Monday, 25 February 2013

Using the Vampire to Mirror Societies Fears Part 1: Love Never Dies?

By using Bram Stokers Dracula (Ford Coppola, US, 1992) I intend to show how the vampire can be seen as a Romantic figure, as opposed to the idea that the vampire represents something evil, destructive or horrifying.

The film Bram Stokers Dracula is a perfect example of the vampire being represented to the audience as something other than simply a horrifying monster that must be vanquished by a heroic figure in order to save the day. In fact I would argue that Coppola’s film completely reverses the idea of good and evil within the text. By this I mean that the film is set up in such a way that the audience wants Dracula to win the girl instead of Jonathan Harker. This is achieved through a number of key factors which point the audience to the side of Dracula and show us that he is the true romantic figure in the film and not Harker, who at first appears to be the character with whom the viewer is expected to side.

First of all the film starts by laying out why Dracula becomes the incarnation of supposed evil he is later in the film. We are shown how his true love kills herself after hearing news that he himself has been killed in battle, this in turn then leading to him renouncing Christ. This can be read in a number of ways. On the one hand we have the idea that Dracula has now become nothing but a servant of the devil in renouncing God, thus lending weight to the argument that he is nothing more than pure evil. However, I would argue that killing his soul, which he effectively does, in the name of everlasting love is too classically noble a cause to just dismiss the character as evil.

Indeed, I would suggest that it even lifts Dracula above the other characters in the film. The loss of everything in the name of love sets him up as a very tragic romantic figure arguably equal to that of any Shakespeare tragedy. In comparison, the emotions of the other characters do not seem to make any form of serious impact upon the narrative of the film. Instead they just add to the idea that the film is focusing on Dracula’s pain of losing his true love, rather than Harker’s anxiety of trying to ‘rescue’ Mina from Dracula’s power.

Furthermore, in one scene we see Mina and the Count behind the screen in the cinematograph, situated so the screen frames them. Also it is in this scene where Mina finally begins to give in to the count, again focusing our attentions on the idea of cinema as romantic, as well as presenting Dracula to us as the cinematic figure set to sweep Mina off her feet, and in turn Mina’s surrender to the cinema and Count, setting us up with the classic Hollywood romance narrative.

By the classic Hollywood narrative I am referring to the structure whereby the narrative is primarily driven by the actions of ‘individual characters as casual agents’ (Bordwell and Thomson 1997: 108-110). In most films in order for the narrative to proceed it is driven by the characters desire for something. The desire sets up the goal that the character wishes to achieve. In a romantic narrative this would centre on the hero getting the girl. In Dracula this goal would seem to be centred around Jonathan Harker. His goal is to marry Mina, thus he would get the girl. The narrative would then centre on the character progressing to achieve that goal. Or in Dracula, Harker taking on the job of the Count’s affairs so he can earn enough money to marry Mina.

However, the classic Hollywood romantic narrative raises problems around the idea of Harker as the hero who needs to win back the girl. The main problem being the film is set up so we are clearly shown that Mina is not Harker’s girl to rescue in the first place. We are shown right at the very start of the film that it is Dracula who loses his true love. And thus it is Dracula not Harker who drives the narrative in order to get the girl back.

The idea of Dracula moving the narrative is confirmed throughout the film. It is always Dracula that moves first. He contacts the law firm to deal with his affairs, he comes to England to find Mina. It is always the other characters within the film that are following Dracula and Dracula always stays one step ahead. Furthermore, at the end of the film it is Dracula whose goal is achieved and not Jonathan Harker's.

Robin wood in ‘An introduction to the American Horror film’ helps to put Bram Stoker’s Dracula apart from other vampire films. This is done by Wood looking at the vampire in terms of folk law and myth. Wood's argument says that it is no longer useful to use Dracula in terms of today’s society, because vampires deal with folklore, which is often transferred to film, and this is no longer useful in terms of looking at the world we live in. Wood’s argument also centres on the fact that the vampire is not a romantic figure but a monster. This helps to distinguish Dracula from other vampire films, as I would argue that at no point during the film to we see Dracula as a monstrosity. Indeed he does commit horrific acts but it is always in a differing form than that of the charming Count, allowing us to distance his actions from his human form. Thus Dracula does not fit into Woods argument or idea of the vampire as a monster.

Vera Dika in ‘Games of Terror’ agrees in part with my argument that  Dracula deals with the vampire as a Romantic figure. She says that the film is more of a fairy tale or a love story than a horror film. Furthermore, she reinforces the idea that we do not find the monster horrific and that the film is positive and connotes life, which I also agree with. However, Dika puts forward the idea that the film is concerned primarily with the idea of the vampire as spreading disease, and centre's on the idea of passing on a disease because you love somebody or loving somebody after death in terms of issues surroundings AIDS.

While clearly a film that focuses so heavily on the idea of transferring blood is open to reading about the spread of disease I would still say that this is not the primary idea within the text. I say this because Mina is more awakened than infected by contact with Dracula. Indeed by the end of the film Mina has become stronger than any of the male characters that surround her, if the film was focusing on disease I would suggest that Mina would have become weaker throughout the text not stronger. Then you have Dracula himself: while in many vampire films, the vampires are set up as non-caring creatures that seem to ‘infect’ without recourse, here we have a character that questions what he is doing. We see this in the scene where Dracula will not allow his blood to be tasted by Mina as he dose not want her to experience the tragedy of how he is. Thus, if Dracula is representing disease itself this becomes problematic. A disease would not stop and think about what it is doing it would just spread indiscriminately.

The idea of Dracula infecting Mina with a disease because they love each other can also be seen as problematic. First of all in the same scene where Dracula does not want Mina to taste his blood, Mina says, ‘Take me away from all this death’. I would argue that if the tasting of Dracula’s blood were meant to be seen as a disease that infects Mina, a disease, which she is willing to accept because she loves the Count, then this line would not exist. I would argue that the Count represents more of an ever-lasting love than representing a disease. If Mina tastes the Count’s blood, she will not die, just as the Count does not die. What it means is that the two of them can experience true love for all eternity. Mina will become removed from society and all its concerns, a society that is shown to rely upon money and class, where love dose not seem to have a place. Here we have two characters that want to love, but the only way they can love is to become removed from the society around them and I would argue that that concern outweighs the idea of disease.

Furthermore, the end scene would also suggest the focus of the film is away from that of disease. Mina saves the Count by killing him in front of the altar. Again, I accept that the idea of Dracula finally finding peace can be read as a release from a disease. However, first of all the mood of the scene strongly suggests that it is the true love of Mina that allows him to be saved, rather than him just dying because the disease has taken him over. Furthermore, the scene contains a lot of blood, if the film was focusing on the notion that Dracula’s blood spreading disease then surely either the blood would become absent from the final scene or more likely Mina would carry the ‘vampire’ virus with her after her true love’s death. This would indeed strengthen the argument that the film is dealing with an incurable disease or the notion of having a disease passed to you because you loved somebody. Instead Mina is presented as being in normal health to us, suffering no ill effects of contact with Dracula’s blood. It is the couple’s true love that is for-fronted as the determining factor in Dracula’s salvation not the idea that he has escaped from a disease. Again, this is focused on by the fact that before he dies he changes back to how he looked at the very beginning of the film, bringing the film in a circle so it finishes with the same Dracula who first loved at the beginning of the film.

Another argument which is prominent when it comes to the idea of the vampire, is the notion raised by James Twitchell in ‘Dreadful Pleasures (pages 104-110’) that the vampire represents an attack on Christianity. Twitchell brings forward points relating to various vampire films where the vampire would either take his revenge by trying to capture the daughter or girlfriend of a churchman or corrupting an innocent Christian girl. Another issue Twitchell raises is the idea that the vampire could not be killed due to the hero’s faith not being strong enough. While this idea may be prominent in many vampire films, especially those coming from the Hammer studios, I would say that the idea of an attack on Christianity is not prominent in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While it is true that Dracula does renounce God at the start of the film, at no point during the narrative does he make a conscious attack upon Christianity. There is no attack on priests or churchmen, nor does he attempt to bewitch any innocent Christian girls. In fact there are moments where he appears to even respect the values of Christianity. For instance when Mina tells Dracula she is married, Dracula seems to cease his pursuit of her. It is only when she continues to talk to the Count that he carries on in his quest to make her love him.

While the conventional crosses and holy water persist throughout the narrative, it comes across more that while Dracula may be perceived as unholy, he is not attacking any form of religion in the narrative. In fact if anything Dracula acts to reinforce Christianity by the end of film. The scene where Dracula is laid to rest and seemingly is forgiven by God can be read as showing to the audience that he has seen that God did not take his true love away from him. I would suggest that you could even say that the way Dracula is guided to Mina can be read as showing to us his journey back to God and his being saved by Mina in front of the cross shows to us that he never truly gave up on God. For instance, if he were set up to attack Christianity why would there be a holy cross in his castle anyway? Not only does this show us that Dracula is not just an embodiment of evil it also enforces the idea that he is redeemed by love through the narrative by putting forward the idea that why he may have renounced God, the very fact he is saved shows that maybe even God understood why he did it.

To conclude this chapter, I would say that while it is clear that there are numerous vampire films which portray vampires as nothing but satanic embodiments of evil, this is not true in the case of Dracula. The film does an amiable job of showing us the struggle to find true love no matter the odds, and this message is so powerful throughout the narrative that any other issues are just set in the background. After all any film with the tag line ‘love never dies’ does not suggest the idea of a horrifically evil monster.

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