If there is one movie that I feel best encapsulates my distaste for certain films as a practicing Catholic, it is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Though tales of vampires predate the Irish author Bram Stoker’s most well-known work, simply titled Dracula (1897), it is the one most often credited for kick starting the Western craze for these monsters. And I do mean “monsters.” Before this novel, and the subsequent mountain of muck focusing on them that has followed, these creatures of the night were treated with deserved disapprobation. The beginning of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is enough to explain why for this Catholic, but we will get into that in a moment. In an era when matters of Faith were treated more seriously, vampires could prevent unsuspecting victims from eternity with God. A cursory amount of research on the subject will tell you of villagers digging up suspected vampires and putting a stake through their hearts to end their predations. As for our film, while there is one good character in the form of Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Sir Anthony Hopkins), there is far too much sympathy for the title one.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula begins with Count Dracula (Gary Oldman), alternatively known as an actual historic person handed on to us as Vlad the Impaler. It is 1462, and he has just successfully led his Balkan forces in battle against the encroachments of the Ottoman Empire. All seems fine until he is informed that his wife, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder), has committed suicide. His grief is further enflamed when he is told that she is now being punished in hell. Count Dracula then goes on a tirade of blaming God and desecrating his personal chapel, compounding his evil acts by drinking blood. He is now a vampire. We then fast forward a few centuries and the well-meaning solicitor, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), arrives in Transylvania to take on Count Dracula as a client. Why such a “person” would need legal advice, I do not know, but whatever. Actually, the stated reason is to sort out land acquisitions in London, which seems awfully convenient for the rest of the story, but again, whatever. Jonathan’s mistake is in showing Count Dracula a picture of his fiancée, Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), who looks exactly like Elisabeta. The thought of his long dead wife makes Count Dracula’s decision for him, and he decides to travel to London and leave poor Mr. Harker to be fed upon by his vampire children that reside in his castle. Once in the English capital, it does not take Count Dracula long to find Mina, stalking her on the London streets by day. I suppose I should mention that Count Dracula can apparently walk around in the light of the sun, appearing as his younger self instead of as the devil incarnate as we saw him before he came to England, but again, whatever. His first move, however, is to seduce Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost), the person with whom Mina is staying while Jonathan is away. She is bitten and begins her transformation into a vampire, which is preceded by a number of behavioral changes. Concerned parties, primarily her own fiancé, Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), soon seek the advice of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, who recognizes the signs of a vampire attack. Meanwhile, though Count Dracula has begun his, er, courtship of Mina, she receives word from Jonathan that he is alive and recovering in a convent, leaving at once to marry him. As you might guess, Count Dracula reacts poorly, finishing Lucy’s transformation, which seals her fate. More precisely, Dr. Van Helsing and company kill her shortly after she emerges as a vampire. Jonathan and Mina return to London, and Count Dracula recommences his pursuit of Mina. Sneaking into her room one night, it becomes apparent that his spell has a hold on her, and she claims to remember her past life as Elisabeta. Though he is initially reluctant, he agrees to change her into a vampire, but the process is interrupted by the arrival of Jonathan and Dr. Van Helsing. Count Dracula flees, and because his local sanctuary has been destroyed by Dr. Van Helsing’s bunch, it is time for him to return to Transylvania. Putting Mina under hypnosis, they learn of her connection with Count Dracula, and his ultimate destination. Unfortunately, this seems to work both ways, and Count Dracula is able to track their movements through Mina’s mind. Hence, Jonathan, Holmwood, and the other aforementioned concerned parties (their identities are not that important) go after the gypsies transporting Count Dracula, while Dr. Van Helsing and Mina attempt a shortcut. Everyone basically arrives in the same place at the same time, Count Dracula’s castle, and Mina goes to the defense of the mortally wounded vampire. Dr. Van Helsing and Jonathan look on as Count Dracula and Mina retreat to the castle, ending up in the chapel where the old Transylvanian had started the whole ghastly affair. They share a final kiss before she finishes him off, decapitating him and ending the vampire’s, um, life.
The ending of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is bittersweet, I suppose, because while Count Dracula dies, Mina is apparently saved from becoming like her erstwhile lover. Hooray for that, for what it is worth. What I cannot get over is the colossal sin that he commits in the first place that transforms him into a monster that must feed on blood to survive. The cynical (or uninformed, take your pick) among you out there could point to the Church consuming the Blood of Jesus at every Mass, and call me a hypocrite for not approving of a vampire’s main function. Communion is meant to be life giving, whereas vampire are dead creatures. Count Dracula says as much himself. Jesus’ Blood is a gateway to eternity, whereas that which vampires consume is akin to any one of us eating a cheeseburger. I do not know of anybody getting into Heaven from repeated trips to McDonald’s. Therefore, vampires are a perversion of this concept, which is abundantly clear if you truly to stop to think about such matters. Another cynical thought would be how the Church offers pardon through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, even to the most hardened of sinners. This is true. Still, I am not seeing a too remorseful Count Dracula at the end of the film, which makes his suggested entrance into Heaven all the more offensive. Luckily, I can rest assured that vampires do not exist, so all this rather a moot point.
What is less of a moot point in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the effectiveness of Holy Relics. I can at least appreciate the fact that the film seems to suggest that there is, in fact, a God, and that Count Dracula has done everything he could to make himself the enemy of Our Lord. In this vein, my favorite part of the film comes towards the end, when Dr. Van Helsing is attempting to fend off Count Dracula’s children, and not being helped at all by Mina. In order to subdue Mina, he takes a Blessed Host (Communion wafer, if that term is too esoteric for you), and presses it to Mina’s forehead. It burns an imprint of the Host into her forehead. This scene, and a few others, demonstrates the power of God at work for good. As mentioned a moment ago, vampires are purposely set up as being contrary to God, evil embodied, in other words. The Host is the actual flesh of Jesus, love incarnate. Since good will always and ultimately triumph over evil, it is refreshing to see such objects have this kind of impact. I also suspect that the erosion of Christian belief has led to other vampire tales lessening the power of items like Holy Water and Crucifixes on vampires, but that is a debate for another time (or review).
I got through this review of Bram Stoker’s Dracula without talking about the gore and nudity. For this Catholic reviewer, the other material is enough to earn it a recommendation to avoid without even discussing what is, at times, borderline pornography. And yet these are the kinds of films and themes our society seems to celebrate. I write reviews of these movies in the hopes that they will warn you away from them. I pray that this is the outcome.