Last week when I wrote about the directorial career of Kenneth Branagh I mentioned that 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the second movie from Sony to take a fresh approach to classic monster stories that were more in line with the original books on which they were based. The first, of course, was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a movie that celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this week and which, because of that, will be the focus of today’s trip down marketing memory lane.
The movie is an interesting insight into what was popular at theaters in the early 1990s. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it was an artistically-minded popcorn gothic romance featuring a mix of “serious” actors and those with more mainstream appeal. The former category is represented by Gary Oldman, who stars as the titular Count Dracula, as well as Anthony Hopkins as Prof. Van Helsing. The latter includes cineplex favorites like Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker and Winona Ryder as his fiancee, Mina.
Unlike the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula of 1931, the story here adheres much more closely to Bram Stoker’s original, hence the appending of his name to the movie’s title. Jonathan is summoned from London to a far-off Eastern European village to help arrange the affairs of the mysterious Dracula. Once there he falls into the Count’s various machinations, eventually escaping and returning home profoundly changed for the experience. Dracula meanwhile has become obsessed with Mina, believing her to be the reincarnated spirit of his long-dead lover. When he comes to London he tries to bring Mina under his spell, but only after turning her best friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) into a vampire. Harker joins with Van Helsing and the three suitors who had vied for Lucy’s affections (played by Cary Elwes, Richard E. Grant and Billy Campbell) to hunt Dracula down and end his centuries-long reign of terror.
The theatrical poster (which I once owned, because come on) immediately sets the tone for the film. It shows a relief of a demon head flanked by two fork-tongued hounds that is built onto the side of a dingy grey wall. That dark tone is reinforced by the title treatment that appears to have been written in dripping blood and the copy “Love never dies.”
All of those elements combine to create a unique brand identity for the movie meant to set is apart from previous incarnations. There are outsized emotions and visuals that the audience is promised with this image, which eschews showing the formidable cast in favor of making an impression by selling the tone.
All of that tone and vibe are on display almost as soon as the trailer opens. We hear about how we’re going to follow the history of Dracula and “the woman he loved,” Mina. The interplay between the two of them dominates the early footage, showing them move around each other in various ways, him all brooding mystery and her all swooning romance about how irresistible he seems. Van Helsing talks about the history of Dracula but the point is the power he wields over Mina, who is at first reluctant but then a willing supplicant.
Along with that there are various shots of people falling victim to Dracula’s power, the fight for Lucy’s soul and more. But the focus never leaves the Dracula/Mina dynamic for very long. Oldman’s scenery-chewing performance is certainly on display, as well it should be, but the point is to tell this as sort of a Harlequin Romance set against the backdrop of a monster story.
What’s surprising about watching this again is how sensual and steamy it is. That’s certainly representative of the film as a whole, as Coppola clearly loved shooting the massive sets as well as Ryder, Frost and the other women as they turned from proper young ladies into creatures lusting after fleshly pleasures. So the trailer and poster combined to sell the movie fairly accurately, promising the audience that they could expect soaring, overly-dramatic romance alongside a gothic horror story.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.