Looking back, it’s funny just how outwardly queer so many of the things I enjoyed were. And I mean funny in both a “isn’t that funny” philosophical way and in a “funny haha” way. Some of my earliest memories feature me and my childhood best friend hosting Eurovision watch parties as tiny children, sometimes for others and sometimes just for ourselves. We watched John Waters movies, made Spice Girls inspired drag music videos, and devoured the campiest horror. And we never once considered that any of it ran deeper than aesthetic choices. But in the midst of it all there was one movie, a shining beacon of gothic camp that made me realize that it was possible to have a heartbreaking crush on more than one gender at once. That powerful, satin-coated, shimmering masterpiece was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the film debuted when I was just four years old. I have no distinct recollection of when I first watched the movie, but it’s ever present in my childhood memories. The deep reds of Dracula’s muscle armor, the flowing dresses worn by Winona Ryder’s Mina Harker, the tight collars of Keanu Reeves’ uptight Jonathan, and nightmarish flashes of Sadie Frost’s Lucy and the wolf punctuate the swirling mess of my early years. I was already a horror hound from a young age. My vicarious thrills came from reading the backs of gruesome VHS tapes and as many dog eared copies of Frankenstein and Dracula as I could get my hands on. Given all that, it’s no surprise that I found myself drawn to the melodrama of the 1992 vision.
The fact I had been raised on Bill & Ted and Edward Scissorhands probably helped too. I had burgeoning childhood feelings for both Ryder and Reeves, and their arrival in the period horror film confirmed those feelings. They played lovers cursed by the attention of the titular immortal monster. Watching Dracula as an adult I clearly see why the film appealed so much to my younger self. Not only is it entirely over the top and spooky without being terrifying, but it features hot people. The same hot people I already loved, wearing delightful gothic costuming and apparently wanting nothing more than to make out. Who they want to make out with is neither here nor there. Mina and Jonathan, Jonathan and the Brides, Dracula and Jonathan, Jonathan and Mina. It’s all on the table. Campiness and sexual tension permeated Dracula. I found it utterly irresistible.
Dracula has always been a sensual, tragic romance. Coppola leans heavily into that and amps up the eroticism. The entire proceeding has a theatrical decadence that created something completely extravagant and over the top in a way that horror movies in the ’90s rarely got to be. Seductive reds and moonlit highlights bathe Jonathan’s trip to Transylvania. Even the opening gambit of shadow puppetry style tableaus showcasing the horrors of Vlad’s war add to the movie’s extremely stylized magic. It almost seems made to engage young eyes and super queer kids who are too shy to audition for school plays.
There’s also the innate sense of yearning so intertwined with every moment of Dracula and each second of coming of age while queer. Period films are often dense with unspoken repression. Anyone who grew up harboring a crush on someone of the same sex understands that bottled feeling. Coppola’s Dracula creates a mix of sexual tension and repression so powerful it almost shimmers as Jonathan traverses his host’s strange home. It’s not just a subtle atmospheric exploration though. The central love triangle is not just that of two men in love with the same woman. Dracula has always been an overtly sensual character. His attraction is to life and beating hearts rather than particular genders. Here we see him literally claim Jonathan as his own. He furiously punishes his brides for daring to touch his sacrosanct guest.
It’s not even just the central triptych who play into the queerness of the movie. There is also, of course, Lucy’s awakening. After her illicit rendezvous in the gardens, the young woman suddenly becomes alert to a whole new way of living. She can hear and see things she never noticed before. Feeling passion, love, and emotion in wholly new ways, everyone around her is nothing short of horrified. If it were a textual analogy to queerness it might be problematic for playing into the age old fear of the monstrosity of being gay. However, as a young child coming to terms with my own feelings it was just something else I could find myself in.
Watching the film now with a wider understanding of myself, my queerness, and camp, the movie feels no less profound and just as enjoyable. If anything it holds an even more special place in my heart. The hokeyness and over-the-top aesthetic meant so much to my overly sincere pre-teen counterpart. As adults it’s far easier to seek out the representation we want or need. We can lavish in the unintended relatability we find in the subtext. For all these reasons and more, Bram Stoker’s Dracula will always be a queer horror classic whether or not anyone involved agrees.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures