A San Francisco journalist (Christian Slater) meets with Louis (Brad Pitt), a man claiming to be a centuries old vampire. Louis recounts the remarkable tale of how he was created by another vampire, Lestat (Tom Cruise), to be his companion, dooming the antagonistic pair to an eternity together.
Dracula Retold is a strange and unique film. It’s essentially a gay Addams Family, starring the two biggest film stars of the 90s, complete with an adopted daughter (Kirsten Dunst). The homoeroticism was reportedly toned down at the request of super-not-gay Cruise, which makes you wonder how much there was in the original script, since in the end product it goes well beyond subtext, solidly into the realms of text. Writer Anne Rice even considered making Lestat into a woman to get the film made with Cher considered for the part, which would have been bizarre in different ways albeit with the same gay appeal.
But as it turned out it’s Cruise who’s all quips and campery, proving once again that he’s at his best when he’s playing a narcissistic psychopath. He’s clearly enjoying himself, which is more than be said for Pitt who had a miserable time making it (“six months in the fucking dark, contact lenses, make-up, I’m playing the bitch role”). He works well for the part though, as the straight man (for want of a better phrase) and guy who’s pretty enough to attract both Lestat and ultra-vampire Armand (Antonio Banderas). Dunst is also remarkably good as the girl who matures emotionally but is forever trapped in the body of a sweet and innocent child, no matter how many people she eats.
The tone strikes a fine balance, treating its subject matter with an admirable degree of sincerity, while avoiding cliché. Its continent- and centuries-spanning story makes it one of the few true horror epics, and the production design and effects represent the absolute pinnacle of what you could put to film before CGI. Vampires fly around wreathed in flame, 250 year old cities are brought to life, and it’s awash with ultra-realistic fang-sinking gore thanks to Stan Winston special effects. It also benefits from superb hair and makeup and a spot-on score from Elliot Goldenthal.
Of course, it’s important not to look too closely at the politics of it. Most obviously there’s the sight of numerous nameless women volunteering themselves to be vampire food, having the life sucked from them in the most sexualised way. But there’s also the fact the closest thing the film has to a good guy is a plantation owner whose first taste of blood is one of his own slaves, and the fact the gay couple and their adoptive daughter are a literal embodiment of evil.
It essentially adheres to the Stoker-aged dynamic of male vampires feasting on voluptuous women, and made in 1994 it’s probably the last time you could make a film like this without facing placards and pitchforks. But it remains a bold and compelling watch, a dialed-up melodrama that stays true to its horror roots, and can make the rare claim of being a film like no other.