiences. Conversely, they were overwhelmed with anticipation for the thrill of the next kill.

Gary Oldman

Bela Lugosi

James V. Hart is interviewed in The Blood Is the Life: The Making of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Aubry, 2007). Hart, one of the writers of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Coppola, 1992), suggests this adaption brought for the first time a true historical dimension to Bram Stoker’s vampire. In the film’s introduction, lights were projected on animated puppets, which reflected silhouettes of warriors fighting on a battlefield, giving a more theatrical aspect to the event. Known as Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian knight, Dracula was sworn to protect the cross of Christ and the church in the 15th century but felt betrayed by God when his wife died by way of drowning. When her body is found in the film, artificial blood, grass, and wet earth were used to add authenticity. Dracula then renounces his faith and proclaims he will rise from the dead to avenge her. Blood tubes were inserted inside a large, wooden cross. Blood gushes out when a furious Dracula pierces it with his sword and drinks the blood, foreshadowing his new existence as a hematophagous monster. In this gothic romance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula does not simply portray a vengeful vampire who kills for pleasure, but a lonely anti-hero who has lost everything in search of a purpose in life. A man who lost everything, including his faith. “A fallen angel,” says Gary Oldman, who plays the Count. The film questions the origins of evil and doubts the purity of God. It also challenges the perception that atheism is a depraved belief system. Cursed by God, Dracula partially assumes the role of God by drinking the blood of the living and physically altering himself.

In this adaption, Dracula has many forms. His physical appearance changes according to his emotions. When melancholic, he seems as frail as an old man, an effect made possible through the use of prosthetics of the hands and face. When sexually aroused, particularly with the upper-class Lucy (played by Sadie Frost) he becomes beast-like, reflecting his unruly inner lust. In this state, Oldman wore a werewolf body-suit, along with synthetic hair, prosthetics and contact lenses. In spite of the sexual repression and religious attitudes which defined early-20th-century society, it’s implied that the sexual desire between Dracula and Lucy was mutual. Lucy indirectly wanted to be seduced and sexually stimulated, but was constrained by the social etiquette of upper-class society. In his 1979 essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film” Robin Wood argues American society must repress or deny deviant behaviours in order to maintain its established ideological and institutional structures. Dracula is a figure that challenges these structures because he needs intimacy and physical contact with his victims. When he bites the necks of his victims, it is more an act of seduction than it is an act of aggression. His actions are implicitly associated with sexual advances and considered socially sacrilegious. After sexual intercourse with Lucy, his lustful desires progressively turn into love when he encounters Mina (Winona Ryder) the reincarnation of his wife. His romantic, tender and compassionate side take over, as audiences see a younger, charming Dracula. When threatened by his enemies, he takes the form of an enormous bat, appearing all the more terrifying and imposing — similar to the process of his previous werewolf metamorphosis. After Mina initially rejects his advances, he is overcome with sadness and becomes half human, half bat (only in his face), which accentuates his duality of his human and animal natures. To create an unsettling ambience, several animals were used during transitional scenes, notably rats when Dracula disappears, as well as wolves, insects and dead animal carcasses.

The two adaptations were made 61 years apart, thus the aspects which both terrified and attracted audiences certainly differed. Steven Schneider writes in “Uncanny Realism and the Decline of the Modern Horror Film:” “the traditional/canonical monsters no longer frighten audiences the way they once did” (419). In Browning’s adaption, it was not Dracula’s physicality which made him a monster, but his actions. He was perceived as a corrupted figure without morals or sexual limits. His condition was both fascinating for the scientific world and terrifying to the public. The special effects used were mostly focused on setting a creepy atmosphere rather than on Dracula itself. Coppola’s film went in the opposite direction as the special effects complimented the different layers of emotions expressed by Dracula and physically transformed him to represent his inner-state. If Dracula represents sociocultural repression, as suggested by Wood, Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula exhibits a lack of emotional expression — a reflection on today’s pressure to express only our happier sides and to neglect or hide everything else.

The 1931 portrayal of Dracula saw him as a charming, yet heartless, immoral monster. In the 1992 film, we sympathize with the heartbroken man who abandoned his beliefs and was consequently cursed with vampirism. With Dracula’s multiple transformations, Coppola’s film allowed audiences to connect on a more profound and emotional level with the supposed monster. His character is humanized because Dracula is trying to recapture what he once had in life: purpose and the opportunity to share a relationship with the love of his life. He is both a source of fear — he is without religious affiliations and possesses a bloodlust — but at the same time is an alluring presence because of the openness of his sexual desires, thus awakening our own. Dracula represents our internal darkness which we are compelled not to explore because of its sinful nature. According to Schneider, viewers are horrified by monsters because they themselves harbour common traits with the monster. For instance, someone may find the fictitious rape of Lucy by a werewolf horrific because they have been victims of rape in their own life. In contrast, what scares modern audiences is their inner monster.

Through visual spectacle and traditional effects, the 1992 film reconnects modern audiences with the effectiveness of successfully-employed practical effects. Like the well-executed special effect make-up, which lent a palpable visual texture, uncompromised in its authenticity, while still adhering to its proper historical context. The film proved its effectiveness while maintaining the thrills of special effects in modern horror cinema. Browning’s film was shot during the relatively early days of cinema, yet Coppola’s relies heavily on the effects from that era. As Coppola mentions in In Camera: The Naïve Visual Effects of ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, the movie is crafted using several innovative, risky ideas with in-camera effects; all without the benefit of modern computers or optical printing technology, providing a mythical feeling to the picture. With the entirety of the film shot in the MGM studios, the intent of Coppola was to recreate a film aesthetic reminiscent of when the novel was written, which meant excluding the use of green screens in favour of older film industry tricks. In a way, Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is also a reproduction of Browning’s film only with modern means of production — going so far as to use a vintage Pathé camera from the 1900’s to shoot an outdoor scene. With the camera mounted on a large moving crane, the quality is grainy and lackluster, but the scene acts as something of a throwback to classical cinema. There is also a scene where Dracula and Mina are watching short films on a projector. It is both reflexive and an allusion to the history of cinematic technologies. Editing effects were also utilized, notably reverse photography, as seen with the candles lighting up automatically during Lucy’s dramatic crypt entrance. This to underscore the transition from a mortal human to a supernatural being. In the same crypt, when she is cast back into her coffin by Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), the scene is played in reverse, which rendered an unnatural motion and accentuated her demonic state. Front projection was used during the train scene, as Mina makes her journey to Dracula’s castle. The technique was used to reflect the map on the face of Mina’s husband, Harker (Keanu Reeves). Different travelling mattes of mountains at various speeds and distances were used to bring the sensation that the train was moving. Another scene involved a miniature train, filmed from 20 feet away to convey the progression of the train on its trip to Transylvania. In order to provide an elevated angle in certain scenes, Coppola used forced perspective, such as in the scene of the mansion. The miniature of the house was suspended in the air and appeared as if it was 250 yards away, while the foreground was full scale, with horses and carriages. Because the camera cannot sense depth, the final result was seamless, with the house genuinely appearing as if it were far away. To create the abnormal ambiance inside Dracula’s castle, the frame was double exposed. First, the rats were shot with an upside down camera, then a special matte box was used which blocked specific sections of the frame from being exposed. The film was then rewound and the camera flipped over. With the matte box aligned and the film from the previous scene exposed at the same time, it created the illusion that the rats were running on the ceiling. They also used the Marx Brothers’ mirror trick from Duck Soup, in the scene where Dracula approaches Harker in his room. There is no mirror involved, but it is in fact an empty space where a duplicate of the actor mimics his motions. When Dracula approaches behind Harker, he does not have a reflection in the mirror. The shadows on the wall act independently of the figure casting them, an effect done by filming a double of the actor and using his shadow instead. “When in a presence of a vampire,” explains Coppola, “laws of physics are not the same.”

Rat-like Dracula

Analyzing both versions of Dracula provides a look into the power of special effects — they highlight the fears of society at a given time. While Browning’s explores sexual repression through dark atmospheres and eerie figures, Coppola’s presents a creature that’s consumed by its inner demons; and are reflected through its constant transformations. The boundaries of special effects and audiences’ expectations were redefined in the decades separating both films, yet Francis Ford Coppola stayed true to older filmmaking techniques, showing that the atmosphere that made the first film so popular is still relevant to movie-goers today. As some fears evolve, some it would seem stay the same.


In Camera: The Naïve Visual Effects of ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. Directed by Kim Aubry, Columbia Pictures., 2007.

Lusk, Norbert. ‘’The Screen in Review.’’ Picture Play Magazine. 1931. n. pag. Web. 10 Mar. 2019.

Morduant, Hall. ““Dracula” as a film.” New York Times. Feb. 22 1931: 5. Web. 5 Mar. 2019.

Rush. “Dracula.” Variety. Feb. 18 1931:14. Web. 5 Mar. 2019.

Schneider, Steven. ‘’Uncanny Realism and the Decline of the Modern Horror Film’’ Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres, vol. 3, no. 3-4, Paradoxa, 1997, pp. 417-428.

The Blood Is the Life: The Making of Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. Directed by Kim Aubry, Colombia
Pictures., 2007.

Wood, Robin. ‘’An Introduction to the American Horror Film.’’ Robin Wood on the Horror Film: Collected Essays and Reviews, edited by Barry Keith Grant, Wayne State University Press, 2018, pp. 73-110.

Volume 23, Issue 4-5 / April 2019 Essays   bram stoker   dracula   francis ford coppola   gothic   horror   tod browning