Screen2Screen: Adapting Bram Stoker's Dracula

Gary Oldman as Dracula.jpg

Screen2Screen is a series where we explore video game adaptations of films and television series -- the weird, the wacky, the somewhat obscure. Up first, Psygnosis' SNES/Genesis platformer of the controversial Bram Stoker's Dracula.

After Francis Ford Coppola made Apocalypse Now, escaping the hellish production cycle of the film with most of his sanity intact, his career didn't flourish in the same way his peers Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg's did in the ensuing decades. He kept making films, but most were smaller in scope and usually less successful than his 1970s masterpieces (sorry if you're a big fan of Jack starring Robin Williams -- yep, that was Coppola).

There were a couple reasons for this: burnout, more focus on his highly lucrative wineries, wanting to spend more time with his family, and his discomfort working within a studio system that he felt was allowing directors less and less artistic control.

In the years that followed Apocalypse Now, there is probably one film that is on par with Coppola's audacious 70s masterpieces in terms of ambition and scope -- and no, it's not The Godfather Part III. I'm referring to 1992's bizarre, uneven, and beautiful Bram Stoker's Dracula.

If there is a single enduring image from the film, it’s Gary Oldman as Dracula -- his grotesque smile, bouffanted white hair, and gothic cloak making him more like a deranged syphilitic aristocrat than the shambling horror of Nosferatu. Oldman’s performance is perfect, mixing campy theatrics with genuine gothic menace. It is an inspired bit of design, and a performance that anchors the film.

The rest of the cast is a more of a mixed bag. While I’ve been on Team Keanu as of late, Keanu Reeves is terrible as Jonathan Harker. Harker is a tough character to great right, essentially being an everyman avatar trapped in a world of swirling ancient magic, and Keanu doesn’t bother to play Harker as anything but confused most of the time. Winona Ryder is a fine Lucy, at the peak of her wide-eyed stardom, and smaller roles for Anthony Hopkins at Van Helsing and Tom Waits as Renfield are pitch-perfect.

The film itself? Audacious, like I said. Bram Stoker's Dracula is indebted greatly to silent films and early Hollywood, using iris shots and dramatic screen wipes as transitions. The whole film is heightened, not grounded in any recognizable reality. It’s a warped fairy tale, lush and esoteric, with moments that will confound and dazzle you in equal measure.

Despite its oddness and a lukewarm critical reception, the film was a box office hit; when films are box office hits, licensed video games come soon after.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula got a few adaptations across many systems, but I’ll be looking at the platformer released for the SNES and Genesis, made by UK master games company Psygnosis. The version I played is on the SNES.

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Psygnosis are primarily known for graphically stunning games that pushed the systems they worked on to the very limit: Shadow of the Beast, Agony, and the like. Bram Stoker’s Dracula does have serviceable graphical elements but it isn’t as strong as earlier outings. The sprites are middling at best, enemies are varied in design quality, and even the backgrounds lack atmosphere and have a dour, listless colour palette. The film used colour exquisitely well, pinks and purples and reds poking through fog to illuminate Oldman’s Dracula in a terrifying, unnatural way. Bram Stoker's Dracula doesn’t achieve any of this  its graphics, it just looks like a Castlevania game drained of colour or personality.

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The game doesn't play too badly. It’s a decent platformer, the level designs are good, the difficulty is present but not unfair in any way, and Harker actually controls very well. There’s a fluidity to the game, and it is satisfying when you execute a large passage of enemies or get through some platforming puzzles quickly and efficiently. 

The sound, though, is a problem. Omnipresent bat enemies make a horrible screeching that sounds like your SNES’ sound card is frying, and the music is generic gothic droning that becomes uninspired, limp rock for boss battles. It’s not good at all, a real low-point in Psygnosis’ career on this front.

Is the game worth playing? I’d say no. There’s no shortage of great platformers on either the SNES or the Genesis, and there’s also no shortage of great Psygnosis games to play either. Watch Coppola's film though, it's a delightful mess of a movie that has aged better than most expected. Go buy a bottle of Coppola Estates wine, crack it open, and enjoy Gary Oldman's theatrics if nothing else.