Bram Stoker’s Dracula plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, October 20th, through Sunday, October 22nd. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
It’s November 1992, and a new movie with Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves has just come out. As someone born at the tail end of Gen X, that’s all you need to know. You’ve never heard of Francis Ford Coppola or the male lead, someone unmemorably named Gary Oldman. You have, however, watched Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure ten million times, so there’s no question whether you’ll go to the squat, gloomy-interiored Cinema 8 near Miller Hill Mall in Duluth, Minnesota, to watch Winona and Keanu (now those are movie star names!) play some stuffy Victorian couple. The movie that you sneak into (it’s rated R!) ends up being a lurid, claustrophobic, disturbingly sexy affair that leaves a trail of cultural breadcrumbs you’ll be picking up through high school graduation.
This is very much a tale of the 90s, and of what happens if you don’t have Google but you do have too much time on your hands.
There’s actually not much that’s remarkable about Winona Ryder as Mina Murray or Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker in this movie, unless it’s the fact that they were cast at all. They both look unbelievably hot, as usual, but they are… well, “American” about sums it up. The rest of the movie has that Old Country vibe going: hedge mazes, waistcoats, absinthe, fog, horse-drawn carriages, intertwined destinies spanning centuries. And fortunately, we have Gary Oldman, bringing the Europeanness. Content warning: Dracula needs to work on getting consent. Yet he manages to come across as quite charismatic considering that he spends half the movie looking like a desiccated powdered donut and the other half wearing a top hat and Janis Joplin shades.
A word on the title: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I try to avoid movies with a possessive in their name. Such names smack of lawsuits or ego or both, and they lead to unfortunate elocutions like “Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” a
Russian Transylvanian doll of proper nouns. Anyhow, after seeing Bram Stoker’s Dracula (can we just agree to abbreviate it to BSD, like a K-pop band?), I went straight to the public library to consult Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
This is the moment where BSD emerges as the center of the universe, the moment where we glimpse the countless threads of spider silk branching out from the movie in all directions. It’s not just this movie, of course. It’s every movie, and every book, and every song, because IP or no, every work of art is woven from influences and references and the efforts of collaborators. That’s obviously the case with a film that’s based on an epistolary novel that’s based on a historical figure melted down with folklore in Bram Stoker’s imagination. Tug on any thread running through the weave, and a bell rings somewhere in the distance. For me, BSD came along at just the right time, prompting me to chase down any number of those threads; I want to follow just one of them here, and it ends, appropriately enough, with the song “I’ve Got the World on a String,” performed by Frank Sinatra.
For digital natives whose fingers never became smudged with ink flipping through this solid little trade paperback—it’s cover enlivened by Leonard Maltin’s smiling, paternal punum—I should explain that the Movie and Video Guide listed movies (lots of movies, all the movies, good, bad, and indifferent) in alphabetical order and provided a capsule review and star rating for each. It came out annually, so you had to fill in everything after the last publication date from your own recollection. If you went ahead and bought the Guide, your purchase depreciated about as fast as a sports car driven off the lot. Anyhow, in the back of the book, you could look up an actor or director and see a list of their movies.
Post-BSD, I wanted to see Gary Oldman in other roles, so I started cross-referencing Maltin’s list with the videotape selection at Mr. Movies (that space is now a bakery). First, I watched Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (not Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, mind you). I was not familiar with the Sex Pistols. They didn’t play them on the oldies station, nor was there any punk rock in the music rotations of my parents or my friends’ much cooler older siblings. Post-Sid and Nancy, though, I had to know more, so I bought Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols on cassette tape.
It’s unfortunate but fitting that Never Mind the Bollocks… is the Sex Pistols’ only album; they burned up like a booster rocket. I remember visiting Duluth’s outpost of the Electric Fetus (which closed in 2021 after 33 years) with a friend. She picked up the Sundays’ Blind (classy!). “Great album,” the intimidatingly hip store clerk said with approval. As I recall, the registers stood on some kind of raised platform in that store, so the sales associates were above you literally as well as figuratively. A day when an Electric Fetus clerk complimented your music choice was a great day indeed. On that occasion, I purchased the soundtrack to The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, to the clerk’s obvious, and justified, disdain.
The Sex Pistols were my gateway to the Clash. London Calling, acquired, in my case, after the transition to compact discs, was what I spent the mid-to-late-90s listening to. Recall that Curt Cobain died in 1994 and that the springtime of grunge was hardening into a long winter when bands like Everclear and Creed became the popular face of rock music. My own listening started to drift backwards in time.
Lacking Wikipedia, I asked my parents to explain the references in the Clash’s “The Right Profile.” Turned out that the song recounted the tragic decline of a closeted midcentury movie actor, Montgomery Clift (which—wow, another great name! Gary Oldman, movie star? Try Gary Oldman, CPA). Clift, who had substance use issues, was nearly killed in a one-car accident on the way home from his friend Liz Taylor’s house. He recovered enough to continue acting, but his face was brutally injured, its lability impaired. After the accident, many directors favored his less damaged right profile. He was like another James Dean, except he lived long enough for his image to tarnish.
At the start of “The Right Profile,” Joe Strummer asks over a deceptively peppy series of guitar chords:
Hey, where did I see this guy?
In Red River? Or A Place in the Sun?
Or maybe The Misfits? Or From Here to Eternity?
I watched them all. I even read the same biography of Clift that inspired Joe Strummer’s song and learned that in 1953 Clift was gaga for Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String.” That same year, the two co-starred in From Here to Eternity. There was no love for Sinatra whatsoever in my family (my grandfather nicknamed him “Frank Not-so-hotra”). Nevertheless, following my nose to Ol’ Blue Eyes (side note: remember Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious singing “My Way?”), I finally tracked down the song on a compilation.
Life is a beautiful thing
As long as I hold the string.
I’d be a silly so-and-so
If I should ever let it go.
The track was released as a single; it didn’t make it onto any of Sinatra’s albums. I’m no Sinatra completist, but I share Montgomery Clift’s love of that song. Would I ever have heard it if it weren’t for BSD? I’ll forever be nostalgic for that film, and grateful to it for setting me off on a yearslong game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, every thread I picked up leading to a worthy rabbit hole. I must have seen BSD a bunch of times after it came out on video, otherwise decades later why do images and dialogue live in my head, as the kids say, rent-free? I’m talking Gary Oldman climbing a stone wall like a gecko in a bathrobe, Winona Ryder eating a sugar cube, Tom Waits eating bugs, and this interaction. Accents are hard.
Is BSD “good”? I certainly thought so in 1992. It did win a few Oscars. Not the biggies, but ones that the Academy maybe gets right: Best Costume Design, Best Sound Editing, and Best Makeup. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 78% approval rating. Not bad! So when October 20 rolls around, I’ll be waiting eagerly as Melvin Van Peebles reminds us all to put away those quintessentially 21st-century accessories, our cell phones, and I’ll be on the lookout for the string I should hold onto this time. I’d be a silly so-and-so if I should ever let it go.
Edited by Finn Odum