I was too young to catch any of the films from the ’80s werewolf boom on first run (though I did see Teen Wolf and The Monster Squad on television plenty of times to make up for it). Accordingly, I had to wait until the following decade to see my first werewolf on the big screen, an honor that didn’t fall to Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichols’s Wolf, but rather to Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was released 30 years ago and to this day boasts one of the most impressive-looking wolf-men ever to grace the silver screen.
Oldman’s Dracula adopts an array of guises over the course of the film’s two hours (at least a dozen by my count), but the one that stands out for obvious reasons is the hirsute wolf-man he transforms into during his journey from Romania on the doomed Demeter and, upon his arrival in England, uses to dash to the home of the flirtatious Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost), who visibly enjoys being ravished by him. This may seem like an embellishment on the part of screenwriter James V. Hart, but it’s actually consistent with the character created by Stoker, whose Dracula could take many forms, including that of a wolf. I’m pretty sure he made up the part about Winona Ryder’s Mina Murray being the reincarnation of Dracula’s long-lost love Elisabeta, though. Besides, that’s frighteningly close to Fright Night territory (another film with a vampire that transforms into a wolf).
The wolf motif actually comes in right at the top in the form of Dracula’s stunning red armor, which he dons while defending his country from the invading Turkish hordes (and earning the nickname Vlad the Impaler) in the mid-15th century. Upon learning of the death of Elisabeta, Dracula renounces God, declares “the blood is the life and it shall be mine,” and lets out a final howl of anguish before the title comes up. The action then shifts to London, 1897 (the year Stoker’s novel was published) and finds law clerk Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) being dispatched by his firm to handle the affairs of a certain Transylvanian count. His journey to Dracula’s castle is memorable, in particular the ride through the Borgo Pass, during which his coach is chaperoned by a pack of wolves. “Listen to them, the children of the night,” Dracula says when Harker is unnerved by their howling. “What sweet music they make.” (This is one of the few lines of dialogue carried over from Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation, in which it’s mentioned that Dracula can take the form of a wolf, but we never see him do it.)
As in Stoker’s novel, Hart’s screenplay conveys much of the exposition in the form of letters, diary entries, captain’s logs, telegrams, and so forth. While Reeves’s readings are slightly stilted as a result of his shaky British accent, Anthony Hopkins (quite possibly the most robust Van Helsing in screen history) tears into his voice overs with relish. And he’s neatly matched by Richard E. Grant as lovelorn asylum director Dr. Seward, who loses Lucy to Cary Elwes’s Lord Holmwood (who in turn loses her to Dracula), and Tom Waits as his star patient, the batshit insane Renfield. “I shall have to invent a new classification of lunatic for you,” Seward says, getting closer to the truth than he realizes.
While it spends more time than necessary on the romance between Mina and her dapper “Prince Vlad,” Bram Stoker’s Dracula remains a visual feast. This is thanks in no small part to director of photography Michael Ballhaus, visual effects director Roman Coppola, and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who won an Academy Award for her efforts. And considering how much work went into transforming Oldman into an old man and a wolf-man and a bat-man and everything in between, that Best Makeup Oscar (awarded to special makeup effects creator Greg Cannom and his team) was also well-deserved.